On June 30th, 2020, the Senate Banking Committee held a hearing on the future of the digital dollar. The pressures to create a digital USD are mounting as China recently began testing its own digital currency – the DCEP, which will be included in popular applications like WeChat and AliPay. Of particular concern is widespread adoption of a digital yuan in emerging markets and in international trade.
The idea of a dollar-backed digital currency gained mainstream media attention last year during the Libra congress hearings, where Facebook introduced a new type of digital unit backed by a basket of currencies and commodities.
Although David Marcus insisted that Libra users will not have to put their trust in Facebook and that Libra was a decentralized currency, regulators weren’t buying it and expressed concern over the long-term threat to the traditional financial system. On July 9, 2019, regulators requested a moratorium on the project.
In December, Libra released a new roadmap, proposing several digital-fiat currencies deriving their values from the USD, British Pound, Swiss Franc and others, thus creating an efficiency layer on top of the current financial system. Users would be able to access these digital currencies through a wallet installed on their phone, and potentially through WhatsApp chat and Facebook Messenger.
Distribution issues of the $1200 COVID stimulus checks, created new momentum for the digital dollar (and a more efficient financial distribution machine). It is no secret that many are still waiting for their stimulus checks, while $1.4 billion in stimulus was sent to dead people.
Most recently, Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) introduced a new stimulus proposal of $2,000 per month to residents through the Automatic BOOST to Communities Act (ABC Act). Under the ABC Act, Congress would authorize the Federal Reserve to create “FedAccounts,” or “Digital Dollar Account Wallets,” which would allow U.S. residents and business to access financial services through an app on their phone.
Building on this momentum, the Senate Banking Committee continued the discussion of the digital dollar yesterday.
Some highlights from the hearing include:
- Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) stated, “The U.S. needs a digital dollar…The U.S. dollar has to keep earning that place in the global payments system. It has to be better than bitcoin … it has to be better than a digital yuan.”
- Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) expressed concerns of regulator oversight for stable-coins.
- Charles Cascarilla of Paxos testified advocating for stable-coins, stating that they address the “antiquated plumbing” of our financial system as well as financial inclusion. “Blockchain based stable-coins allow everyone access”.
- Nakita Cuttino, visiting assistant professor of law at Duke University, discussed the friction in the current payday cycle and the rising demand for costly advanced-payment apps which could be resolved with digital currencies. “In the absence of public policy addressing open access payments and real-time payments, low-income and moderate-income Americans will continue to have limited resources needed, whether by traditional fringe services like payday loans or some novel fringe service.”
- Former CFTC Chairman Chris Giancarlo and head of the Digital Dollar Project, emphasized the “social and national” benefits such as increased speed, lower costs and issues of financial inclusion. “Darwin said the most adaptable survive. And I think that is true when we transition to a new architecture. To adapt to it, will help bring benefits to the society at large.”
It is unclear how soon the digital dollar will come into existence, although increasing competition from China may be the push U.S. regulators needed.
CNBC’s Steve Liesman reports on comments from Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England and chair of the Monetary Policy Committee, about virtual currencies.
Just as technology has disrupted media, politics, and business, it is on the verge of disrupting America’s ability to leverage faith in its currency to pursue its broader national interests. The real challenge for the United States isn’t Facebook’s proposed Libra; it’s government-backed digital currencies like the one planned by China.
SOUTH BEND – Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was at least half right when he recently told the United States Congress that there is no US monopoly on regulation of next-generation payments technology. You may not like Facebook’s proposed Libra (pseudo) cryptocurrency, Zuckerberg implied, but a state-run Chinese digital currency with global ambitions is perhaps just a few months away, and you will probably like that even less.
Perhaps Zuckerberg went too far when he suggested that the imminent rise of a Chinese digital currency could undermine overall dollar dominance of global trade and finance – at least the large part that is legal, taxed, and regulated. In fact, US regulators have vast power not only over domestic entities but also over any financial firms that need access to dollar markets, as Europe recently learned to its dismay when the US forced European banks to comply with severe restrictions on doing business with Iran.
America’s deep and liquid markets, its strong institutions, and the rule of law will trump Chinese efforts to achieve currency dominance for a long time to come. China’s burdensome capital controls, its limits on foreign holdings of bonds and equities, and the general opaqueness of its financial system leave the renminbi many decades away from supplanting the dollar in the legal global economy.
Control over the underground economy, however, is another matter entirely. The global underground economy, consisting mainly of tax evasion and criminal activities, but also terrorism, is much smaller than the legal economy (perhaps one-fifth the size), but it is still highly consequential. The issue here is not so much whose currency is dominant, but how to minimize adverse effects. And a widely used, state-backed Chinese digital currency could certainly have an impact, especially in areas where China’s interests do not coincide with those of the West.
A US-regulated digital currency could in principle be required to be traceable by US authorities, so that if North Korea were to use it to hire Russian nuclear scientists, or Iran were to use it to finance terrorist activity, they would run a high risk of being caught, and potentially even blocked. If, however, the digital currency were run out of China, the US would have far fewer levers to pull. Western regulators could ultimately ban the use of China’s digital currency, but that wouldn’t stop it from being used in large parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, which in turn could engender some underground demand even in the US and Europe.
One might well ask why existing cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin cannot already perform this function. To an extremely limited extent, they do. But regulators worldwide have huge incentives to rein in cryptocurrencies by sharply proscribing their use in banks and retail establishments. Such restrictions make existing cryptocurrencies highly illiquid and ultimately greatly limit their fundamental underlying value. Not so for a Chinese-backed digital renminbi that could readily be spent in one of the world’s two largest economies. True, when China announces its new digital currency, it will almost surely be “permissioned”: a central clearing house will in principle allow the Chinese government to see anything and everything. But the US will not.
Facebook’s Libra is also designed as a “permissioned” currency, in its case under the auspices of Swiss regulators. Cooperation with Switzerland, where the currency is officially registered, will surely be much better than with China, despite Switzerland’s long tradition of extending privacy to financial transactions, especially with regard to tax evasion.
The fact that Libra will be pegged to the US dollar will give US authorities additional insight, because (at present) all dollar clearing must go through US-regulated entities. Still, given that Libra’s functionality can largely be duplicated with existing financial instruments, it is hard to see much fundamental demand for Libra except among those aiming to evade detection. Unless tech-sponsored currencies offer genuinely superior technology – and this is not at all obvious – they should be regulated in the same way as everyone else.
If nothing else, Libra has inspired many advanced-economy central banks to accelerate their programs to provide broader-based retail digital currencies, and, one hopes, to strengthen their efforts to boost financial inclusion. But this battle is not simply over the profits from printing currency; ultimately, it is over the state’s ability to regulate and tax the economy in general, and over the US government’s ability to use the dollar’s global role to advance its international policy aims.
The US currently has financial sanctions in place against 12 countries. Turkey was briefly sanctioned last month after its invasion of Kurdish territory in Syria, though the measures were quickly lifted. For Russia, sanctions have been in place for five years.
Just as technology has disrupted media, politics, and business, it is on the verge of disrupting America’s ability to leverage faith in its currency to pursue its broader national interests. Libra is probably not the answer to the coming disruption posed by government-sanctioned digital currencies from China and elsewhere. But if not, Western governments need to start thinking about their response now, before it is too late.
Seven or eight years ago, I was on a commuter flight, sitting in an aisle seat. Two rows ahead of me, across the aisle on my right, a guy was arguing with his wife/girlfriend. It wasn’t a ferocious argument, but any sort of personal disagreement is noticeable in these circumstances, and it had been simmering since I noticed them boarding the plane.
There were two other things I noticed when they sat down. The wife/girlfriend had the husband/boyfriend’s name – Randy – tattooed on the back of her neck, and Randy had the letters T – R – U – S – T tattooed on the fingers of his left hand. I remember smiling to myself when I saw this. Obviously these two were from a very different background than me, but I really appreciated the public display of commitment they had made by getting these tattoos. I remember thinking to myself that I bet their relationship was a strong one, even though the disagreement seemed to simmer throughout the flight.
The plane landed and we all stood up. And then I saw the letters tattooed on Randy’s right hand.
N – O – O – N – E
All of a sudden, I was pretty sure this guy’s name wasn’t Randy. All of a sudden, I was pretty sure this relationship wasn’t likely to last.
I feel like I have TRUST NO ONE tattooed on my hands today, and if you’ve been working in finance for more than 10 years, I bet you feel exactly the same way.
Used to work for Bear? I know you feel this way.
Used to work for Lehman? I know you feel this way.
Used to work for Citi? I know you feel this way.
Used to work for Merrill? I know you feel this way.
Used to work for Deutsche Bank? I know you feel this way.
Yeah, we’ve all got these tattoos today. We have them as a reminder, as a figurative reminder (or literal in the case of “Randy”), that we really really really shouldn’t trust anyone AGAIN.
Because we need a reminder. Because we want to trust again.
Jimmy Dell is the con man in the 1997 David Mamet movie, played by Steve Martin in his finest dramatic role. In lines like above and below, Jimmy builds a personal trust with the mark by calling his attention to the lack of trust in business relationships. Effective consultants do this a lot, speaking of confidence games.
Jimmy Dell: Always do business as if the person you’re doing business with is trying to screw you, because he probably is. And if he’s not, you can be pleasantly surprised.
That’s the thing about the Spanish Prisoner con. It doesn’t work on saints. It doesn’t work on people who forgive and forget, who turn the other cheek and have an unending reservoir of faith in their fellow humans. It also doesn’t work on sociopaths. It doesn’t work on people who truly trust no one, who can lie to themselves and others without consequence or remorse.
The Spanish Prisoner con works best on smart and accomplished people who think they have TRUST NO ONE figuratively tattooed on their hands, who think they’re too clever to be fooled again, but end up only being too clever by half.
The Spanish Prisoner con works best on coyotes.
Too Clever By Half
Who is a coyote? A coyote is a clever puzzle-solver who really has the best of intentions. Who really wants to be successful for the right reasons. Who really wants to accomplish something of meaning in the world. Who is smart and aware and nobody’s fool. Who has been beaten up professionally a bit and has a healthy skepticism about the business and political world.
And who is just a little bit on the make.
The defining characteristic of the Spanish Prisoner con is that the mark believes he is doing well while doing good. The mark believes that he is doing the right thing, that he’s the good guy in this story. And if the liberated Prisoner is financially grateful, or if the Prisoner’s sister is grateful in her own way if you know what I mean and I think you do … well, that seems only fair, right?
Now the Spanish Prisoner doesn’t have to be an actual person that needs rescuing. That’s a con for the rubes. The Spanish Prisoner is what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin – anything that serves as an Object of Desire for the mark, anything that motivates the mark and furthers the narrative arc of the con.
In fact, the most effective MacGuffins are rarely simple signifiers of wealth like an rich Spanish dude. No, the most compelling Spanish Prisoners are Big Ideas like social justice or making America great again or resisting the Man. That’s what gets a coyote’s juices going. Especially if there’s also a pot of gold associated with being on the right side of that Big Idea.
The most successful con operators are the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy. Why? Well, partially because you’ve gotta have some heft to credibly commit to rescuing a Big Idea from the clutches of whatever Big Baddie has it now. But mostly because running the con for money is just thinking waaaay too small.
The Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy don’t need your money. They already have it!
The con here is to gain your trust – again – so that you willingly hand over your autonomy of mind. So that you accept without thought or reflection the naturalness of your current relationship to the State and the Oligarchy.
You’d never fall for this con if it were part of a straightforward commercial arrangement like a job or a purchase. Please! You’re much too savvy for that. You have TRUST NO ONE tattooed on your hands, remember?
But for the chance to help rescue a Big Idea …
But for the chance to make a few bucks or enjoy yourself a bit more as part of doing the right thing …
There’s not a coyote in the world that can resist that bait. And that’s why once you start looking for the Spanish Prisoner con, you will see it everywhere.
Libra, the cryptocoin promoted by Facebook, is a Spanish Prisoner con.
What’s the Big Idea? Why it’s banking the unbanked. It’s facilitating cross-border remittances. It’s bringing the benefits of crypto to the global masses. ALL OF THIS IS TRUE. So far as it goes.
And if it facilitates e-commerce along the way? if it’s possible to make a few bucks or enjoy some greater conveniences as part of Facebook and its partners executing on this Big Idea? Well, what’s wrong with that?
What’s wrong is that this is how Bitcoin dies.
This is how a censorship-embracing coin replaces a censorship-resistant coin. This is how the State and the Oligarchy co-opt crypto. Not with the heel of a jackboot. But with the glamour of convenience and narrative.
And in a few years it will all seem so natural to you.
Using government-approved electronic money will be the water in which you and your children swim. You will not be able to imagine a world where a censorship-embracing coin is not everywhere.
Libra was designed to co-opt Bitcoin.
Libra was designed to allow government oversight over your economic transactions.
Libra was designed to provide a transparent regulatory window and control mechanism over your money.
Libra was designed for Caesar.
A year from now, the narrative story arc regarding “criminal activity” through cash transaction networks AND censorship-resistant transaction networks like Bitcoin will be louder, not softer. In three years, it will be deafening.
Libra and its e-commerce convenience, together with its Big Idea skin of helping The Poors … that’s the carrot.
The “Boo, terrorists!“ narrative … that’s the stick.
Will Bitcoin itself be outlawed? Maybe. But I really doubt it. It’s too useful as a societal steam valve, now that we’ve got Libra and (soon) other Oligarchy-sponsored and State-supported cryptos in circulation.
What does Bitcoin become in a world where state-approved e-money is in wide circulation?
It becomes an act of effete rebellion, like a non-threatening tattoo on your upper arm that you can cover up with a shirt if you like.
Bitcoin becomes a signifier of Resistance rather than a tool of Resistance.
Owning Bitcoin will make you a Bad Boy! or a Bad Girl! … a safe malcontent that the Nudging State and Nudging Oligarchy are delighted to preserve.
What’s my message to the true-believers who continue to see Bitcoin as a tool for Resistance?
For the next fifty years, you get to play the role of the grumpy old man yelling at clouds.
You know, the role that gold true-believers got to play for the past fifty years.
It’s a miserable way to live.
It’s a miserable way to live for two reasons.
First, and most crucially, this role that the Nudging State is laying out for you is steeped in negative energy. You will find yourself rooting for catastrophe. You will find yourself hoping for decline and collapse. You will find yourself conflating justice with loss and comeuppance. You will take on sadness and schadenfreude as your resting psychic state. Trust me when I say that I know of which I speak. Negative energy is deadly. That is not a figurative statement. It will literally kill you.
Second, you’ll be infested by raccoons, which will be tolerated if not encouraged by regulators, in exactly the same way they are tolerated if not encouraged by regulators in gold-world. Sure, you’ll have the occasional show trial of egregiously aggressive security frauds and Crypto-Funded Criminals ™, but the run of the mill hucksters and con men will walk with impunity.
Because this is what ALWAYS happens.
The money quote from Too Clever By Half:
And that brings me to what is personally the most frustrating aspect of all this. The inevitable result of financial innovation gone awry, which it ALWAYS does, is that it ALWAYS ends up empowering the State. And not just empowering the State, but empowering the State in a specific way, where it becomes harder and harder to be a non-domesticated, clever coyote, even as the non-clever, criminal raccoons flourish.
That’s not an accident. The State doesn’t really care about the raccoons, precisely because they’re NOT clever. The State — particularly the Nudging State — cares very much about co-opting an Idea That Changes Things, whether it changes things in a modest way or massively. It cares very much about coyote population control.
It’s all about coyote population control. It always is.
Is there a way out of this for Bitcoin? No. Co-option by the State and Oligarchy was the Doom of Bitcoin from the beginning.
I mean … I say “Doom” like it’s going to be hurled into the fires of Mordor, but that’s not it at all. There will still be true-believers and raccoons alike generating tradable narratives. You’ll still be able to make money by trading Bitcoin on these narratives (and altcoins, too, I’d expect, although I have no idea how you generate a compelling altcoin narrative these days).
It’s not like Bitcoin is going to go away.
But Bitcoin is going to be permanently diminished in its social importance by the adoption of Libra and other Oligarchy-sponsored and State-embracing crypto currencies. Bitcoin will never again mean what it used to mean.
You know … just like gold was permanently diminished in its social importance by the adoption of Oligarchy-sponsored and State-embracing fiat currencies. Just like gold will never again mean what it used to mean.
I wrote this note six years ago. It was the first Epsilon Theory note to get widespread recognition. You’ll see hints – more than hints, actually – of all the big ET themes over the past few years, particularly The Three-Body Problem.
How Gold Lost Its Luster, How the All-Weather Fund Got Wet, and Other Just-So Stories
The core of this note is a quote by Bob Prince, Bridgewater’s co-CIO and an actual prince of a guy. I just think he’s wrong when he says this:
The relationships of asset performance to growth and inflation are reliable – indeed, timeless and universal – and knowable, rooted in the durations and sources of variability of the assets’ cash flows.
I think Bob Prince is wrong in exactly the same way that JP “Jupiter” Morgan was wrong when he said this:
Gold is money. Everything else is credit.
If you get nothing else from Epsilon Theory, get this:
There are no timeless and universal relationships between asset performance and ANYTHING.
The only determinant of price for a non-cash-flowing thing is Narrative. Actually, the only determinant of price for a cash-flowing thing is Narrative, too, but we can save that argument for another day. And what I am saying about these non-cash-flowing things is this:
The introduction of Libra changes the Bitcoin narrative in exactly the same way that the introduction of fiat currency changed the gold narrative. And by change I mean crush.
That makes me sad. That makes me angry. I am convinced that it is part and parcel of a Spanish Prisoner con game. But I refuse to give into the negative energy of that realization AND I refuse to give up on the Big Ideas that I believe in.
So what do I do?
I con the con man.
I know what Mark and Sheryl and all the other Davos-going Team Elite sociopaths are about.
I see what they are offering me and I TAKE it. Without hesitation. Without remorse. I take it just as they are trying to take from me … in full sociopathic bloom.
And what do I give them in return?
Do I care about banking the unbanked and cross-border remittances? Yes, I do. Very much. So I will TAKE the protocols and the KYC procedures and everything else Libra offers, and I will USE all of that to further the social justice goals that I maintain. And they will get NOTHING from me in return. I will keep my autonomy of mind. I do NOT forget what they are trying to steal from me. I do not ALLOW them to steal that from me.
I refuse to give them my trust.
And I will look for every opportunity to destroy their Little Kingdom.
Do I really have TRUST NO ONE tattooed on my hands? No.
I trust lots of people. I trust my pack.
But Mark and Sheryl and Christine and Jay and Donald and Barack are not in my pack. And they never will be.
Trust no one? No.
I just don’t trust THEM.
Facebook Inc. last week unveiled plans to launch Libra, a payment system it describes as a new “global currency.” It’s based on blockchain, the same technology that powers bitcoin, and is backed by real assets and pegged to stable government securities. Over two dozen corporate partners are on board, including financial companies MasterCard Inc., Visa Inc.,PayPal Holdings Inc. and Coinbase. Partners contribute a membership fee of $10 million each. Facebook’s goal is to line up a total of 100 corporate partners and $1 billion in assets.
In many ways, Libra appears to operate more like existing web-payment systems, such as PayPal, than bitcoin. Here’s how Facebook’s new system compares:
Facebook’s base of 2.4 billion active users gives Libra immense global reach. But the social-media company will need to assure its users that Libra’s convenience doesn’t come with the cost of compromising privacy.
Libra’s blockchain will be fundamentally different from bitcoin’s. With bitcoin, the process of validating transactions is decentralized among all the participants of the system. Libra, on the other hand, will have a centralized governing body, the Libra Association, overseeing transactions and verifying them. Libra’s transaction history will be stored in one place, and some members within the association will be responsible for maintaining and verifying the digital ledger.
The association then distributes Libras through authorized sellers.
The Libra Association—an independent organization created by Facebook —mints the currency.
The authorized seller exchanges the currency with the Libra Association, which then burns, or destroys, the currency.
A consumer downloads a digital wallet from a new Facebook subsidiary called Calibra, then purchases Libras from an authorized seller’s site.
Spotify then exchanges the Libras that it received for dollars via a reseller.
The user uses Libras to make an online purchase, such as a subscription to Spotify, one of the corporate partners of the currency.
Bitcoin can be used as a payment system, but mostly appeals to a niche group of investors. For various reasons, the original cryptocurrency never took off as a payments network; only about 1% of bitcoin transactions are for payments, according to research firm Chainalysis. As currently constructed, bitcoin is most commonly used for trading. To traders, bitcoin is not about cash, it’s about profit. It’s a volatile but at times very profitable asset to own, along the lines of a hot tech stock or a parcel of Vegas real estate.
While a bitcoin miner might sell a portion of earnings to recoup expenses on the shipping container full on overheating hard drives, most users are inclined to sit on their cache. In late 2017, the cryptocurrency spiked close to $20,000, only to fall a year later to the mid-$3,000 range. Such volatility makes bitcoin owners unwilling to use the cryptocurrency for impulsive purchases.
The first miner to solve a complex math problem wins the competition, and is rewarded with new bitcoins.
Miners compete with each other to process transactions and earn a reward of new bitcoins.
Miners sell or trade bitcoin. Holders store the keys to their bitcoin in digital wallets.
The exchange charges a small fee to convert the bitcoin into fiat. The bitcoin continue to reciruculate in the system.
Bitcoin holders can trade through various exchanges or on peer-to-peer platforms. Trading represents the majority of bitcoin activity.
A bitcoin holder can use the currency to make online purchases, though there are a limited number of merchants that accept it.
PayPal is one of the founding members of Facebook’s Libra launch. On paper, there’s a lot of overlap between the two digital-payment systems, with one big difference: Libra uses a cryptocurrency, PayPal doesn’t. The financial-technology company functions similarly to an online bank, albeit one that appeals to people of all financial levels. One can set up a PayPal account without a credit card or bank account.
WSJCoin: To Understand Cryptocurrencies, We Created One
PayPal provides added security by centralizing a user’s financial information. Instead of saving credit-card or bank-account numbers on various sites—any one of which can be compromised—users link their financial information through PayPal. In addition, receiving money requires only giving out an email address, not a bank-account number.
Unlike bitcoin, PayPal isn’t anonymous. The company is a licensed money transmitter and therefore it requires personally identifiable information, such as your name and phone number, when creating an account.
While a wide base of merchants accepts PayPal, it isn’t accepted everywhere. Amazon, which has its competing Amazon Pay app, doesn’t accept PayPal.
The social-media giant’s plan for Libra—the digital currency it is launching with a few dozen partners including Visa Inc., Mastercard Inc., PayPal Holdings Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. —is the most ambitious yet to get consumers comfortable with the technology that underpins bitcoin. Facebook’s ultimate goal is for consumers to use Libra to pay their bills, buy things and send money to family members abroad, among other everyday financial transactions.
Facebook has a built-in advantage because of its massive reach; around one-third of the world’s people visit the site monthly. But persuading them to change their habits and adopt a brand-new technology could be a tough slog. Privacy concerns also could hinder adoption of the new currency, though Facebook has said it won’t mingle Libra users’ social and financial data.
Bitcoin is a case in point. Its pseudonymous creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, pitched the original cryptocurrency to the world a decade ago as a way for people to exchange value directly, without the intervention of banks or other middlemen. Yet it has failed to catch on as a payments platform.
Facebook’s toughest sell will be in the developed countries where established payment options such as cash and credit cards remain king, and in places like China, where mobile-payments networks dominate the market. Consumers in countries with limited access to banking services may be quicker to adopt the new currency.
The key will be incentives. Fiat currencies work for a simple reason: Governments decree that their citizens must use and accept them. Digital currencies such as bitcoin and Libra without ready-made communities have to give consumers a reason to use them.WSJCoin: To Understand Cryptocurrencies, We Created One
The founding members of the Libra Association, the Geneva-based not-for-profit that will govern the currency, will be tasked with designing and spreading user and merchant incentives, which could include discounts.
Libra’s appeal, at least in the beginning, likely will depend on how many merchants and service providers sign up to accept it, said Dante Disparte, head of policy and communications for the Libra Association. It also needs to work like the established financial networks that consumers are accustomed to using, he said.
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What would it take to get you to use Libra? Join the conversation below.
Libra aims “to make the transfer of currency more efficient than the alternatives,” Mr. Disparte said.
Bitcoin’s development wouldn’t have been possible without incentives. The miners that provide the computing power to maintain and secure the network upon which it exists get a shot at winning a competition for newly created bitcoin.
“That was Satoshi’s brilliance,” said Dan Held, a bitcoin investor and entrepreneur. “It wasn’t even the code. It’s that the code aligned incentives among participants.”
Still, bitcoin has struggled to grow beyond its core base of users and aficionados because of technical limitations.
Libra won’t carry the force of law, and it will have little investment value. It is being designed as what is known as a stablecoin, pegged to the value of a basket of fiat currencies that will shield it from the big swings typical of bitcoin and its descendants.
Thus stability and cost—Libra user fees are expected to be minimal—are likely to be its biggest draws, said Eswar Prasad, an economics professor at Cornell University.
But trust could be a stumbling block, he said. The question of Libra’s stability will be tied to Facebook’s reputation, at least in its early years.
Facebook still has a “reasonable amount of trust among its users,” despite concerns about its privacy practices, Mr. Prasad said. But it is competing with the central banks that issue hard currency, he said, and that could be a difficult fight to win.
“For all of Facebook’s wealth and domination of the social-media space, it is difficult to see its currency becoming a durable and significant store of value,” Mr. Prasad said.
After years of disregarding privacy, exploiting user data, and failing to control its platform, Facebook has now unveiled a cryptocurrency and payment system that could take down the entire global economy. Governments must intervene before a company that “moves fast and breaks things” ends up breaking everything.NEW YORK – Facebook has just unveiled its latest bid for world domination: Libra, a cryptocurrency designed to function as private money anywhere on the planet. In preparing the venture, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been in negotiations with central banks, regulators, and 27 partner companies, each of which will contribute at least $10 million. For fear of raising safety concerns, Facebook has avoided working directly with any commercial banks.Zuckerberg seems to understand that technological innovation alone will not ensure Libra’s success. He also needs a commitment from governments to enforce the web of contractual relations underpinning the currency, and to endorse the use of their own currencies as collateral. Should Libra ever face a run, central banks would be obliged to provide liquidity.
The question is whether governments understand the risks to financial stability that such a system would entail. The idea of a private, frictionless payment system with 2.6 billion active users may sound attractive. But as every banker and monetary policymaker knows, payment systems require a level of liquidity backstopping that no private entity can provide.
Unlike states, private parties must operate within their means, and cannot unilaterally impose financial obligations on others as needed. That means they cannot rescue themselves; they must be bailed out by states, or be permitted to fail. Moreover, even when it comes to states, currency pegs offer only an illusion of safety. Plenty of countries have had to break such pegs, always while insisting that “this time is different.”
What sets Facebook apart from other issuers of “private money” is its size, global reach, and willingness to “move fast and break things.” It is easy to imagine a scenario in which rescuing Libra could require more liquidity than any one state could provide. Recall Ireland after the 2008 financial crisis. When the government announced that it would assume the private banking sector’s liabilities, the country plunged into a sovereign debt crisis. Next to a behemoth like Facebook, many nation-states could end up looking a lot like Ireland.
Facebook is barreling ahead as if Libra was just another private enterprise. But like many other financial intermediaries before it, the company is promising something that it cannot possibly deliver on its own: the protection of the currency’s value. Libra, we are told, will be pegged to a basket of currencies (fiat money issued by governments), and convertible on demand and at any cost. But this guarantee rests on an illusion, because neither Facebook nor any other private party involved will have access to unlimited stores of the pegged currencies.
To understand what happens when regulators sit on their hands while financial innovators create put options, consider the debacle with money market funds in September 2008. Investors in MMFs were promised that they could treat their holdings like a bank account, meaning they could withdraw as much money as they put in whenever they wanted. But when Lehman Brothers collapsed, MMF investors all tried to cash out at the same time, whereupon it became clear that many funds could not deliver. To forestall a widespread run on all MMFs and the banks that backed them, the US Federal Reserve stepped in to offer liquidity support. A run on Libra would require support on a much larger scale, as well as close coordination among all central banks affected by it.
Given these massive risks, governments must step in and stop Libra before it launches next year. Otherwise, as Maxine Waters, the Chairwoman of the US House Committee on Financial Services, has warned, governments may as well start drafting their own living wills. In the parlance of finance and banking, a “living will” is a written plan that banks provide to regulators describing how they will unwind themselves in the event of insolvency. In the case of a government, a living will would have to explain how the relevant authorities would respond to Libra breaking its peg and triggering a global run.
Obviously, this raises a number of pertinent questions. Would governments vow, like former Fed chairman Ben Bernanke in September 2008, followed by European Central Bank President Mario Draghi in July 2012, to do “whatever it takes” to ensure the currency’s survival? Would they even have the capacity to do so, let alone coordinate their actions – and share losses – with all the other countries involved? Would governments be able to seize control of the system if it proves incapable of sustaining itself?
Silence in response to Facebook’s announcement this week is tantamount to endorsing its dangerous new venture. Governments must not allow private, profit-seeking parties to put the entire global financial system at risk. If banks are “too big to fail,” then states definitely are. If governments fail to protect us from Facebook’s latest act of hubris, we will all pay the price for it.