Many pieces of the Diem puzzle still missing as launch gets delayed

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Back in June 2019, social media giant Facebook released the details for a much-talked-about digital currency platform dubbed “Libra.” These days, Libra is known as Diem, with the project undergoing a significant rebranding in a bid to smoothen regulatory wrinkles.

A year and a half later, the Diem Association has yet to launch a digital token with regulatory approval from Swiss authorities yet to materialize. Even if Switzerland’s Financial Market Supervisory Authority, or FINMA, does grant a payment license to the digital currency project, Diem will be debuting its offerings to a global landscape that is significantly more fractured in terms of digital currency regulations than was the case 18 months ago.

Stablecoin regulations seem to be the focus of attention for governments in major economic blocs including the United States and the eurozone. China continues to accelerate the pace of its nation digital yuan project, and despite initial assertions to the contrary, authorities in Beijing appear to have a more domestic agenda for the e-yuan.

Major crypto markets in terms of trading volume like India and Nigeria are becoming increasingly anti-privately-issued digital currencies. In effect, if Diem were to launch today, that would be four prominent digital currency transaction theatres where the legality of the project’s “coin” would be tenuous at best.

When will Diem launch?

In November 2020, the Diem Association announced plans for a limited launch of its project with a U.S.-dollar-pegged digital token. Far from the ambitious plans of a “Facebook coin” backed by a basket of fiat currencies that heralded the debut announcement back in 2019, this new USD stablecoin was a consequence of the successive rebranding attempts necessitated by the vociferous pushback among global financial regulators.

January came and went, and now February is almost over, but no sign of the Diem USD stablecoin. The Swiss FINMA has not approved Diem’s payment system license yet but recent developments in the country around crypto and blockchain regulations likely put Diem’s application in good stead.

Switzerland has established itself as a crypto-friendly nation, allowing the digital asset space to flourish within its borders. Earlier in February, Phase one of the country’s blockchain law focusing on company reforms went into effect. Meanwhile, the second part of the new legal framework, which creates regulatory clarity for trading crypto securities, will become law later in the year.

Plans for the Diem launch received another boost with the announcement of the partnership between crypto security outfit Fireblocks and First Digital Asset Group — a payment provider on the Diem platform. As part of the collaboration, both companies have created a secure wallet allowing financial institutions to process transactions on the Diem network.

Responding to Cointelegraph, a spokesperson for FINMA declined to comment on the status of Diem’s application but confirmed that the licensing process was still ongoing. The Diem Association did not immediately respond to Cointelegraph’s request for comments on the matter.

According to Jackson Mueller, head of policy and government relations at blockchain compliance and financial markets infrastructure outfit Securrency, a Diem launch in Q1 2021 appears unlikely. In a conversation with Cointelegraph, Mueller remarked:

“Several representatives of the Diem Association have made it clear that a rollout will not happen until they meet regulatory expectations and requirements, and it is unclear, at this time, whether and to what extent the Association is close to achieving this.”

Private stablecoins in the cross-hairs of regulators

The Diem announcement back in the Summer of 2019 seemed to spur financial regulators across the world to scrutinize stablecoins. The likely network effect of a digital currency enjoying such benefits of Facebook’s 2.8 billion users seemed to spur intense discussions among national and international regulatory agencies.

According to Mueller, government scrutiny surrounding privately issued stablecoins has increased: “The conclusions and follow-on outcomes from these efforts are unclear, at present, which, I imagine, adds further challenges to the rollout of Diem in the first quarter.”

Apart from the series of congressional hearings that took place in 2019 after the Diem announcement, some congresspeople are pushing for stricter stablecoin regulations. The measures, if passed, would force private stablecoin issuers to comply with banking standards.

Intergovernmental bodies, such as the G-7 and the G-20, have also expressed their concerns about stablecoins, with Diem often being singled-out. These bodies have issued numerous papers and research studies highlighting the potential for private stablecoins to disrupt legacy financial systems.

The European Central Bank recently asked European Union lawmakers for veto powers concerning stablecoins in the eurozone. If granted, the ECB would have the final say on stablecoin regulations with its pronouncement enforceable across the European Union. Indeed, the ECB laid down the crux of its reservations with stablecoins especially those not issued by recognized financial institutions, stating:

“The additional requirements laid down in the proposed regulation for significant stablecoin issuers are therefore welcome. Having said that, these additional requirements may not be sufficient to address growing risks where stablecoins become widely used as a means of payment or a store of value in multiple jurisdictions across the Union.”

Furthermore, ECB President Christine Lagarde is a noted critic of stablecoins and cryptocurrencies in general. Thus, it’s likely that the ECB having veto powers on stablecoin regulations would mean strict compliance mandates for issuers in the eurozone.

Officials in Germany are also among one of the more vocal opponents of Diem in the eurozone. While the country is by no means anti-crypto, Germany’s finance minister, Olaf Scholz, has stated on numerous occasions that the country’s government will oppose Diem’s operation in Germany.

According to Ran Goldi, CEO of First Digital Assets Group, much of the negative sentiments espoused by European regulators stem from a lack of understanding of the Diem model. “I think the ECB is still looking at Diem as a new currency instead of a representation of existing money (as in, they think this is still Libra, a basket of currencies),” Goldi told Cointelegraph, adding: “They should take the time to learn more and perhaps realize there is no threat to their economy.”

CBDC: Central banks answer to Diem and private stablecoins?

Apart from the threat of decidedly onerous regulatory measures, several governments have also begun exploring the creation of their own central bank digital currencies. These sovereign digital currency projects seem to be the response of central banks to the perceived threat of privately issued stablecoins.

Seeing as digitization appears to be the next phase in the evolution of money, legacy finance figures, such as Agustín Carstens, general manager of the Bank for International Settlements, have argued for central banks playing a key role in the pivot to digital currencies.

According to a recent BIS survey, about 86% of major central banks are studying CBDCs. China’s e-yuan project is currently undergoing several testing protocols, with banks in the country helping to bootstrap adoption by creating hardware wallets for the digital currency/electronic payment.

Related: China turns up pace on CBDC release, tests infrastructure prior to adoption

There also seems to be a significant level of international collaboration surrounding CBDCs. Recently, the central banks of China, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates and the Monetary Authority of Hong Kong inked a partnership to create a cross-border CBDC. These international collaborative projects appear to be geared toward establishing protocols for interoperability among national CBDC projects.

In India, the country’s central bank has confirmed that it is actively developing a digital rupee. According to a recent statement by Shaktikanta Das, governor of the Reserve Bank of India, the RBI is “very much in the [CBDC] game” and wants to follow China’s footsteps in creating a digital companion to its national currency.

Meanwhile, India’s government is reportedly close to issuing a blanket ban on cryptocurrencies, which will include stablecoins. People with knowledge of the plan have been speculating, saying that crypto owners will be given a transition period to sell their digital currency assets.

India is Asia’s third-largest economy and a potential market base for Diem payment transactions. Already, another major arena like China with its DCEP could be a difficult proposition for Diem to achieve significant adoption.

In Europe, the ECB wants stablecoin veto power but has said that any digital euro created by the central bank will be exempted from digital currency regulations enforced on other stablecoin issuers. Nigeria — Africa’s largest economy — has banned banks from servicing crypto exchanges.

Even with a license approval by FINMA, Diem might have a few regulatory hurdles to navigate seeing as major economies are not looking to allow the disintermediation of their legacy banking systems without a fight.

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