Do you want to open a bank account with Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook?
No, me neither.
It’s bad enough that Facebook FB, -2.38% says it won’t be paying a nickel of interest on any money that customers keep in the company’s new Libra digital accounts.
But why would I want to lend my money to Zuckerberg and his pals free of charge to help them take over the world? Spare me all the talk about helping the “unbanked” and the world’s poor.
This is business. Big business.
Banking is the world’s most lucrative industry. According to FactSet, the world’s publicly traded banks have a total market value of around $4.5 trillion. There was a good reason Willie Sutton robbed banks. As he explained, “that’s where the money is.”
And, no, Libra isn’t just going to be a “currency.” It’s going to be a bank.
“The goal of the Libra Blockchain is to serve as a solid foundation for financial services ... which could meet the daily financial needs of billions of people,” the so-called Libra Association acknowledges in the documents released this week. It’s going to have “billions of accounts,” and “power ... future innovation in financial services.”
It’s the latest brilliant, cynical, devious move by Facebook.
The structure of the Libra Association is sheer genius. Technically, it’s going to be “completely independent” of Facebook. The Libra Association is theoretically going to be a stand-alone “not for profit” body based in Switzerland that will oversee the new “currency.” So nobody can say this is the Facebook Bank, or the Bank of Zuckerberg.
But the devil is hanging out in his usual place.
While Facebook will be just one member of the Libra Association, it will be the biggest and most powerful company in the network. Nobody else has 2.4 billion monthly active users, with numbers rising by 8% a year.
Who gets paid?
Meanwhile, although the Libra Association is “not for profit,” the Libra financial system is actually going to pay out dividends to all its members.
If you open a Libra account, or “wallet,” Libra will invest your cash in interest-bearing bonds while paying you nothing. The members will keep the difference as dividends.
And if this thing takes off, those could add up to big bucks.
Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, as they say.
The new venture lifted Facebook’s stock to $190 this week. Its price in March 2018, just before the Cambridge Analytica data-sharing scandal sent it spiraling downward? About $185. Facebook has actually been outperforming the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite COMP, -0.83% since September.
In other words, Mark Zuckerberg and the honchos at Facebook have ultimately paid no economic price — none — for the scandals and outrages of the past couple of years. There has been no real punishment and no real penalty.
Facebook enabled Vladimir Putin to subvert the U.S. presidential election in 2016, and Zuckerberg apologized to Congress for his “mistake” and his “regrets” on the matter last year. But it hasn’t actually cost him a penny.
His total compensation package actually went up, as stockholders ponied up for more security for him and his family. But, of course, his real money is in the stock, which makes him once of the richest people in the world.
He even shrugged off yet another stockholders’ revolt at this year’s annual meeting. Yes, a majority of the stockholders voted to oust him as chairman. But who cares? Zuckerberg controls the voting stock, and that’s all that really matters.
Maybe it was pure coincidence that Libra happens to be named after Vladimir Putin’s sign of the Zodiac. Or maybe it was Zuckerberg’s idea of a joke — or a taunt. (Facebook did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)
Brett Arends is a MarketWatch columnist.