What advantage do social media giants have to offering financial services?
A large user base. Facebook is set to provide electronic payment services using their own digital currency called the Libra coin. This story was huge when it first came out because of the hype around it as a cryptocurrency that would compete against Bitcoin and Ethereum. Perhaps that is not quite correct. The Libra coin is being offered as a token that provides ways for users on Facebook’s platform to make payments to each other. The tokens are provided with the Calibra wallet and a network validates transactions via a group known as the Libra Association.
Facebook’s cryptocurrency is not using an actual blockchain, but more a digital ledger. While it also uses cryptography to secure transactions and make them immutable and provide transparency, the set number of validators on the network make it more permissioned and centralized than a public blockchain. That is counter to the ideology behind cryptocurrency which are supposed to be permissionless and decentralized. Facebook will not be the sole validator on the network though, that is because it will be the duty of the Libra Association.
The Libra token is also not exactly going to be a competitor against Bitcoin. Libra’s value will not be based on market speculation or demand, but will be pegged to fiat currency. It is not exactly the type of digital asset to acquire as a store of value, unless the purpose of the token changes. Otherwise it is just like another version of an electronic payment system that is already quite common. Pegging it into fiat removes the volatility that is typical of cryptocurrency. No matter how many Libra coins you have, its value will remain the same as the amount of fiat you exchanged it for. The use of the Libra token for payments is to provide easier ways to pay with less friction and for accountability purposes.
The list of Libra alliance members is what is impressive. The idea that Facebook was able to unite companies like PayPal, Uber, Lyft, Visa and Mastercard gives the notion that this must really be on to something. That is because it has such huge potential, it has already attracted scrutiny from mainstream finance and regulators. However, it is not exactly a good thing because rather than approve it, critics want to either stop the whole thing from happening or regulate it with the full extent of the law.
What we have to realize is that Facebook has over 2+ billion users. The impact such undertaking has can influence people’s lives. That means that billions of users will be able to use Facebook to not only make payments, but as an on ramp to trading cryptocurrency as well. That can be good news for Bitcoin and Ethereum holders. Rather than compete, it can foster cryptocurrency growth. Facebook wants to reach out to the greater part of the population that is unbanked. Now that is a significantly large proportion of the world’s population. With more people having access to the Internet through their smartphones (4G technology), the impact this can have is really huge.
For regulators, the concern is Facebook’s reputation. Since the data privacy issues and Facebook’s appearance before the Senate, why would anyone trust Facebook? Other concerns include whether Facebook will censor those on their platform from using Libra. The overall power that Facebook will have in this field makes it hard for anyone else to compete against because of how large the user base is. Facebook is an ecosystem that includes Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. It will become so easy and convenient to use these apps to make payments, it is a great business plan.
For banks the biggest concern here is Facebook as a competitor. Libra coins can be bought using the Libra Association’s payment processors. It does not require banks, and this raises more scrutiny. Does this mean “Facebook will become their own bank?”, because they can very well do that. If people and businesses can start taking out loans from the Facebook, that will disrupt the banking industry. The amount of fiat reserves that Facebook and their Libra Association will hold from selling the coins will be held as not for profit. However, they can use the funds to continue to develop the Libra ecosystem and it will still benefit the members of the alliance and Facebook. Despite being not for profit, they still make money from accrued interest and the amount of money is huge. This is actually from a second token called the Libra Investment Token, and this is the financial reward for members of the Libra Association. Just like any cryptocurrency, there is an incentivized reward system for those who participate in its consensus.
Without further regulatory clarity and the amount of requirements, Facebook will have a mountain to climb until they get Libra to the public. Since the Libra Association has registered in Switzerland, they will also need to meet compliance with the authorities there. In the US, it will have to meet both federal and then state regulation before it can be approved. Other countries like China, may have a conflict of interest with Libra and may not ever see its use there.
What Libra coin can also provide is an on-ramp to on-board more people to an electronic payment system. Depending on how you look at it, the system can also be a gateway to cryptocurrency. Thus it will not directly compete with cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, but can actually make it easier for people to buy them. This is because Libra can be listed on digital exchanges where they have a pairing to other cryptocurrency. While Libra can be used for payments, they can also be traded for other cryptocurrency on digital exchanges.
A global bank will have plenty of power, but also require more responsibility. Facebook has already violated trust among its users by selling their data to third party. There are now also issues with privacy after Facebook admitted that it listens in to conversations in order to improve the service. Will consumers also be comfortable knowing that all their transactions are tracked on digital ledger that is controlled by a sort of oligarchy i.e. The Libra Association. The problem is that there is so much lack of transparency, users would not have been aware of what is happening. The Libra Association claims they will move to a more permissionless and decentralized system by moving to the PoS (Proof-of-State) consensus. They also want to guarantee that there is transparency and immutability like in any other blockchain. Libra may be good for users in general, but earning trust is the issue. Whether or not Facebook is up to the task remains to be seen.