Experts weigh in on Libra and digital currencies at Senate committee

Facebook’s digital currency Libra continues to rile lawmakers.

The U.S. Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, which held a hearing earlier this week, concluded that Libra and crypto platforms require a more watchful eye from regulators, particularly regarding data security, privacy and guard rails against financial crime.

Three industry representatives, including Jeremy Allaire, co-founder and CEO at the payments platform Circle; Rebecca Nelson, a specialist in international trade and finance; and Mehrsa Baradaran, a banking law professor at the Irvine School of Law, weighed in on the implications. Here are some of the takeaways:

Cryptocurrency isn’t necessarily a cure-all for economic inequities
According to Baradaran, a quarter of Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and low-income families face banking deserts, excessive overdraft fees and excess activity fees. However, cryptocurrencies are not the answer, she argued. “Practically speaking, it is much easier to expand the current Federal Reserve payments system to include the unbanked rather than create an entire new currency on a new technological platform, wait for wholesale adoption and double-check to make sure the unbanked are using it.”

Banks are in “radical” need of transformation
Allaire concurred with Baradan that the American financial system is flawed, but he argued that technology is where banks fall short because their infrastructure is “riddled with privacy violations and data breaches” that could cost more than $2 trillion annually, a figure he cited from Juniper Research.

“Public blockchains, for the first time in human history, are creating new recordkeeping and transaction processing systems that are designed to be inherently decentralized, tamper-proof, highly secure and private,” Allaire said. “In fact, the most popular blockchains, such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, use nation state attacks as the security threshold that they must defend against.”

Some banks are adopting their own digital currencies
Concerns about hacking and stability are among the primary reasons that the U.S. and other advanced economies are against digital fiat currencies, according to Nelson.

Still some governments are considering ‘central bank’ digital currencies. For example, Sweden’s central bank,  the Riksbank, is exploring the idea of a state-recognized currency called an “e-krona.” Central banks in Canada and Uruguay are looking at similar programs, and the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank launched a pilot last month.

Following Facebook’s Libra announcement, China’s central bank reportedly started to reconsider the merits of cryptocurrency as well. If many other major economies adopted digital fiat currencies, it would “raise concerns about maintaining the role of the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency in the global economy,” Nelson said. 

Besides Facebook, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase are researching potential launches of digital currency.