Interview with Jean-Hervé LORENZI
Chairman of the Pole of Competitiveness "Finance Innovation"
Conducted by Yves GASSOT CEO IDATE DigiWorld and Maximilien NAYARADOU, Director of R&D projects,
Pôle de Compétivité Mondial Finance Innovation
DW Economic Journal: Finance vs. FinTech, where are we seeing innovation today?
Jean-Hervé LORENZI: Without a doubt, it is new entrants in what is commonly referred to as FinTech that are driving innovation today. FinTech start-ups are the myriad micro, small and medium businesses that combine information technologies and finance, and are coming to disrupt a sector that has long been protected by regulation. FinTech innovations range from new payment systems that make it possible to decrease the cost of digital transactions, to new financing platforms: crowdfunding of course, but also seed capital, stocks, robo-advisors that digitise financial consulting, blockchains that lower the cost of certifying transactions by decentralising the process, and of course the plethora of digital services that FinTech companies are ushering in: account aggregation, generating coupons based on individual shopping habits, etc. Added to this are the myriad possibilities opened up by big data: extra-financial analysis that, at last, selects financially-relevant variables and helps expand the range of enterprises that have access to financing.
But it should also be said that, even if FinTechs have the momentum on their side, traditional finance industry players are also innovating, albeit at a slower pace: the pace of private bureaucracies and as a defensive measure, but innovating nonetheless. Regulatory pressure is stepping up, and it seems safe to predict that the rate of innovation inside banks and insurance companies will accelerate… naturally with the help of FinTechs.
The Finance Innovation competition cluster, of which I am the president, is at the very heart of these changes in the financial sector. Twice a year, we give our seal of approval to 50 innovative projects, most of which are FinTech projects, and so coming from micro, small and medium businesses, but we also give our seal to projects from the sector's larger enterprises that are seeking to promote new products that are innovative, strategic and reliable. Lastly, we extend our seal to collaborative projects driven by FinTechs, large corporations and academics, projects eligible for public subsidies aimed at encouraging players to work together to innovate. The Finance Innovation competition cluster is the only structure in France that centralises finance-related innovations of all kinds – technological or service-centric – and regardless of the entity behind the endeavour: FinTechs of course, but also large corporations and academics.
What are the different views on competition between FinTech companies and veteran market players? Is FinTech not synonymous with disintermediation?
Veteran players have their own set of assets, including their market power and immense size, especially in France, which enable economies of scale and create real barriers to entry. FinTechs are small and in some cases tiny companies. But veteran players' strengths are also their weaknesses: their large size also means a heavy bureaucracy that paralyses initiative and agility.
We should also point out that, when competing with incumbents, FinTechs have the prevailing wind of financial disintermediation in their sails. Of course, these are two separate phenomena, but they do feed and foster one another. The high-speed digitisation of the financial sector is helping to bring down market entry costs for newcomers, and the cost of disintermediation. Disintermediation allows assets managers and insurance companies to finance companies directly, without having to go through the banks, and allows crowd-funders to do the same. Disintermediation opens up the market for FinTechs, digitisation makes it possible to roll out a solvent product with very little capital, contrary to insurance companies and assets managers. FinTechs are also entering the realm of shadow banking, this non-banking form of finance that is developing and, when properly regulated, contributing to funding the economy: crowdfunding, seed capital platforms and online factoring are all part of the shadow banking phenomenon.
Does Europe lag behind in the area of FinTech and innovative financial solutions? What differences do you see between the situation in France and Europe from the one in the United States or in Asia?
It is not Europe that is lagging behind, but rather the Eurozone. The United Kingdom is absolutely not lagging behind: prior to the Brexit vote, London was Europe's FinTech capital. Compared to the US and even the UK, fundraising levels in France are still quite meagre, despite a significant increase in both frequency and volume since the end of 2014: €1.2 million on average, compared to €5 million in the UK and well over that in the US. Of course, this can be explained by the very limited development of investment capital in France, compared to English-speaking countries.
Next, government intervention in start-ups and innovative companies is very efficient: in the US and the UK, the public sector takes far more risks of losing money and in financing businesses with little or no funds of their own, so public subsidies have a far greater impact there than in France. Added to which Anglo-Saxon governments and regulatory authorities are very FinTech-friendly: the Bank of England has an office dedicated to FinTechs which helps remove the regulatory barriers to their entry into the market. A FinTech bureau was created in France as well, but several years after the one in Britain. Another very important example is that the UK equivalent of BPI France (France's public investment bank) has financed crowdfunding platforms so that they might distribute funding to SMBs, which gave the sector an enormous boost. Plus, in both the US and the UK, relations between SMBs, large corporations and the State are regulated, and a percentage of the federal government's (under the Small Business Act in the US) and big businesses' procurements must be from small businesses, which guarantees a minimum set of opportunities for start-ups. In the financial sector, the banks thus have a very practical incentive to work with start-ups. The positive and pragmatic ecosystem that we find in English-speaking countries made investments in FinTechs profitable much more quickly, so investors were quicker to invest heavily, which helped perpetuate a virtuous circle.
We should nevertheless point out that, inside the Eurozone, France in general (thanks French Tech) and the Paris exchange in particular, are in an especially strong position with respect to FinTech, compared to Germany or Italy. For instance, France has had crowdfunding legislation in place since 2014, which provides the sector with a secure framework and is allowing it to develop in a healthy, controlled fashion, which is not the case in the other major Eurozone nations. Moreover, France and the Paris exchange in particular have a sizeable advance in terms of R&D; France is a global leader in the areas of Big Data (France was the birthplace of data mining, Big Data's predecessor, back in the 1970s) and of artificial intelligence. Not only do France and the Paris exchange have considerable R&D assets, but France in general and the Paris region have a concentration of FinTech entrepreneurs, and a tremendous intensity of entrepreneurial creativity. Lastly, listings on the Paris exchange include the largest banks, assets managers and insurance companies in Europe. If they are quick to embrace the digital transition and learn to work with FinTechs, the Paris exchange will have all the assets needed to catch up to London.
Is banking and financial regulation an impediment to FinTech's development in France? And, looking at it from another angle, could FinTech weaken a financial system that public authorities and market players have been working to strengthen since 2008?
Regulation in France, which is very strict when it comes to protecting investors and consumers, increases the cost of entering the market and, as a result, favours incumbents. It took several years for France's financial market regulators, ACPR and AMF to decide to open up a dedicated FinTech office. Added to which, once open, the FinTech bureau did not follow the more FinTech-friendly sandbox approach taken by regulators in English-speaking countries. The sandbox approach consists of relaxing regulation temporarily to be able to test the relevance of a given innovation and, at the same time, of existing regulation. France's FinTech regulator refused the sandbox approach, which means that FinTechs are not exempt from existing regulations, even when testing new products.
FinTechs are still too small to upset the balance of the financial system, but we can also point out that it is the Base III, Solvency II, MIFID et. al regulations introduced since 2008 that enable FinTechs to emerge as alternatives for the financial sector's clientele. The capital constraints that have been mandatory since 2008, and which limit the banks' leverage, have paved the way for solutions such as peer-to-peer lending and crowdfunding to develop.
What scenario does the prospect of no more cheques and especially no more cash evoke for you?
This, in fact, means the end of paper money, since blockchain technology allows us to imagine the existence of digital cash, in other words a digital currency but one that is anonymous and traceable like cash. Bitcoin is to some extent a form of digital cash, but it carries the baggage of a bad reputation due to its use on the Dark Net (i.e. non public corner of the Web). There will always be a demand for a portion of transactions to remain anonymous, without implying criminal activity. When central banks start to use blockchain, digital sovereign currencies will emerge, which will be a sort of pegged exchange rate Bitcoin, like all sovereign currencies, but which would be tied to a central bank.
Can you tell us a bit about the Finance Innovation competition cluster? And what the cluster believes are the key issues facing financial market innovation today?
The Finance Innovation cluster has over 350 members: FinTechs, major banks, insurance companies and assets management companies, as well as academics, working together to disseminate a culture of innovation within the financial sector, and to accelerate the development of innovative projects in the sector that take on economic, societal and environmental issues, in the service of growth and job creation.
Finance Innovation holds two seal of approval ceremonies a year, recognising innovative FinTech start-up projects – although not confined to start-ups as the seal can also be awarded to innovative projects from large corporations in the sector, as well as collaborative projects between corporations and academia. A total of around 100 projects are awarded the seal of approval each year, through these two ceremonies. The goal is to obtain private (private fundraising) or public financing (BPI France, regional financing, innovation clusters for the trades (PIA), Single inter-ministry fund (FUI)….) and to promote innovative solutions through the cluster's YouTube channel, publishing articles on Hello Finance, use of social media, etc.
The Finance Innovation cluster is also synonymous with experimenting, testing, disseminating and promoting innovative financing solutions for micro, small and medium businesses, within the sector itself across the whole of France, and in other sectors through 70 other competition clusters.
Lastly, the Finance Innovation cluster means roadmaps for finance industry innovation. To establish these roadmaps, which are published in the form of White Papers, we work in concert with large corporations, FinTech start-ups and academics to determine which areas of innovation are priorities, and to identify future catalysts of growth. These White Papers allow us to structure innovation in our domains of expertise, and to provide the State with tools for selecting the innovative projects to subsidise. In 2016, we are publishing a White Paper on innovation in retail banking, which will be followed by two more in 2017: one on innovation in the accounting and consulting professions, and one on innovation in e-health and prevention.
Innovation in the finance industry today is coming from FinTech, in other words from technologies that are enabling the creation of new innovative and high value-added services. And let us not forget that FinTech also encompasses InsurTech, which adds connected objects, on-board systems and security issues to the mix. It is this entirely new framework that is revamping the insurance sector, as new data are available and challenging actuaries' classic risk models. The public at large tends to focus more on FinTech and the banking sector even though, thanks to InsurTech, the insurance sector is in the throes of an equally dramatic upheaval.
What do economists believe are the real stakes of the financial sector's digital transformation, in terms of economies' competitiveness, growth and job creation?
English-speaking countries have fully embraced FinTech: a shift that will allow the sector to enjoy gains in productivity, and create economies that are more competitive in terms of financing. FinTechs expand the range of what can be financed, which is something that States and the sector's regulators need to understand. On the other hand, we should not have any illusions: the prospects for job creation are strong, but so are the prospects for job destruction. Thanks to the use of digital technology, FinTechs will enjoy enormous productivity gains: over the long term, thousands of back-office jobs in banks, teller jobs and financial consultant jobs will be destroyed. The banking sector is tomorrow's steel industry. We find the classic dilemma of Schumpeterian creative destruction: a great many jobs will be lost and a great many created, but which will outnumber the other? The jobs that will be lost will be low skilled ones, while the ones that will be created will be jobs for the highly skilled: engineers, doctors, data scientists… This could further exacerbate inequalities: unskilled workers will have trouble finding a new job in the digital economy. So, to meet the challenges in terms of training, upgrading skills and making the transition to the digital economy, substantially more public monies will need to be invested in these areas to limit the negative impact of increased inequality, and the difficulties of vocational reconversion for the least skilled workers.
Jean-Hervé LORENZI, Major at the Agrégation des facultés de droit et sciences economies (Faculties of Law and Economics) in 1975, is Chairman of the Cercle des économistes (the famous circle of French economists), holder of the Chair "Demographic Transition, Economic Transition within the Fondation du Risque (Foundation of the Risk)" and Chairman of the Pôle de Compétitivité (Pole of Competitiveness) "Finance Innovation". He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Edmond de Rothschild France Group, of the supervisory board of Euler Hermes and the Boards of directors (board meetings) of the Médéric Alzheimer Foundation, the IDATE and the BNP Paribas Cardif. He was Professor at the university Paris-Dauphine and the member of council of economic analysis. He has notably published: Un monde de violences. L'économie mondiale 2015-2030, Paris, Eyrolles, 2014; Rajeunissement et vieillissement de la France (with J. Pelletan and A. Villemeur), Paris, Descartes & Cie, 2012; Droite contre gauche, (with O. Pastré), Paris, Fayard, 2012; Le fabuleux destin d'une puissance intermédiaire, Paris, Grasset, 2011; Le choc des populations: guerre ou paix, (in collaboration with P. Dockès), Paris, Fayard, 2010.