On Facebook’s new cryptocurrency, the Libra. What will its consequences be for Bitcoin, blockchain and the financial world?

After many years on the sidelines, a consortium of large corporations and social impact organizations led by Facebook will soon enter the blockchain space. In the past week, Facebook has given more details regarding their future cryptocurrency, the Libra. It is supposed to be released by the consortium in the first half of 2020.

This article is my first reaction to the Libra White Paper, which describes Libra as a cryptocurrency with low volatility that will make use of its native Libra blockchain. What follows is a description of Libra as described in the White Paper, and 11 predictions about its consequences for the blockchain and financial world.

Goal of Libra
The goal of the Libra Association is to create a stable currency that makes use of a secure and stable open-source blockchain. Open-source means that the source code is public for anyone to see. In order to keep the currency stable, it will be backed by Libra Reserves – a basket of low-volatility assets, such as bank deposits and short term government securities in currencies from stable and reputable central banks such as the USD, EUR, CNY, and GBP. These assets will be managed by a global network of custodians. The Libra will thus enjoy the benefits of stable traditional government money and the benefits of blockchain-based cryptocurrencies. Users of Libra should theoretically be able to make transactions with Libra coins with low costs, and within immediate speeds to anyone anywhere in the world.

The Libra Association is hopeful that it will give a boost to better and cheaper financial services, therefore, making financial services accessible for everyone.

Considerations for building the Libra blockchain
The Libra blockchain has been developed, while taking the following three requirements into consideration:

  1. It must be scalable to accommodate billions of accounts, meaning that it can process a high transaction throughput with low latency.
  2. Funds and financial data must be secure.
  3. It must be flexible enough to power the ecosystem’s governance and future implementations of innovative financial services and upgrades to the network are possible.

In order to make the above possible, the association has chosen to:

  • Develop a new programming language, called Move. The goal of Move is to make the development of “smart contracts” and transaction logic more secure. Hence, with fewer risks that a software developer writes mistakes into his code that lead to unforeseen bugs and unpredictable behavior of the software.
  • In addition, a Byzantine Fault Tolerance consensus protocol suitable for processing a great number of transactions will be used. This protocol will also be more energy efficient, than for example Bitcoin’s “Proof of Work” consensus protocol, and have less network latency. The protocol is a set of rules determining how consensus about the correct state of the blockchain within a blockchain network can be reached and what the requirements are for approving transactions.
  • Finally, according to the White Paper, the blockchain will be pseudonymous and will offer users the option to create multiple addresses that cannot be linked to their real-world identities.

The Libra Association
The Libra Association will consist of a consortium of around 100 founding members. It has approximately 30 members so far. Among these members are PayPal, Mastercard, Visa, Spotify, Über and Ebay. In order to become a founding member, they had to put in $10 million for the Libra Rerserve. In addition to commercial corporations, there are also social impact organizations such as Women’s World Banking and Kiva. The members of the consortium will receive Libra Investment Token (LIT) with which they can participate in the governance of the Libra Association. It is also possible that they will be rewarded with LIT for maintaining the blockchain and approving the transactions.

Facebook is going into the banking business with ...
The founding members of the Libra Association so far.

The Libra Association will manage the Libra Reserve for the stability and growth of the Libra economy. The interest earned from the reserves will be used to cover their costs. The Libra Association will be the only party that can issue and burn (destroy) Libra tokens. When authorized resellers have bought Libra from the Association with fiat money, new Libra will be issued. Libra will only be burned when authorized resellers sell their Libra to the Libra Association in exchange for their underlying assets. The Libra Reserve thus acts as the “buyer of last resort”. The policy of the Libra Association can only be changed through majority consensus of the members. It’s still unclear how much consensus is needed to change the Association’s policies. It’s also unclear how much consensus is needed to approve a transaction. It’s expected that this will be similar to other Byzantine Fault Tolerance protocols and that 67% consensus is needed.

Another goal of the Libra Association is to develop a standard for open digital identities. Such identities are, according to the Association, a prerequisite for financial inclusion.

Permissioned blockchain
According to the White Paper, the blockchain is permissioned. This means that not everyone is able to run the blockchain on their own computer – only the members of the Association are allowed to do so. They are nonetheless planning to make the transition towards a permissionless environment in which everyone can run his or her blockchain node within 5 years.

Is the Libra blockchain really a blockchain?
Although the Libra Association asserts that Libra is blockchain-based, one could argue that it’s actually not. Blockchains normally make use of data blocks that are chained to each other. Libra, on the other hand, is a single database and does not make use of such blocks. It acts more like a payment scheme.

For more details regarding this topic, see the following article of Simon Lelieveldt.

If Libra does not make use of a blockchain, is it a cryptocurrency?
Some may believe that Libra is not a real cryptocurrency if it does not make use of blockchain. However, in order to be consistent, they should then also maintain that B-money – a precursor to Bitcoin with many similar properties as Bitcoin, but without the use of blockchain – is not a cryptocurrency.

I will not get deeper into the discussion whether Libra is a blockchain or a cryptocurrency.

Calibra wallet
Libra will be implemented into the ecosystem of Facebook and will also be available in other applications owned by Facebook, such as Messenger, Whatsapp, and Instagram. The wallet in which Libra will be stored is called the Calibra wallet.

What will be Libra’s consequences for the blockchain and financial world?
It’s difficult to make correct predictions about Libra, especially since many details about Libra are still missing. Nonetheless, there some predictions I already dare to make.

  1. The Libra blockchain will not be entirely neutral and borderless. The Libra Association will conform to governmental rules and regulations. It will hence be unlikely that transactions to sanctioned countries, such as Iran, will be approved.
  2. The Libra blockchain will compete with banks and fintech companies. It will introduce innovative financial products that will directly compete with financial products offered by banks and fintech companies. Also, Libra transactions will not require payment service providers and intermediary banks and schemes to facilitate the transactions. People could, for example, be able to send money abroad with low transaction costs, and pay with Libra for Über rides and Spotify without traditional payment facilitating intermediaries.
  3. Libra will compete with central banks. Libra could undermine the demand for national currencies – something that central banks and national governments will not accept. Shortly after the announcement of Libra, French and Russian politicians have already expressed their worries that Libra will undermine their national financial system. In addition, it will also be more difficult for central banks to prevent capital flight. Recently, voices have been raised in the United States to (temporarily) stop the development of Libra in order to make sure it will not compete with the USD. Thus, it’s still unsure whether the Association will be able to release Libra in the first half of 2020.
  4. Libra will lead to tension with rules and regulations, and show that current financial rules and regulations are outdated. The call for clearer regulations with respect to cryptocurrencies will grow.
  5. Libra will show that those who say “cryptocurrencies are not interesting, it’s all about blockchain” are dead wrong. Cryptocurrencies will be a tremendous force for mainstream adoption of blockchain, just like e-mail was for the internet.
  6. Libra will compete with stablecoins. Stablecoins are cryptocurrencies that are pegged to assets with stable value. Think for example about the USD, the EUR and precious metals. Stablecoins that already exist are Tether (USDT), Gemini Dollar (GUSD), bit.USD, and Coinbase Dollar (USDC).
  7. It’s unclear how the Libra Association will handle their users’ privacy. I expect that users will be required to provide private information if they would like to make use of the Calibra wallet. The White Paper mentions that having a digital identity is a prerequisite to make use of Libra. However, it also mentions that users will be able to create wallets that cannot be linked to their real-world identities. In addition, it’s also unclear how the Association will deal with users’ transaction data. The Association members will be able to view all transaction data as they are allowed to run a Libra node on the network.
  8. The people that will benefit most from Libra are those who are still facing big barriers to participate in the financial world. If Libra is able to lower the barriers of entree, it will greatly improve the financial opportunities of the unbanked.
  9. Libra will lead to more intensified discussions about what money is. People will become more skeptical about national currencies, and more will become convinced of the benefits of privately issued currencies like cryptocurrencies.
  10. Libra will make people more familiar with cryptocurrencies and better educated about the benefits of blockchain.
  11. In the long run, people will look for alternative currencies that cannot be controlled by governments and central banks. They will hence make more use of cryptocurrencies that are open, public, borderless, neutral and censorship resistant like Bitcoin. These currencies will eventually benefit from Libra.

Conclusion
Libra is an interesting development that will benefit the blockchain space, as well as the financial world. The members of the Libra Association already have a combined reach of more than 2.5 billion people, so they can accelerate mainstream adoption of blockchain. Users will be able to perform transactions against lower costs and with immediate speed. Those that will benefit most from Libra will be mainly people from developing countries.

Eventually, though, Libra will lead to greater adoption of cryptocurrencies that are truly open, public, borderless, neutral and censorship resistant like Bitcoin.