Back in the 2000s, I asked a person involved in the mortgage business about her job. The labyrinthine explanation that followed, combined with seeing people of limited means load up on mortgaged houses to flip, caused me to “call” the housing crash. This wasn’t brain surgery. A number of properly skeptical journalists and economists did the same.
Unfortunately, regulators, amid the booster frenzy circa 2006, were slow to react.
The financial crisis that followed was the worst since the Great Depression and we very nearly repeated that calamity.
Now I have another suspicion: The next big crisis may well revolve around “fintech” — the risky melding of finance and advanced technology (the “engineered” derivatives that played a big part in the Panic of 2008 were a primitive version). Specifically, I’m looking at Facebook’s plan for a digital currency called Libra.
“Fools and their money are soon parted.”
“There’s a sucker born every minute.”
“Cocaine is God’s way of saying you’re making too much money.”
“There are basically only two personal-finance stories: Don’t be greedy and don’t be stupid.”
Combine all these axioms and quotes with this one: “Move fast and break things.”
That was the motto of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. It fell into disrepute amid numerous scandals, including the company’s role in spreading misinformation ahead of the 2016 election and repeated mishandling of privacy for its users.
But don’t think for a second that the motto doesn’t still drive this giant “disrupter,” headquartered at — I am not making this up — 1 Hacker Way, Menlo Park, Calif.
Now it wants to disrupt the world financial system.
Naturally, Facebook is cloaking the move in benevolence and tech-dazzle.
From the company’s announcement: Libra is “a new global currency powered by blockchain technology.”
And, “(subsidiary) Calibra will let you send Libra to almost anyone with a smartphone, as easily and instantly as you might send a text message and at low to no cost. And, in time, we hope to offer additional services for people and businesses, like paying bills with the push of a button, buying a cup of coffee with the scan of a code or riding your local public transit without needing to carry cash or a metro pass.”
Facebook even presents Libra as liberating people who can’t afford traditional banking services.
Another attempt at soothing us is that the digital currency would be “fully backed by a reserve of real assets,” as a white paper by Facebook’s Libra Association put it. “A basket of bank deposits and short-term government securities will be held in the Libra Reserve for every Libra that is created, building trust in its intrinsic value.”
The “independent” Libra Association, to be headquartered in Geneva, would “coordinate and provide a framework for governance for the network and reserve and lead social impact grant-making in support of financial inclusion.” All this is intended to make Libra at least superficially better than the faith-based backing of bitcoin and its siblings.
Facebook even dragooned 27 partners, including Visa, Mastercard and Uber, to be partners in the cryptocurrency. The New York Times reports that some are quietly having misgivings.
They aren’t the only ones. For example, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said Libra “will have to be subject to the highest standards of regulation.” Fed Chairman Jay Powell said the central bank was “looking at it very carefully.” Congressional hearings have been scheduled.
Attention should be paid.
In addition to the danger of fraud and hacking for the 1.56 billion daily Facebook users who might avail themselves of the cryptocurrency, Libra is an invitation to money launderers and terrorists.
Given Facebook’s scale, Libra could present a systemic risk to the world financial system, supplanting traditional banks and central banks.
As Martin Wolf wrote in the Financial Times, “A more significant possibility emerges: The Libra system, with its knowledge of customers, would become a lender itself, thereby usurping traditional banks on the asset side of their balance sheets. At worst, the world would have a Facebook-dominated mono-bank. The risks of that are huge: Potential monetary and financial instability, concentrated economic and political power, lack of privacy and many other issues.”
This Libra global bank wouldn’t be backed by any central bank — the lender of last resort in a crisis — and would lack any dominant regulator. Wolf rightly points out this presents a “nightmarish risk” to stability.
As Columbia University professor Katharina Pistor noted, “Facebook is barreling ahead as if Libra was just another private enterprise. But like many other financial intermediaries before it, the company is promising something that it cannot possibly deliver on its own: the protection of the currency’s value.”
She continues, “Libra, we are told, will be pegged to a basket of currencies (fiat money issued by governments), and convertible on demand and at any cost. But this guarantee rests on an illusion, because neither Facebook nor any other private party involved will have access to unlimited stores of the pegged currencies.”
Libra connects commerce to banking, a recipe for trouble throughout history. No wonder U.S. regulation has long sought to separate the two, protecting the safety and soundness of banking.
In 2005, Walmart tried to break this wall, applying for a license in Utah for what was essentially a bank. A coalition of opponents put a stop to it. And this was before fintech and today’s laissez-faire Trumpism.
Here’s another timeless saying: Everything old is new again.
Throughout most of the 19th century, the United States lacked a central bank. Currency included gold, silver and even notes issued by individual banks. The result was repeated “financial panics” — banking-driven recessions — that didn’t abate until establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913.
Even then, the American banking system was rickety, contributing heavily to the Great Depression. It wasn’t fixed until the reforms of the New Deal, especially the Glass-Steagall Act.
That was repealed in 1999 under a Republican Congress and Democratic President Bill Clinton, deregulation that set the table for the financial crisis of 2008.
Ever since then, I’ve been advocating a 21st century Glass-Steagall, but it was not to be.
Now we’re at risk of setting a new table of catastrophe with Libra and other cryptocurrencies.
In the movie “No Country for Old Men,” Javier Bardem’s assassin gives a terrified gas-station owner the chance to “call it,” his life in the balance on a coin toss.
Now I’m calling it. The next financial crisis will come from Libra unless regulators stop it.