What Is It?
Facebook’s new cryptocurrency is called Libra, after the Roman unit of measurement used to mint coins. (Download the white paper here.) For blockchain investors, this is yuge news. Talk about widespread adoption: Facebook’s reach is so vast that Libra may become a new global currency overnight, on par with the dollar and the euro.
Here’s what we know.
It’s a stablecoin. Libra is a stablecoin pegged to the value of several different currencies. (Read our top-rated piece on stablecoins here.) This means its price won’t fluctuate, like bitcoin — but it won’t be tied exclusively to the dollar, either.
It’s a very big, very secret team. Over 50 engineers are working on the project, which is highly confidential, requiring special keycard access to enter the building.
They want to trade it on exchanges. The Facebook team has had discussions with digital exchanges on listing Libra. This implies it’s not tied exclusively to Facebook, but rather as a real currency that can be bought, sold, and traded.
The estimated launch is 2020. In discussions with exchanges, Facebook has indicated they plan to launch in the first half of 2020.
It will be at least partially decentralized. By partnering with exchanges, Facebook is signaling that it will not be tightly centralized. And by using blockchain, Facebook is signaling this is not an “in-game currency,” accessible only to Facebook users.
|Good for||Payment, taxes||Investing, speculating||Digital payments|
|Good long-term investment?||No||Maybe||No (but see note below on FB stock)|
How It Works: A New Kind of “Supermoney”
You can imagine Mark Zuckerberg’s exasperation: his company is under fire from governments, while governments use his company to spread state propaganda. You can understand why he might be ready to work outside the government altogether, to form a new kind of “supermoney.”
In a blog post titled A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking, Mark Zuckerberg announced his intention to move the Internet toward private, secure, encrypted conversations. If those words sound familiar, it’s because bitcoin was also envisioned as a private, secure, encrypted money.
Private. While Facebook today is like a “digital town square,” Zuckerberg said that the new focus will be on a “digital living room,” where you can have private conversations with friends and family without worrying that your online comments will come back to haunt you later.
Secure. Zuckerberg said that Facebook users should be able to communicate privately, without fear of being spied on by hackers, criminals, or the government (or, I’ll add, Facebook itself). And, he said, “we all expect to be able to do things like payments privately and securely.” (Emphasis mine.)
Encrypted. How will we achieve all this privacy and security? Through “end-to-end encryption,” which he points out is already built into Facebook-owned WhatsApp. “Encryption,” Zuckerberg says, “is decentralizing.” What else is decentralized? I think you know.
In announcing his intention, Zuckerberg is paving the way for a new type of Facebook payment system, one that is private, secure, and encrypted. Done correctly, it will make Facebook a global player in financial services—and the world economy.
To see why, let’s compare Libra with other global payment methods.
Facebook vs. Tencent
China is miles ahead of the United States when it comes to mobile payments. While the US has Apple Pay, Google Pay, PayPal, Square, and a dozen other payment systems, China has two: Alipay and WeChat Pay. These two have emerged as the “Mastercard and Visa” of the Chinese payments world.
WeChat Pay is owned by Tencent, the massive Chinese conglomerate, and baked into China’s popular WeChat social media platform. Like Facebook, WeChat has a huge network of brands and publishers who host their own WeChat pages, and WeChat Pay makes it easy for them to accept payment.
Think of it this way: when was the last time you bought something on Facebook?
As you can see in this video, WeChat Pay lets you can easily buy from retailers and restaurants by scanning a simple QR code. Imagine if you could easily pay at practically any register, or any website, with your Facebook app (not to mention WhatsApp or Instagram, also owned by Facebook).
“Libra Pay” will be different from WeChat Pay if it runs on its own decentralized cryptocurrency. Then payments can truly be private, secure, and encrypted—rather than running through traditional payment rails (like Mastercard and Visa). It’s like Facebook is minting its own money: truly a “Facebook coin.”
Facebook vs. Credit Cards
Paying with credit cards online is a hassle. Each site requires you to re-enter your credit card, you have to manually pull out the credit card to check the three-digit code, you have to update credit cards when they expire, and you have to pay interest if you carry a balance.
Libra could be a massive improvement over credit cards by simply attaching to your bank account, transferring your fiat currency into Libra, then making the payment — which the recipient could immediately transfer back into dollars, or keep denominated in Libra.
Today, for example, you pay for your Uber using a credit card, with a 2% markup that goes directly to Mastercard or Visa. Using a decentralized currency, you could summon a driver using your Facebook app, then pay him directly, getting rid of both credit cards AND Uber:
This has massive implications, as both you and the driver might elect to keep more of your money in Libra, which is reportedly designed to hold its value against the dollar. As we’ll discuss below, the value is likely to accrue to Facebook (this might be a good time to buy Facebook stock).
Facebook vs. Cash
China has become an almost cashless society: Alipay and WeChat Pay are so widely used that the Chinese government has to remind merchants that they still have to accept cash. As the Wall Street Journal reports, Alipay and WeChat Pay are even used by panhandlers.
In a digital age, paper money is pretty terrible. Paper money is dangerous (you can get robbed if you carry it around). Paper money is inconvenient (if you leave it at home, you can’t buy anything). No one uses paper maps; why are we still using paper money?
Could Libra replace paper money altogether, as Alipay and WeChat Pay have done in China? Here’s how it might happen.
A user-friendly cryptocurrency. The challenge for digital currencies is making them so easy that your grandfather can use them. Given that your grandfather is pretty much the target Facebook demographic, Libra may open the floodgates of digital currency to grandpas everywhere.
A new digital payment standard. The “Facebit” (sorry, “Libra”) could be first used for payments within Facebook, but eventually as the currency that you use to buy anything online. What we’re describing is not just a payment system like Apple Pay or Venmo — it’s an actual currency that can be used instead of dollars.
A new global economic power. By creating a new Facebook cryptocurrency, Zuckerberg is giving traditional government-owned currencies a run for their money. And by pegging it to a basket of foreign currencies (not just the dollar), he is diversifying his risks.
Who would have thought that Facebook, with all its centralized power, could emerge as the new model of decentralized payments? Before long, we might be calling him Mark Zuckerblock.
How to Invest in Libra
Although details have not been confirmed, it is likely that Facebook will use its new currency to enable payments within the Facebook platform. If it is not tethered to the Facebook platform, investors will be able to invest in Libra by buying and trading it on digital exchanges.
Here’s where savvy blockchain investors can learn from the thousands of altcoins that have launched over the past few years.
Value is driven by users. The blockchain is about people: the more people who use a blockchain, the more valuable it becomes, due to network effects. Facebook is one of the most valuable networks on the planet, giving its currency a potentially massive valuation (if they can get enough people using it).
Value will likely accrue to Facebook stock. Because Libra is envisioned as a stablecoin (e.g., a digital currency with a stable value, like the dollar), the value of the new economy would likely flow into Facebook’s stock price. In other words, for every dollar invested in Libra, consider a dollar in FB stock.
Trading opportunities abound. While we are generally fans of blockchain value investing (“buy and hold”), there will be many opportunities for trading (“buy and sell”), including arbitraging against other stablecoins and other global currencies. Trading will be a rich area of opportunity, especially at launch.
Libra in your 401(k): The dream is an automated platform that withdraws, say, $100 from your bank account each month, investing $10 in Libra and $90 in FB stock. This would offer a convenient way to diversify everyday investors into digital currencies (10%) with the overall stock market (90%).
The beginning of the next wave: If the new Facebook coin takes off, expect other tech companies to follow suit with their own digital currencies. As a rule of thumb, the companies with the most network effects will be the ones that accrue the most value (think Google, Twitter, Apple).
The blockchain is about people. Facebook, with its focus on connecting people, is in a perfect position to become a blockchain leader overnight.
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