Facebook’s Libra project has had a tumultuous lifecycle so far. Just minutes after its launch was announced in June of 2019, regulators around the world began to protest the birth of the platform. As a result, Libra’s launch date was shifted from early 2020 to mid to late 2020 and now, according to the Financial Times, to early 2021.
The project has undergone several shifts, seemingly in order to ease regulators’ concerns. The first version of Libra was billed as a multi-faceted project that would act as a global financial network and infrastructure; the Libra token was to be tied to a ‘basket’ of global currencies.
After regulators expressed concerns that this version of Libra was a bit too big for its britches, Facebook announced Libra 2.0. This second version of the project would consist of several individual stablecoins, each pegged to a specific fiat currency.
Now, the Libra that is set to launch in early 2021 is reportedly yet another iteration of the project. This time around, three people familiar with the matter told the Financial Times that “the association would now initially just launch a single coin backed one-for-one by the dollar … The other currencies and the composite would be rolled out at a later point.”
“Moving from a Testnet to a Mainnet Is a Huge Milestone for Libra.”
At this point, Facebook has not made any official announcements on the matter, the rumoured January launch is, well, just a rumour.
Still, Joe Lallouz, the Chief Executive of blockchain infrastructure firm, Bison Trails (which happens to be a member of the Libra Association), told Finance Magnates that “the goals for this launch in January are to get the network live and start real-life testing of the protocol.”
“Moving from a testnet to a mainnet is a huge milestone for Libra,” he said.
After all, the network has been in a ‘planning’ phase for more than a year: “all of the members of the Libra Association are committed to getting the protocol out and into the hands of potential users, potential customers, and potential companies,” Lallouz continued. “It’s really important to do that as soon as possible.”
“The decision-making process around that is entirely about the Association coming together as a group and realizing that getting it out there is the highest priority for the Association right now.”
Libra’s Regulatory Reception May Be Dicey, Even after Scaling down
However, it is unclear how this newest version of Libra, scaled-down though it may be, will be received internationally.
“The regulatory landscape for Libra is challenging and the Libra Association is working really hard with regulators to make sure that the whole network can launch fully,” Lallouz told Finance Magnates.
Cryptocurrency commentator, David Gerard, who recently published a book on Libra’s life cycle so far, also told Finance Magnates that Facebook has a vested interest in getting some version of the project live. “Facebook needs to get something up they can call Libra – anything at all,” he said.
That is, “as long as it’s allowed to start” the project will likely have still more regulatory obstacles to overcome.
For one thing, “David Marcus and Mark Zuckerberg both stated that Libra wouldn’t launch anywhere in the world without US and EU approval,” he pointed out. “Let’s see how good their word is.” (After all, “Libra still hasn’t been approved by FINMA, its local Swiss regulator,” which, Gerard explained, “has got to happen first.”)
Indeed, it seems that even now, Libra’s path to launch is not without obstacles: “regulators are already very concerned about ‘stablecoins,’ which is a word that always means Libra when a regulator says it,” Gerard explained.
For example, “the ECB released a speech talking about the issues with stablecoins (i.e. Libra) before it can be allowed to operate in the EU.” Additionally, the Financial Stability Board, chaired by Randal Quarles of the Federal Reserve, “is very concerned about stablecoins (i.e. Libra) and international movements of money. It’s quite possible a US dollar Libra will only be allowed to operate inside the US if it’s allowed to operate at all.”
However, Lallouz said that even a single-currency peg “is just as likely to create more liquidity and more fluidity in currencies as it is to create additional fees.”
“The most important thing for this first launch is to start the process of scaling the Libra network and anything at scale can have pretty low fees,” Lallouz explained. “So I don’t think it hinders Libra’s ability to achieve its vision in any way, shape, or form.”
The Newest Version of Libra May Have Adequately Assuaged Regulatory Concerns, for Now
However, a number of analysts seem to believe that the single-currency model that the latest version of Libra appears to be embracing could clear the way for the regulatory aspects of the project’s launch.
For example, Marten Nelson, Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer at M10, told Finance Magnates that “a single-currency Libra addresses central banks’ concern about a multi-currency Libra’s potential impact on monetary policy. Theoretically, it should mean smoother sailing introducing Libra to the market.”
Additionally, John Burris, Chief Strategy Officer for VCOIN, told Finance Magnates that “I would think that with this more traditional, US-dollar-backed stablecoin model, the regulators will have fewer issues with Libra than they had in the past.”
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Burris believes that in this sense, “Facebook has done what they said they would do, align their strategy with what US regulators will allow.” He also pointed to “MVU’s recent No Action Letter from the SEC, which he believes “should also give the Libra team confidence that there is a path for a digital asset to be purchased, transferred on- and off-platform, and converted back into fiat.”
Facebook Seemingly Has Little to Lose, and a Lot to Gain, from Libra’s Launch
But, even if the rumoured January launch does not happen after all, Facebook is unlikely to give up the fight for Libra anytime soon.
Why is this? The reason is two-fold: for one thing, Facebook has recognized that “the interest in Libra shows there is a need for more efficient payments, particularly when it comes to international payments.”
(And indeed, “a positive side effect of Libra,” even if it does not launch, ”is that it forces central banks and commercial banks to address this gap in the market, so international payments will be much improved in the next few years,” Nelson pointed out.)
The second part of this is the risk-to-reward ratio. While Facebook could potentially lose money on Libra (if the project is perpetually crippled by regulatory hangups), Bob Morris, the Global Chief of Compliance at Apifiny, told Finance Magnates that “Facebook could well become a financial juggernaut.”
Additionally, Ankit Bhatia, Co-founder and Chief Executive of Sapien, pointed out that “with a business model that flourishes with more user data, Facebook would benefit from the rich data that other financial institutions generate and handle every day.”
“The Libra Foundation, which will only operate via the Novi wallet that Facebook controls through a subsidiary, is its oblique route to tapping into more financial data and potentially associate that information with a user’s Facebook account,” he said.
Of course, Novi has previously stated that “it will not share account information or financial data with Facebook, Inc. or any third party without customer consent.” However, Facebook has previously broken promises about how its users’ data was being used, and many members of the public seem to believe that Novi will not behave any differently.
Therefore, Bhaktia believes that “from there, Facebook learns infinitely more about our buying behavior and how we treat our money, and would inevitably improve its ability to sell targeted advertising.”
Libra’s ‘Trojan Horse’?
Therefore, Morris believes that the version of Libra rumoured to launch in January could be a ‘trojan horse’ of sorts.
“The goal is to enter an enormous financial market, where there are huge competitors like PayPal and Square,” Morris said. “Facebook had lofty goals of a decentralized Libra ecosystem. However, the Libra stablecoin and the original payment system was not going to get regulatory approval. So, Facebook decided it was time to build a Trojan horse to assist its launch of Libra.”
After this ‘Trojan Horse’ is launched, Morris seems to believe that Facebook could have an easier time expanding: “Facebook has removed the three largest issues for regulatory approval,” he said.
“Creating a robust compliance regime for its payment system will appease most regulators worldwide. Central bankers and elected officials will accept the Libra stablecoin’s solution of pegging its value to just one currency versus a basket of multiple currencies.”
Additionally, “Libra reserve or the Association’s custody solution has made significant improvements in controls and auditing procedures. These changes appear to be addressed to meet requests from regulators, which will lead to approval for Libra.”
Who Is Going to Use Libra?
Assuming that the upcoming launch of Libra will be allowed to go ahead, who will its initial users be?
Joe Lallouz said that he believes that Libra’s “early adopters will most likely come from the products and services offered by the Association’s members: Uber, Lyft, Spotify, Shopify, Facebook, et cetera,” adding that “it’s an impressive group of companies.”
On the other hand, David Gerard pointed out that “we don’t know how Facebook will market this yet, or if they’ll succeed.”
Indeed, “almost nobody used Messenger Payments and almost nobody uses Facebook Pay, so zero fees aren’t enough,” he said. “On the other hand, WhatsApp Pay in India seems to be getting users by charging zero fees because of Facebook subsidizing it.”
Bhatia also told Finance Magnates that “we know that Novi will be connected to most Facebook products, so most users will probably access it via Messenger.”
“I foresee merchants using Libra tokens to reach markets penetrated by Facebook but aren’t well-served by traditional banking or fintech. This likely includes regions in Africa, India, southeastern Asia, and South America – the remaining few billion people over age 13 not yet on Facebook.”
What are your thoughts on the latest version of Libra? Let us know in the comments below.