What the rise and fall of Basis Stablecoin tells us about the future of corporate Stablecoins such as Facebook GlobalCoin

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TLDR The brief history of the Basis Stablecoin is that it was founded in Brooklyn in August 2017, announced a $133m round from top tier investors 8 months later in April 2018 and then shut their doors just 7 months later in December 2018. All the news was announced on the Basis site. The ambition was huge – to be the global algorithmic central bank. Despite plenty of cash & brains, Basis failed. Now in the days when we wait for the launch of Facebook’s Stablecoin on 18 June 2019 and witness the stunning growth of Tencent/WeChat in China, we piece together the story of what happened and what it means for the Blockchain Economy. 

This update to The Blockchain Economy digital book covers:

  • Escrow type funding with Regulatory approval trigger
  • Tough borderless SEC
  • Algorithmic Central Bank vs legacy Central Banks
  • $133m is a drop in the bucket if you need to defend a peg
  • Context & References

Escrow funding with Regulatory approval trigger.

This funding strategy is key to understanding the Basis Stablecoin. This is similar to what we saw with Seba bank. Money is wired and held in an escrow type account until regulators give the green light. We may see more of this type of funding. It makes sense because a) there is no chance of getting regulatory approval without a lot of capital b) the prize is big if the venture gets the nod from regulators c) nobody will invest a lot of capital in the hope of getting regulatory approval.

This funding style means the demise of Basis is not a classic venture failure story. The scenario of non-approval by regulators is planned for at time of capital raising. Some capital is burned from funding to non-approval, but only a relatively small % of total capital invested. 

The investors were top tier (such as Bain Capital Ventures, Google Ventures, Stanley Druckenmiller, Kevin Warsh, Lightspeed, Foundation Capital, Andreessen Horowitz, Wing VC, NFX, Valor Capital, Zhenfund, INBlockchain, Ceyuan Ventures, Sky9 Capital) so this structure is hardly a surprise. We can expect this structure as the norm for ventures that plan to be regulated. However as the next section describes, a non-regulated approach of seeking forgiveness not permission might be the takeaway from the Basis story. 

Tough borderless SEC.

The SEC loves cracking down on tokens that they deem to be securities – which is pretty well every token (except ETH, Bitcoin and utility tokens that have zero resemblance to securities).  There is regulatory overlap in America by State and by asset type and the SEC has firmly planted its flag in the camp that says they regulate everything that is crypto. This scares investors and entrepreneurs. The SEC is also not afraid to take action cross border, so a venture anywhere that does any business in America needs to be wary of the SEC.

As Basis CEO Al Naji put it in a Forbes interview: “The SEC generally avoids saying that something will definitely be one way or the other. But from that meeting we got the impression that we would not be able to avoid securities classification.”

There are thee possible takeaways from this:

  • Be Regulated. If you want to be a regulated entity, have a big budget for lawyers and lobbyists and plenty of capital and play within the rules laid down by legacy Finance.
  • Be Unregulated. That means offering a tech service, not a finance service. In an earlier wave of disruption for example, Skype positioned as an unregulated tech service, not a regulated Telecom service.
  • Be Chinese. That is obviously not a real strategy unless you are Chinese, but it is interesting to see how Chinese tech companies such as Tencent and Alibaba have been able to launch and scale financial services.

It will be interesting to see what strategy Facebook unveils on 18 June. Obviously  Be Chinese is not an option for Facebook. They have probably chosen Be Regulated. Given that Facebook has announced a date, they must have already got regulatory approval. It will be interesting to see how this plays out as we are in uncharted territory.

Algorithmic Central Bank vs legacy Central Banks

The Basis white paper, published in June 2017, described Basis as an “algorithmic central bank”.

The Legacy Central Banks won’t give up their power without a fight. 

Like Legacy Central banks, the algorithmic central bank strategy was simple:

  • buy back Basis tokens when the price dropped below the benchmark peg

 

  • Create new tokens when the price went above the benchmark peg

The difference from Legacy Central Banks was:

  • Transactions were done on-chain.

 

  • Transactions were automated and baked into code ie could not be subject to political change.

Despite these two differences, the core strategy was exactly like Legacy Central Banks.

$133m is a drop in the bucket if you need to defend a peg.

Central Banks need a lot of capital to defend a benchmark peg. Just ask the Bank of England after they lost the battle defending the peg of GBP to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) to George Soros.

In a history rhyming footnote, Stanley Druckenmiller (who worked with Soros) was an investor in Basis.

Facebook has a big capital base. Whether investors will be happy letting  Facebook use this capital to defend a benchmark peg is another matter.

Grab your popcorn for an epic rumble in the jungle (image source).

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Context & References

Investing in Payment Tokens and Stablecoins (aka new currencies).

Why StableCoins are so important (but also so hard to get right)

Facebook Ambitions in Fintech (note, from October 2014)

The Facebook GlobalCoin stablecoin won’t kill Bitcoin but many companies should be worried.

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Bernard Lunn is a Fintech deal-maker, investor, entrepreneur and advisor. He is CEO of Daily Fintech and author of The Blockchain Economy.

I have no positions or commercial relationships with the companies or people mentioned. I am not receiving compensation for this post.

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