Facebook’s Libra is attracting scrutiny from Congress, the Federal Reserve and other regulators concerned about money laundering and financial market stability. Properly managed, however, Libra poses a much bigger challenge—it could replace the dollar as the primary for legitimate international transactions.
Its White Paper presents an impressive list of corporate backers but it leaves out details about how its infrastructure would work and be safe against criminals and rogue regimes, like the drug cartels and North Korea, which use Bitcoin to circumvent economic sanctions.
Facebook CEO Zuckerberg’s mammoth credibility problems don’t help. His insular personality and track record for abusing personal information caused the unveiling of Libra to immediately instigate plans for Congressional investigations and hearings.
Like Bitcoin, Libra will enable computer payments via block chain technology. Consumers will buy Libra with dollars and other currencies. Facebook’s 2.4 billion users give it unrivaled potential for broad acceptance by merchants and governments for tax payments—especially in developing countries where many lack access to reliable banking.
What really sets Libra apart from Bitcoin is that it would be backed by strong companies and genuine assets.
The initial sponsors include financial giants—notably MasterCard, Visa and PayPal—significant e-commerce and telecommunications companies and venture capitalists. Each is putting up $10 million for an initial tranche of Libra.
The Libra Association, incorporated in Switzerland, will use those investments to set up the payments infrastructure. Along with funds from the sale of Libra to ordinary consumers, the Association will purchase a basket of national currencies like the dollar, euro and yen and invest in government securities.
Consequently, Libra will be backed by reserves just like the fiat money issued by governments. Only the greenback, as the ultimate reserve currency, has no substantial backing other than a limited amount of gold and foreign currencies and the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.
The values of national currencies, including the dollar, fluctuate a lot against one another. With so many goods purchased on global markets, misguided monetary, fiscal and trade policies, recessions and political upheavals can diminish the purchasing power of any of them, including the dollar. The Libra has the potential to mitigate this problem by being pegged to a diversified basket of national currencies that could provide ordinary folks in developing nations a better alternative to local currencies and the dollar to store wealth and invest. It could be substantially immune to capital controls.
Bitcoins are created mostly by users solving complex mathematical problems, are backed by nothing but a promise, have no significant international institution to protect the integrity of its payment system against hackers and fraudsters. Users have taken big losses, and it fluctuates widely in value.
Bitcoin is easily copied and a plethora of similarly flawed cryptocurrencies have emerged. Libra should benefit from the network effect—it will pay for merchants and consumers to gravitate to one digital platform. If Libra’s backers don’t get it right, others will follow—if governments let them.
So far, the Federal Reserve has limited access to digital money to banks, hedge funds and money managers that run investment funds.
U.S. regulators have limited Bitcoin by treating it as property for tax purposes. When consumers purchase a cup of coffee with Bitcoin they must record the difference in the Bitcoin-dollar exchange rate at the time of the transaction and report the capital gain or loss according to the difference from the exchange that prevailed at the time of their Bitcoin purchase. Consequently, Bitcoin is not widely used for payments and is just a speculative asset.
If government regulators permit Libra to flourish by treating it as a currency then ordinary folks would have something the Federal Reserve only permits bankers and other financiers to enjoy—genuine, stable digital money. And with digital economies increasingly moving away from cash to electronic transactions, the stability offered by valuing Libra against a basket of currencies could give it great utility for writing international commercial contracts—especially multi-year delivery agreements.
Moreover, U.S. allies are becoming disenamored with Washington for the overuse of economic sanctions—for example, excluding Iran from access to the payment systems of U.S. banks—and are seeking work-arounds. Incorporated and governed from Switzerland, a widely accepted Libra could be just the ticket.
Then private money, the Libra, could effectively supplant the dollar as the currency of choice.
Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist. He tweets @pmorici1
© 2023 Newsmax Finance. All rights reserved.