Libra Leverage

How Corporate Money Grabs all the Dividends

Libra was announced by Facebook and an Association of companies just a month ago. There has been tremendous interest as well as significant government pushback.

The Libra token and its Calibra wallet will not go live until some time in the year 2020.

The Association is impressive, including Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal along with 25 other companies and non-profits. Facebook’s reach is tremendous, with around 2.5 billion users around the globe. And Visa and MasterCard have relationships with all major banks on the planet.

Is it a shadow bank?

Libra is Corporate money, as distinct from Government money (fiat), or Private money (Bitcoin or gold). 

This is not a bank, at least not as yet. President Trump, in a tweet that was probably written by his Treasury Secretary, said they should go get a ‘banking charter’. The French foreign minster is of a mind to deny them any operations in France. In the UK, the Bank of England chair has expressed a willingness to have the BOE hold Association reserves.

In Asia, they have announced that they have no plans to enter India for now, a country which is not friendly toward cryptocurrency at present. China is looking at its own token; Facebook has little presence in the country due to censorship restrictions. Some countries in Southeast Asia have open attitudes; the Thai central bank plans to meet with Facebook soon.

The on-ramps to exchange various national fiat currencies for Libra are uncertain. It seems as if they want to use cryptocurrency exchanges and perhaps purchases through the credit card providers as methods for buying Libra tokens. But these don’t really address the advertised purpose of bring finance to the unbanked.

Although not a bank, the Association can be thought of as a kind of shadow bank, or perhaps a sort of money market fund.

The Libra currency is tied to a basket of leading fiat currencies. While the exact composition of the basket is unknown, it is reasonable to assume that the US Dollar, the Euro, and likely the Japanese Yen and British Pound will be in the basket. Perhaps there will be Swiss Francs as well, since the Association is registered in Switzerland.

Two classes of Libra tokens

Each corporate member of the Association must stake $10 million, and this gives them the right to validate transactions on the network and offer other services to users.

Now it is important to understand that there are actually two types of tokens, the regular Libra token for users, and a special Libra Investment token issued only for members of the Association. The latter is a proof of stake token, the former is a stable coin. This is a key to initial profits generation for the Association.

This whole scheme is somewhat reminiscent of the two classes of shareholdings of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg controls 60% of the votes by holding class B stock that has 10 times the voting power of Class A shares.

As a stable coin there is no prospect for appreciation. Rather the Libra will lose value in line with the inflation rate of the constituent currencies in the basket.

Dividends will accrue only to the Libra Investment token, and not to the regular Libra token holders.

Now what does this mean in practice? It means the users get fiat-like non-interest bearing depreciating currency, i.e. a ‘stable coin’, and the Association receives all the dividends that, in a more generous model, a sharing model, would accrue in some part to users.

The Association has said they want to grow to 100 members. Let’s imagine that two years from now they have 50 members. That means an aggregate stake for operations of $500 million.

But let’s suppose they also have 500 million users two years from now, which is not a stretch, and that those users maintain an average balance of only $20. One could imagine that it ends up being significantly higher since a percentage of users could end up holding hundreds of dollars’ worth of Libra or more.

Libra tokens are backed by a fiat reserve basket invested in short-term securities that pay dividends only to the Association

Leverage applied

But 500 million users at just $20 average is $10 billion worth of ‘float’. This, the Libra Association has said, will be invested in short-term government and (possibly) commercial notes.

In the US yields at 3 and 6 months for government T-bills are just over 2% (2.13% and 2.07% today). In the UK the short term bank rate is 0.75%. There is a challenge for the Association in Europe where most short term rates are negative or near zero. The same is true in Japan.

For simplicity let’s assume current 3-month interbank rates in London for the $, Euro, Pound, and Yen; these rates between banks are currently 2.4%, -0.33%, 0.77% and -0.08% respectively. And for further simplicity let us take a basket that has 50% Dollars, 30% Euro, 10% Pounds and 10% Yen. The overall basket would earn about 1.17%. (It would also require recycling of dollars towards the Euro and Yen to stay balanced).

Now on $10 billion of deposits, 1.17% is $117 million. This is not shabby at all, given the stake of the Association is $500 million. Effectively they are making out like bandits, earning 23.4% on their collective stake. While $117 million divided 50 ways is not very much for the corporate members, in aggregate, this is very good business.

And it provides a platform and income stream that can be used to develop add-on services and applications. There can be little doubt that Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal are interested in value-add service provision to the user base.

That is a gross amount, from this the Association will need to fund operations which include systems and personnel for maintaining all the user accounts, the wallet and other software development, and for the maintenance of relationships with banks and cryptocurrency exchanges. And, not insignificantly, they will need funds allocated to their lobbying efforts with governments to promote favorable regulation in each country in which they operate.

Still, let’s imagine they spend $37 million on operations two years down the road, this still leaves them with $80 million profit on $500 million, a return on equity of 16%. This is a very nice business earning nearly double stock market returns, with a simple business model. And it is all leveraged on the deposits of the users. This assumes full backing of all deposits as Facebook has indicated; there is no fractional reserve assumption here.

This is all money made on the deposits of their users, who place local currency into Libra, and earn nothing. It is the price to them, presumably, of convenience, and perhaps the benefit of an account in a lower inflation currency than their local one. 

It could be a lot of trouble for the Association to also pay out interest of only 1% or so on hundreds of millions of accounts with small balances and distribute that. But one can imagine that down the road there would be pressure to pay some interest at least on balances above a minimum amount.

Note also that countries with less strong currencies could find their foreign reserve positions and banking systems threatened if large amounts of local currency are exchanged for Libra. They could well end up restricting usage of Libra, if not banning it outright. And if they care about their citizens, they may demand that Libra share the wealth.

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