Speech by Olivier Klein on the occasion of being presented with the Legion of Honour by the Grand Chancellor on 21 September 2021

11.04.2021 10 min

– Grand Chancellor,

– Madame Puga,

– Ministers,

– Senator,

– Ambassadors, Your Excellencies,

– Mr Chairman of the Autorité des Marchés Financiers,

– Governors,

– Mr President of the Chamber of Commerce of Ile de France and Paris,

– Mr Director General of the Treasury,

– Mr President of HEC group,

– Mr President of the Supervisory Board of BPCE,

– Mr President of the Fédération des Banques Populaires,

– Mrs President of the Caisses d’Epargne,

– Chairs and Chief Executive Officers,

– Your Royal Highness,

– Dear friends, for all of you here are my friends,

– and my dear family,

Talking about oneself is always embarrassing. It is easy to be self-indulgent, even a little narcissistic. Above all, it can also be tedious for others – as well as for me.

So, at such a wonderful time as this is for me, when I am receiving such a distinction and honour from the French Republic, from the very hands of the Grand Chancellor whom I warmly and very sincerely thank, in such a prestigious place as the Grand Chancellery, I will try not to give in to self-indulgence and avoid boring you by not recounting my life story.

Instead, I am going to set out some ideas, endeavouring to be as unprofessorial as possible, which is obviously very hard for me!

I will thus tackle two or three subjects that enthuse me, which give meaning to what I do and which are the reason that I deeply love what I do, and share them with you.

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I start with economics.

In my eyes, economics is the queen of the human sciences. When it does not become inward looking, economics tries to explain how people organise themselves to live, to form society and seek to improve their lot.

These are therefore crucial subjects and so necessary to understand how our societies operate.

Trying to understand the world! A huge programme and probably a rather pretentious one. But so thrilling, so stimulating, and so necessary too. Wasn’t it Tocqueville, dear Nicolas Baverez, who said, “We have the right not to love the world in which we live. But we do not have the right not to understand it.”

With economics, we tackle fundamental questions. The question, for example, of economic players’ capacity for self-organisation and therefore of the economy’s capacity to suffer shocks and return to equilibrium by itself, through the free play of the parties involved. This is self-regulation, the capacity for spontaneous order. We thus need to understand the forces that contribute to it. Understand the potentially self-balancing role of market forces. But it is also essential to understand the specific institutional frameworks, rules, legal apparatus and system, etc., which allow it.

And it is crucial to properly analyse this mode of regulation so that, if we think we have to intervene in how the economy operations, we do not to break what can work on its own, and even repair itself, and avoid introducing mechanisms that might cause the opposite reactions to those we hope to obtain by intervening. I can think of countless cases. “God laughs at men who complain of the consequences while cherishing the causes,” said Bossuet. Or, quite simply, “hell is paved with good intentions.”

So we have to understand, without ideology, without anathema, but also without glorification, how the market economy works. It’s not so easy in France!

I say without glorification and without ideology either because, if we want to understand how things really are, we must also understand that, under certain conditions, beyond certain “normal” ranges of fluctuation, the sum of all rational individual actions does not always lead to collective rationality. Indeed, under certain conditions, destabilising dynamics are put in place which lead just as spontaneously, solely by the set of combinations of individual rationalities, to moving further and further away from equilibrium, and therefore towards crisis. And then, only non-market institutions, governments and/or Central Banks can put an end to these dangerous dynamics, because they are not forced to follow the logic of the market.

Hence also the need to analyse and theorise these mechanisms and these crises in order to understand society as it is. And to be able, when necessary, to understand how to improve people’s lives, avoiding the recurrence of economic and financial crises as best we can. Or, if necessary, knowing how to repair them.

But be careful, this does not mean, as I have already said, that any intervention, any economic policy, is necessarily good. It seems to me that neither market idealism nor state idealism is needed. There can be – and there have been in history – market errors. There can be – and there have been in history – economic policy errors!

This is why I very quickly became interested in economic crises and financial crises. They can be caused by market errors as well as by economic policy errors. Or both at the same time. These are the worst!

I have focused mainly, but not exclusively, on monetary and financial economics, because all economics is essentially monetary. Money and confidence in money are keystones of the social order. Money is the fundamental link of the market economy. If only we could remember that…

So, in my writings as in my classes and of course as in my full-time, very full-time even, professional activities in banking, my main themes for reflection are:

– money itself,

– financial cycles and financial crises,

– monetary policy, which has become central, especially since the Great Financial Crisis, to the point where we often ask too much of it,

– and, of course, banking and financial markets.

Thus, from my liking for economics, came:

1. My liking, my passion, for banking

2. My liking, my need even, for teaching. For explaining and conveying.

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But let’s start with teaching.

Not without first greeting one of my former economics professors who is here today, Minister Edmond Alphandéry, who not only had a passion for teaching, but who was also one of those who passed on their passion for economics to me. I thank him!

Teaching and writing therefore:

Hoping first of all that Chekhov was wrong when he said: “Smart men love to learn, fools love to teach.” In reality, like many teachers, because I teach, I am constantly learning. If I didn’t teach, I reckon that I would never have time to read literature or economic theory. But what a pleasure it is to be constantly learning!

Teaching is therefore a constraint that I love… to impose on myself. Teaching is a form of asceticism, an essential obligation! But, at the same time, it is an intense pleasure. Asceticism and pleasure often go hand in hand. It is not really a very difficult constraint to impose on myself, because preparing and structuring a course, for example, is for me a real pleasure for the mind. The act of conceptualisation that causes the flow of ideas to suddenly become clear is an incredible pleasure.

And teaching, for me, also includes the amazing happiness of passing on knowledge. Of seeing eyes light up, when all of a sudden you have succeeded in making clear, making understandable something that previously seemed complicated or obscure to your listeners. Obviously, video conferences, Zoom, Teams, etc…

By the way, I never understand things better myself than when I know I have to teach them!

After teaching at Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne) in the bachelor’s degree year and at ENSAE in the third year, I have been teaching at HEC for over 30 years. I still get as much enjoyment and as great a thrill from it! It is a real need! HEC is a wonderful institution, which, for 15-20 years, has been remarkably successful in becoming international and has been able to rise to the top of the European and world rankings. This is thanks in particular to the steady and strategic hand of Bernard Ramanantsoa, its Managing Director for many years. And to those who have continued along this path, like EloÏc Peyrache today. Thanks also of course to its teaching staff and their dean, dear Jacques Olivier …

HEC is a French educational jewel that has established itself in the world! That does not happen every day…

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Banking now!

This is the place, the kind of business, where, in my humble opinion, we can best observe the economy. And even act in it! The type of business where there is the most interaction, the most interfaces, with the whole economy. But banks are also above all businesses, with their strategy, resources and objectives. And it is not their quantified objectives that I am talking about here, but rather their “raison d’être”, to use a more trendy, but also more profound, expression.

A few quick, general thoughts, if I may:

  • First idea: Running a business is first and foremost a responsibility towards the teams that make it up. Fundamentally, for me, this is the ultimate responsibility. Have we done the right thing and done all we can to ensure that the business we are running is heading in the right direction? Is it profitable in the long term to protect jobs? Have we done all we can to ensure that working there is the expression of both a healthy requirement and a real pleasure? So that work is an individual and collective achievement, a way of going beyond oneself? So that people are proud to belong to it, because their business is successful and it succeeds with and thanks to a strong ethic?

I believe a lot in the combination of ethics and effectiveness. Ethics vis-à-vis employees and customers, as well as the society of which we are part. I believe that, after the mistakes of shareholder capitalism, we need to establish partnership capitalism taking into consideration all stakeholders, including shareholders of course.

  • Second idea: Commercial banks are essential to the economy. First and foremost, commercial banks are long-term businesses. They support and facilitate their customers’ life and business projects. And these projects are carried out in the long term. Relational banking, advisory banking, in the long term, with trust.

Banks also allocate financial resources to these projects, by selecting them. This is also one of the economic roles of banks. It is useful to say yes, but also useful to say no! If all projects were financed and developed without selection, if all households could sustainably spend more than they receive, if all businesses could endlessly finance their losses, there would be no monetary constraint. There would be no efficient economy. We would not then save people from suffering.

Ultimately, commercial banks are the parties that match financing capacities to financing needs in the economy. By taking on credit, interest rate and liquidity risks themselves, on their income statements, instead of leaving them to be borne by households and businesses who are unwilling or unable to take them. Financial markets, by their nature, are not made to absorb these risks. They redistribute them. For all these reasons, commercial banks are essential to the economy. And the financial markets and the banks play complementary roles, which are not exchangeable for the most part.

Let us add that regional commercial banks are crucial for the regions of France. They are a powerful antidote to French centralism. With regional banks, local financing capacities are allocated to local projects. There is in effect a real osmosis between regional banks and their regions. And the diversity of types of banks, regional/national, commercial banks/finance and investment banks, is an asset for a country’s economy.

  • Third idea: When running a bank or any business, as in life in general moreover, you have to be wary of the easy sound bite, of the popular belief of the moment. For example: The digital world is the mortal enemy of retail banking. On the contrary! Should I quote BRED? Here as elsewhere, in a knowledge economy, we have to bet on added value, on training, on the intelligent link between human and digital.

Well led, well transformed, with rigour, high standards and calm, without the fascination for so-called “disruptions”, a fashionable English neologism, retail banks still have a bright future ahead of them!

But to ensure this, we need to clearly conceptualise what is the very essence of the profession, which must be preserved at all costs, and distinguish it from what is the evolving context of the conditions in which this profession is exercised. To anticipate it and adapt to it in time, with as little friction as possible. “Disruption”, which is by nature brutal, seems to me more often only the consequence of a lack of anticipation or preparation. Social and technological changes actually take place to a great extent over the long term and not suddenly.

Finally, let us be extremely suspicious of any Malthusianism in our sector of commercial banking, where demand for advisory banking has not in fact declined. And let’s listen to Jacques Rueff: “Malthusian systems (…) organise misery and ruin.” It seems to me that this could apply to other subjects at this time.

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Finally, thank you to BRED, this magnificent bank, which has allowed me to bring together everything I love in the field, and everything that I have been able to achieve so far in my professional banking life.

Along with BRED, I bring together:

  • The retail bank,
  • The corporate bank,
  • The capital markets bank,
  • And the international bank, with its subsidiaries in East Africa, South-East Asia, the Pacific, Geneva, as well as Brussels.

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I will conclude, dear friends, this presentation of what drives me forward, of what excites me, by mentioning my very deep attachment to Europe. An attachment that led me to accept Philippe Jurgensen’s proposal to succeed him at the head of the French section of the European League for Economic Cooperation.

In brief, a very long way from the “cancel culture” and the “woke” spirit, I love our civilisation, its arts, its literature, in short… its culture. And as such, above all, I put humanism and universalism at a very high civilisational level, a very long way from separatism, racialism and other types of communitarianism, new paradoxical forms of racism as well as sexism.

What better vehicles in human history have there been and, in fact, are there than humanism and universalism for moving towards equality of opportunity? Gender equality? Racial equality? Or for ensuring the ability of different religions to coexist peacefully?

I also put the rule of law, habeas corpus and individual freedom at the summit of the development of societies. Within the framework of a morality of living together, of respect by all for rights and duties, as opposed to extreme individualism.

Even though I fully understand that this organisational model cannot be exported. And even less so by force.

But today, I am proud, yes, proud of what constitutes the common basis of Europe. Our Europe. However, I am worried about the great problems Europe has in organising itself, in not diverging, between north and south, east and west. About the great difficulty it has in thinking of itself as Europe. In promoting its strengths and defending its values.

Of course, it has made very significant progress with the Next Generation EU plan and the community loan. But will it be sustainable, without a common and shared discipline?

Can our Europe assert itself politically and economically, as well as diplomatically and militarily, as a power that can and should be respected on the world stage? Should we not urgently bring about the emergence of a strategic Europe? Or a powerful Europe? The words don’t matter. But what internal forces can we count on for this?

In my very humble opinion, Europe must boldly rethink how it is organised, its rules for decision-making and action, and even its geography depending on the themes concerned. Otherwise, does it not risk gradually fading away as the master of its destiny, faced with the merciless play of the powers of today?

Which European country can alone carry weight against China, against the United States? The very recent underwater news has just underlined this cruelly.

Sometimes, too often even, I think about Europe, fearing Charles Péguy’s assessment of Kantianism: “Kantian ethics has pure hands, but actually no hands at all,” he said.

But immediately, to complement this, I will offer you this new and last quote from Tocqueville, Tocqueville who is proving more and more to have been a tremendous visionary:

“So let us have that salutary fear of the future that makes one watchful and combative, and not that sort of soft and idle terror that wears hearts down and enervates them.”

A quote that is close to that of Gramsci who wrote these words that I love and quote so much: “We must combine the pessimism of the intellect with the optimism of the will.”

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Thank you to my family and to all of you here, my friends.

CEO of BRED and Professor of Financial Macroeconomics and of Monetary Policy at HEC Business