The Impact of Facebook’s Libra on the Traditional Banking System

Though it’s still early days, Facebook’s newly launched Libra currency is already causing distress in the financial sector landscape. Some believe Libra is just another come and go cryptocurrency, while others are describing it as a vehicle for potential terrorist activities.

This week Finance Monthly hears from Simon Rodway, a solutions architect at Entersekt, on the potential and realistic impacts of Libra on the traditional banking system.

The social media giant Facebook announced in June that it has developed a cryptocurrency dubbed Libra and plans to launch it early next year. While some may dismiss it as just more hype, the sheer dominance of Facebook in people’s social lives gives it huge potential to disrupt banking and payments as we know it today.

The company claims that Libra will improve the way we send money online, making it faster and cheaper, as well as improving access to financial services – even for those without bank accounts or limited access to traditional banking. It will be based on a blockchain platform called the Libra Network and Facebook says that it will run faster than other cryptocurrencies, making it ideal for purchasing and sending money quickly. Importantly, Libra will not be managed by Facebook itself; rather, by the Libra Association – a not-for-profit organisation comprised of 28 companies (so far) from around the world such as Paypal, Lyft and Coinbase. It aims to sign up 100 companies by the time the cryptocurrency is launched.

One thing’s for sure: it’s going to be an interesting development to watch, especially in the wake of Facebook’s cryptocurrency wallet company Calibra’s David Marcus presenting his testimony to the United States Congress banking committee. The result was that Facebook would “take time to get this right” and there would be no launch until all concerns could be fully addressed.

So, even though it’s still early days, Libra has given us a lot to think about. Ill-informed speculation and click bait aside, there are legitimate concerns around fraud – with reports already of over one hundred fake domains being set up relating to Libra. There are also the money laundering and financial risk concerns.

In terms of the impact and financial risk, most of what we’re hearing is coming from within the more established financial sectors. They’re either dismissing Libra as noise or decrying it as a vehicle for potential terrorist activities – something, they say, that regulators won’t allow to happen, despite Calibra openly reporting its intention to work with said regulators and policymakers to ensure the platform is secure, auditable and resilient.

At the same time, of course, they’re defending the current system, claiming that it works well, is safe and secure, and doesn’t support terrorism. But, if we’re honest, Anti-Money Laundering (AML) systems have, to date, been largely unable to stop the vast amounts of laundered funds from moving around. In addition, our Know Your Customer (KYC) and Know Your Business (KYB) processes use data from the likes of Companies House, which has been heavily criticised for their own lack of data validation and governance.

All that aside, what’s become quite clear is that the existing system presents too many blockers for the poorer, under-banked members of our society. Those working in the UK, for example, and legitimately wanting to transfer their wages to their families in other countries, end up paying exorbitant banking fees, only to wait days for their funds to clear.

This is where Libra, with its vision for financial inclusion, could make a difference. And if Libra doesn’t make it happen this time around, the technology and conceptual design are essentially open source, so someone else will. The wheels are in motion, and financial institutions that ignore the trend do so at their peril.

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