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Davos Digital-Payments Rift Pits Facebook Against Central Banks

By Bloomberg 24 January 2020
Caption
The Facebook Inc. logo is reflected on an Apple Inc. iPad Air in this arranged photograph in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, Jan. 27, 2014. Facebook Inc. is expected to release earnings data on Jan. 29. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

A rift among the global elite over the future of digital payments was on display during a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

A rift among the global elite over the future of digital payments was on display during a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

At stake is the potential overhaul of the global financial system that could see companies like Facebook Inc. pitted against the world’s central banks in the race to develop a worldwide digital currency. On the one side are private companies looking to capitalize on the cryptocurrency trend that could circumnavigate traditional banking systems — on the other are central banks at risk of being left behind.

“There are so many people that are strapped in the cash economy today that if they have a window into the world’s economy and the ability to digitize their money and have more opportunity, it changes their lives,” David Marcus, the executive who leads Facebook’s blockchain team, said in defense of Libra, the company’s stablecoin initiative.

“The whole idea was really not around a certain way of doing things but more around let’s come together and let’s try to figure out how to solve a problem that is, honestly, unacceptable,” Marcus said during the discussion titled “Creating a Credible and Trusted Digital Currency.”

Facebook has long cited its willingness to help open up financial systems to the poor and unbanked around the world. During the discussion at Davos, Marcus cited the 1.7 billion people currently unbanked and the additional 1 billion underserved by the financial system. It comes down to whether or not banks are equipped and prepared to serve consumers or small businesses, he said.

Facebook‘s Libra project, which the company unveiled in 2019, has been described as a stablecoin that could let more than a billion of its users make transactions online. But given the social media giant’s vast resources and user base, it’s drawn the ire of regulators. Some analysts cited the company’s potential to create a de facto global currency that could challenge the dollar, prompting pushback from central bankers, U.S. lawmakers and even President Donald Trump.

While Facebook initially had more than 20 partners for the Libra project, a number of companies withdrew from the venture as an increasing number of regulators began the question Libra’s efficacy. In October, several key partners, including Mastercard Inc.Visa Inc.EBay Inc.Stripe Inc. and Mercado Pago, defected. Vodafone Group PLC is among the latest companies to join the exodus.

Concerns over privacy have pushed some skeptics to argue that private companies shouldn’t be trusted with such a big undertaking, pushing many to argue in defense of digital tokens backed by public authorities.

“Ultimately, CBDC’s really the answer,” said Neha Narula, director of the Digital Currency Initiative at the MIT Media Lab, in reference to central bank digital currencies. “It reduces risk and it allows the central bank to provide a public option for money, which it should.”

Central Banks

The panelists’s comments come on the heels of an announcement by some of the world’s central banks, which said earlier this week that they’re teaming up to assess the potential developments of their own digital currencies. It’s an acknowledgment that their roles are being challenged by new technologies and private sector initiatives, including Facebook’s Libra.

The body will be made up of the Bank of England, Bank of Canada, Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank, among others. They’ll be looking to assess CBDC use cases, they said.

“It’s a complex discussion — there’s no simple causality here,” said the Bank of International Settlement‘s Benoit Coeure during the talk.

While there are cases of technological advances helping poorer populations “leapfrog” some of the hurdles around financial inclusion, there are also instances of changes accelerating the penetration of bank accounts, Coeure said. Certain parts of the global population will continue to rely on cash if they don’t know how to or don’t have access to smart-phones, he added.

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