Libra: The Known Unknowns and Unknown Unknowns

By Barry Eichengreen, Professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley; and formerly Senior Policy Advisor at the International Monetary Fund; CEPR Research Fellow. Originally published at VoxEU.

The repercussions and regulatory impact of Facebook’s proposed Libra currency are still unclear. This column, part of the VoxEU debate on the future of digital money, assesses the information as yet made available about Libra, including the implications for its exchangeability, scalability, privacy, and security. It is clear the design of the currency is yet to be finished, and many questions remain about its governance and structure.

Details about Libra, Facebook’s planned global currency, are not easy to decipher. This may be because the currency’s own designers are making up things on the fly. More likely is that they have a reasonably complete plan but are reluctant to reveal it in order to avoid exciting regulators in the US and abroad (see Brunnermeier et al. 2019 for more on the repercussions for the international monetary system of digital currencies). But no one knows for sure.

Nevertheless, more information continues to be unveiled, as regular visitors to Libra’s website are aware. What follows is my assessment of what we know, what we don’t, and what it means for the project.

The Reserve

Libra will function like a currency board. It will be backed by high-quality, liquid financial assets denominated in a collection of stable currencies. This is not unlike the dollar-euro basket-based currency board proposed by Domingo Cavallo during his ill-fated return as Argentine economy minister in 2001.

As in the case of a currency board, the man or woman in the street won’t be able to redeem Libra for the fiat currencies in the Reserve. Only ‘authorised resellers’ will be entitled to move large amounts of fiat and Libra in and out of the Reserve. In the typical currency board, the role of authorised reseller is played by regulated commercial banks. In this case, who they will be, how they will be selected, and how they will be regulated in order to ensure adequate consumer protection is yet to be explained.

The Fiduciary Issue

Whether Libra will be fully backed or almost fully backed is unclear. The document describing the Reserve explains that “the association will pay out incentives in Libra coin to Founding Members to encourage adoption by users, merchants, and developers”. If these payments are in exchange for deposits of fiat currencies by the Founding Members, then this is just an exchange of fiat for Libra like any other – it is not an “incentive” to develop anything. If it is a transfer not made in exchange for fiat, then a portion of the outstanding Libra is not backed.

Some gold-standard and currency-board-type arrangements include a ‘fiduciary issue’ – that is, a certain amount of issuance that is not backed, and then a remainder that is fully backed at the margin. Such systems have generally worked when the amount of the fiduciary issue is strictly limited. How it will be determined here is unclear.

Seigniorage

The Reserve will earn interest, or seigniorage. In the case of central banks like the Federal Reserve, seigniorage profits are turned over to the national treasury, which spends them (hopefully) in a manner consistent with the preferences of voters and their elected representatives. In the case of Libra, seigniorage profits “will first go to support the operating expenses of the association – to fund investments in the growth and development of the ecosystem, grants to nonprofit and multilateral organizations, engineering research, etc”.

Should there be an “and then” after the dash in the preceding sentence? And are we talking about engineering research in general or engineering research designed specifically to enhance the operation of Libra-like systems? “Nonprofit and multilateral organizations and social impact partners”, we are told, “will also be able to apply for grants to join the network”. Are we talking about NGOs that enhance access to Libra by giving cell phones and cell phone contracts to poor African farmers, or worthy NGOs with other objectives, like the World Monuments Fund, and multilateral organizations like the World Bank?

In some countries, seigniorage accounts for a nonnegligible share of public resources. A large-scale shift into Libra would therefore transfer their control and allocation into private hands.

Scalability

Bitcoin’s blockchain-enabled proof-of-work system is slow and costly in computing and energy resources. The minds behind Libra understand that they need a more efficient system. They just don’t know what it is.

Initially, transactions will be processed by “validator nodes” run by the Founding Members of the Libra Association. The initial system “aims to have 1,000 transactions per second for a set of 100 validator nodes”, corresponding presumably to the 100 members for which the Libra Association aims.

There is no reason to doubt that the computers of Visa or Mastercard, two representative Founding Members, or those of Amazon Cloud Services for that matter, can process a thousand transactions a second. But this is not a decentralized, permission-less system. Users will need Visa’s consent in order to use Visa’s node. Nor is it a fundamental technological advance relative to the status quo.

Libra’s documentation describes a desire to move toward a permission-less system, where neither the permission of Visa nor anyone else is needed in order to transact. But that same documentation fails to spell out what alternative to blockchain and a Bitcoin-like proof-of-work system will make this a reality.

Privacy versus Know-Your-Customer Rules

A final issue is the trade-off between privacy and know-your-customer rules. This dilemma is familiar. Banks are required by their regulators to monitor their customer’s accounts for evidence of money laundering, tax evasion, and terrorist finance, and on detecting such behaviour to notify the relevant authorities. But they are also expected to shelter their customers’ accounts and transactions from prying eyes.

Libra’s designers seem to be conflicted about these matters. Consider the following assortment of statements. “The ledger of transactions on the Libra Blockchain will be publicly accessible so that it is possible for third parties to do analysis and to detect and penalize fraud”. But also “Transactions do not contain links to a user’s real-world identity”.

And finally, “because transactions on the Libra Blockchain are pseudonymous, it is possible for third parties to do analysis and detect fraud and illegal activity”. Pseudonymity entails the adoption of an assumed name, as opposed to a legal identity. If transactions are pseudonymous, how can those moving money for illicit purposes be identified and reported to the relevant authorities?

Conclusion

Information about Libra is more abundant today than when the initiative was announced. But important questions remain. How will incentives for development be reconciled with the fully-backed nature of the system? How will seigniorage be allocated? How will the system be scaled? How will the desire for privacy be squared with know-your customer rules? How will authorised resellers be selected and regulated? How will the public sector agencies responsible for systemic stability and consumer protection regulate Libra more generally?

Libra remains a work in progress. Its designers continue to dribble out information about its structure and governance. But their documentation raises as many questions as it answers. Consider this column and invitation to address them.

References

Brunnermeier, M K, H James, J-P Landau (2019), “Digital currency areas”, VoxEU.org, 3 July.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

20 comments

  1. Susan the other`

    The private association provides its members with a “fiduciary issuance” which is “a certain amount NOT backed by the reserve” (various currencies) so it needs to be “strictly limited.” But there is no method of accountability. “The seigniorage on the reserve will go to support the operating expenses of the association” but the association is a private association so this means it will be living on interest earned on the voluntary currencies in the basket – which (is pointed out) is a transference of public resources from sovereign countries to Libra. Libra plans to insinuate itself in this example directly into the cash flow of sovereign countries as if it were their own sovereign prerogative. Sounds like leaking blood vessels. Libra has no authority at all to do any of this. And when Libra goes belly-up it will be a loss to sovereign countries/currencies involved. Libra has no responsibility to the rest of the world at all. Calling Professor William Black. Please come to the comments section.

    Reply
    1. Wukchumni

      What would be the seigniorage on something that has no inherent value, essentially 100%

      Not that it’s all that different on say a Benjamin that costs 16 Cents to make and has a seigniorage of $99.84.

      Now, compare that to the lowly Cent & Nickel, which both have reverse seigniorages of nearly 100%, ha!

      Reply
      1. Susan the other`

        So that raises another good question – who determines seigniorage, which by all accounts is an arbitrary thing? And then, of course, who pays whom?

        Reply
        1. Wukchumni

          A good example of seigniorage would be the Sacajawea/Presidents Dollar coins issued right when Ecuador went to the US $ as their currency.

          The only time i’ve ever used them is when they were forced on me, and safe to say that i’ve not done more than say $10 worth of transactions with them in total, and i’d be a typical American in that regard…

          …meanwhile in Ecuador it is the most commonly used coin, they’re everywhere

          The cost of minting them is about the same as a paper $ around 15 Cents.

          Somebody is making 85 Cents profit on them, wonder who?

          Reply
        2. John Zelnicker

          @Susan the other`
          August 29, 2019 at 11:49 am
          ——-

          The way I understand it is that the various currencies contributed to the Reserve will be invested for income. I don’t recall seeing anything about limitations on which investment vehicles would be used.

          This raises the question of whether to invest for stability or higher income. Government bonds issued in the same currency would be best for stability, but sovereign interest rates are near zero or negative, even in countries with relatively strong currencies.

          Investing in higher-yielding bonds, stocks, or other assets can bring higher income, but it also entails increased risk to capital.

          Who makes these decisions?

          Another question is how do changes in the value of the Reserve affect the value of the Libra, if at all? If there is a loss of capital from a soured investment, who tops up the value of the currency in which the loss occurred?

          I think the answer to your last question is that the income from an investment vehicle, e.g., stocks or bonds, would be paid by the issuer to the Libra Reserve. So, your point (and the author’s) is correct in your first comment that it would be a transfer from sovereigns (if it’s government bonds) to a private association with no obligation to the public.

          Reply
    1. Wukchumni

      The more important bubble around the same time, the ‘Darien Scheme’, left Scotland so broke that they had to join up with England in 1707.

      As the Company of Scotland was backed by approximately 20% of all the money circulating in Scotland, its failure left the entire Lowlands in substantial financial ruin and was an important factor in weakening their resistance to the Act of Union (completed in 1707). The land where the Darien colony was built, in the modern province of Guna Yala, is virtually uninhabited today.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darien_scheme

      Reply
  2. Wukchumni

    Libra horrorscope:

    With aspects to emancipating Uranus in your sector of loose change and transformation to making your own money, you also have an opportunity to gain insight into the world beyond social media which is a risk, because nobody under 20 really gives a rat’s patootie in regards to Facebook.

    Reply
  3. Scramjett

    I get the distinct feeling that this is yet another means for elites to siphon money from the rest of us. As if I didn’t have enough sucking sounds on my wallet!

    Reply
  4. Synoia

    Information about Libra is more abundant today than when the initiative was announced

    Not convinced “abundant” is correct, when my suspicion is that obfuscation is the strategy.

    Reply
    1. Wukchumni

      A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States by Steven Mihm

      Is a fine way to learn about what are now called ‘Broken Banknotes’, when even banks that didn’t exist except for on paper, played along.

      Reply
  5. Chauncey Gardiner

    How is this proposal materially different from using an existing currency exchange-traded fund (ETF) as a currency? And what are the public benefits? Is Libra to be accepted in settlement of sovereign taxes… or of “all debts public and private”, with the force of the state behind it? If so, what are the benefits of doing so to our government beyond that of our existing currency and monetary system? Is this not an effort to disintermediate the banks from their role in the payments system and the creation of money?

    Reply
  6. Summer

    “Will” and “will be” not “would” and “would be”?

    Can’t be imagined that anyone can say “no” to them and people are meandering on about faux accountability and regulations?

    Reply
  7. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

    From what I can divine, it’s an ETF. Oops ETFs require securities disclosures and suitability questionnaires. And you would not be able to exchange your “coin” with anyone not already vetted for those categories.

    And few have noticed that the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global body that guides what AML rules nations should follow, issued guidance in June 2019 (later confirmed at the G-20) that cryptocurrency providers will be required to implement “the travel rule”.

    In short: before being allowed to send funds to another cryptocurrency wallet, the sender must verify the identity of the holder of that receiving beneficiary wallet.

    Game, set, match.

    Reply
    1. Synoia

      Yes, and all the identities people receiving of money will be managed according to Swiss Law.

      Yes I intended to send the money to the account of Sue, Grabbit and Runne, QC, for the account of Unknown Co Ltd. Ask them who is their Client (and remember client-Lawyer privilege)

      Reply

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