The payments industry needs to toot its own horn

The Cato Institute’s Nicholas Anthony warned that the Biden administration is waging “a war on (payment industry) prices.” The payments industry provides services funded by a range of fees paid by consumers and businesses. Demagogic regulators and politicians pillory industry fees as exploitative, as “junk fees” and “a tax.” These assaults are made in a steadily worsening political climate. Despite the increasing number and severity of attacks, the payments industry has been reactive, resisting each assault it occurs, and treating it as a one-off.

Whoever frames the terms of the debate has the high ground. It’s imperative that the payments industry get off its backheels and make an affirmative case in the public square for the value it delivers and for the freedom to compete and innovate. Consumers and businesses need to be reminded of that value and alarmed about the threat Washington mandarins imposing restrictive regulations and price controls pose to payments value and innovation that they take for granted.

Finance charges are the credit-card industry’s largest source of revenue. Introducing the Capping Credit Cards Interest Rate Act Republican Senator Josh Hawley declared “exploiting people through high interest rates is wrong.” Hawley’s bill would limit credit-card interest rates to 18%, which would reduce the number of Americans approved for credit cards and average credit limits. While Hawley would piously trumpet his good intentions, in what universe would this help Joe and Sally Sixpack?

Singing from the same hymnal, the CFPB accusatorily reported that large credit-card issuers’ median interest rate for cardholders with good credit was 28.2% compared with 18.15% for small issuers and said large issuers were three times more likely to charge an annual fee. The CFPB is trying to socialize the introduction of credit-card price controls. It blamed higher rates on a “lack of competition.” One would be hard-pressed, however, to find an industry where consumers and businesses have more choice than with credit cards.

Vilifying the payments industry makes for strange bedfellows. Progressive CFPB Director Rohit Chopra and populist Republican Hawley both threaten the payments industry and credit cardholders

Credit cards are a fabulous product providing most Americans with a convenient, secure means to pay worldwide in-person and online, access to cash, record keeping, rewards, and the option to instantly access credit.

If a national cap was imposed on credit-card interest rates, revolving credit would become less available, particularly to riskier consumers with less access to financial services, consumers many industry critics say they want to help.

Interchange fees paid by merchants are the credit-card industry’s second largest revenue source and debit cards’ and neobanks’ primary revenue source.

The 2010 Dodd-Frank Act imposed price controls on debit interchange fees for politically-unsympathetic large issuers. The Fed was charged with implementing interchange caps reasonable and proportional to debit issuer’s incremental processing costs. In 2011 debit interchange revenue for covered issuers was cut by over 50%.

Debit-issuer processing costs have fallen by roughly 50% since the Durbin Amendment was implemented. The Fed is, therefore, going to slash the debit-interchange price cap by ~ 28%.

Lower debit-interchange price caps will further advantage programs where community banks enjoying market interchange have partners with the resources and reach to fully capitalize on their massive revenue edge. PayPal’s Venmo card, the Cash App card, and Chime’s debit card, are well-positioned to take debit share from Goliath banks like BofA, Chase, and Wells Fargo, which are shackled by debit-interchange price controls. Further cutting giant debit issuers’ debit economics will also ensure a huge advantage for Capital One’s debit cards and DDAs, which would also enjoy market interchange fees, if it acquirers Discover.

Senators Durbin, Hawley, Welch, Reed, Vance, and Marshall’s Credit Card Competition Act targets Mastercard and Visa and politically-unsympathetic credit-card issuers with more than $100 billion in assets. It aims to make credit-card networks invisible utilities and enable merchants to ratchet down network and interchange fees.

Like Americans, Canadians love their credit-card rewards. Like in America, they’re at risk. The Canadian government jawboned Mastercard, Visa, and Canadian banks into slashing credit-card interchange and disingenuously declared that credit-card rewards wouldn’t be affected. As interchange fees fund rewards, the only way they won’t be affected is if Canadian banks introduce new fees or accept lower profits.

Penalty fees also provide revenue for credit and debit issuers and encourage consumers to behave responsibly.

An absolutist CFPB plans to slash late and overlimit fees.

Late fees encourage cardholders to pay their obligations on time and compensate issuers for risk and servicing costs. The Card Act directed the Fed to ensure that late fees were “reasonable and proportional” to the violation. A fee that is fully disclosed and accepted by the buyer is reasonable.

The bureau proposes capping late fees at $8 and eliminating inflation adjustments. That will cost credit-card issuers more than $10 billion in lost revenue, increase delinquency, boost revolve rates, cause issuers to tighten credit underwriting criteria and reduce credit lines, and ultimately hurt consumers the CFPB claims to want to help.

The U.S., Fort Worth, and Longview chambers of commerce, the American Bankers Association, the Consumer Bankers Association, and the Texas Association of Business are suing the CFPB to stop it from slashing late fees, charging its proposal is lawless and asking the court to issue a preliminary injunction to keep its proposed $8 late fee from taking effect.

The CFPB also proposes gutting overlimit fees for banks with over $10 billion assets by treating them as finance charges. Paraphrasing George Orwell, in the CFPB’s view, all banks are equal, but some banks are more equal than others. It’s curious and rawly political that the CFPB views overlimit fees assessed by large banks as harmful, but not those assessed by community banks.

There are two challenges to the administrative state before the Supreme Court that bear watching that might curb absolutist financial agencies’ power.

The Community Financial Services Association contends that the CFPB self-appropriating from the Fed is unconstitutional.

And herring fishermen (Relentless versus the Department of Commerce and Loper Bright versus the Department of Commerce) are challenging the Chevron Doctrine and thereby the enormous deference the CFPB and other agencies regulating financial services enjoy and exercise.

It’s tempting but short-sighted for payments firms not to worry about price controls they’re not directly impacted by or that in the short-term they may profit from.  In the face of hostile politicians and regulators, the payments industry needs to heed Benjamin Franklin’s admonition to hang together or, assuredly, risk being hung separately.

 

Capital One’s signal opportunity to disrupt Durbin’s straightjacketed debit market

Capital One’s $35.3 billion acquisition of Discover will be a thunderclap for the debit-card, retail-banking, and payment-network markets. The Discover network has long been the number five retail-payment network in the US, after Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and PayPal, and since its acquisition of Diners Club from Citi in 2008, has struggled as a weak, aspiring global payment network. Capital One’s acquisition of Discover will improve its prospects.

Economic activity and innovation move away from price controls and prescriptive regulation to freer domains.  With Discover, Capital One has a signal opportunity to disrupt Senator Durbin’s shackled US debit market

In 2011, Durbin’s price controls were imposed on debit-interchange fees politically-unsympathetic large banks earn. Price controls reduced fee-free banking, debit rewards, and innovation. Politically-sympathetic but resource-and-reach-constrained community banks enjoy market interchange but have had difficulty capitalizing on their advantage. However, collaborating with players with greater resources and reach, like PayPal, Block, and neobank Chime, they’ve enjoyed some success taking debit-payment share. Threatened, large banks lobbied the Fed to extend debit-interchange price caps to these programs, thus far unsuccessfully. They should instead put their shoulders four-square behind repealing Durbin’s price controls.

When Capital One’s debit-card portfolio is converted from Mastercard to the Discover network, it will benefit from higher market interchange and not have to offer merchants one of its network competitors. Operating as a three-party debit network routing transactions to itself as an issuer, Capital One will be exempt from the Durbin Amendment. Assuming all its debit transactions are Discover (some will be Pulse), its debit-interchange revenue will increase roughly 300% for a $50 payment. Capital One Mastercard-branded debit cards would earn 17.7 cents per payment under the Fed’s proposed debit cap of 14.4 cents per transaction, 4 basis points, and 1.3 cents for fraud-prevention recovery. Capital One Discover debit cards will earn 71 cents per transaction reaping interchange of 110 basis points and 16 cents per transaction.

Fueled by higher interchange, it will offer consumers richer value propositions than behemoths like BofA, Chase, and Wells Fargo, fettered by Illinois’s senior senator’s handiwork, can.

Capital One has an online and bricks-and-mortar retail bank, which will be bulked up by Discover’s digital bank. With its prowess crafting and executing strategies to originate cardholders and incent use, honed since its days as an aggressive monoline credit-card issuer, it will win share from banks straightjacketed by Durbin’s price controls.

America already has the world’s most competitive debit-network market. Competition will intensify. Bolstered by Capital One, Discover will become a more formidable competitor for Visa, Mastercard, Fiserv’s Star, and FIS’s NYCE.

Progressive heartthrob and financial-services-industry nemesis Senator Warren hyperbolically warns the merger “threatens our financial stability, reduces competition, and would increase fees and credit costs for American families,” is “dangerous” and “will harm working people.” Joe and Sally Sixpack, however, might not view fee-free banking and richer debit rewards – say 1% cashback, as harmful.

In 2021 56.2% of U.S. debit transactions were subject to interchange price controls. The percentage of debit transactions subject to price caps will fall precipitously, which will be good for consumers.

Debit-network and DDA competition and value for consumers will increase because of Capital One’s acquisition of Discover.

Strengthening Discover’s credit-card network will be more challenging.

Notwithstanding a patchwork of reciprocal-acceptance relationships with foreign payment networks, Discover has much weaker acceptance than Mastercard and Visa, and paltry issuance, abroad. Its reciprocal-acceptance network is handicapped by a lack of co-branding and co-signage at the pos.

While Capital One will keep a huge portfolio of Mastercard and Visa credit cards, tens of millions of credit cards it migrates will add heft to the Discover network.

Capital One will earn network acceptance licensing and processing fees instead of paying them to Mastercard and Visa. And, it will no longer pay issuer licensing and processing fees on cards converted to Discover.

In many countries issuers enable a national network for domestic payments and Mastercard or Visa for payments abroad. Chinese banks often co-brand CUP cards with Mastercard or Visa. French issuers co-brand all Cartes Bancaires cards with Mastercard or Visa. Capital One might seek a similar arrangement to provide acceptance worldwide. However, Capital One, Mastercard, and Visa would all have reservations. For Capital One a hybrid card might hamper enhancing Discover’s brand. And for the global networks while they’ve done it with CUP, they’d have reservations about strengthening a competitor.

To boost its value the Discover credit-card network most needs third-party issuance and greater acceptance abroad. If Capital One’s converted portfolio prospers, giants issuing Mastercard, Visa, and American Express cards will be easier, albeit still difficult, to persuade to offer Discover as well.

Community banks currently issuing Pulse and retailers with co-branded credit cards may be easier prospects for Discover than a U.S. Bank or Citi.

Capital One’s acquisition of Discover can only increase competition. Consumers, Capital One and Discover shareholders, and policymakers, should applaud the deal.

Should central banks compete with private-sector payment systems?

Some spheres of activity like defense and law enforcement are naturally provided by the state. They’re public goods. Most goods and services, however, are best supplied by the private sector.

Payment systems like Visa, Mastercard, American Express, PayPal, Discover, Zelle, Cash App, Swift, Fedwire, and cash are essential for commerce, indeed for modern life. People take them for granted. They can be operated by government, the private sector, or both.

The US payment system is mixed. Retail, person-to-person, and bill payment systems are run by the private sector. The Fed plays an important albeit less visible role serving banks.  It operates interbank payment systems such as ACH and Fedwire, which compete with banks’ cooperative processor The Clearing House, which, ironically, is regulated and supervised by the Fed. It also issues cash (Federal Reserve Notes) distributed by commercial banks.

In 2023 the U.S. central bank will launch an instant-payments system FedNow, which will compete with TCH’s RTP, Visa, Mastercard, Zelle, Fiserv, FIS, and Discover. The Fed’s offering banks up to 2,500 fee-free payments per month to incent use. The Monetary Control Act requires the Fed to recover its costs “over the long run,” but the long run is whatever the Fed decides it is. While the Fed has typically measured long-run cost recovery for mature services to be over ten years, it declared “it expects FedNow “to achieve its first instance of long run cost recover” beyond 10 years.  Private capital doesn’t enjoy that kind of luxury.

If a private-sector payment system offered free payments to build network critical mass, all well and good. However, unlike private payment networks the Fed enjoys unlimited resources and can’t become insolvent.

Nobody assumes government should make wine, mobile phones, airplanes, or movies, or run restaurants, gyms, and hotels. While a case can be made for it to operate payment systems, the bar should be set high. The Fed should only play roles that the private sector cannot, and it shouldn’t be permitted to use unlimited government resources to unfairly subsidize its offerings in competition with the private sector.

Concerns over national security, systemic importance to the financial system and economy, efficiency, or needs the private sector can’t address, might be used to justify government running payment systems.

No government wants to rely on payment systems subject to control by potentially hostile powers. Governments may, therefore, operate critical payment networks, insist they’re run by national players, or if they’re foreign networks, that they process in-country.

After Putin’s 2014 Ukraine invasion, Russia was subjected to limited financial sanctions including US-domiciled Mastercard, Visa, and PayPal cutting off Crimea, but not Russia. Reminded of its vulnerability Moscow mandated foreign networks process domestic payments in-country and its central bank launched a national card network Mir.

China and India mandate foreign payment systems process in-country. China’s payment policies are baldly autarkic.  Notwithstanding Beijing’s 2001 WTO commitment to open up its domestic payments market by 2006, the Middle Kingdom’s prevented global networks like Mastercard and Visa from competing in its domestic market. While Delhi favors national players, its payments market is open and competitive.

Greater efficiency may be an excuse for a public payments utility. The idea a single well-designed state system would be more efficient than multiple competing private-sector systems with redundant costs is superficially appealing. Policymakers are more likely to argue greater efficiency justifies a single government or regulated private payment-system for core infrastructure. Even core payments infrastructure, however narrowly defined, benefits from competition-driven innovation and market discipline and intelligence.

Central planners can’t match the market’s vast dynamic distributed intelligence. Competing systems’ inherent dynamism, innovation, and continuous reallocation of resources to players delivering better value, have enormous benefits.

A monopoly card network or digital wallet run by the post office or the Fed wouldn’t deliver better value, be more innovative and accountable to customers than Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover, PayPal, Apple Pay, or Google Pay.  The market is the most ruthless regulator of value, not enlightened government bureaucrats superintending payment systems.

Where scale advantages are significant, markets will naturally consolidate. A monopoly, however, is never optimal. But, private-sector monopolies are rarely if ever sustainable unless privileged by the state.

The contention some payment systems are so systemically important government must run them doesn’t bear scrutiny. Critical national payments infrastructure owned and operated by the private sector can be regulated as such, subject to prudential reviews of capital adequacy, ownership, and management. Bank-owned The Clearing House, operates an ACH system, an interbank large0value funds transfer system, CHIPS, and an instant-payment system RTP. The Clearing House is regulated as a systemically-important financial market utility.

Central banks’ contention only they can deliver certain payment systems should be viewed through the lens of Nobel Laureate James Buchanan’s Public Choice Theory which holds self-interested public bureaucrats act to maximize their own utility, prestige, and power. They are rarely the indispensable actor.

The Fed insists only it can and will equitably serve all banks. The ECB on its own prerogative decided to build an instant-payment system TIPS, on the premise only it could adequately provide instant payments across the euro-area. And Brazil’s central bank contended only it could provide instant-payments ubiquity. Yet the private sector provides instant payments in the US, EU, and Brazil.

The Fed regulates and supervises TCH and also competes with it. The EU central bank oversees EBA Clearing’s shareholding banks and payment systems like RT1 with which it competes.

Central banks aren’t subject to the same financial constraints and often can use regulation to privilege themselves.

Brazil’s central bank used its authority to kneecap a competitor. Facebook has roughly 147 million WhatsApp users in Brazil.  In June, 2020 it launched WhatsApp Pay. It was fee-free for P2P payments and charged merchants 3.99%. The central bank put the kibosh on it. And, Brazil’s antitrust regulator Cade blocked WhatsApp’s partnership with processor Cielo because of competitive concerns.

Lo, in November, 2020 Brazil’s central bank launched its instant-payments system Pix. It mandated that large payment service providers participate, a prerogative for building network critical mass and therefore value and relevance that no private-sector payment system enjoys.

In less than two years Pix enrolled 126 million individuals and 11 million businesses, and surpassed the number of debit-card transactions.

After Pix had picked up a head of steam, in March, 2021 the central bank greenlighted WhatsApp Pay, but only for P2P not retail payments.

The central bank competing with the payments industry (and further regulating and supervising that very same industry) is a bald conflict of interest and a deterrent to private-sector investment. Nobody wants to compete with their regulator or a central bank with unlimited resources.

The National Payments Corporation of India, owned by state and private-sector banks, and guided by the central bank, operates a national card network Rupay and the major national interbank payment systems including real-time payment systems IMPS and UPS.

China’s central bank (PBOC) forced private payment systems like Alipay and WeChat Pay to use its clearing system Netsunion. Protected monopoly card network UnionPay is owned by state and commercial banks, run by PBOC alumni, and takes direction from the central bank.

Payment systems run by the Fed, ECB, Banco Central do Brasil, and PBOC aren’t subject to the same financial constraints as even private-sector titans, which can fail and go bankrupt. Central banks print money and can’t become insolvent.

Central banks’ electronic payment systems could be spun off with regulatory guardrails.

Private-sector payment systems have enormous advantages.

While individual players may disappoint, private sector payments systems must ultimately satisfy the market to remain in business. And even if individual players fail, the self-correcting private payment system continuously improves.

The payments industry is more adaptive than public utilities. The most brilliant central planners can’t design a perfect payment system, much less adapt it to changing conditions.

There’s no payments infrastructure that wouldn’t benefit from genuine competition, and ruthless regulation by the market rather than by the administrative state or politicians.

Private-sector systems dynamically self-correct.

In competitive free markets incumbents and challengers vie for share by trying to deliver better payments. The market continually votes on what’s better. Resources are allocated away from payments enterprises that don’t satisfy or delight their users, to those that do.

Payment systems run by central banks, no matter how thoughtfully-engineered and successful out of the gate, aren’t subject to the same market discipline, nor enjoy private systems’ innovative vigor. Underperforming government systems often get more resources.

Most payments innovation comes from the private sector, which invented cash, checks, interbank clearing, credit cards, global bankcard networks, electronic bill and P2P payment systems, e-wallets, and digital currencies.

In the 9th century Chinese merchants invented paper money. In the 19th century Scottish banks created two-sided banknotes.

In 1950 NYC financier Frank McNamara invented the general-purpose payment card Diners Club. US banks created global bankcard networks Mastercard and Visa. In 1981 fitness club operator Pete Kight launched what became America’s leading electronic bill payment system Checkfree. In 1998 Peter Thiel started PayPal. In 1999 radio DJ Steve Streit created the first general-purpose prepaid card.

Computer scientist David Chaum invented the first digital currency Digicash. Entrepreneurs Jeremy Allaire and Sean Neville with Circle and Brock Pierce and Craig Sellars with Tether, were stablecoin pioneers.

Pony Ma’s Tencent developed digital currency Q Coin and WeChat Pay. Jack Ma’s Alibaba created Alipay. Competing against stodgy state banks and state-protected monopoly card network China UnionPay, given latitude by Chinese regulators, such as liberalizer PBOC governor Zhou Xiaochuan, Tencent and Alibaba revolutionized payments in China. While the Sino-liberalization window is closed, Alipay and WeChat Pay are well-established and many outside China seek to emulate their “super-app” model.

It’s assumed central banks issuing cash is the natural state of affairs, notwithstanding historically in many countries competing commercial banks issued banknotes (cash). While cash issuance could be returned to commercial banks, in most countries it would be politically difficult.

Digital fiat currencies bring the issue of state versus private-sector payment systems to the fore. More than a hundred central banks are working on digital currencies. Central banks are predisposed to issue CBDCs, have vast resources, and often regulate potential private-sector issuers of digital cash.

There’s a danger central bank digital currencies will stifle development of and innovation in private digital currencies by banks and fintechs.  A Fed digital dollar would reduce if not eliminate banks’ and fintechs’ appetite for issuing and innovating in stablecoins – effectively digital banknotes.

New government payment systems should bear a high burden of proof. Existing state-run payment systems should be privatized, unless there’s a compelling national interest not to.

 

 

The world’s limits to growth are self-imposed.

Ronald Reagan said “There are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams.” In Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet the Cato Institute’s Marian Tupy and Brigham Young professor Gale Pooley make a cogent, empirically-grounded case for Reagan’s full-throated optimism.

For the last several centuries affluence and lifespans have been increasing. The authors enthuse “we have accumulated a store of knowledge that has allowed us to reach escape velocity from scarcity to abundance somewhere toward the end of the 18th century.” In the 20th century with a massive increase in population, abundance has exploded worldwide.

Yet notwithstanding mankind’s enormous and continued progress, an almost religious pessimism persists.

In “Essay on the Principle of Population”, Malthus argued resources were finite, and, consequently, population growth would bring ruin on mankind. The Club of Rome’s  The Limits to Growth and Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, picked up the doomsaying baton. Their contention that limited natural resources meant more people were an existential threat to humanity today holds sway among the Davos set.

In the 1970s grim Malthusianism informed Communist China’s brutal program of one-child-per-family and forced abortions. The authors persuasively assert China would be massively more prosperous today with 400 million more “somewhat free” people. Faced with a demographic crisis of its own making, the CCP has reversed course and relaxed restrictions on having children.

Many Western elites still view people as a liability rather than as an asset. Climate-change and Malthusian apocalyptists thunder more people will exhaust limited resources and attendant economic activity increasing atmospheric CO2 will cause climate catastrophes.

Yet more affluent societies are better able to deal with Mother Nature. Since 1920, with higher atmospheric CO2 levels from increased fossil-fuel use, climate-related disaster deaths have plummeted by 98%.  Pious Greens virtue-signal by not having children. While not having children is a choice couples are free to make, it won’t help humanity.

Tupy and Pooley persuasively contend knowledge not physical stuff drives ever-increasing abundance. People free to innovate and increase the stock of knowledge are, therefore, an asset.

Natural physical resources haven’t limited growth.  “The Earth’s atoms may be fixed, but the possible combinations of those atoms are infinite.”   What matters isn’t our planet’s physical limits but rather people’s freedom to experiment, reimagine, and improve use of existing resources.  More knowledge and people beget more knowledge, producing ever-greater abundance.

Economist Tom Sowell observed cavemen had the same natural resources as 21st-century men. Greater knowledge is why we enjoy more prosperous and longer high-quality lives than cavemen.

When resources increase faster than population, it’s “superabundance.”  Viewed through the lens of “time prices” the world is enjoying an era of superabundance.

Tupy and Pooley use time prices rather than the more familiar measures of real GDP and PPP per capita, to document global superabundance. Time prices calculate the hours and minutes needed to earn the money to buy goods and services. They’re universal true prices.

The time price to acquire rice as food for a day in India dropped from about seven hours in 1960 to under an hour today. The time price of wheat for a day in Indiana dropped from an hour to 7.5 minutes. The Indian has gained 6 hours and 2 minutes and the Hoosier 52 minutes.

From 1850 to 2018 US blue-collar workers’ average nominal hourly compensation rose from $.06 to $32.06. Using nominal prices, the average time price of 26 commodities like sugar, nickel, corn, steel, and coal, fell by a whopping 98.3%. “Personal resource abundance” (PRA) measures how much people can buy in time prices. The average PRA increased by 5,762% during this 168-year period.

Between 1919 and 2019 US blue-collar workers’ average nominal hourly compensation rate rose from $.43 to $32.36 while the time price of 42 food items fell 91.2%. The average PRA increased by 1,032%.

Turning to information processing, the authors calculate for the same amount of work a blue-collar worker had to do in 1969 to perform a slide-rule-based calculation, using an iPhone12 in 2020 he could buy 1.574 trillion calculations.

Superabundance can and should continue indefinitely. Reversing course would be a choice, a choice for malaise over a world of plenty.

The limits to human flourishing are self-imposed anti-growth policies whether animated by millenarian climate-change apocalyptists or imposed by oppressive regimes like North Korea and Venezuela.

Innovation relies on population growth and the freedom to exchange goods and ideas. The larger the population, the larger the market and the more specialized people can become. In the book’s forward futurologist George Gilder rhapsodizes “everywhere entrepreneurs are free to create and market their inventions, time prices fall.”

“Economics prosper to the extent that knowledge, intrinsically dispersed through the system in the minds of individuals, is complemented by a similar dispersion of power.” Combinations of government and business frustrate it.

Prices guide capital – human, intellectual, financial, social, cultural, and physical, to address problems and opportunities. Doomsayers underestimate or ignore motivated men’s capacity to solve problems and improve the human condition.

Superabundance is an eminently-readable antidote to dour Malthusian and Green-fundamentalist dogma. The bigger and freer the global network of people, the greater superabundance.

Inflation is scourging the land: Biden’s Fed appointees aren’t the cavalry

Inflation is scourging the land. In January it hit 7.5%, a forty-year high. The Fed is failing in its mandate to maintain “stable prices” and suffers the dangerous conceit enlightened central bankers can direct the economy better than the market. President Biden’s Fed appointees aren’t the cavalry, far from it.

Many Americans are too young to have experienced the scourge of inflation that roiled the country in the seventies. Inflation is too much money chasing too few goods. Thanks to Washington’s binge of money-printing and spending, suffocating regulation suppressing production, and Fed complacency, inflation is back. It’s a stealth tax punishing saving, creditors, and the working poor, and rewarding debtors, the biggest of whom is Uncle Sam.

Congress and the administration look to the Fed to bail them out of destructive fiscal and regulatory policies. Many at the Fed believe they can and should manage the economy. That’s beyond its ken. The Fed does, however, have tools to rein in inflation. That’s what it should focus on. The FOMC needs to find its inner Paul Volcker. If it hikes interest rates and reduces its bloated balance sheet sufficiently, it will curb inflation.

But Biden’s Fed appointees won’t bring a hawkish voice or narrow its focus. They’ll expand and further politicize the central bank and paramount financial-system regulator’s role, raise the fossil-fuel industry’s cost of capital, and racialize credit.

Biden renominated Jay Powell Chairman and nominated Governor Lael Brainard Vice Chairman, law professor and former governor Sarah Bloom Raskin Vice Chair of Supervision, and economists Lisa Cook and Philip Jefferson governors.

Powell has been a dove’s dove and willfully blind to the looming threat of inflation, which were preconditions to Biden reappointing him. On his watch, gorging on Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities, the Fed’s balance sheet doubled, and the money supply increased 403%. When the Fed buys assets it creates money, suppresses interest rates, and, thereby, fuels inflation.

In January yoy gas was up 40% and used cars 40.5%. In 2021 the median existing-home price rose 15.8%. As inflation picked up a head of steam, the Fed played make-believe, stubbornly maintaining it was “transitory.” Joe and Sally Sixpack are paying dearly for the Fed’s dereliction of duty.

Brainard is just as dovish as Powell, supports more punitive bank regulation endearing her to progressive heartthrob and financial-industry foe Senator Elizabeth Warren, and is socializing introducing climate-change considerations into the Fed’s prudential regulation, setting the stage to punish banks financing oil, gas, and coal producers.

Raskin is a climate-change fundamentalist. In “Why Is the Fed Spending So Much Money on a Dying Industry?” she trumpeted her Green faith and desire to preference credit for job-intensive – i.e. less productive, renewables over fossil fuels, decried “surging carbon dioxide,” and warned of the looming “catastrophe of an unlivably hot planet.”

Fossil fuels provide 79% of America’s energy. If the Biden Fed starves the fossil-fuel industry of capital, it will increase energy costs, making consumers poorer and businesses less competitive. Even if it wasn’t horrendous policy, it isn’t the Fed’s place to decide to engage in a Green holy war against fossil fuels. That folly is the politically-accountable Congress’s prerogative.

Cook served in the Obama White House, has a NYT guest column, contributes to CNBC, MSNBC, and NPR, served on the Biden-Harris financial-regulator-agency-review-transition team, and supports “reparations” for black Americans. Cook was nominated not because she’s an estimable monetary economist but rather because she’s a she, she’s black, and she’s a brass-collar Democrat, none of which is a good reason.

By reputation economist Philip Anderson is apolitical. Preternaturally sunny Hoover economist, National Review contributor, and former Trump adviser Kevin Hassett sings his laurels declaring he’s the kind of economist he would’ve been happy with and President Trump could’ve appointed. That may be naïve. Anderson’s commentaries in PBS NewsHour, NPR, CNBC, and Bloomberg Radio suggest comfort in the establishment left. The Biden administration wouldn’t knowingly nominate a man Hassett would be comfortable with.

The Fed’s statutory monetary mandate is stable prices, i.e. zero inflation, maximum employment, and moderate long-term interest rates. Stable prices support maximum sustainable long-term employment and wealth creation.

The central bank takes an expansive view of its remit. In 2012 the Fed on its own prerogative declared it would target 2% inflation, prices doubling every 35 years. While lawless, there was nary a peep of protest from Congress. In 2020 the Fed went a step further, announcing it would inflation-average,” allow inflation higher than 2% to catch up for prior inflation below its target.

Interest rates are the economy’s most important price, the price of present versus future consumption and investment. The Fed influences them. Its real benchmark interest rate is now a mind-boggling negative 7.5%. Keeping interest rates artificially low causes systemic malinvestment and risk.

Milton Friedman warned concentrated power, no matter how well-intentioned, is dangerous. The Fed embodies unchecked concentrated power at the heart of the financial system.

Who’s on the Fed board matters so much because of the enormous power it wields and license it takes. Until Congress circumscribes its mission, the Senate must be extra-vigilant ensuring hawks with a narrow view of its role, run the central bank, rather than partisans keen to use the Fed’s monetary, regulatory, and operating powers to try to manage the economy, preference credit for favored sectors, and advance a political agenda.

Should President Biden keep Jay Powell? Americans have cause to worry who leads the Fed

Because of its outsized impact on the economy the choice of Fed leadership is enormously consequential. If the Fed were less powerful, if it exercised less discretion in monetary, fiscal, regulatory, and operating policies, it would matter less, much less.

President Biden’s upcoming Fed appointments should concern every American. It’s up to him whether to replace Chairman Jerome Powell, Vice Chairman of Supervision Randal Quarles, and Vice Chairman Richard Clarida, and to fill an open governorship. The decision to reappoint or replace Powell in February will be the most consequential at least since President Carter replaced Bill Miller with the legendary inflation fighter Paul Volcker.

The looming dangers of inflation, deficit monetization, and accelerated pollicization of regulation and credit allocation, underscore its importance.

The Left wants the Fed to continue the gusher of easy money and monetization of the mushrooming Federal deficit, use regulation to starve the fossil-fuel industry of capital, further racialize banking, and, as a totem of progressive piety, flail banks. Centrist Democrats and many Republicans have accommodated themselves to forever-easy money, if not to hyper-politicized regulation.

The Senate should reject nominees who it suspects aren’t serious about crushing inflation, want to expand the Fed’s fiscal footprint, or intend to politicize credit allocation and banking. In the movie ‘Ronin’ Vincent, played by Jean Reno, asks Robert DeNiro’s character Sam how he knew they would be ambushed. Sam replied “When there’s doubt, there’s no doubt.” That’s the test senators should apply to Biden’s Fed nominees.

Ideally the central bank would narrowly hew to its mandate: to pursue stable prices, maximum employment, and moderate long-term interest rates. A stable price regime is the sine qua non of maximum long-term employment and wealth creation. Clinton appointed former Vice Chair Roger Ferguson observed “a stable level of prices appears to be the condition most conducive to maximum sustained output and employment, and to moderate long-term interest rates.” Dovish former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke wrote “In the long run, the central bank can affect only inflation, not real variables such as output.” Stable prices send the clearest signals, facilitate optimal decision-making to consume, save or invest, enabling maximum sustainable wealth and job creation.

Republican Powell was originally appointed to the Fed board by President Obama. President Trump elevated him to Chairman. Powell has tried to maintain the Fed’s assiduously-cultivated – and not entirely deserved, reputation for apolitical, technocratic competence. To Powell’s credit he’s resisted efforts to politicize regulation.

While Powell wasn’t dovish enough for Trump’s taste, he’s a dove. He’s repeatedly promised the administration and markets easy money for the foreseeable future, and been stubbornly blind to inflation’s danger.  Paraphrasing Upton Sinclair, it is difficult to get a man to understand something when keeping his position depends upon him not understanding it.

There are eminent and more hawkish alternatives to Powell who would stick narrowly to the Fed’s statutory mandate. Stanford economist John Taylor, former Philadelphia President Charles Plosser, former Fed governor Kevin Warsh, and former House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, would be superb Fed chairs. Biden, however, isn’t going to nominate any of them.

 

Democrat eminence grises and eponymous sponsors of Dodd-Frank, Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, and Senator Jon Tester have called on Biden to renominate Powell. He is likely the least-bad politically-viable option.

If Biden instead decides to replace Powell, woke Fed Governor Lael Brainard would be the odds-on favorite. While Powell and Brainard have been of one mind on monetary policy, Brainard’s urged a harder line regulating banks, endearing herself to progressive heartthrob Senator Elizabeth Warren. Warren’s blasted Powell for putting the economy at risk by being too protective of big banks. But banks aren’t underregulated. Thanks to Dodd-Frank, quite the contrary. And under Powell no major bank has failed. They’ve increased their capital. The point seems to be, one must ritualistically bash banks, to attest to one’s progressive virtue.

Brainard wants to advance policies progressives have been unable to legislate, by regulatory diktat. She’s urged the Fed to weigh anthropogenic-climate-change risks in bank regulation. Banks have been pricing the risk of hurricanes, floods, and droughts for centuries. By making energy more expensive Fed climate-change regulation would genuinely put the economy at risk. Powell rightly holds that whatever one believes about the climate-change bogeyman, it’s a matter for Congress, not the Fed on its own prerogative.

Brainard is also keen for a retail Fed digital dollar.  The US payments system is already largely digital and works well. A Fed digital currency would compete with commercial banks and stifle private-sector innovation in money and payments. Quarles and Governor Waller have suggested there’s no compelling case for one. Powell has remained neutral and insisted it would require Congressional authorization.

While since its 1913 creation the Fed’s been a masterful political actor, it’s avoided appearing political. If progressives score a quadfecta of appointees, the Fed will become a brazenly political and more dangerous actor.

The Senate can and should reject any nominee inclined to act beyond the Fed’s statutory mandate.

China fires a shot across the bow of King Dollar

China’s pilot of a digital yuan is a shot across the bow of King Dollar. Domestically it will displace anonymous physical cash and compete with China’s card-network monopoly China UnionPay, and its PayPal analogues Alipay and WeChat Pay. Abroad it will help it bypass the dollar-dominated global financial system, facilitating China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is being used to ensnare vast swaths of the world in its economic dominion.

Hopefully, it’s a wakeup call for U.S. policymakers.

It’s high time for digital dollars, dollars that could be carried by consumers in digital wallets and used online and in-person at casinos, bars, cafes, and barbershops, worldwide.

Digital greenbacks could be public, private, or both.

The Fed issues physical dollars to banks in exchange for reserves. It could do the same with digital dollars.

Former CFTC Chairman and Director of the Digital Dollar Project Chris Giancarlo shared his vision for modernizing the dollar’s architecture in the  Senate Banking Committee’s June 30th hearing “The Digitization of Money and Payments.” He envisions Fed e-dollars distributed through banks and regulated money transmitters. The central bank would issue e-dollars to banks against reserves, that would in turn issue them to consumers and businesses.  The Fed would serve rather than compete with banks.

Distributing digital greenbacks through banks is politically practical as they‘re a powerful interest group. It also preserves the dynamicism and accountability of competitive private-sector banking and payment systems.

Fed e-dollars would be supported by a permissioned distributed digital ledger, hopefully, unlike China’s digital yuan, with U.S. values like privacy designed in.

They wouldn’t be the first digital greenback. In 2015 Ecuador’s central bank launched an account-based digital dollar. It failed, not because Ecuadorans don’t like dollars – they do, but because of distrust of the central bank and the state MNO having a monopoly providing mobile payment services.

Competition between Fed and private-sector e-dollars would be healthy.

Facebook’s Libra stablecoin – “the Zuck buck,” will be a de facto digital dollar, used with its wallet Novi within Facebook and WhatsApp, and via third-party e-wallets.

Chase’s JPMCoin and Signature Bank’s Signet are electronic dollar-backed tokens, facilitating payments between their domestic business clients.

And, the world’s largest payment network Visa has applied for a digital fiat currency patent. It could deliver digital dollars through its bank licensees.

In the U.S. digital dollars will help the un- and underbanked more fully participate in the economy, displace dirty physical cash, and compete with credit and debit cards, PayPal, and money-transfer systems like MoneyGram and Western Union.

But digital dollars’ impact will be felt worldwide.

The dollar is the world’s preeminent currency, enjoys trust and powerful network effects. It dominates foreign-exchange reserves, foreign-currency-denominated debt, foreign-exchange turnover, and cross-border interbank payments.

The dollar accounted for 61% of the world’s foreign-exchange currency reserves as of the fourth quarter of last year, far surpassing the euro’s 21% share and the Chinese renminbi’s paltry 2%. An enormous 74% of the $16 trillion in foreign-currency debt is denominated in dollars, and most international trade, including oil, is invoiced in dollars.

While Beijing resents its dominance, foreigners planetwide love dollars. They circulate widely outside the U.S., for licit and illicit purposes. About 60% of U.S, currency and 75% of $100 bills are held abroad. Dollars are used officially in Ecuador, El Salvador, Panama, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and Zimbabwe. In Costa Rica, the greenback circulates in parallel with national currency. Hong Kong, for the moment, pegs its currency to the dollar.

In November, 2019 Zimbabwe’s central bank introduced a new Zimdollar, attempting to displace the U.S. dollar. However, it’s quickly returning to binge money-printing. In May, 2020 inflation hit 786%, though that’s still a far cry from Zimbabwe’ November, 2008 peak monthly inflation rate of 79,600,000,000%. Civil servants have started demanding to be paid in dollars.

Since its 1913 creation the Fed’s massively debased the dollar. Nonetheless today, relative to most fiat currencies, the dollar is a Rock of Gibraltar and trusted as a store of value, unit of account, and means of exchange.

Zimbabweans, people the world over, prefer currencies they can trust. Electronic greenbacks they can access from mobile phones will make it easier for them to dollarize and avoid debased domestic currencies.

Digitizing King Dollar will make it more attractive at home and abroad, and fortify its global dominance.

Will Covid-19 sound the death knell of cash?

In January NYC lawmakers banned merchants banning cash. Last year SF mandated merchants accept cash. They may rue the day.

Covid-19 is hammering vulnerable populations and the economy. It’s also making consumers and merchants increasingly leery of transacting in dirty, potentially contaminated cash. On Visa’s April 30th earnings call CEO Al Kelly warned “Currency is a germ-carrying mechanism.” While the coronavirus will be vanquished, the economy recover, and Americans return to a semblance of normalcy, diminished cash use will be a lasting legacy of the coronavirus pandemic.

The payments industry has battled cash since Diners Club’s 1950 inception. In 2018 15.1% and 24.6% of US consumer-payment volume and transactions, respectively, were in cash, excluding mortgage payments. In most countries cash is still the leading retail-payment system.

To fight the coronavirus in March France’s storied Louvre museum stopped accepting cash. In the US Amazon’s Whole Foods has started restricting cash payments.

ATM withdrawals in the UK fell 60% yoy in the month ended April 27th.

Short-term demand for cash in some markets, however, has surged, not for transacting but as a hedge.  In Russia, about 1 trillion rubles ($13.6 billion) was withdrawn from ATMs and bank branches since the beginning of March, more than during 2019. Withdrawals spiked after President Putin extended self-isolation measures and imposed a tax on bank deposits over 1 million rubles. In the Eurozone circulating banknotes rose by €41.2 billion to €1.33 trillion, the largest increase since the 2008 financial crisis.

Fear of Covid-19 will spur greater interest in digital currencies.

Facebook and the Libra Association scaled back ambitious plans announced last year to launch a global digital currency and payment system, which provoked a din of hostility from regulators and politicians. Their rethink will keep Libra’s transaction ledger permissioned, making it less likely bad actors will get access. And Libra stablecoins will be backed by each jurisdiction’s national currency – dollars, pounds, euros, et al, rendering them akin to electronic banknotes. That won’t threaten government monopolies creating money. The coronavirus has created a signal opportunity for the social-media giant’s ambitions in payments.

Signature Bank and Chase already have digital dollars for business-to-business payments. Wells Fargo Digital Cash will launch this year. Banks could repurpose their digital dollars to replace physical cash at grocery stores, restaurants and barbershops.

The Peoples Bank of China is rolling out a digital-currency pilot in 4 cities:  Shenzhen, Suzhou, Chengdu, and Xiong’an, a satellite city of Beijing.

Fear of touching will change the familiar experience of swiping or inserting credit cards and signing, to pay for goods and services.

For a quarter of a century the US payments industry half-heartedly tried to spur contactless payments. In 1996 Mastercard in Manhattan and Visa at the Atlantic Olympics ran pilots. The experience wasn’t compelling for consumers or merchants. Swiping cards was habit and nearly frictionless.

Google Wallet, Apple Pay and Samsung Pay launched in 2011, 2014, and 2015, respectively. Mobile-wallet evangelists enthused they would usher in an era of contactless payments at NFC-enabled merchants. Joe Cardholder and Jose Merchant, however, didn’t bite.

Covid-19 is more persuasive. Cardholders and merchants don’t want physical contact. Banks are rushing to put contactless credit and debit cards in consumers’ leather wallets and purses. Mastercard’s contactless payments increased 40% in the first quarter.

Time-honored signatures at the physical point of sale will disappear. March 23, 2020 Mastercard reminded merchant processors that payments at the physical pos by card or mobile phone don’t require signatures.

In the lockdown online retailers like Amazon are booming. In April, 2020 e-commerce surged to 50% of Mastercard’s transaction volume. While vaccinated Americans will return to bars and restaurants, fly to Europe for business and holidays, and again take cruises, e-commerce will continue its multi-decade trajectory, taking share from in-person commerce.

The Covid-19 pandemic will pass, having put a damper on consumers’ and merchants’ appetites to handle cash, and changed the experience of paying face-to-face.

Covid-19 Black Swan batters the payments industry

In the Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable former options trader and NYU Professor of Risk Engineering Nassim Nicolas Taleb looks at the outsized impact of unexpected outlier events. The coronavirus pandemic that’s locked down the world and battered the payments industry is a classic Black Swan. It’s easy to see in retrospect but was outside the experience, and therefore off the radar, of Western policymakers.

The economy is nosediving into a depression because of Covid-19-induced government business closures. Counties representing 96% of US national production are locked down. JPMorgan forecasts 2nd quarter GDP will fall 40%. Bearish fund manager Crispin Odey says “The fall in global gross national product for this year will echo 1931-32.” Former Trump economist Kevin Hassett also warns the coronavirus could cause another Great Depression.

Borders worldwide are closed. International travel has ground to a halt. Consequently highly-profitable cross-border payments at the physical pos have disappeared. Covid-19 has however had a salutary effect, curbing merchants fleecing unsuspecting cardholders with Dynamic Currency Conversion.

Domestic payments in many but not all sectors have plummeted.

The number of people flying in the U.S. on Tuesday April 7th was down a whopping 95% yoy.

Hospitality has been hard hit. Shift 4’s hospitality and restaurant transactions April 2-8 in California, Nevada, New York, Texas and Florida against February 2-8 were down 94%, 96%, 91%, 91%, and 90%, respectively. For like-for-like-merchants ACI Worldwide reports April 1-8 global online ticketing and travel transactions down 98% and 92% yoy, respectively.

Millions of SMEs are closed. Many won’t recover.

Department stores like Dillard’s, Kohl’s, Belk, Macy’s, Saks, Neiman Marcus, JC Penny’s and Sears are closed. Covid-19 will cull the already struggling herd.

Closed businesses means no payments, no transaction fees for acquirers, networks, issuer processors, and issuers.

However, select sectors are booming in the crisis.  ACI Worldwide reports like-to-like merchants’ online gaming and retail payments April 1-8 up172% and 58% yoy, respectively.  March gun sales were up a whopping 85% yoy.

The strong are becoming stronger. Walmart’s March sales were up 20% yoy.  Amazon’s hiring 100,000 workers. While Costco March sales initially surged midmonth they ebbed because of social-distancing measures and closing departments such as optical.

The coronavirus pandemic will have lasting effects on the payments industry.

It will accelerate the global migration from cash to electronic payments. Merchants and consumers are increasingly reluctant to handle potentially contaminated cash. NYC lawmakers may rue banning merchants banning cash.

Fear of the virus will spur greater interest in digital currencies.

Facebook pivoted from its plans announced last year, to launch a global digital currency and payment system, which provoked a din of hostility from regulators and politicians worldwide. The Libra Association’s rethink will keep Libra’s transaction ledger permissioned and back its stablecoins with each jurisdiction’s national currency, rendering them akin to electronic banknotes. That won’t threaten government monopolies creating money.

Signature Bank and Chase already have digital dollars for B2B payments. Wells Fargo Digital Cash will launch this year. They could be repurposed for retail payments.

Fear of touching will spur further reductions in payments friction at the pos.

Since the mid-nineties Mastercard and Visa have tried in vain to interest US banks, merchants, and consumers in contactless payments. Covid-19 is more persuasive. Banks are rushing to put contactless cards in consumers’ leather wallets.

Pos signatures will disappear. March 23, 2020 Mastercard reminded acquirers payments at the physical pos by card or mobile phone don’t require signatures.

The Wuhan virus is stoking protectionist sentiment. Borders and control of critical supply chains for ventilators, masks and drugs, are at the fore. Many nations and the supranational EU view payments as critical infrastructure.

The EU wants a pan-EU payment system to take resented American Mastercard and Visa down a notch. Playing to Brussels’ sentiment, the EACB, EBF and ESBG decry intra-EU cross-border payments only being possible because of “a few global, non-European market players,” i.e. Mastercard and Visa, and hail policymakers’ call to create European pan-European payment solutions.”

Mastercard and Visa will face increased protectionist headwinds worldwide.

Washington raining trillions of dollars on the economy may mitigate the immediate pain, albeit at a dangerous long-term cost. However, the economy and payments industry can’t fully recover until there’s a vaccine(s) and/or effective treatments. As of April 6th there were more than 200 clinical trials of coronavirus treatment or vaccines in process or recruiting test patients. Covid-19 will be vanquished.

Vaccinated, Americans will return to bars and restaurants, fly to Europe for business and holidays, and again take cruises. And a battered and changed payments industry will return to growth.

Facebook’s cryptocurrency Libra provokes a firestorm on Capitol Hill

Facebook’s cryptocurrency Libra has the potential to increase currency and payment-system competition globally. Not surprisingly it’s provoked a firestorm of concern and protest from regulators, politicians, and a medley of activists.

Addressing the House Financial Services Committee July 10th Fed Chairman Jerome Powell declared Libra potentially a “systemic risk” raising “serious concerns regarding privacy, money laundering, consumer protection and financial stability.” Bank of England governor Mark Carney warned it wasn’t going to start unless it was “rock solid.” French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire thundered he would prevent Libra from becoming “a sovereign currency that could compete with the currency of states.”

Governments protect their currency monopolies. Liberty Dollar founder Bernard von NotHaus was prosecuted and convicted of making and distributing coins resembling U.S. coins. The North Carolina Western District U.S. Attorney lambasted Liberty Dollar as “a unique form of domestic terrorism” attempting “to undermine the legitimate currency of this country.”

Facebook has managed to attract political ire on both sides of the political aisle.

Senate Banking Committee Ranking Member Sherrod Brown mocked Libra as “monopoly money.” House Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters worries it might be intended “to establish a parallel banking and monetary policy system to rival the dollar.”

The day after Powell’s comments President Trump weighed in tweeting “We have only one real currency in the USA,” “it will always stay that way” and that “Facebook Libra’s ‘virtual currency’ will have little standing or dependability.”

Friends of Earth-US, U.S. PIRG, the powerful public-sector union SEIU, et al demanded a moratorium on Libra pending addressing a laundry list of concerns. Some contended Libra was “too dangerous to be permitted to proceed.”

Few argue against more payment-system competition. Currency competition, however, doesn’t square with monetary economic orthodoxy, and, is alien to most Americans. But, the dollar circulates in countries like Ecuador, Panama and Zimbabwe. Hong Kong’s currency is tied to the dollar through a currency board. In Denationalisation of Money: The Argument Refined, Nobel-Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek advocated permitting private currencies to compete with government fiat money.

Designed as a global digital currency Libra could do just that. It will be a “stablecoin” backed by a reserve of fiat currencies deposited at banks and short-duration government securities. Tying it to a hard asset like gold would have been bolder but also more threatening to central banks. In contrast, Bitcoin is backed by nothing more than the hope there’s a greater fool willing to buy it for more. Cryptocurrencies Tether and Pax promise to redeem each token for a dollar. Libra, however, is designed more like a mutual fund than demand-deposit liability, perhaps to reduce the risk of being regulated as a bank.

Libra’s manifesto recites a litany of do-good pieties. One doesn’t have to be a cynic, however, to understand Facebook’s commercial motivation. Libra could enable the social-media giant to increase engagement, advertising effectiveness and commerce velocity. It could pay users Libra to watch ads and discount ads and payment fees paid in its digital currency.

Notwithstanding for the moment often weak smart-phone penetration, emerging markets with weak currencies,  banking and payments systems present an enticing opportunity to boost commerce.  In Venezuela with a million-percent-plus inflation Libra might be an attractive store of value, unit of account and means of payment. Activists worry about Libra’s impact on developing countries’ monetary policies. One of the best things that could happen to countries with debased fiat money would be robust currency competition and losing control of their monetary policy.

Libra will be controlled by a Geneva-based association, not directly by Facebook. Geneva conveys neutrality. Washington prevents US-headquartered Visa, Mastercard and PayPal from operating in North Korea, Iran, Syria and Crimea. The governance model is intended to allay fears it’ll be controlled by the social-media Gargantua and create a broad ecosystem of support and participation.

Authorized resellers will buy and sell Libra, supporting processing exchanges and institutions. In the US resellers and processors at a minimum are likely to be regulated as money transmitters.

Facebook will have its own digital wallet for Libra Calibra, integrated with Messenger and Whatsapp. If Libra gets traction Google Pay, Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and PayPal will likely support it.

The two genuinely global retail-payment networks Mastercard and Visa joined the Libra association. While a new currency per se wouldn’t hurt them, a widely-adopted electronic-payment system would. In the tent they signal they’re open to payments innovation and give a di rigueur nod to Facebook’s litany to more financial inclusion. Attaching Mastercard and Visa debit cards to Libra accounts would give it instant global acceptance, albeit in fiat currencies. But, if several billion Facebook users used Libra for retail payments and to transfer funds to friends and family, it’d be catastrophic for traditional retail-payment and money-transfer systems.

If Libra runs the regulatory gauntlet in enough jurisdictions, it still faces an enormous challenge. Unless and until Libra achieves network critical mass it offers little value to anybody. In payments finding a path to critical mass isn’t easy, particularly in markets well-served by established systems. Most new payment systems, notwithstanding being putatively more secure, cheaper, or in some other respect superior, fail.

Libra threatens and stresses existing systems. No bad thing. A credible, lightly-regulated, new global currency and payment system would force existing currencies and payment systems to perform better.