The event horizon has passed. With Libra, Facebook begins its foray into the digital asset industry. Before I begin my analysis, let’s get one thing straight; Libra is not decentralised nor censorship resistant. Libra is not a cryptocurrency. Libra will destroy all stablecoins, but who gives a fuck. I shed no tears for all those projects that somehow believed there was value in a an unheard-of sponsor creating a fiat money market fund that rode on a blockchain.
Libra could lay commercial banks and central banks low. It might reduce their usefulness to a dumb regulated warehouse for digital fiat money. And that is exactly what should happen to these institutions in a digital age.
Why Do Commercial Banks Exist?
Banks came about during a time of great danger for members of the human society. In feudal Europe you most likely worked dawn-till-dusk on the farm. Any meagre savings you or your feudal lord amassed were constantly under siege. Given that money was physical in nature, if you or your lord left the protection of the town, theft was likely.
Safety of assets has been the most important value proposition for traditional banks. They could store physical assets and records safely in their vaults. Therefore, governments and wealthy individuals stored money and assets with banks. Banks were and are engaged in a massive confidence game. That is why bank building edifices portray a certain fortified grandeur. In a generation, your assets will still be there, intact and ready for use.
Through their partnership with the government, banks obtain a license to issue credit and expand the money supply. They also rely on the legalised violence of the government to enforce contracts. Don’t pay the bank back, they will confiscate the encumbered asset. Should you defy the courts, a government goon will happily press boot to neck, and ensure your compliance.
In the last decade, human civilisation’s money and assets quickly transitioned from analogue to digital representations. Money and representations of ownership travel electronically rather than on the back of a horse. If assets and money are now digital, do we need institutions that provide physical rather than digital security?
As we have seen, commercial banks are terrible at securing digital information. Pick your large too-big-to-fail bank, and there will be a story about the “leakage” (euphemism for “we have no fucking clue how to safeguard your digital property”) of customer data.
Whoever has the customer, has the value
Previously banks held the most valuable information about customers. They had your whole financial history, and information about where you lived and what you bought.
In the past ten years, social media companies through voluntary actions of their users, amassed the most amount of personal information in human history. We share every detail of our lives on Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter, WeChat, LINE, Kakao Talk etc. We send billions of messages on centralised chat programs controlled by those same institutions as well. They now own the customer.
The modern consumer technology companies own billions of the wealthiest customers’ data. Previous to now, these companies made money on advertising and selling a product. But as with all businesses, once you are successful capturing customers, you start offering financial services.
Facebook has almost 2 billion daily active users. It makes complete sense to own the financial existence of their chattel. That is Libra.
Libra is a stablecoin backed by a basket of fiat currencies. The fiat currencies sit in a dumb regulated commercial bank. Libra allows a privileged few the ability to create and redeem Libra at its Net Asset Value (NAV). Libra rides on a blockchain where certain parties operate permissioned nodes. These parties included VC firms, technology companies, retail merchants, cryptocurrency exchanges, and most importantly commercial banks and credit card processors.
Libra may invest into short term government bonds, or into anything the Foundation board allows. The income earned is not passed onto the pleb Libra users, but the node operators and Libra investment token investors. The Foundation is the governing body of the Libra ecosystem. The members are selected based on the industries they represent, and their economic investment into the ecosystem.
Libra does not connect real-world identities to addresses. However, you can bet that converting assets into Libra will encounter KYC. And let’s be clear, any request from a government agency to freeze a transaction will be met with compliance. Therefore, do not use Libra to buy your mood-altering substance(s) of choice.
Impact on Consumers
Many of Facebook’s users reside in places with low financial services penetration. Imagine a world where a Filipina helper can purchase goods sold in Europe with Libra. She most likely does not have great banking services where she works as an overseas foreign worker. Therefore, purchasing goods from foreign countries over the internet is difficult. With Libra, there is no issue.
The merchant in Europe receives payment in a basket of fiat currencies they already deal with. This transaction can happen completely inside of one of Facebook’s social media properties like Instagram or Whatsapp.
Facebook or a new financial services company it creates, can issue loans at the point of sale denominated in Libra. A user can opt-in to allow Facebook to use all its data on the individual to compute a credit score. Using that credit score, Facebook will lend Libra at a rate to purchase goods from merchants selling on the Facebook platform. Voila, the poorest members of our global society can experience the joys of purchasing mass-produced Chinese knick-knacks on credit. Welcome to Pax Americana!
Impact on Commercial Banks
Commercial banks make money lending. They use retail deposits to make these loans. Unfortunately, in this digital age, they no longer have the best information set about these retail depositors. The social media companies do.
Therefore, the Facebook, Google, and Alibaba’s of the world can originate a loan cheaper and offer a lower interest rate than a commercial bank. Libra and the plethora of copycats to come, allow technology companies to use a digital fiat representation in their ecosystems to extend credit and offer all of the most profitable banking products at a much lower cost. These global tech behemoths have billions of free cash flow on their balance sheets to lend.
Commercial banks can become node operators or regulated warehouses for the reserve assets of the stablecoin in question. There is still economic value in both of these verticals, but consumer technology companies will now sell the most profitable financial products themselves.
Any bank should be on notice, Libra and its clones are existential threats to their business models. Many will cheer as banks’ profit centers are eviscerated. But maybe society is trading one devil for another.
Impact on Central Banks
Commercial banks are not needed at their current largesse in a digital economy. With Libra, Facebook is assuming the role of a central bank. The Libra reserve is managed by a third-party foundation. The reserve managers choose the fiat currency weights, and how funds are invested. Sounds a lot like the job scorecard of a central bank governor.
Consumer tech companies can now issue, from their own balance sheet, credit directly to consumers. The only difference with this model is that they, for now, are not able to actually create money like commercial banks. This is the flow:
1. Take retained fiat earnings, and exchange for Libra with an authorised primary dealer.
2. Lend Libra to your customer in exchange for a good or service you offer.
3. Obtain Libra + interest in Libra back from your customer.
4. Sell Libra in exchange for fiat with an authorised primary dealer.
The money supply does not expand. That is the one major divergence from how a central bank issues credit into an economy. Central banks’ lending in most cases increases the aggregate supply of money.
Why trust a few crusty old men and women to manage the monetary health of the global economy. Let’s trust Zuck!
I have no love lost for US Representative Maxine Waters’ idiotic statements and actions on the US House Financial Services Committee. But her and other government officials’ outbursts of concern are not driven by altruistic feelings towards their subjects, but rather a fear of the upending of the financial services industry that lines their pockets and keeps them in office. The speed at which government officials rushed to admonish Libra tells you there is some potential positive value to human society embedded in the project.
Libra and Financial Privacy
It is amusing to see how many people rushed to complain about the potential loss of financial freedom Libra could represent. This fear is misplaced, financial privacy is already non-existent, nor will it ever exist in a digital fiat money system. Whether it be Facebook, The Fed, or The PBOC, centralised electronic fiat money is coming – cash will be outlawed.
The great thing about the launch of Libra is that it forces those concerned about the loss of financial privacy to explore alternatives. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies will benefit as curious plebs contemplate how secure financial privacy in this new digital age.
Libra and the conversations it sparked, is the best news for Bitcoin. Two billion people will now embrace and potentially be frightened of a corporate overlord controlling their financial wellbeing. Curiosity is the best food for the Bitcoin bull market.
Through their investments in augmented and virtual reality, it appears that Facebook wishes to create a completely new digital world. Libra could be the financial mana that powers this virtual existence. Let’s hope that while we are vegetating in our haptic pods, our physical shells don’t get Zucked too hard. Please Zuck me gently, and Zuck me long time.