U.S. banks might be happy to stay away from Facebook Inc.’s push into cryptocurrencies. For now.
The Libra Association, the governing body for the coin, is in talks with lenders around the world to join its ranks. Banks are mostly keeping their distance after seeing tepid consumer reaction to digital wallets such as Apple Pay and regulatory scrutiny of digital currencies.
“If Facebook is able to create mass adoption on this platform, then banks will want in,” David Donovan, who leads the global financial-services consulting practice at Publicis Sapient, said in a phone interview. “There’s a business decision they have to make. Facebook is saying the market is not being served well.”
Banks were absent when Facebook announced Libra last week, saying that more than two dozen other companies, including payment networks Visa Inc. and Mastercard Inc., joined the project. The social-media giant said Libra will be backed by fiat currencies to provide payment services to the 1.7 billion people worldwide without easy access to banking.
Facebook and its 2.4 billion active users are hard for the largest U.S. banks to ignore — and Citigroup Inc.’s Michael Corbat has said his firm would consider joining Libra if asked. But it’s not the first time a technology giant promised sweeping changes to the payments world.
Apple Inc. introduced Apple Pay in 2014 to much fanfare. Banks spent millions promoting the service and created card rewards tied to customer use of the product. In a sign of how eager they were, banks even gave Apple a cut of the coveted interchange fees they earn from each swipe of a card.
But five years in, Apple Pay has struggled to take off. Large retailers including Walmart Inc. have been hesitant to accept the technology. And while consumers spent roughly $3 trillion using digital wallets in 2018, almost two-thirds of that spending occurred in China where apps like Alipay and WeChat Pay dominate commerce, according to a report from Juniper Research.
“Advanced payment methods haven’t really taken hold unless they’re mandated,” Tim Spenny, a senior vice president at market researcher Magid who has consulted for Facebook and Visa, said in an interview.
For him, the question is: “What is the use case or what is the pain point that would cause people to say ‘Hey, I’m going to put money into a cryptocurrency to start paying for things.’”
After years spent trying to promote Apple Pay, U.S. banks turned their attention to tap-to-pay cards, which use the same technology while keeping the familiar card product. It’s a recipe that’s worked for JPMorgan Chase & Co. customers.
“There’s a big segment that never used mobile wallets, but the moment they got their contactless cards, they’re starting to tap right away,” Abeer Bhatia, president of card marketing, pricing and innovation for the bank, said in an interview last month. “When they have the choice to use either, they’re overwhelmingly using tap-to-pay.”
Banks have been conducting their own experiments with cryptocurrencies, such as JPMorgan’s JPM Coin, which is meant to speed up corporate payments. The largest U.S. lenders have also promoted a new real-time payments service spearheaded by The Clearing House.
There have been cases where startups were assessed for compliance lapses. And Libra’s debut drew attention from regulators, as members of the House Financial Services Committee and the Senate Banking Committee promised hearings on the digital coin and its governance.
John Smith, who used to lead the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said tech companies and the banks they work with “will be held accountable” if they violate the law.
“There’s a view within the fintechs that, ‘We couldn’t possibly do the rules that big banks do because we’re trying to be quick,’” Smith, co-head of Morrison & Foerster’s national security law practice, said Friday at a conference. “There’s going to be a rude awakening.”