Who bought a seat at the table of the Libra Association

 Governance, Financial Inclusion, India, Tier 3 economies, remittances, payments, currencies, tokens, coins,…

These and more terms have been tossed around over the past few days, as we consumed facts and interpretations, triggered from the Libra white paper and all the related communications around it. As the dust settles down from the initial reactions, there are several overlooked aspects of the LIBRA plan that merit looking into.

Confession No. 1

There has been an explosion of cynical, partisan, and hyped threads of discussion. I include myself in the humans that reacted rather emotionally to the communication of the LIBRA plan. My `button` was pushed when the `financial inclusion` intention seemed to be the branding and PR storyline.

Dr. Cathy Mulligan and her collaborators called for caution in their Digital Cooperation report for the UN High-level panel  (UNHLP) about using vulnerable communities to experiment on with #digitaltechnologies. Of course, `experimenting` is subject to interpretation and in the case of Facebook, maybe they can argue that this will be their second attempt in financial inclusion – as they did attempt to launch in the booming Indian market to offer seamless, cheaper payments like in any messaging app. Admittedly,  payments are the very heart of any economy and we do live in a world that customers expect payments to be like WhatsApp messages[1].

Confession No. 2

We are not ready yet for DAOs. Thomas Power, rightly says that we need a Face to each and every scalable unicorn (every system needs a Face, at 8:30 BloxLiveTV). And the truth is that there is a problem with the Face behind Facebook, even though #DeleteFacebook led nowhere.

However, sentiment is not on our side, on this one. We, the ones that don’t forget Cambridge Analytica, fake News, propaganda, and what Chris Hughes or Sean Parker or Chamath Palihapitiya said; we are outnumbered. Let’s admit it.

The masses that send and receive remittances, and the masses that spend online to buy inexpensive items – micropayments – value access and convenience. While we, the ones that have a problem with the Face, are in another phase altogether, with more choices and the luxury of discussing governance, social responsibility, public scrutiny etc.

We have to acknowledge that foundations and associations (two different legal entities) setup in Switzerland have credibility and thus, the registration choice for LIBRA association. However, we need to also admit that this Swiss branding that has been deployed in another `alternative` use case – to accommodate legally the needs of blockchain startups to launch ICOs – still has to prove itself in the governance field and in the ways it links to the for-profit businesses that are their raison d` ȇtre.

As Kathryn Haun, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz (one of the 28 founding members) pointed out[2], the Libra Association, will focus on governance issues debating decisions around how the new digital currency will be overseen etc. Swiss associations and foundations are not legal structures that were meant to spearhead such large business initiatives and that is the reason that Kathryn Hauna says “I think of it as a constitutional convention; you have all these different states coming in trying to form this union.” Dianne Schepers, a legal executive, explained to me that foundations are supervised by the Swiss Federal Supervisory Board for Foundations (ESA) and are required to be registered in the commercial registry and provide an annual report. Associations are not subject to any of these requirements.

As the 28 founding members will be discussing governance and much more about LIBRA, I feel that the composition of this association was overlooked (as other more basic items needed tending). It was actually – and rightly so – welcomed and the sentiment was positive because it has a decentralization flavor to it.

Confession No. 3

One of my first emotional reactions while reading the facts reported from Verum Capital – Your guide to Libra – on the day it hit the market, was to ask three questions:

Q1: For how many of the 28 founding members has financial inclusion been their business?

Q2: How many of the founding members have unsuccessfully experimented at scale in financial inclusion?

Q3: Which organizations were invited to consider being a founding member? And who decided this?

I share with you today my initial findings (more research and patience is needed to address them all) from looking closer to the founding members that each `coughed up` $10million

There are 7 members from the financial sector and most of them need no introduction.

  1. Visa
  2. Mastercard
  3. Paypal
  4. Stripe
  5. PayU has a large footprint in Latam and India that goes beyond payments.
  6. Mercado Pago, is the financial arm of MercadoLibre an Argentian company incorporated in the US (NASDAQ: MELI) running various online and ecommerce businesses. MercadoPago is a tech enabler with a significant footprint in Latam, for online retailers to provide their customers with payment solutions to pay in installments
  7. Calibra – is the startup, separate Facebook, wallet and dashboard entity

Discussing the composition of the founding members with Verum Capital, it became clear that none of the top 5 remittance players were invited. Xoom ranks 6th and was bought out by Paypal in 2015. LIBRA has included the 6th global remittance player as a founding member.

saveonsendSource: SaveOnSend.com

There are 4 members from the Blockchain space. Coinbase and Xapo, need no introduction. I do confess that I had to check out the others. BisonTails was only setup in Oct 2018 in the US to focus in blockchain interoperability and has only $5.3mil in seed funding[4]. Anchorage is a US start-up launched in 2017 focused on digital asset custody for institutional investors with a Series A funding completed (total funding $17mil).

  1. Coinbase
  2. Xapo
  3. Anchorage
  4. Bison Trails

Where did Bison Trails find the $10million membership fee to participate in the LIBRA association? Why did Anchorage decide to spend 60% of its total funding up to date, on its LIBRA membership?

There are 4 members from the VC world, which a priori seems a sector weight that I cannot rationalize (help is welcome; please comment).

  1. Andreessen Horowitz
  2. Union Square Ventures
  3. Ribbit Capital; a US early stage VC with the most fintech unicorns in the portfolio
  4. Thrive Capital another US VC more focused in tech investments and is well known for raising capital from institutional investors, like Princeton University, Wellcome Trust. According to a profile in Forbes, Thrive was one of three firms (joining Sequoia Capital and Greylock Partners) to invest in Instagram’s $50 million Series B round at a valuation of $500 million. Forbes wrote that after Instagram sold to Facebook, “Thrive had doubled its money in 72 hours.

Picture1.png

Source: Ribbit, A16Z Lead Fintech Unicorn Hunters, CB insights

Andreessen Horowitz is an investor in Bison Trails (one out of seven) and a lead investor in Anchorage. Thrive is family to the Facebook family. USV is family to Coinbase, and on and on.

Three out of the five top VC are founding members of the LIBRA association. Top VCs can be measured in several ways. What is more relevant here is their Fintech footprint.

There are 3 members from the e-commerce space. Ranging from travel, to luxury fashion.

  1. Booking Holdings
  2. eBay
  3. Farfetch is the online luxury fashion e-commerce business, publicly traded NYSE: FTCH

Two online hailing businesses and one music unicorn

  1. Lyft
  2. Uber
  3. Spotify

Two telecoms with Iliad being a founding member that is losing clients and revenues but has a founder and still majority shareholder (billionaire Xavier Niel) who loves challenging the corporate establishment and is the founder of the StationF, one of the biggest startup campus.

  1. Iliad is a troubled French telecom whose stock price has been in a steady bearish trap over the past 2yrs (-47% yoy). It has launched discount services and expanded recently in Italy.
  2. Vodafone

There are 5 members that are non-profit organizations:

  1. Kiva, Kiva Microfunds is a 501 non-profit organization founded in 2001 in San fransisco that has arranged  $1.3 billion of loans in 78 countries. They have a 96.9% repayment rate which makes them one of the most successful microloan NGOs.
  2. Mercy Corps is another US NGO focused on humanitarian aid launched in 1980s it boasts over 5,500 volunteers members.
  3. Women’s World Banking a US based NGO supporting microfinancing institutions
  4. Creative Destruction Lab; is a seed-stage program in North America launched in 2012 by the Rotman School of Management (the business school of the University of Toronto)for massively scalable, science and technology-based companies.
  5. Breakthrough Initiatives is a scientific non-profit launched in 2015 with several programs that aim to answer big  questions, like life beyond earth, through scientific and technological exploration, probing the big questions of life in the Universe. The Board has two members: Yuri Milner, who funded the initiative and Mark Zuckberg. Stephen Hawkins is still listed.

Wrap up

Confession No. 4

I continue to look into the issues raised by the boldness and the potential of the Libra coin (which has huge regulatory risk). LIBRA has actually a huge PR and branding problem, as even the MIT Tech Review article and many more, refer to the LIBRA Stable coin as the `Facebook coin` Facebook’s Libra: Three things we don’t know about the digital currency.

David Marcus, spearheading the Libra project for Facebook, had to denounce rumors that the $10 million buy-in got the validating firms access to transaction data (Decrypt).

There are 28 seats around the LIBRA table for now (similar to the way Stellar started off with 30 nodes). The LIBRA coin is not a Facebook coin. However, governance in an association is legally non-existent. So, for now we need to be clear that it is in good faith and only by giving the benefit of the doubt, that the LIBRA association has a dream and we should be watching their execution closely.

David Siegel through his new endeavor Cutting through the noise shared several facts and insights on LIBRA, as he is excited about the potential of a Stable coin  that can scale fast as it will be launched in established markets. LIBRA will be offered to all users on Facebook, Booking, Lyft, Paypal, Farfecth, …..

During his webinar on Saturday (recording on youtube) I learnt that 60% of votes are needed in order to make a change in LIBRA. I like to think of this as the 60% attack nightmare.

Can Facebook pull off a 60% attack?

As Bernand Lunn said to Swissinfo.ch the day after,  in What does Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency aim to achieve?: “Facebook has been hugely successful making money from accumulating people’s data and then selling it. It’s hard to see them completely changing their stripes.”

How will the LIBRA association untaint the LIBRA coin so that it is not thought of as a Facebook coin?

[1] Excerpt from `Money is a claim on an Institution and the reason for change`, Efi Pylarinou

[2] Andreessen Horowitz: How Facebook’s Libra Cryptocurrency Will Be Governed

[4] Source from Crunchbase

Efi Pylarinou is the founder of Efi Pylarinou Advisory and a Fintech/Blockchain influencer.

 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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3 comments

  1. Hi Efi, fascinating analysis, not done in other coverage that I am aware of. The ones that surprised me were the VCs. The message to entrepreneurs is clear – it is game over for innovation in this space which is owned by FB – so forget about a Series A from these guys. I can see why FB would want this message. However this seems so contrary to the message that VCs want to send to entrepreneurs. Bernard

  2. Hi Efi, your assessment brings excellent insights and I can relate well to the questions raised, especially the governance question, which requires real and deep deliberation, maybe even more than what was envisaged by the people involved. Thanks for sharing, Eelco

  3. Hi Efi,
    I like the detail of your analysis and commentary.
    If financial inclusion is really a big factor then PayU, Mercado Pago, and perhaps Vodafone (links to Mpesa) are a small percentage of those at the table and I can’t help but think it is a bit of a loose change exercise for some of the big names who would normally be associated with deals that have a few more zeros attached.
    Getting money in and out of wallets is not easy (for the financially excluded), and networks of Agents are needed with expensive operational systems and customer service; not to mention a different regulatory regime in every geography, and the Libra tech seems like a small and possibly expensive part of the solution if every transaction is clipped.
    My overall feeling is that FB are their own Achilles heel for credibility.
    Peter

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