Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Perspectives on (Ca-)Libra #2: On the Libra association (board) and business drivers

First of all apologies to many of you: I promised a blog on the reason why Libra would not qualify as e-money, but please accept my rain check for that. Right now, it is the day after constitution day for Libra. An event coloured by the absence of many payment industry players, that indeed felt the pressure of competition law too big to be able to join.

So yesterday, the Swiss association was set up, and we got a glimpse of more information on the organisation. I will discuss the ramifications and conclusion that we can draw later this afternoon in the Dutch radio-broadcast BNR Digital News. And this blog contains a brief analysis, which builds on my first blog that identified a couple of smokescreens by Libra.

My brief summary is basically:
- it is still a Facebook/David Marcus show, disguised as an independent association: the governance is still substandard in terms of industry best practices,
- Facebook has the fear of losing Africa to the Chinese and Libra is instrumental in helping them establish the foothold,
- Kiva and Payu are seeking actual microcredit expansion with practical product offers and Libra will be their vehicle,
- PayU, Andreesen and Xapo are regular VCs, in it for the money. If you're daring enough to step into bitcoin early, why not do the same with Libra? Worst case you lose a little money, best case, you're more on top of the world than ever.

The longread is below, but note that it is still only scratching the surface. Readers and other journalist may further research and draw additional conclusions.

Governance: still shaky
As it stands, the board that is now chosen has released info on its charter which is still very brief. It shows five board members which appointed three staff members of the Libra association. Interestingly, the head of the association is also the chair of the board and the PR role acts as the deputy chair. This is atypical, but my guess is that this is done to avoid the impression that David Marcus effectively pulls the strings.

If we compare the setting that has been now created with the one that the Dutch Payment Association has set up (after long deliberations and scrutiny by many lawyers to make a well developed governance structure) we can see some differences.
- Libra has no independent board directors
- Libra's chair of the board is also the head of the working payment organisation
- Libra has no formal Board of Appeal to deal with questions of acceptance as members, certification with respect to services/complying with rules and regulations.

The Dutch rules state:
An independent Board of Appeal makes it possible to appeal against decisions on acceptance and certification when parties are unable to reach agreement with the Executive Board, the Board and finally with the Appeals Committee of the Board.

And then an observation on what is missing. The association now has a director, a business development person, a policy/communication person. But not.... a legal council/compliance expert. As if the past months with all the varying regulatory discussions haven't happened at all. This is a very telling ommission; the organisation is all about commerce and not about compliance (but we knew that already...).

There is a lot more to say here, but I stand with my former analysis: the governance is ill conceived and not up to standard for a normal payment scheme/provider that Libra wants to be (as they announced in September to go for at least a payment license in Switzerland.

Libra members: three payment institutions remaining, not one
Reuters incorrectly informs the public in their article that the only founding member that is into payments is PayU. They missed out on the fact that Uber and Coinbase are e-money institutions which also act as payment institutions.

Of those, Uber is the youngest kid on the block. It ay either be too new to payments to understand the ramifications of the proposed governance or the underbidding and breaking of regulation may be part of the business strategy and it sees no risk here. Coinbase interestingly only has a UK license as e-money institutions and where most EMIs have their backup Brexit-license in place I don't seem to find it for them. I expect them to have a workaround or whitelabel agreement at hand however.

We should be paying more attention to Coinbase, as it is the linking pin that connects the five current board members. Also Vodafone (exempt under EU payments legislation) should not be forgotten (see PS1) as it has long standing unchallenged experience in avoiding proper banklike regulation of its payments processes.

The Board Members; interesting incrowd
Now what is Libra really up to?
For that we need to do a deep dive into the people and relationships.
I'll make a start below, but this is only scratching the surface.

The idea behind is that recruitment of board members always has a certain dynamics. In the Netherlands it is a well know fact that through charities (like the board of the Concertgebouw) top level executives meet and do networking. It also serves as a recruiting platform for next board members.

With this in mind we can see that Coinbase, Paypal and Kivi are the entities that connect the dots between the board members. And in essence, we can see that it is David Marcus who is at the center, having received what appears to be a blanc cheque from Zuckerberg to make this happen.

Therefore, let's start with David Marcus of Calibra (a Facebook tech subsidiary in US; interesting choice given the fact that Facebook Payments also holds e-money licenses in Ireland). Marcus is a serial entrepreneur, coming out of telco environments, with one of the companies being bought by Paypal and thus ending up at Paypal. He then moved to Coinbase and shortly thereafter Zuckerberg scouted him for the Facebook/Libra plan.

Marcus via Paypal to Ellis
He has worked together at Paypal with Laurent le Moal, who heads PayU. So there we have connection number one. Do note that the PayU representative Patrick Ellis is primarily a lawyer, but not with payments background. He is more a securities regulation guy with African and South African experience.

Haun via Coinbase/Cesares to Horowitz
Connection two is with Katie Haun from Andreessen Horowitz. She is a former prosecutor who was firmly into all kinds of legal cases and bitcoin dark markets. As such she undoubtedly also came in contact with the Winklevoss twins and most likely may have met Wences Cesares as well. Her work in crypto-land led Coinbase to invite her to their board: a classic defence mechanism to ensure good contacts with legal prosecutors/supervisory community. This board role at Coinbase resulted in an invitation to work at Andreessen Horowitz, where she manages a huge VC fund that invests in crypto. The people hiring her said: 'She is a credible face for crypto'.

Cesares via VC world and Paypal
Connection three is Wencles Casares of Xapo Holdings He set up on online financial firm early on, which was subsequently bought. Onwards he setup Wanako Games (with exit), Lemoncard (with exit). The he was smart to set up a safe storage facility for bitcoin for the super rich that invested early in bitcoin. So he is a serial entrepreneur, now well taken care of due to all the bitcoins in his possession (we can assume he is a whale and sometimes see him retweeting large bitcoin movements on the blockchain). Xapo itself was funded by the VC Community involving.

His involvement in charity can be tracked into his participation in Viva trust, aiming at financial inclusion in Latin America. Later on he also served as a board member at Kiva (which accidentally also holds a seat on the board of Libra). And then of course, he is still a board member of Paypal, so there we have some dots connecting. So he is smart, rich and you may want to see how in 2006 he bought a nice real estate venue to live back home but returned to California later. The house is now part of a charity foundation and acts as a meeting point/venue for businesses and such.

Davie via Kiva/Paypal (Prenmal Sha) and Cesares (Kiva-board)
Connection four is the connection to Kiva Microfunds. Matthew Davie is s serial entrepreneur, pretty much involved in the strategy area of this longtime charity. Do read this article on how Kiva was set up as peer to peer crowdfunding and further developed into a lending platform. This has inclusion written all over it. And Kive, by the way, since the start did all its payments via Paypal. This was due to their contact with Premal Shah, who had also been experimenting with his own microfinance project while working at PayPal. So again, dots are connecting to the Paypal line, with a crossover to the VC community via Cesares.

Again, there is a lot more to say, but I leave it up to the crowd to further investigate.

Business proposition and drivers
As for the business drivers, you may want to look into what Kiva is doing recently. It is setting up a Kiva Protocol in Sierra Leone, to do microcredits based on reputation. My good friend Dave Birch has been very keen on identifying early on that this was one of the future points for Libra already mentioned in their plans. So Kiva is basically doing the proof of concept for phase 2 of Libra.

Next up to PayU. They are not just a payment processing company, but also a VC company owning reddot payments. And that is a company that brings Wechat and Alipay to Africa. Even more notable is that they own a large share in Tencent (Wechat) and their role as a big investor in the payments game. What is interesting here is that PayU thus seems to be introducing the Libra competitors into Africa. At the same time they join the initiative that seems to be set up to counter this development.

Because this much is more clear to me now. Facebook has the fear of losing Africa to the Chinese and Libra is instrumental in helping them establish the foothold. Kiva and Payu in the meantime are seeking microcredit expansion and Andreesen and Xapo are regular VCs, in it for the money. If you're daring enough to step into bitcoin early, why not do the same with Libra? Worst case you lose a little money, best case, you're more on top of the world than ever.

Further blogs: on definition and e-money and securities regulation in Eu
I promise, the blog #3 will come. But first I hope this blog inspires many people to do some further digging.

PS 1. On Vodafone, mpesa and payments
John Maynard pointed out to me that Vodafone and Mpesa also come into play here. Which is true for two reasons. First of all as part of the business opportunity in Africa and the desire to seek solutions that go beyond the one country. Cryptically speaking one could say that Mpesa itself may be the result of incidental local stakeholder constellations rather than the logic of business and regulation.

But the second reason is that effectively, the mobile operators have a great record of ducking relevant e-money legislation in the EU. If you would browse many pages of history of the e-money directive and a number of mobile phone payment initiatives (feel free to do so here) you will see that At some point in time the EU mobile operators succeeded in getting an exemption in the PSD2 and the e-money directive of the net-effect that funds on mobile phone accounts will not be considered e-money or funds under the payment services directive, even though they can be used to make sms-payments or added-service payments.

The trade off in those days was that mobile operators had just paid huge sums for 3G licenses and lobbied the Ministries of Finance via their Ministries of Transport/Telecommunications to call for a specific exempted regime for electronic money when residing on a mobile phone account. I still see this as one of the best executed bank-lobbies by non-bank institutions, which prevented the whole e-money directive being applicable to them. See also this website  or read this consultation feedback that tries to provide this adhoc idea with a reasoned basis.

Therefore, when we look at the EBA payments institutions register you will thus see Vodafone being exempted for their payment business. They have a long standing experience in being able to duck e-money regulation and avoid the rational interpretation of regulation and may well be thinking that with the power of Facebook behind the initiative, this may also work now. This holds particularly true if your aim is not the developed market, but to capture the underdeveloped market in societies which have less robust regulators and supervisors.

PS 2. The team doing the association work: David Marcus reassembles colleagues
- Managing director of Libra. Betrand Perez has had some tenure with Paypal and also worked at Zong (the David Marcus company that Paypal bought). The same goes for Business Development person . Kurt Hemecker. So we can see the classic recruiting movement of having a soccer trainer taking along some of his trusted players to the new club.

- Head of Policy and Communication is Dante Disparte, a profiled professional with Harvard Business School and NY Stern education and diverse work experience. I sense a flavour of business and geopolitical work experience, related to national security. This can also be seen in repeated statements from Marcus outlining that for the US to keep its role/position, Libra is a necessity (in order not to let Chinese take over everything).

PS 3. What's the rush: the Chinese central bank on its heels
In response to the Libra initiative, central banks are now reconsidering the relevance of issuing central bank based digital currencies. The Chinese central bank is actually moving forward very fast in this respect. It appears to use similar concepts as Libra and thus develop a state-owned issuer of e-currency. See the Coindesk article here.

My personal take is that it may not have to be the central banks, but could be the Ministries of Finance that take up the issuance of digital coins (just as they usually mint the physical coins). But that is a whole different discussion, laid out in this article: The Full Reserve Bank is up for grabs.

PS 4. And of course the VR/AR angle
I almost forgot. Introducing a new currency into a real world does not make a lot of sense, as existing currencies and e-money may be more efficient. But imagine that there is a virtual agumented reality world / economy. You convert fiat money, step in and then use the game money. Like the Second Life Linden Dollars. But it's not a game and game money any more. It's IOUs of central bank Libra (aka Facebook). That may well be the end game (and first mover advantage) that Zuckerberg is seeking.