PayPal’s Stablecoin Is No Libra. Why the Timing Feels Right

Like Facebook's ill-fated Libra project, PYUSD is getting some pushback in Washington. But its prospects seem more promising, says Michael J. Casey.

AccessTimeIconAug 11, 2023 at 4:16 p.m. UTC
Updated Aug 11, 2023 at 6:58 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconAug 11, 2023 at 4:16 p.m. UTCUpdated Aug 11, 2023 at 6:58 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconAug 11, 2023 at 4:16 p.m. UTCUpdated Aug 11, 2023 at 6:58 p.m. UTC

This week, Rep. Maxine Waters, (D-California) declared she was “deeply concerned” with payments giant PayPal (PYPL) for launching a stablecoin under the New York Department of Financial Services regulatory framework before federal legislation addressing such crypto instruments has been debated. The moment had echoes of the battle over the doomed Libra project, which Waters also vehemently opposed.

But the circumstances are quite different from four years ago, when Facebook, now known as Meta Platforms (META), rolled out a basket-based stablecoin to a barrage of regulator criticism around the world. The attacks were so heavy that they ultimately stymied Libra’s advance, leaving it to wither and die, even after a radical redesign intended to appease regulators and a name change to Diem.

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Libra was one of those rare issues that generated bipartisanship — in opposition to the project, rather than for it — in part because at that time other concerns about Facebook’s treatment of user data had turned it, briefly, into a pariah for politicians.

By contrast, the stablecoin industry now seems to have won over a decent number of backers in Congress, mostly from one side. Last month, House Republicans successfully pushed stablecoin legislation through the House Financial Services Committee. And, while its passage was more contentious than many had hoped, with Waters herself leading Democrat resistance, the bill seems likely to win support in the Republican-controlled House when it goes to a floor vote.

PayPal has now complicated the outlook for this bill’s passage through the Senate. I tend to agree with observers, cited in a piece by CoinDesk’s Jesse Hamilton this week, who argued that PayPal, in upsetting Democrats by jumping the gun on the legislation, will harden the resolve of the party’s anti-crypto crusaders in the Senate, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts). And that could halt the bill’s passage in the upper chamber, where Warren’s party controls the majority.

But in the grand scheme of things, PayPal’s project is in a far stronger position politically than the universally mistrusted Libra ever was. Republicans are thrilled that the payments company launched its stablecoin, known as PYUSD, at this moment. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-North Carolina), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, called the move a “clear signal that stablecoins — if issued under a clear regulatory framework — hold promise as a pillar of our 21st-century payments system” and made it “more important than ever” to keep moving the legislation forward.

Just as importantly, PayPal’s move follows a slew of initiatives from financial establishment players to prod policymakers to support their own engagement in the crypto industry. BlackRock (BLK), Fidelity Investments, Invesco and many more are now pushing the Securities and Exchange Commission to support newly revived submissions seeking approval of bitcoin exchange-traded funds. Meanwhile, Charles Schwab (SCHW), Fidelity and Citadel are jointly seeking regulatory approval for a new crypto exchange. These institutions do their homework in Washington before going down paths like this, as does PayPal.

People are rightfully concerned about the polarization and politicization of the crypto debate. But with six Democrats — a surprisingly large number — breaking ranks in the House Financial Services Committee to support a separate McHenry-sponsored bill that creates a broad regulatory framework for crypto, the risk of gridlocked stalemate mightn’t be as high as feared, especially given the clout of the companies now showing their support for the industry.

The other factor in PayPal’s favor is that, unlike Libra, it is offering up a dollar-only stablecoin, which could boost demand for the U.S. currency around the world and that it doesn’t have nearly the same global footprint as Facebook had at the time of the Libra launch. Libra’s first iteration was a token pegged to a multicurrency basket, which many policymakers saw as a threat to monetary sovereignty. They feared that, if Facebook’s billions of users shifted to using the token, it would directly diminish demand for their domestic currencies.

PayPal may well face some grandstanding opposition from Democrats and that might hold up legislation. But it’s hard to see this development as being on the wrong side of history. Sooner rather than later, stablecoins will enjoy a constructive regulatory framework in the U.S. and that could spur a dramatic change in money that newcomers like PayPal and old-timers like Tether and Circle will be well placed to exploit.

Edited by Ben Schiller.

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Michael J. Casey

Michael J. Casey is CoinDesk's Chief Content Officer.