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Focus on getting back to banking basics at Paris Fintech Forum

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With the top 10 crypto assets down 80 per cent in the last 12 months, many fintech pros concluded that the technology may not be ready for prime time, especially in a heavily regulated industry.

London

CRYPTO fever has truly broken.

That was a big takeaway from the Paris Fintech Forum, one of the biggest annual gatherings of its kind in Europe. On Jan 29 and 30, about 3,000 entrepreneurs, investors, bankers, and regulators descended on the neo-classical Palais Brongniart, once home to the stock exchange.

In 2018, with Bitcoin and its imitators soaring, attendees jammed discussions on blockchain technology.

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Market voices on:

"I nearly lost my whole team to cryptocurrencies," said Will Andrich, the CEO of Switzerland's Thaler.One, which says it creates real estate-backed digital securities.

No such problem this year. With the top 10 crypto assets down 80 per cent in the last 12 months and scepticism mounting, many fintech pros concluded that the technology may not be ready for prime time, especially in an industry this heavily regulated.

Instead, the conference was about getting back to banking basics. Sessions on building branchless lenders were standing-room only, investors buzzed about how 2019 could be a banner dealmaking year, and the most controversial moment came at a panel on old-fashioned lending.

Backstage, luminaries from traditional finance and the startup world sipped coffee and geeked out.

Fresh from Davos, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, chatted with Kathryn Petralia, a co-founder of Kabbage Inc., an Atlanta-based firm that does automated credit scoring and lending.

On stage, the governor of the Bank of France, Francois Villeroy de Galhau, held forth on artificial intelligence with Olivier Guersent, the director-general of financial stability at the European Commission. "I'm pretty excited about supply chains," said Ann Cairns, the vice-chairman of Mastercard Inc.

With Europe's new payments law now requiring banks to share customer account data with fintech firms, the prevailing vibe was that there's plenty of action without messing around with crypto.

Perhaps nothing drove that point home more than the face-off between Gottfried Leibbrandt, the chief executive officer of Swift, and Brad Garlinghouse, the CEO of San Francisco's Ripple Labs Inc.

Swift is a 46-year-old cooperative that directs trillions of dollars in cross-border payments between thousands of banks. Mr Garlinghouse has repeatedly vowed to leapfrog Swift's 1970s-conceived system with a faster, cheaper blockchain-like one.

"I look at the dynamic between Ripple and Swift, and I liken it to Amazon and Wal-Mart," he told a packed auditorium.

Mr Leibbrandt countered that for two years, Swift's latest payment standard revitalised its system, letting customers track a payment like a FedEx package, and cutting transfer time to hours.

Unlike Ripple, which has struggled to sign up major banks, Mr Leibbrandt said the world's top 60 lenders are utilising its technology, which is already embraced by regulators.

"Banks are not ready for a model where you convert into a crypto and then convert back again," Mr Leibbrandt said. "It's not clear to us that blockchain is better than what we have today."

The hot fintech jargon was "Banking-as-a-Service." A more apt moniker might be "Bank-in-a-Box": these ventures create digital versions of products ranging from debit cards to money transfer to account-management tools, which customers can rebrand as their own.

Antony Jenkins, the former CEO of Barclays Plc, runs an outfit called 10x that has made inroads in this space.

"We're commoditising everything that a bank does," said Brad van Leeuwen, head of partnerships at London-based Railsbank Ltd., as he showed a menu of offerings to prospects. Railsbank, whose slogan is "Banking in Five Lines of Code," is capitalising on the spread of inexpensive open source software and cloud computing.

Some ventures, like solarisBank AG, obtained bank licences so they could make loans through partners and sell software to support payment cards and other products to upstarts.

"Traditionally, banks are not good at dealing with clients, so we enable those fintechs to move in on their turf," said Roland Folz, the CEO of Berlin-based solarisBank.

Things were less rosy in the online lending space. The underwhelming initial public offering and share slump by Funding Circle Holdings Plc, the No. 1 peer-to-peer loans outfit in the U.K., cast a pall.

Then, there's Brexit. Christian Faes, the CEO and co-founder of mortgage lender LendInvest Ltd., said his firm is originating between 20 and 30 million pounds (S$35.5 and S$53.2 million) per month in loans to residential landlords after moving into the market in 2017, with funding from Citigroup Inc.

He would like to expand into mainstream mortgages, too, but it's harder to attract backers right now.

"Brexit is not ideal," said Mr Faes, nursing a glass of red wine across from the exhibition hall. "The market for institutional money has been shut down until Brexit is sorted out."

As investors scrutinise the stress to the British economy, Rishi Khosla, the CEO of an online lender called OakNorth, drew guffaws of disbelief when he said his firm had never recorded a default or late payment, thanks to its machine learning capabilities.

He might be "not lending enough," said Olivier Goy, the CEO of October, which originates loans for small businesses, said on a panel the next day.

There was a feeling that European fintech is maturing, though retaining its dynamism. German digital bank N26 GmbH recently garnered a valuation of US$2.7 billion.

Mastercard and Visa Inc. are battling to buy a London cross-border payments firm called Earthport Plc, and Adyen NV, the Dutch payment processor that went public last year, has minted three billionaires as its stock has nearly tripled.

Looser times are over, said Benedetta Arese Lucini, the founder and CEO of Oval Money Ltd., a startup based in London and Turin that lets consumers manage their spending and saving.

Wrapping up her spiel in a pitch contest, she said she was swearing off attending more conferences. And she's done with spending her time taking part in pitch contests, too.

"Last year we could screw up, make mistakes, but you can't do that anymore," Ms Arese Lucini said. "Our adolescence is over." BLOOMBERG