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Artificial intelligence is reshaping finance

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Last week Barclays’ credit card business struck a deal with Amazon to offer seamless customised shopping and payment services in Germany. 

The announcement drew little attention amid the US election, pandemic pain — and the cancellation of Ant Financial’s putative $37bn initial public offering. But investors and regulators should pay attention. That is not because of what the deal shows about German shopping habits, Amazon’s voracious expansion or Barclays strategy, per se. 

Instead, the German tie-up’s real significance is as a tiny, but unusually visible, sign of a feverish race under way at banks and tech companies to find ways to use big data and artificial intelligence in finance. Essentially, Barclays and Amazon are linking data with AI analysis to approve credit (or not) and predict what customised services clients will want next. “I personally think that the partnership with Amazon has been one of the most important things to have happened to Barclays in the past five years,” Jes Staley, Barclays chief executive, told me.

What happens next in this AI race could soon matter enormously — helping to determine the future winners in finance and the next big set of regulatory risks.

The AI platforms now being deployed in finance are exponentially more powerful than anything seen before. In particular, the capabilities unleashed by a subset of AI called “deep learning” represent “a fundamental discontinuity” from the past, a new MIT paper warns. 

Jack Ma, founder of Ant’s parent company, Alibaba, was arguably one of the first to spot the potential. It uses data on consumer and corporate digital activity to predict credit risk and provide customised services. That is a key reason why the Chinese finance group has expanded at such a dizzy pace. But western companies are racing to catch up both in retail — with Barclays’ German deal — and wholesale finance.

In theory, this could be beneficial as a way to “democratise finance”, as Mark Carney, former Bank of England governor, has observed. More specifically, these innovations should enable financial companies to offer consumers “more choice, better-targeted services and keener pricing”.

They should also cut corporate borrowing costs. Ant has used its vast data troves and AI to analyse credit risks in a way that its says enables the company to offer cheaper loans. Marshalled correctly, AI could also help regulators and risk controllers spot fraud more easily, and improve bank stress tests.

But there are enormous potential costs too. One of these is the propensity of AI programs to embed bias, including racism, into decision making. Another revolves around privacy risks.

A third is antitrust: since having a huge data base offers a compelling advantage in AI, there is a tendency for dominant companies to become ever more dominant. A fourth, related issue is herding: since AI programs are often constructed on similar lines, their use could reduce institutional diversity and undermine the resilience of finance.

However, the biggest problem of all is opacity. “The lack of interpretability or ‘auditability’ of AI and machine learning methods could become a macro-level risk,” a new paper from the Financial Stability Board notes. “Applications of AI and machine learning could result in new and unexpected forms of interconnectedness between financial markets and institutions.” Yikes.

So what should be done? One obvious and tempting idea might be for politicians to press the “pause” button. Indeed, that is what Beijing seems to be trying to do with Ant (although it is unclear how far the decision to halt the IPO reflects grand policy concerns, as opposed to politics.)

However, it will not be easy to stuff the AI genie back into the bottle. Nor is it necessarily a good idea, given the potential benefits. What would be far better is for policymakers and financiers to embrace four ideas.

First, companies engaged in AI-enabled financial activities must be regulated within a finance framework. That does not mean transposing all the old banking rules on to fintech; as Mr Ma has argued, these are not all appropriate. But central bankers and regulators must retain oversight of fintech and maintain a level playing field, even if that requires them to expand their oversight into new areas, such as the data being plugged into AI platforms.

Second, regulators and risk managers must bridge information silos. Very few people understand both AI and finance; instead, the people with these skills typically sit in different institutions and departments. This is alarming.

Third, we cannot hand all the creation and control of AI-enabled finance to geeks with tunnel vision; instead, the people crafting strategy must have a holistic view of their societal impact. 

But for this to happen, there needs to be a fourth development: politicians and the wider public must pay attention to what is under way, instead of outsourcing it to technical experts.

This will not be easy, given that AI is hard to understand. But the 2000s showed what can happen when geeks with tunnel vision go mad in finance and politicians ignore them. We cannot allow this again. If you thought the 2008 financial crisis was bad, just imagine one that moves faster and goes farther because it is enabled by AI. That should scare us into a policy debate right now.

gillian.tett@ft.com



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How Jennifer Granholm will reshape the US Department of Energy

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Two things to start: ExxonMobil appointed two new directors to its board, its latest effort to placate activist shareholders. And Texas’s largest power co-op Brazos Electric went bust yesterday, as the financial damage from the arctic storm continues to mount.

Oh, and after the hiatus caused by the pandemic, energy-related emissions are rising again, according to the International Energy Agency. They were higher in December than a year previously, the agency said.

Welcome to another Energy Source. Our main item today is on Jennifer Granholm, whom the US Senate last week confirmed as the country’s new energy secretary. Myles McCormick reports on her plan to revitalise her department and reorient it towards clean energy.

Thanks for reading. Please get in touch at energy.source@ft.com. You can sign up for the newsletter here. — Derek

Granholm looks to reboot the Department of Energy

From scuppering the Keystone XL pipeline to freezing the allocation of new drilling leases on public lands, Joe Biden’s plans to shake up the American energy system are well under way.

Next on the president’s agenda is an overhaul of the sprawling leviathan that is the US Department of Energy. And the woman that will lead that process is now in situ.

Jennifer Granholm, a former two-term governor of Michigan, took the reins of the $35bn a year government agency five days ago. And already it is clear there will be a shift in its focus — away from promoting fossil fuel exports and towards driving innovation in clean energy and climate technology.

This is what Granholm wrote in a blog post last Thursday, her first day on the job:

“President Biden has tasked the Department, his in-house solutions powerhouse, with delivering a cornerstone of his bold plan: the goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. For DoE, that means developing and deploying the technologies that will deliver a clean energy revolution.”

That will require a shift in priorities at the “in-house solutions powerhouse” — but one that analysts said Granholm was well suited to execute.

“She understands the economic benefits of transforming the agency into the Department of Clean Energy,” said Mitch Bernard, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Jennifer Granholm was sworn in as energy secretary on February 25 © Getty Images

What can the DoE actually do on climate?

American energy policy is divvied up among several government agencies, of which the Department of Energy is just one. Traditionally its primary responsibilities have been the US nuclear weapons programme, environmental clean-ups and scientific research and development through its oversight of the country’s national laboratories.

Despite the department’s name, Granholm’s ability to effect the Biden climate agenda is constrained. She does not have oversight of emissions targets (which fall to the Environmental Protection Agency) or oil and gas drilling licences (the Department of the Interior).

“I do think the DoE’s ability to advance climate goals is fairly limited,” Nader Sobhani, climate policy associate at the Niskanen Center, told ES.

But what it can do is reinvigorate the department’s R&D role.

“I think there will certainly be a shift in the programmatic focus of this DoE as compared to the previous administration, in that there will be a concerted effort to innovate, develop and deploy clean energy technologies that are critical to combating climate change,” said Sobhani.

That means driving forward research on carbon capture and storage, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, energy storage technology and zero-carbon fuels such as green hydrogen.

How will it set about doing this? The department has a few tools in its toolkit:

  • There are the 17 national laboratories, which are hotbeds for tech breakthroughs.

  • There are grant and loan programmes it can use to drive innovation and de-risk new technologies to coax in private sector investment. Granholm has already indicated she will restart a $40bn loan programme that was left untouched by the Trump administration.

  • Plus, it has regulatory authority to encourage energy efficiency in certain appliances and new transmission lines.

But all of this will require funding. While Congress ensured the agency was not financially gutted by the last administration, ramping up its R&D role will require more money. Biden has pledged $400bn over the next ten years for clean energy and innovation.

Granholm’s record on spending big — sometimes without the desired effect — has already sparked criticism from some quarters, with conservatives arguing her selection “should frighten every American taxpayer”.

Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan, speaks during TechCrunch Disrupt 2019 in San Francisco
Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan, speaks during TechCrunch Disrupt 2019 in San Francisco © Bloomberg

New leadership

Just as important as finance will be the shift in tone Granholm will bring.

While money kept flowing under the Trump administration, the agency lacked the strategic drive needed for clean tech innovation, said Emily Reichert, chief executive of Greentown Labs, North America’s biggest start-up incubator.

“When people look back on it, it was an absence of leadership — on innovation, on policy, on decisions, on strategy — that we needed to move forward faster,” she told ES.

The DoE’s role in convening experts from across the US has been central to driving the development of new technology. But as a divided country shifts rapidly towards a new approach to energy, that outreach role will be even more important.

That makes the appointment of Granholm key. A Michigan native, with years of experience dealing with the Detroit auto industry, she will be able to bring the climate change narrative to parts of the country that coastal liberals have often failed to reach.

“I think that Jennifer Granholm coming from a Midwestern perspective is a real game changer in terms of bringing the focus of this activity to the middle of the country, and recognising that the middle of the country can also get engaged in this developing the innovations around climate,” said Reichert.

But most importantly — four years after Donald Trump appointed an energy secretary who thought the department should be scrapped — Granholm’s championing of clean energy should get investors excited to spark the influx of funds needed for the “clean energy revolution” her boss has promised.

“The market signal it sends is that, one, the US is back in the game,” said Reichert. “And two, that climate related technology solutions around decarbonisation are a good place to invest your money, your time, your talents, and to move your assets.”

(Myles McCormick)

Data Drill

The energy transition could lower oil prices in the long term by $10 a barrel — by far the biggest threat to the net present value of oil companies, according to new research from Rystad Energy that assessed the resilience of 25 large operators. The consultancy quantified the risk to NPVs of stranded assets as less than 1 per cent, and that from rising CO2 costs at mostly below 10 per cent.

Oil sands and tight oil companies are most exposed to price risk because of high break-even costs. Oil sands would suffer most from higher CO2 costs. And ExxonMobil’s revenue risk is higher than its supermajor peers’, “primarily because its portfolio includes several large, capital-intensive projects”, including the Permian Basin assets and Guyanese shale.

Bar chart of Impact on net present value (%) showing The energy transition's corporate hit, quantified

Power Points

FT Energy Source Live

The FT Energy Source Live event will be taking place on 24 — 25 May 2021. Join industry CEOs, thought leaders, energy innovators, policymakers, investors and other key influencers to hear the latest thinking and insights on the future of US energy leadership and its global context. Find out more here.

Endnote

IHSMarkit’s CERAWeek, cancelled by the pandemic last year, is back on — and it has a new look.

Keynote speeches and panel discussions have moved from the Hilton’s plush ballrooms in downtown Houston to a slick new web interface. Many have been pre-recorded. Deals that came together in the hotel’s executive suites will have to wait. Journalists are missing the free lunches.

Still, the conference’s agenda boasts a who’s who of the energy industry, and increasingly beyond, as the sector grapples with the low-carbon energy transition — a topic that was scarcely mentioned just a couple years ago.

Andy Jassy, the head of Amazon’s cloud business, who has been picked to succeed Jeff Bezos as the company’s CEO later this year, had some advice that cut to the heart of the dilemma facing oil executives.

“If you want to be a company for a long period of time — which by the way turns out to be really hard to do — you have to be able to reinvent yourself, sometimes several times over,” said Jassy in a session with BP’s Bernard Looney, who pitched his company’s own transition away from oil.

“If something is going to happen, whether it’s good for you or not, if it is good for customers it is going to happen,” added Jassy. “So you have a couple of choices: you can howl at the wind and wish it away as a lot of companies do — big leading companies do — when there are new shifts technology, or you can embrace it.”

Energy Source is a twice-weekly energy newsletter from the Financial Times. It is written and edited by Derek Brower, Myles McCormick, Justin Jacobs and Emily Goldberg.



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Hedge fund manager Hohn pays himself $479m

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Billionaire hedge fund manager Sir Christopher Hohn has paid himself a dividend of $479m, one of the largest-ever annual personal payouts in the UK, after profits at his firm more than doubled last year.

Hohn, who is founder of Mayfair-based TCI Fund Management and one of the UK’s biggest philanthropists, made the payment to a company he controls during the year to February 2020, according to regulatory filings.

TCI, which manages more than $45bn in assets and tends to bet on rising rather than falling prices, has been a big winner from the bull market of recent years. During 2019 it made $8.4bn worth of profits for investors, according to LCH Investments, profiting from gains in stocks including Alphabet, Charter Communications and Canadian Pacific Railway.

TCI Fund Management’s profits for the year to February 2020 jumped 108 per cent to $670.9m. The $479m dividend was then paid to a separate firm TCI Fund Management (UK). Both companies are controlled by Hohn.

TCI declined to comment. The payment was first reported by The Guardian.

While the payout beats the £323m paid to Bet365 boss Denise Coates in 2018, much of it has been reinvested in TCI funds, filings show. It is also far from the biggest-ever hedge fund payday, being dwarfed by sums such as the $3.7bn earned by US manager John Paulson in 2007 thanks to bets on the subprime crisis.

In 2014, during testimony in his divorce battle with estranged wife Jamie Cooper-Hohn, Hohn described himself as “an unbelievable moneymaker”. A High Court judge later awarded Cooper-Hohn a $530m divorce payout.

Hohn, who grew up in Surrey and is the son of a Jamaican car mechanic, is known as one of Europe’s most aggressive activist investors. A backer of climate group Extinction Rebellion, he has been vocal in recent years in pushing companies to improve their climate policy, for instance threatening to sue coal-financing banks and warning his fund will vote against directors whose companies do not improve pollution disclosure.

In October Spanish airports operator Aena bowed to pressure from Hohn’s fund, becoming the first company in the world to give shareholders an annual vote on its climate policy.

Through his charity The Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, which in 2019 approved $386m of charitable payouts, he wrote to seven of the world’s biggest asset managers, urging them to put pressure on companies over climate policy.

Last year TCI was one of a number of funds looking to raise fresh assets from investors after suffering losses during the pandemic. It was also one of the big winners from betting against collapsed German payments group Wirecard, making as much as €193m in a week, according to data group Breakout Point.

Hohn’s fortune was estimated last year at £1.3bn by the Sunday Times Rich List.

laurence.fletcher@ft.com



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