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How 'Facebook money' could change the global economy

Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Facebook logo 
Facebook has the user base and the capital for its cryptocurrency to succeed Credit: Dado Ruvic/REUTERS

The hype will no doubt be wildly exaggerated. There will be lots of over-the-top predictions, a massive marketing push and a line-up of partners that stretches to the Moon and back.

We may even be subjected to the company’s spin-doctor-in-chief, a certain Sir Nick Clegg, on our TV screens with a couple of glib promises that will be forgotten by the next day.

But when Facebook finally launches its much anticipated crypto-currency this week, there will for once be a kernel of truth to the hyperbole. A mainstream digital currency really could change the global economy.

Crypto-currencies have been around for a decade now, but have remained on the fringes. And yet sometimes it takes a big company to create a mass market. If digital money genuinely takes off it is likely to spell the end of traditional banking, create the world’s first genuinely global monetary unit and shatter the power of governments and central banks over the economy.

It won’t happen right away, but the trends will gather momentum – and once they get started they will be unstoppable.

Ever since Bitcoin was created a decade ago, and the raft of minor crypto-currencies that followed in its wake, interest in digital money has been steadily rising. Yet, they remain fairly marginal. Estimates of the numbers using Bitcoin range from 7m to 25m.

Sure, that is a big number, but hardly earth-shattering. Facebook is on a completely different scale. It has 2.3bn active users around the world and it is still growing at a rapid rate. It is a hundred times bigger than even the most optimistic estimate of the crypto market.

We will learn more about its plans this week, but here’s what we know so far: the currency is expected to be called Libra. Partners at its launch are likely to include payment giants such as Paypal, Visa and Mastercard as well as apps such as Uber. It will, in the jargon of cryptos, be a “stablecoin”, which means that it will be backed up and pegged to an existing major currency, such as the dollar or the euro, so it won’t fluctuate wildly in value.

Once it is up and running, you will be able to use Libra to send money and make payments as easily as you send a message or a photo on social media. Can that succeed?

No commercial venture is ever guaranteed success, but there is no reason why not. Facebook has the user base and with a market value of $500bn (£398bn) it has the capital as well. Even people who aren’t on the network itself use its messaging service WhatsApp (that’s another 1.5bn, in case you were wondering).

The range of partners, and the steps it is already taking to make the currency as open and secure as possible, suggest this is a big bet by Mark Zuckerberg’s company. The demand is certainly there. After all, we all use the internet all day long to buy things, but the payment systems remain stuck in the twentieth century.

There is an interesting comparison with other major internet products. Web browsers were around for a while but it took Microsoft to make them universal. There were already smartphones, but it took Apple to take them into the mainstream.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez/ AP

If Facebook can crack this, then digital currencies could finally be used by the man and woman on the street. That would be huge for the company (and, interestingly, its shares are already rising in anticipation of the launch, from $140 at the start of the year to $180 now). But it would be even bigger for the global economy.

How? First, it would break the traditional banks. They have been on life support for a decade now. With creaking technology, weak brands, shocking customer service, and high staff and office costs, it is hard to see how they will survive. It is only their lock on basic current accounts that keeps them afloat, but once that is gone, their collapse may be very sudden.

The problem will be this, however. Banks rely on their control of the payment system. But they also provide the credit the economy needs to grow. Who is going to take over that role? Lots of fintech start-ups and peer-to-peer lenders are trying to carve out that market. But it remains to be seen whether they are up to it or not.

Next, a single global monetary unit will emerge. The one thing we know about the internet is that it creates a single worldwide standard spontaneously and very quickly. We all use the same word processors, attachment files, messaging apps and search tools, because it is just a lot more convenient if we all kind of agree amongst ourselves to make the systems compatible. The same will be true of money.

There is no point in sending one that might not be accepted. Libra might start out being linked to the dollar, or to a basket of currencies that includes the euro and the yen (and if they are feeling charitable, or Sir Nick puts in a good word for us, the pound as well). But very quickly that could flip and the major currencies will be linked to Libra instead.

In lots of ways that will be improvement. It will reduce transaction costs, and make trading across borders a lot easier. But, as the short history of the euro tells us, new currencies don’t always run smoothly – and no one should be surprised if there are crashes along the way.

Finally, it would massively reduce the power of governments and central banks. Monetary authorities have already spent a lot of time fretting about the potential challenge from cyrpto currencies. And that is when they were a product that only ten or twenty million people around the world actually used.

Once a currency gets up to a billion-plus users (which is fewer people than use G-mail, so hardly impossible) the game will have fundamentally changed. Can you set an interest rate for Libra? Can governments borrow freely in a currency tied to it?

Of course, Zuckerberg may well be playing with fire, and if his currency is successful it may well be the trigger for governments to take control of or break-up his business (perhaps in the same way that a move into railways led ultimately to the break-up of another great monopoly, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil). But if it gets away with it, monetary economics will have been changed forever.

We don’t know whether “Facebook money” will succeed or fail. But it is the biggest play yet, and it looks increasingly likely that one of the big tech companies will eventually crack the market. If it isn’t Facebook, it will be Amazon or Apple.

Right now, the consequences of a genuinely global digital currency are completely unpredictable. There will be plenty of consequences that no one expected. One thing is certain, however. It will change the way the economy works – and very soon there may be no stopping it.

Read Matt Lynn's latest column on telegraph.co.uk every Friday from 7pm    

Will Facebook succeed in their bet on digital currencies? Will you be buying Libra? Are digital coins and crypto-currencies the future of money? We want to hear from you in the comments section below.