It's been a little over two weeks since we all got our first look at Libra and Calibra. No doubt there will be countless news stories to come, and opinions on why it will or will not fly. Here are the things I will be watching for over the coming months, things that I think provide a useful framework for understanding how Libra and Calibra’s future takes shape:
How many of the 28 Founding Association Members will pony up $10 million to remain members.
A point of enormous confusion in the press is what the 27 non-Facebook companies have agreed to do at this point. That agreement, as outlined in a Letter of Intent, is to show up at meetings to help shape Libra’s governance, charter and mission. That’s it. No money exchanges hands until those meetings have happened and everyone agrees to what “it” is. Among other things, that will depend on what it means to be an Association Member.
Whether being an Association Member requires an agreement to validate and process transactions on the Libra network.
The Facebook Libra whitepaper states that Association Members must agree to operate as validators on the network. For many regulated, compliant global players like Visa, Mastercard and PayPal, that could come as a big ask, particularly since it means saying yes to processing transactions that use the Libra cryptocurrency.
Given the regulators’ antipathy toward cryptocurrency, that could be problematic. Things could change if regulators give Libra the green light, but the light right now seems firmly stuck on red.
What isn’t helping – and I am sure that Facebook has had this same thought – is bitcoin’s surge post-Libra’s launch. If I were Facebook, I’m not sure I’d be thrilled to be positioned as the catalyst for bringing bitcoin and all of its big-time baggage back from the depths of demise. I’m not sure that many of the current players who’ve agreed to take a seat at the table like that much either. For sure, it just muddies the context with which regulators may look at Libra.
So, the big development to watch here is whether there will be tiers of membership that allow members to listen, observe and vote if they don’t want to participate as part of the network from a processing standpoint. To most of these players, ten million bucks is chump change, and worth the investment in keeping close tabs on what’s going on.
Who the other 72 Association Founding Members will be.
Facebook has stated they will remain actively involved with Libra throughout the remainder of 2019 in order to recruit other Association Founding Members. The goal is to hit 100 – and their $1 billion threshold for funding Libra and creating a reserve for the Libra currency. (Ten million dollars times 100 members equals $1 billion.)
In theory, as I mentioned in my initial piece, creating an Association to govern Libra isn’t a nutty idea – it is the same structure and governance the card networks used to start and ignite their global networks.
But there are two big differences.
Visa and Mastercard didn’t, as part of the ask, require banks to do business using a fake currency. Further, all of the members had similar interests, operating principles, regulatory constructs and shared goals.
The only way Libra has a shot at becoming anything close to a global payments network is to make sure its membership checks that box, too, so the governance reflects the input of like-minded players. That seems like it could represent a massive challenge today, given that the network and the currency are comingled – and one can’t exist without the other.
If regulators can’t see past the red light of crypto, and membership requires transacting on the Facebook network, that is likely to keep global banks out. It will, however, attract the zillions of crypto enthusiasts and crypto payments gateways who now view Libra as a path to their own legitimacy. Having a disproportionate number of those folks at the table increases the risk that the Association and Libra will evolve into a rogue set of alt payments rails run by people who have been waiting a decade for this big break. That would not be a good development for Libra.
Whether Libra can get past all of this in a relevant timeframe.
Libra’s plan to reinvent global payments for people and businesses is an ambitious goal. But as I said in my original piece, they couldn’t have made it any more complicated.
For Libra to ignite, everything has to change, and for everyone: regulators, networks, banks, merchants, acquirers, consumers, businesses, governments. And in every single country on the planet. And all at once. I can’t think of anything that has ever tried to do this and succeeded, in a timeframe that is relevant to anyone. Particularly when the only way to launch a new currency is to have central banks say yes and governments mandate its use.
Today, that is a material concern for Facebook and Libra. Time is an important currency, and given the pace of technology and the global scale that payments already enjoys, it poses more of a threat to Facebook than Libra does to those it hopes to serve, and disrupt.
Consumers and merchants have many other options and will continue to deepen those relationships. Banks and networks have their own traction, operating at scale globally, and with a focus on financial inclusion, in a compliant and regulated way, and without Facebook’s reputational and regulatory baggage. Regulators today have zero incentive to rush their decision about regulating crypto, not just Facebook’s Libra. And given their current attitude toward Facebook, they have no real incentive to cut the social network much of a break.
Time is an important currency for investors who, two years ago, were already impatient for Messenger’s monetization strategy, and were then told to be patient. For Libra and Calibra, their monetization strategy involves a potentially decades-long wait, laced with the uncertainty and expense of getting both off the ground and at scale. It’s hard to understand why, with Facebook’s many other issues, they decided on a payments monetization strategy that comes with so much controversy, so much complexity and has little chance of success when other viable options were available to them.
Perhaps I am missing something – a secret acquisition play or back-pocket Member that will cause everyone to sit back and say, “okay, now I get it. And it all makes perfect sense.”
It’s more likely that Libra and Calibra will become Messenger’s monetization strategy, but for Facebook and about Facebook. The 2020 version of Facebook Credits, but using the magic elixir of blockchain crypto rails instead inside of their own ecosystem.
Even without an ignition strategy, that will likely end the very same way.