A strange occurrence is unfolding in the economic industry. It has been developing in the past few decades. After the internet came and communications became effective, the financial world underwent a technical reconstruction. Those locked out due to lack of capital got some reliable refuge in this revolution.
E-commerce startups and internet brokers with a mere ‘.com’ suffix proliferated. Some of the entities threatened to overthrow the traditional entrenched financial institutions. Among them was Confinity, the current PayPal, which was the first online payment processor.
Unknown to many, financial disruption was PayPal’s original intent. Luke Nosek, the PayPal co-founder, recalled the company’s original venture speaking at the World Economic Forum in February 2019. He said:
“The initial mission of PayPal was to create a global currency that was independent of interference by these, you know, corrupt cartels of banks and governments that were debasing their currencies.”
The disruption of the financial industry left banks choosing between adapting and going extinct. Eventually, PayPal’s original plan failed and it became intertwined with the institutions that it had hoped to oppose. But, the 1990s disruption never really ceased.
History may never repeat although it rhymes. The same phenomenon is happening again today. This time around, banks are threatened by the emergence and rise of Bitcoin and blockchain technologies. Notably, the whole decentralized network is gradually and constantly staging a financial insurrection.
It is not just startups trying to overthrow traditional banking institutions. Facebook has also joined in challenging the status quo with the introduction of the Libra project and other projects. Facebook Pay was launched on November 12. The firm unleashed a cross-platform fiat-based payment system for Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp. That announcement had a few people wondering.
For months now, Facebook has been marketing its Libra project promising affordable, global remittances instantaneously. That concept has faced rejection from governments, watchdogs, and other critics globally.
Most participants in the crypto community rejected the idea referring to it as a derivative trial to solve something that Bitcoin already fixes. Regulatory authorities globally united in opposition to what appears like a project that undermines the financial system.
Libra’s early supporters have left the Association in large numbers in a revolt led by MasterCard and Visa. Yet, Facebook has gone ahead to release a payment system that appears to resemble the Libra initiative.
The regulatory ‘noise’ seems to have scared the Social Media giant and its associates with Facebook even capitulating against pressure. The firm has, in the end, decided to offer a tried-and-tested, bureaucracy free payments network. Has Facebook also thrown in the towel just like PayPal abandoned its people’s currency dream?
The issue may not be as straightforward as it appears with Facebook Pay localized within the United States’ jurisdiction for now. Hence, Libra still carries a significant use case worldwide. Also, Facebook still said that its Libra project is alive and kicking in an announcement by Deborah Liu.
Liu is the current vice president of commerce and marketplace at Facebook and she explained:
“Facebook Pay is built on existing financial infrastructure and partnerships, and is separate from the Calibra wallet which will run on the Libra network.”
The question comes, if Libra is well, why the abrupt shift to Facebook Pay? Was the ‘noise’ around Libra just a trojan horse for a palatable foray into the financial sector. According to the CEO of Velocity Markets, Jonathan Kelfer, it not likely that Libra was just a detour:
“Facebook Pay is in line with current services found outside the US, such as AliPay. Facebook sees a strong user value proposition for this means of payment and is looking to leverage it within its ecosystem. With Facebook Pay, users would inherently be restricted to their local currencies, lessening the potential for cross border payments and a more stable reserve. Conversely, Libra would act as a truly global currency.”
Google Joins the Party
Facebook is not the only behemoth that has joined the fintech revolution. After Facebook Pay was unveiled, Google also announced that it is planning its localized banking enterprise. The Search Engine Company has partnered with Citigroup and the Stanford Federal Credit Union to enable it to offer checking accounts through the Google Pay app.
Google reiterated Facebook’s new-found rhetoric saying that the initiative would enhance the expanding digital ecosystem. Google’s ‘Cache’ project is already being lauded as the “future of banking.” Others are calling it the latest “Bitcoin killer.” With Facebook testing the finance world, Google felt it necessary to claim a major stake of its own.
But, Google aims to get the existing financial institutions onside instead of fighting a losing battle with them. That strategy will most probably work in the firm’s favor. The backlash that Facebook encountered from the regulators is enough to make all tech firms looking to challenge the status quo to think twice.
The New Normal
FAANG companies have enjoyed a growing oligopoly within the industry for years. Now, their major focus on financial enterprises raises eyebrows. Kelfer thinks that it may be a strong attempt to hoard data that they have not had access to:
“Big tech is in the business of collecting and distributing information. Given their large ecosystems, they are likely to want to see frictions reduced in any way possible, including transactions. The data that can be collected from spending habits would also be valuable.”
Interestingly, tech-finance migration appears to be in line with an ever-growing trend. A recent CoinShares report showed that social networks are rapidly turning into the new payment networks of choice.
Various mobile payment platforms like Google Pay, Apple Pay, Amazon Pay, and now Facebook’s budding initiatives have a cumulative 6.4 billion active users between them. Additionally, around 40% of internet users choose these payment modes. Among these companies, just Facebook is harnessing the potential of digital payments and blockchain technology.
How About Cryptocurrency?
China’s CBDC laid dormant since 2014 to early 2019 and its revival corresponded with Libra’s whitepaper. It was suggested that the fears of capital flight through Facebook’s omnipresent currency resulted in a significant increase in the pace of CBDC’s development.
The European Central Bank was also reviving its plans for a financial overhaul. According to Benoit Coeure, an ECB board member fears that Libra would cause a risk to the financial sector stirred a ‘wake-up call’ for the bank.
With a loud wake-up call, the ECB awakened its TIPS project that it launched in 2018. TIPS means Target Instant Payment Settlement service and it strives to support real-time payments within the Eurozone. But, Coeure urged the ECB to launch a CBDC of their own.
These are just a few examples but according to a Bank of international settlements report, almost 70% of banks could either be engaged in a CBDC or are planning to begin working on one. The world’s banks are gradually taking things into their hands with the threat of innovation knocking on their door.
Many now wonder, why is Google going for the traditional institutions instead of investing in digital payments and innovating more? According to Kelfer, a former software engineer at Google thinks that the Search Engine company may have made that decision since banking is not within its remit. He commented:
“True investment banking, underwriting, securitization, and many of the other hallmarks of Wall St would fall well outside the core competencies of big tech.”
Kelfer also believes that Facebook will not succeed in going against the grain with its Libra project:
“Libra has a very low likelihood of becoming a ‘global reserve’ in that central banks already hold a basket of currencies and interest-bearing instruments directly and manage these positions according to their mandates and local economic conditions. Central banks need to retrain control over these allocations, which would not be possible with Libra.”
Interestingly, there is a unique prejudice in the matter of cryptos since even when Libra’s whitepaper launched, doubts developed on the token’s anti-competitive nature. Margrethe Vestager, the European Commission’s executive vice president for digital, even accused Facebook of trying to develop an isolated financial system. Ironically, Bitcoin runs on the very same basis of a decentralized economic system free of intermediaries.
Bitcoin was developed to oppose the banking sector just like PayPal’s inceptive aim. BTC came after the 2008 financial crisis with its defiant intent coded into the genesis block by Satoshi Nakamoto.
Now, as Facebook strives to surmount the bureaucracy of creating a new system and Google strives to update an already existing one, Bitcoin and the entire crypto sector already fix the issues that the big tech is seeking to innovate upon.