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Will Facebook Libra Survive Regulatory Scrutiny?


Just two months ago, with a great deal of hype and fanfare, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg unveiled his company’s latest project: the Libra Association, a blockchain cryptocurrency initiative backed by a variety of well-heeled corporations – including Facebook (FB), private venture capital firms, and major players in payment processing, such as Mastercard (MA), Visa (V), and PayPal (PYPL) – and linked to a basket of traditional fiat currencies as a hedge against the extreme volatility of the “pure” cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. Facebook being involved, the controversy did not take long to erupt.

The main concerns, at first, centered around user privacy issues. Facebook has a notoriously poor reputation in this area, and went to great lengths to address possible concerns. The new Libra crypto coin will be administered by the Libra Association, not by Facebook directly. The Association is grouping of Libra’s backers, each of which gets an equal voice in overseeing the currency. The Libra Association members each put the same $10 million investment into the common pot backing the currency, so no one member can claim a larger share than the others. On paper, it’s appears to be a good system.

The Governments Get into the Game

It didn’t take long for government watchdogs to start sniffing around Libra project. As early as June 18, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire spoke against Libra, saying “Libra must not become a sovereign currency.” In the EU Parliament, a German member agreed, and added that Facebook and other private companies cannot be allowed “to operate in a regulatory nirvana when introducing virtual currencies. A month later, the US House of Representatives had David Marcus, Facebook’s head of cyrpotcurrency, before the Financial Services Committee. During the testimony, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) said, “The creation of a new currency is a core government function and should be left to democratically accountable institutions, that are accountable to the American people.” She added that if Facebook does go through with the Libra launch next year, it should start with a small pilot program under SEC and Federal Reserve supervision.

Now the European Commission is starting to investigate Libra. In a circular sent out to the 28 members of the Libra Association last week, the antitrust regulators said, “The Commission is in particular concerned about the possible competition restrictions that may result from the Association, especially with regard to information that will be exchanged and the use of consumer data.” The questionnaire requests follow-up within two to three weeks.

The new regulatory interest from the EU may have spooked some members of the Libra Association; anonymous reports are circulating that at least three of Libra’s original backers have discussed leaving the group. The reports add that the nervous investors are expressing concern over the effect that regulatory probes into Libra will have on their core businesses.

A Careful Launch

For its part, Facebook – and its partners – are approaching the Libra project with caution. David Marcus has already said that the new crypto coin will undergo “the most extensive and most careful pre-launch oversight in financial tech history.” Libra won’t launch until the middle of next year, and while a charter is not yet public, Marcus’ statement makes clear that Libra’s rules are being drawn up in the sure knowledge that they will face close regulatory scrutiny.

That’s the background, and the current state of Facebook’s Libra project. So far, indications are that the blockchain project is going ahead; the regulatory interest has the backers cautious, but none have yet dropped out. So, let’s take a closer look at some of those backers, and their stock performance.

Facebook, Inc. (FB)

The main issue with Facebook, as it has been for a long time, is user privacy. The company’s reputation in this area is justly poor. From the Cambridge Analytica scandal to the exposure of users’ private photos, 2018 was the year of data breaches for the social media giant. Earlier this year, Zuckerberg publicly admitted Facebook’s failings in privacy protection. Just two weeks later, added insult to irony, the company disclosed that up to 600 million user passwords, across its apps, had been stored in plaintext. This past spring, Facebook was hit by the Federal Trade Commission with a record-setting $5 billion fine in response to the privacy problems.

Starting in July of last year, the predictable happened and Facebook’s stock started losing heavily. It bottomed out on December 24 and has since regained its losses, and then some. In the past month, FB shares have slipped 13%. With all of that, the company remains popular with top analysts.

SunTrust’s 5-star analyst Youssef Squali, in an August 20 note, agreed that FB has upbeat prospects. Noting that the company has a long way to go on privacy protection – he wrote, “We note that the data is not deleted and remains on FB’s servers for a length of time that’s unclear to us. This means the data could still be used to report back to an advertiser if a user has purchased a product after viewing the ad, which appears to fall somewhat short of the original pledge by CEO Zuckerberg of empowering users to flush their history whenever they want…” – Squali still set a price target of $236, suggesting an upside of 32%.

Overall, Facebook has a Strong Buy from the analyst consensus, based on 33 buy ratings and 3 holds given in the past three months. FB shares are trading for $177, and the $234 average price target indicates a 32% upside.

Mastercard, Inc. (MA)

Mastercard is an original member of the Libra Association, and in addition to the membership fee, it brings its payment processing network and long experience in the financial industry. In all of the recent regulatory dust-up around Libra, Mastercard’s only official statement was not to comment on the matter. Fortunately for customers, Mastercard has a far better reputation than Facebook when it comes to data protection.

As an investment, MA has offered excellent returns for a long time. The stock is up 44% year-to-date, more than triple the S&P 500’s gain. The stock’s dividend is reliable, and while only yielding 0.49%, the stock’s high trading value makes the annual payout $1.32 per share.

Underscoring MA’s inherent value to investors, Nomura analyst Bill Carache said after the company’s recent quarterly report, “Another solid quarter, fueled by better than expected volume growth, new partnership signings, and progress across its growth initiatives. We believe the company can continue to generate mid-teens compound annual earnings growth.” In line with this, he set a Buy rating on the stock and raised his price target by 15%, to $324. His new PT suggests a 19% upside.

Mastercard also holds a Strong Buy from the analyst consensus. The stock has received 14 buy ratings a single hold in the last 90 days. Shares are selling for $271, so the $309 average price target implies 13% upside potential.

Visa, Inc. (V)

The larger of the two major credit card issuers and payment processers, Visa is very similar to Mastercard as an investment. The company is solid, having shown steady returns over an extended timeframe. It offers a low-yield dividend of 0.57%, but the share price boosts the dividend payment to a full $1 annualized. Visa’s fiscal Q3 results beat the forecasts last month, and suggest that the company will just keep chugging along with steady low- to mid-teens growth rates. Like Mastercard, Visa has not commented on the regulatory agencies’ interest in Libra.

Nomura’s Bill Careche is as upbeat on Visa as he was on Mastercard. He says Visa is “…uniquely positioned to sustain mid-teens annual earnings growth against an uncertain macro backdrop.” Careche’s $204 target on V implies an upside of 16%.

Visa’s analyst consensus rating is another Strong Buy, this one based on 18 buys and 1 hold. With shares selling at $175, and an average price target of $201, the stock has an upside potential of 15%.

PayPal Holdings, Inc. (PYPL)

The last stock we are looking at here is the leader in the online payment processing space. PayPal has been operating independently since 2015, and has shown consistent stock gains since then. Shares are up 26% year-to-date, despite a slip at the end of July.

PayPal’s involvement in Libra makes eminent sense. The company’s proven expertise in payment processing and online finance are highly relevant to the Libra Association, and unlike Facebook, PayPal has not been plagued by data privacy issues. And like Mastercard and Visa, PayPal is a high-quality investment-grade stock.

Kenneth Hill, from Rosenblatt Securities, would agree. He initiated coverage with a Buy rating and said, “Look past the recent tumble in PayPal Holdings stock, and the longer-term outlook for the firm looks as healthy as ever.”

 PayPal’s Strong Buy consensus rating is a measure of that long-term health. The stock has 18 buys and 2 holds given in the past three months, and a share price of $106. The average price target of $130 suggests a robust upside of 22%.

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