Don’t be fooled by appearances. Behind this calm façade, Jean-Michel Paul is a past master at stirring things up! Especially when it comes to shaking up an economic system – one he knows well enough to recognise its failings – and striking at the heart of conservatism. His most recent business project is a demonstration of this. “Akinova is an electronic risk assurance transfer market”, he explains. “We use the internet to dematerialise the whole traditional insurance chain. This allows us to offer premiums to people at half the price.” An idea that must have earned him a few enemies in the industry, but Jean-Michel doesn’t care – he’s seen it all before…
FOR ME, THE ULB AND THE SBS-EM ACTED AS A SOCIAL ELEVATOR
An early passion
From a very early age, Jean-Michel Paul has been passionate about economics. “I began reading “The Economist” when I was about 15. I’ve always found the concept of money fascinating. When you think about it, what is there more intangible than money? Even our euro notes demonstrate this: none of the bridges and windows that appear on them really exist! In fact, money is a great collective illusion…” But that didn’t stop him from opting to study commercial engineering at the School. “It’s good training – rigorous, comprehensive and varied – but I still needed a broader overview in order to understand the world. So, in my 3rd year I embarked on a cycle in political science alongside my other studies.”
Jean-Michel has good memories of this period of double study. “I was thirsty for knowledge and at university, all knowledge is available. Also, I come from a modest background. My mother brought her five children up on her own. For me, the ULB and the SBS-EM acted as a social elevator”. In fact, the Dean of the time, Marie-Christine Adam, took him under her wing. Thanks to her, he became the first student to go on an exchange to the University of California, Berkeley. This was so successful that a few years later he went back there to do a thesis. But before that, the forthrightness of his writing would cause him a few problems … but open new horizons for him too.
Hitting where it hurts
“I don’t find it easy to write. I write when I really can’t stand things anymore and I have to get it out there! One day, I’d produced an article on the Belgian debt which, like all national debts, is only ever a mechanism for redistributing wealth to the wealthy. In my article I said how unfair this debt was, that it was cruel to place such a burden on future generations and that Belgium would do well to declare itself bankrupt to get rid of it.” Jean-Michel offered this article to several Belgian newspapers, without success. He also sent it to a friend from Sciences Po who, at the time, was doing an internship on the Wall Street Journal. The editor-in chief came across it and decided to publish it. The article caused a stir and unleashed the fury of the boss of the Belgian Central Bank.
Off to discover Asia
It wasn’t the first time that his writing had won him a powerful enemy. The year before, in 1992, Jean-Michel had done an internship at the IMF. In a speech about Japan, he predicted an imminent banking crisis. The idea was very badly received by the Japanese representative who asked for the young man to be dismissed! But just a few months later, Jean-Michel’s prediction came true… and the University of Tokyo invited him to come and work on reforming the Japanese banks! So off he went to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Two years later, he returned to Berkeley to complete his doctoral thesis. At the age of 30, the economist seemed to be heading towards a university career. In fact, he was also about to accept a position at Wharton (the Philadelphia University Business School) when Rabobank offered him the post of Research Director. He accepted. “Along with developing new financial products, I was writing reports on the Asian economy. This brought me in touch with a number of central banks. The more I got to know them, the more I found that the way they operated was archaic. And they weren’t alone! In many respects, the whole of the financial system is littered with anachronistic, aberrant 19th-century economic structures! Take insurance: 10% of GNP goes through it. For each euro of premium, 50 to 70 cents are used to pay the insurers; less than half is redistributed to the parties insured. So it’s hardly surprising that insurance companies have such beautiful buildings!”
With these considerations in mind and tired of his work at Rabobank, Jean-Michel decided to found his first startup, in the United States. OneShield offered insurance products on the internet. The start-up soon took off: in six months, it grew from 3 to 100 employees! “The idea was sound but the timing was poor: in 2001 the internet bubble burst. In the space of a few months, I lost my work visa, my job and all my savings…”
From one crisis to another
But he wasn’t going to let this get him down. Back in Europe, he was taken on by Atlas Capital Group to manage hedge fund investments. “It’s very interesting… though you can never be sure if the person in front of you is an ace trader, a future Nobel prize winner in economics and/or a crook!”
In 2005, Jean-Michel began to feel bored… and saw the crisis coming. “Everyone knew that subprimes were going to lead to a catastrophe; it was only a question of time. So I wanted to develop a product that could withstand this: life settlement. As everyone knows, health costs in the United States are very high. When people can no longer afford to continue paying, they can sell the capital in their life insurance.” The CEO of an American bank got wind of his idea and proposed to Jean-Michel to develop it in-house… for a seven figure salary. Many people would have jumped at this opportunity but Jean-Michel wasn’t convinced: “The money seemed too easy; I thought it might blow up in my face. So I declined the offer and founded my own company: Acheron.”
At the start, he had trouble raising 10 million euros. In addition to death benefits, the company went on to offer insurance against natural disasters, investment funds lending to SMEs in Asia, etc. Today, Acheron Capital (based in London) manages a 150 million euro portfolio and is a leader in its sector and growing rapidly in Asia. With this success under his belt, Jean-Michel co-founded Akinova.
WE CLAIM TO BE A KNOWLEDGE-BASED ECONOMY BUT WE UNDERINVEST IN PEOPLE!
From journalism to academia?
Meanwhile, after a few years’ break, Jean-Michel has returned to writing. For three years he has been writing articles on the economy for Bloomberg. “I was able to become financially independent which gave me greater freedom of speech.” His hobby horse? Human capital. “We claim to be a knowledge-based economy but we underinvest in people!”, he points out angrily. “In Belgium, we are spending less and less on infrastructure, research and education while overtaxing individuals and work in the name of entirely virtual budgetary considerations! In the rest of Europe, things are no better… Entire regions are being made impoverished and yet we hold on to a shared currency that is poorly thought out, incomplete and the current functioning of which is untenable in the long term. In fact, I’m one irate economist! I’m appalled by the central banks and this caste of economists and financiers who are so full of themselves even though they brought us to the brink of disaster in 2008! Not only were they incapable of preventing it, they only managed to avoid the worst by creating even greater financial and social imbalances that continue to deepen…”
Which is why Jean-Michel Paul will be happy to move into education in the years to come. “All the major economic theories have proved to be wrong. We need to bring them into line with reality, challenge our politicians on the basis of objective observation. I am a pragmatist and this is the approach that I would like to get across. Because the world is changing. Denial and lack of ambition mean that the very survival of our social model is under threat. I hope that we will be able to make the right adjustments before it’s too late…”