Can Facebook's Libra cryptocurrency survive the exodus?

Seven of the founding members of the Libra Association, Facebook's non-profit governing council for its planned cryptocurrency, have jumped ship amid increasing scrutiny by U.S. and European regulators.

Facebook headquarters

After the withdrawal of seven of the 29 founding members of the Libra Association, the governing council for Facebook's planned global cryptocurrency, the project's fate  looks increasingly uncertain.

PayPal, Visa, Mastercard, eBay, Stripe, Mercado Pago and Brooking Holdings have backed away from participation on the Libra Association; their hands were forced when  all members met Monday in Switzerland for formalize their commitment to the project.

"In many ways, PayPal, Visa and all the others took the only decision they sensibly could take under the circumstances," Forrester Vice President of Research Martha Bennett said via email. "Given the continued lack of regulatory engagement...and continued lack of detail on key points around Libra (the coin), governance of the network, management of the fund, etc., the risk of reputational damage was simply too great."

Beyond those immediate concerns, there is also the potential of inadvertently being drawn into compliance violations in the future – something none of the companies that withdrew would countenance, Bennett added.

Libra is currently scheduled to go live in 2020.

Dante Disparte, head of policy and communications for The Libra Association, said via email that the council will not launch the global payment system "until questions and concerns by regulators are addressed.

"This is enshrined in our long launch runway, which has helped inform regulators, policymakers and other stakeholders around the world about our commitment to responsible financial innovation and strong oversight," Disparte said. "Our mission of financial inclusion enjoys broad global support. Over 1,500 entities have proactively reached out to the association about joining."

Industry experts and research analysts have speculated that Libra Association departures are the result of regulatory scrutiny of the cryptocurrency, especially over whether it can thwart money-laundering efforts and adhere to know-your-customer (KYC) government rules.

In separate statements after their departure, eBay and payment software provider Stripe said they "respect" or "support" the vision of the Libra Association.

“However, eBay has made the decision to not move forward as a founding member. At this time, we are focused on rolling out eBay’s managed payments experience for our customers," the company stated.

Calibra Facebook blockchain libra Facebook

Images of the Calibra digital wallet app that would store Libra cryptocurrency for users.

In September, French and German regulators argued that Libra could threaten the Euro's value and unlawfully privatize money. Last year, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the country's central bank, announced a ban on the use of cryptocurrencies by any regulated financial entity because of risks associated with it.

U.S. lawmakers, including members of the House Committee on Financial Services, have also voiced concerns that Libra could enable money-laundering or other nefarious activities. Shortly after Libra was announced in June, the committee wrote Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking that he "cease implementation plans until regulators and Congress have an opportunity to examine" the issues and take action.

Other lawmakers encouraged Libra Association members to reconsider support of the project.

In an ongoing effort to allay U.S. regulatory concerns, Zuckerberg is now expected to testify before the House Financial Services Committee on Oct. 23.

Unlike bitcoin, Ethereum and other cryptocurrencies that aren't backed by fiat currency or other forms of stored value, a Libra coin would be backed 1:1 by real money.

"This means that for any unit of Libra to exist, there must be the equivalent value in its reserve," Facebook's crypto chief David Marcus wrote in a series of tweets defending the project. "As such, there's no new money creation, which will strictly remain the province of sovereign Nations."

Katie Haun, a partner with the law firm Andreessen Horowitz – a Libra Association founding member – reiterated that existing members would forge ahead with the project, tweeting after the meeting: "Even though some of the original members have changed, we remain committed to Libra's mission.

"It's also important to look at this project in the global context," Haun tweeted in a separate post. "By attempting to block Libra before it's even built, U.S. policymakers risk ceding leadership over one of the most important emerging technologies."

"I think between Zuckerberg's statements and that the staff there are consumed with regulatory pushback, it's not clear to me what direction they'll take moving forward," Avivah Litan, a vice president of research with Gartner, said in an earlier interview. "I think Libra could be delayed or trimmed down. I'd hope they can move forward in nations where there is no regulatory pushback."

After the departure of Mastercard, Visa, and eBay last week, Marcus tweeted: "Of course, it's not great news in the short term, but in a way it's liberating. Stay tuned for more very soon. Change of this magnitude is hard. You know you're on to something when so much pressure builds up."

In a follow-up tweet, Marcus wrote there are now 22 official Libra Association members with "many more to come."

The latest news of departures, however, has prompted people following the issue to create their own charts of who's left the non-profit organization.

Libra Association Twitter

A chart created by a Twitter member using Facebooks original graphic depicting its Libra Association members.

Wayne Chen, CEO of fintech firm Interlapse Technologies and co-founder of digital platform Coincurve, said the "snowball effect" of Libra Association departures is not helping the cryptocurrency.

"With over 2 billion global users on Facebook, issuance of a new digital, global currency by a centralized corporation can seem overpowering. This comes with a big social, economical and financial responsibility," Chen said. "Cryptocurrencies have faced bigger challenges in the past, so Libra, being unique in its own design, may not affect the current market to the extent people think."

Disparte said the non-profit Libra Association is focused on building "a strong association of some of the world’s leading enterprises, social impact organizations and other stakeholders to achieve a safe, transparent, and consumer-friendly implementation of a global payment system that breaks down financial barriers for billions of people.

"Although the makeup of the Association members may grow and change over time, the design principle of Libra’s governance and technology, along with the open nature of this project, ensures the Libra payment network will remain resilient," Disparte said.

When Facebook originally announced its cryptocurrency and Calibra digital wallet plans in June, it had 27 backers. Those companies were expected to not only accept Libra as a form of payment, but also serve as payment processors; MasterCard and Visa were expected to convert national fiat currencies into Libra and back again.

With the loss of key financial services supporters, the Libra project faces, at a minimum, new hurdles.

"I wouldn't write off the initiative yet, but the Libra Association's work has become much, much harder," Bennett said. "Given that the key concerns from PayPal and the other payments firms were around the lack of meaningful detail around regulatory compliance, a real step change is needed here."

Recent statements from Marcus and Libra Association spokespeople have been short on detailed plans

and have amounted to reiterating that Libra won't pose a systemic risk to the monetary system.

"If regulators and governments have concluded that it does, a more comprehensive and in-depth response is called for," Bennett said.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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