Jun 23, 2019 - Technology

Don't bother worrying about Libra

Mark Zuckerberg's face on a coin.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

"Reinvent money. Transform the global economy." That's the promise at the top of the homepage of Libra, an almost parodically ambitious pecuniary exercise brought to you by the empire-builders at Facebook.

The big picture: Facebook is no stranger to hubris. Back in 2013, CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided he was going to reinvent the smartphone. “Today, our phones are designed around apps, not people,” he said. “We want to flip that around.”

Be smart: The balance of probabilities is that Facebook Money is going to go the way of the Facebook Phone — or, for that matter, Facebook Credits, the company's previous attempt to get into payments. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes has laid out many good reasons to worry about Libra succeeding, but the fact is that Facebook's cryptocurrency ambitions are unlikely to get all that far.

Libra's primary stated goal is to concentrate on serving the 1.7 billion of the world's adults who are entirely outside the financial system. The idea is that they should be able to send and receive money as easily as they do text messages.

  • The problem: These people — whom the industry likes to call "the unbanked" — might well be able to open up a Libra wallet on their phones, but they will still need "on-ramps" and "off-ramps." How do you convert cash into Libra, or Libra into cash? The global remittance industry has struggled with these last-mile problems for decades; Facebook hasn't even started thinking about how to address them. Even domestically, Libra doesn't seem to solve any of the problems facing the unbanked.

Libra is, literally, run by committee. It's called the Libra Association, and Facebook has just one vote. When problems arise, Facebook will point out that it does not control the currency. This will not mollify regulators.

  • Libra is global; the Libra Association is based in Switzerland. The system as a whole is designed to operate as seamlessly in Tehran as it does in Tulsa or Tegucigalpa. But that's a problem for regulators, who have sanctioned countries like Iran and who have gone to great lengths to ensure that money can't easily flow there. In the U.S., the chair of the House Financial Services Committee has already requested a moratorium on further Libra development; international regulators are similarly underwhelmed.
  • Worth noting: The long list of partners in the Libra Association includes everybody from Visa to Vodafone — but doesn't include a single bank.

The bottom line: Libra can't be successful without regulatory approval, and that approval isn't going to arrive anytime soon.

Go deeper: FT Alphaville has a whole series, "Breaking the Zuck Buck," devoted to all the problems with Libra.

Go deeper