PayPal’s decision to leave the Libra Association last week raised a few eyebrows around the world, in part because the architect of this new digital currency, David Marcus, used to run the global payments giant before joining Facebook. But while the sudden departure of such a key founding company might well have turned a few heads amongst the remaining members, it was a full blown canary in the coal mine moment for the association’s other big payments partners.
Mastercard, Visa, Stripe, and Mercado Pago were already shuffling their feet over a decision to become fully fledged members of the organization, so once PayPal left, they were quick to follow, leaving Netherlands-based PayU as the only remaining Libra member currently operating in the online payments processing sector.
It’s easy to suggest that herd mentality is behind the sudden exodus; that Paypal’s departure triggered a knee-jerk reaction at six other companies (ebay and Booking Holdings were the other two that left), but each of these companies will have had its own nuanced motivations for taking a step back from the project.
A number of theories have been circulating this week, but almost all of them fall into one of two camps: reputation management and commercial conflict. Figuring out which of these was in the driving seat will help us understand the chances that these deserters might rekindle a relationship with the currency in the future and will also give us some clues about what the future holds for Facebook’s audacious adventure into the world of online payments.
Reputation comes first
First, let’s look at the question of reputation. For companies of this size and significance, protecting a carefully cultivated public image is a top priority. Warren Buffet once warned that “it takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” And it’s clear the management of Libra’s partner companies have been thinking about that a lot.
Since announcing the project in June, Libra’s leadership team has been bombarded with questions about capital buffers, anti-money-laundering measures, and a biting report from the G7 that all but bans the launch of any “stablecoin” until its backers can prove it is not a risk to the global financial system. These swirling questions about the project’s legitimacy, specifically the very public stage on which they are taking place, have undoubtedly given those that were sitting on the fence a fair old push.
It’s also escaped nobody that Mark Zuckerberg is due to testify to Congress later this month, answering questions about Facebook’s current and potential influence on financial systems, and it’s hard to imagine many people will want to be sat by his side (literally or figuratively) during that ordeal. No matter how independent from Facebook the Libra Association is claiming it is, the two organizations are inextricably linked, and so Zuckerberg will be up there defending Libra as much as the social network. For highly regulated financial services firms (such as Paypal, Mastercard, Visa, and Stripe), any association with a company facing a number of antitrust investigations is a reputational risk, and it certainly appears like they’ve opted for the less risky route, at least in the short term.
CNBC reported last week that a number of powerful senators had even made direct threats to Mastercard, Visa, and Stripe, suggesting their own business models could come under increased scrutiny if they continued to support the program, and urging them to “carefully consider how your company will manage” the risks of the Libra project before proceeding. For the members with the most experience in the payments space, that responsibility, it seems, was a little too much to shoulder.
It’s also telling that the companies that have distanced themselves from the project over the past week are those with the most to lose, suggesting that reputation really is the main driving factor here. While many of the backers were happy to be seen dating Libra, they may since have felt the relationship was moving too fast: Monday was the first official board meeting, when members were required to pay in $10 million apiece as a show of solidarity. There’s also an air of frustration about how much has been made of these partnerships over the past few months, and in the face of this week’s public jilting, you could say Facebook is guilty of counting its chickens before they hatched.
The second likely cause for the desertions, commercial conflicts, is just as important to consider. Five of the seven companies to drop out of the Libra Association over the past week are known for their dominance in the online payments space, and that’s surely no coincidence. That they were all standing arm in arm in the first place was surprising enough, so perhaps it’s no shocker that they’ve decided to part ways before the time comes to show their hand.
It’s conceivable that while Facebook continues to attract the ire of regulators and governments, not least for its track record of mismanaging the personal data of millions of users, some of these organizations will use the opportunity to break away and create their own form of stablecoin. From a PR perspective, the past few months of association with the project could have set them up nicely for a surprise challenger play, and one without the weight of past misdemeanors slowing them down.
If we’ve learned one thing from the cryptocurrency markets over the past decade, it’s that there is room enough for more than one currency.
As for Facebook, well there’s no doubt that such a rapid succession of high profile departures will be felt like a thorn in the side for the social network, and of course the Libra Association. But it’s hard to see it being a nail in the coffin for the currency itself. Zuckerberg is said to be a vehement supporter of the project, and there are still a healthy number of organizations throwing their weight behind it — as well as a number of newcomers interested in joining the association, apparently.
If the Libra Association can convince regulators that its currency will help more than it hinders, we’ll likely see many of this week’s deserting companies climb back on board — that is, if they don’t choose to build their own currency first.
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Matt Baer is founder and CEO of cryptocurrency travel rewards company KeyoCoin.