Facebook ’s cryptocurrency is the innovation that no one is asking for. But it might just be the jolt that Bitcoin and other digital assets need.
From the details that have emerged so far, Facebook’s coin -- reportedly called Globalcoin internally -- will be used to make payments on Facebook (ticker: FB) and elsewhere on the internet. Its value will be pegged to the value of a basket of government-issued currencies.
And Globalcoin will be governed by a consortium that Facebook doesn’t control -- though Facebook will obviously be a major player because it developed the software in the first place.
In the world of blockchain, those details make the project seem run-of-the-mill, at best. It isn’t quite a public digital asset like Bitcoin, with revolutionary potential. It isn’t exactly an in-house corporate rewards coin, either.
“There’s just not any innovation in it,” says Gabor Gurbacs, director of digital asset strategy at VanEck/MVIS. “It’s just Silicon Valley’s ongoing attempt to take bank profits from the financial services industry to Silicon Valley.”
But cryptocurrency entrepreneurs are watching it closely nonetheless, because of the sheer size of Facebook’s audience and the company’s reported partners -- which include payments giants Visa (V) and Mastercard (MA). And they’re optimistic that it will be bullish for big digital assets like Bitcoin, because it will help big companies take them seriously.
“It may be the most important announcement this year and one of the most important developments in the history of cryptocurrencies,” says Garrick Hileman, head of research at Blockchain.com and a researcher at the London School of Economics. “Anytime an organization the size of Facebook with billions of users comes out and says they’re going to be using blockchain and cryptocurrency, that’s a very significant validation of the technology.”
Facebook’s idea—or what we know of it so far -- would seem unlikely to have much use “if it were not for Facebook’s 2.4 billion users,” says Alex Gordon-Brander, who now runs a crypto dark-pool after formerly designing a currency trading platform at the hedge fund giant Bridgewater Associates. “Does my gut say this is going to win? My gut says no.”
Facebook has tried to create its own payment system before, developing a digital currency called Facebook Credits that it scrapped in 2012. Developing digital money posed all sorts of problems, to making currency conversions to having the payment system keep up with changing user behavior.
This time around, Facebook has kept quiet about its plans. The company did not respond to questions from Barron’s about the details of the service, and neither Visa nor Mastercard would comment either.
A spokeswoman for the Senate Banking Committee, which sent Facebook a letter last month with questions about the service, said Facebook has not yet responded to its questions.
Reports indicate it hired payment experts and spoken with regulators to prepare. From those details, digital currency entrepreneurs say that Globalcoin is unlikely to pose a threat to Bitcoin, though it could compete with other kinds of digital assets, including so-called stablecoins that are pegged to government currencies to make them easier to use for transactions.
“The benefit is that large institutions are paying attention and eventually it will drive some efficiency in the space,” Gurbacs says. “They’ll have skin in the game.”