ECB’s Yves Mersch on why cryptocurrency Libra may be a new kind of money

Yves Mersch: Money and private currencies – reflections on Libra
Speech by Mr Yves Mersch, Member of the Executive Board of the European Central Bank, at the the ESCB Legal Conference, Frankfurt am Main, 2 September 2019.

In 1787, during the debates on adopting the US Constitution, James Madison stated that “[t]he circulation of confidence is better than the circulation of money”. It’s telling that Madison chose to use public trust in money as the yardstick for trust in public institutions – money and trust are as inextricably intertwined as money and the state. Money is an “indispensable social convention” that can only work if the public trusts in its stability and acceptability and, no less importantly, if the public has confidence in the resolve of its issuing authorities to stand behind it, in bad times as well as in good.

Madison’s 18th century remark on the link between money and trust has lost none of its relevance in the 21st century. The issue of trust in money has resurfaced in the public debate on privately issued, stateless currencies, such as bitcoin, and their promise to serve as reliable substitutes for public money. Today’s conference is neither the place nor the time for me to repeat my past statements on the shortcomings of cryptocurrencies1 and why they do not fulfil the basic tests of what constitutes “money”.

Instead, I will today talk about Libra, Facebook’s newly announced private currency. It is scheduled for release in the first half of 2020 by the very same people who had to explain themselves in front of legislators in the United States and the European Union on the threats to our democracies resulting from their handling of personal data on their social media platform.

There are three key questions here. First, how does Libra differ from other private currencies and from public money? Second, what legal and regulatory challenges does it pose? And third, in the light of its mandate, what position should a central bank like the ECB take towards Libra?

The remainder of my speech will be dedicated to these three questions, not with a view to conclusively answering them, but merely to raise awareness of some of the risks of Libra, to question its main premises and, in the process, to highlight the perils of entrusting the smooth processing of payments, the savings of citizens and the stability of the global monetary and financial systems to unaccountable private entities with a questionable track record in matters of trust.

The full speech is available at https://www.bis.org/review/r190902a.htm

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