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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s just as well that big companies that process and facilitate payments have quit Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency project, fearing a regulatory backlash. If Facebook really wants to bring financial services to the “unbanked,” it should try doing it on a smaller scale than these companies’ presence promised. And even then, the probability of failure will be high.It’s clear why PayPal Holdings Inc., Stripe Inc., eBay Inc., MasterCard Inc. and Visa Inc. have decided not to join the Libra Association, which Facebook has been organizing to run the proposed digital currency. They took seriously the recent warning of Senators Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Sherrod Brown of Ohio that because of their membership, they could “expect a high level of scrutiny from regulators not only on Libra-related payment activities, but on all payment activities.” The concern is that a cryptocurrency used in conjunction with encrypted messaging could potentially be used in illegal transactions, and anyone involved in creating such an opportunity would be suspect.U.S. regulators are perfectly capable of scuppering major cryptocurrency projects. On Oct. 11, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission announced it had stopped Telegram Group Inc. from distributing digital tokens, so-called Grams, to the investors who contributed $1.7 billion to the creation of the cryptocurrency last year. These include major U.S. venture capital firms such as Benchmark, Sequoia and Lightspeed. The same could easily happen to Libra.That’s the problem with starting so big. Telegram’s token offering was the biggest ever recorded. Facebook made a big announcement on Libra and presented a list of partners that read like a Who’s Who of the payments industry. They envisaged global launches for their cryptocurrencies. Of course regulators and politicians were alarmed.To avoid this kind of outcome, Facebook — whose stated goal with Libra is to offer affordable payment services and loans to people currently priced out of the financial services market — could have tried the strategy that got results for one of its remaining partners, Vodafone Group Plc. Vodafone launched M-Pesa, Kenya’s storied “mobile money,” in 2007, and one of the project’s major assets was the Kenyan central bank’s consent to the launch without any formal regulation. Vodafone’s local cellular operator, Safaricom Plc, quickly built up a network of stores where people without bank accounts could pay in and receive cash, and old-fashioned mobile phones began to double as wallets for transfers and purchases. The lack of regulatory intervention and the large physical network, fed by relatively generous commissions, made sure that by 2019, M-Pesa claimed 37 million active customers in seven African countries. But attempts to transplant the service to many other markets have failed. Vodafone has closed M-Pesa in India (in part because of regulatory obstacles), South Africa (low customer interest), Romania and Albania (apparently it was unprofitable). Vodafone discovered there was no cookie-cutter solution. In different countries, lenders, retailers and mobile operators offered competing services, and regulatory scrutiny varied. To find countries in which to launch such an electronic money service, one would need to go down the list of nations with large populations of the unbanked. The top 20, according to the World Bank, includes big ones, such as China, India, Indonesia and Brazil.But in most of these countries, people are already using some form of digital money in lieu of dealing with traditional financial institutions. That’s why the list of 20 countries with the smallest percentage of people who have recently made or received digital payments looks completely different.In other words, it’s not easy to find a country where a lot of people have neither a bank account nor access to other kinds of financial services. And then there’s a chance that the cash-using population of a specific country wants to stay that way. One possible reason M-Pesa didn’t quite work in Albania and Romania is that these countries have large informal economies. With up to a third of gross domestic product “in the shadow,” traceable electronic transactions are unattractive compared with cash. These difficulties of finding good target markets, and ones with friendly regulators to boot, should explain Facebook’s desire to launch at scale, to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. But the risk with this approach is that the idea of offering cheap financial services to the unbanked begins to look like a smokescreen for building a huge unregulated bank in the developed world — just what regulators in Europe and the U.S. fear the most.Instead of pushing ahead with the remaining partners and risking the same kind of trouble as Telegram, Facebook should go back to the drawing board and start thinking of smaller projects tailor-made to specific countries’ requirements. Expansion would be slow, and there would be failures and miscalculations along the way, but regulators in each market might be easier to persuade that the project’s goals aren’t nefarious. To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at firstname.lastname@example.orgTo contact the editor responsible for this story: Tobin Harshaw at email@example.comThis column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion©2019 Bloomberg L.P.
(Bloomberg) -- Paytm is close to scoring $2 billion of new financing from investors including Jack Ma’s Ant Financial and SoftBank Group Corp., a person familiar with the matter said, describing a mega-deal that will raise the temperature in India’s increasingly heated financial payments arena.Rob Citrone’s Discovery Capital Management is also in discussions to join a funding round that values the country’s top online financial services firm at $16 billion, the person said, asking not to be identified talking about a private deal. The funding will be split evenly between equity and debt and is aimed at helping Paytm fend off an influx of rivals, the person said. Talks are in their final stages but the terms could still change, the person added.If a deal is finalized, Paytm could outstrip fellow high-profile Asian startups such as Grab and Gojek in valuation. Billionaire Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma is raising capital to protect the startup’s share of a potentially $1 trillion Indian payments market from newer entrants Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Walmart Inc.-owned Flipkart’s PhonePe. Over the past year, a string of new apps have made payments increasingly easy, bringing discounts and cash bonuses to young, smartphone-savvy users.Paytm remains the leader for now. The firm has in a decade become India’s biggest digital payments brand, attracting big names in investing from Alibaba co-founder Ma and SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son to Warren Buffett. Sharma got a huge boost in 2016 after India’s government moved to eliminate most of the nation’s paper money in circulation in a bid to curb corruption. His startup, a pioneer in the country’s nascent field, saw tens of millions of consumers and hundreds of thousands of businesses sign up for digital services in a matter of months.“India is a large market,” said Kunal Pande, head of financial services risk consulting at KPMG. “Digital payments adoption is growing quickly, yet there is room for massive growth as users get comfortable transacting digitally. The large business opportunity makes it attractive for both domestic startups and large global players.”Read more: Facebook and Google Chase a New $1 Trillion Payments MarketPaytm, which is also backed by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., declined to comment in response to emailed questions. Ant had no immediate comment when contacted, while Discovery Capital and SoftBank declined to comment.Sharma is now extending his online empire into e-commerce and banking, even as others encroach on his turf. The Indian payments market remains a chaotic field where the rules are hazy on what players can offer, yet its promise has lured a string of competitors including Indian banks, its postal service and its richest man, Mukesh Ambani.Credit Suisse Group AG now estimates that the Indian digital payments market will touch $1 trillion by 2023 from about $200 billion currently. It’s a market with huge potential: Cash still accounts for 70% of all Indian transactions by value, according to Credit Suisse, and neighboring China is far more advanced with a mobile payments market worth more than $5 trillion.Ant Financial, China’s largest provider of internet financial services and one of Paytm’s earliest backers, has said it will continue investing in mobile-payment providers around the world to boost offshore revenue and buttress itself against rising competition and tighter regulation at home.It’s not clear how much SoftBank would contribute, but the Japanese company is going through a rocky stretch. SoftBank’s shares are down about 30% from their peak this year as investors, unnerved by the WeWork turmoil and Uber Technologies Inc.’s disappointing debut, grow skittish about startup valuations.\--With assistance from Lulu Yilun Chen, Hema Parmar and Vincent Bielski.To contact the reporter on this story: Saritha Rai in Bangalore at firstname.lastname@example.orgTo contact the editors responsible for this story: Arijit Ghosh at email@example.com, ;Sarah Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org, Edwin Chan, Vlad SavovFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com©2019 Bloomberg L.P.
(Bloomberg) -- The Libra Association, which oversees a controversial cryptocurrency, was officially formed on Tuesday, and its five board members have one thing in common: close relationships with Facebook Inc. and its executives.When Facebook first announced Libra, the company was quick to point out that it wouldn’t be alone in managing such an ambitious endeavor. Instead, it hoped to be one out of as many as 100 companies controlling the new digital coin. But as regulatory pressures have mounted and early partners have been leaving the project in droves, Facebook finds itself resorting to close allies to fill the Libra leadership team.David Marcus, who heads the Facebook team that proposed Libra in the first place, is on the board. Marcus is also an investor in Xapo Inc., whose Chief Executive Officer Wences Casares is on Libra’s board as well.Joining them is Katie Haun, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, which was an early investor in Facebook. Another early Facebook backer, Digital Sky Technologies, is part-owned by Naspers, which has majority ownership of the parent company of PayU, the home of another Libra board member, Patrick Ellis. The fifth board member, Matthew Davie of micro-lending service Kiva, also has ties to Facebook. One of Kiva’s board members is John Muller, associate general counsel at Facebook who, like Marcus, hails from PayPal Holdings Inc.“Silicon Valley boards nearly always have these kinds of interconnections,” Aaron Brown, an investor and a writer for Bloomberg Opinion, wrote in an email. “Even someone without formal ties to Facebook will have informal and indirect ones. So no one qualified to be on the board is likely to be fully independent of Facebook. But I don’t see the board as being essentially an independent check on Facebook. I see it as a group of qualified and interested people.”The board members and the Libra Association didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.“Yes, David is a very small investor in Xapo like dozens of other people from Silicon Valley. Yes, Wences and David are both in payments and fintech in Silicon Valley and because of that they have known each other for a few years now,” a spokesperson for Xapo said. “Neither David being a small investor in Xapo nor David and Wences having known each other for a few years compromises Wences’ independence in Libra’s board.”The Libra Association board was formed after high-profile exits by a number of companies, including Mastercard Inc., Visa Inc. and PayPal. The exodus followed scrutiny by lawmakers and regulators who have expressed concern about Facebook’s poor track record in protecting user privacy.Facebook has described Libra as a community effort. But the original group of about 100 partners has dwindled to 21 organizations that signed on as members on Tuesday. Facebook’s challenge will be to convince more companies that there is value for them in a project that has the social-media giant firmly in the driving seat, whether it intended that to be the case or not.To contact the reporter on this story: Olga Kharif in Portland at email@example.comTo contact the editors responsible for this story: Nick Turner at firstname.lastname@example.org, Vlad SavovFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com©2019 Bloomberg L.P.
Facebook officially moved forward with its plans Monday to create a new digital currency called Libra, despite several high-profile defections from the project and intense criticism from U.S. regulators and politicians.
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Mnuchin says Treasury, and not just the senators who sent letters, also warned Libra Association members about their involvement.
(Bloomberg) -- The Libra Association hasn’t officially launched but has already lost a quarter of its membership, as Booking Holdings Inc., an online travel company that operates websites including Kayak.com and Priceline.com, joined Visa Inc., Mastercard Inc. and four other companies in leaving the controversial cryptocurrency project spearheaded by Facebook Inc.With the departure of Norwalk, Connecticut-based Booking, the Libra Association now has 21 founding members remaining of the original 28 companies that signed on to the association in June. PayPal Holdings Inc., Stripe Inc., MercadoLibre Inc. and EBay Inc. in the past two weeks have also said they would abandon the project.The remaining members of the Libra Association, a nonprofit that would manage the cryptocurrency, planned to meet Monday in Geneva, Switzerland to finalize its governing charter and initial membership.Libra came under intense scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators as soon as Facebook announced the project. Regulators warned that the cryptocurrency, originally set to launch next year, could be used by criminals if not properly monitored, while lawmakers pilloried Facebook’s track record at hearings in July with Libra co-founder David Marcus.Officials in some countries, including Germany and France, announced that they would ban Libra, saying that the currency could be a threat to monetary policy, among other concerns.Visa, Mastercard and Stripe left the project shortly after receiving a letter from Democratic senators Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, warning that they could face increased scrutiny if they stayed on board.Brian Armstrong, the CEO of Libra-member Coinbase Inc., on Sunday said the pressure felt “un-American.” “Why the need for the intimidation tactics? This would be called anti-competitive/monopolistic behavior if any private company did it,” Armstrong wrote on Twitter.In the face of the departures, Libra has said more than 1,500 companies have expressed interest in joining the association and that the currency wouldn’t launch until it satisfied regulators’ concerns.Developers have continued to advance the open-source code that would underlie Libra. However, Visa, Mastercard and PayPal could have provided critical experience in navigating U.S. financial regulators’ concerns, making their departures particularly painful. Booking Holdings, which has a market capitalization of more than $84 billion, was among the only remaining large, publicly held companies left in the project.Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg plans to testify next week at the House Financial Services Committee on Libra, among other topics.Representatives for the Libra Association didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.\--With assistance from Kurt Wagner.To contact the reporters on this story: Joe Light in Washington at email@example.com;Olivia Carville in New York at firstname.lastname@example.orgTo contact the editors responsible for this story: Sara Forden at email@example.com, Molly SchuetzFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com©2019 Bloomberg L.P.
Little is known about Facebook's Libra five months after its launch. But Congress now has a chance to get answers straight from the horse's mouth.
LONDON/SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 14 (Reuters) - Backers of Facebook Inc's Libra cryptocurrency project pledged to forge ahead after selecting a five-member board on Monday, shrugging off the latest member defection by online travel company Booking Holding earlier in the day. The owner of Priceline, Kayak and Booking.com on Monday confirmed that it had pulled out of the group, which is trying to bring digital coins into mainstream commerce. Libra lost its last global payments backers on Friday, when Mastercard Inc and Visa Inc abandoned the Geneva-based Libra Association.
Booking Holdings , which operates Booking.com and Priceline, joined a growing list of companies Monday withdrawing from Facebook's fledgling cryptocurrency project Libra. The announcement follows Friday's news that Visa , Mastercard , Stripe and eBay were pulling out of the initiative. PayPal had earlier said it was stepping away from its involvement with Libra.
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In a draft report obtained by the BBC, a G7 taskforce warns banks of the potential risks of cryptocurrencies. That comes just days after major financial institutions began pulling support for Facebook's digital currency Libra. CNET senior producer Dan Patterson joins CBSN to explain the latest.