France deploys AI in 3 billion euro plan to save small businesses

The French government will use algorithms and artificial intelligence to identify small firms at risk of collapse in the wake of the Covid pandemic, and provide as much as 3 billion euros ($3.7 billion) to protect them.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire presented the new measures on Tuesday as part of a plan that also includes an extension of crisis lending facilities to the end of 2021 and simplified procedures for restructuring debts of small firms.

Photo by Drew Graham on Unsplash

The new tools come amid warnings that a jump in insolvencies as governments pare back crisis aid could hamstring the economic recovery. The OECD said Monday that shoring up balance sheets of small firms is a crucial part of targeted fiscal support in the transition out of the crisis.

“I want to say to these companies: we won’t let you fall. We are here to provide a strategy, a method and the most effective help possible,” Le Maire said.

While France saw a sharp decline in insolvencies last year, a withdrawal of government support would risk a wave of business failures in the coming months. At the same time, corporate debt has surged, with firms taking on more than 130 billion euros of state loan guarantees during the crisis.

Le Maire said the gross figures may overstate the problem as many companies that took on extra debt also hold extra cash. While total corporate debt increased by 230 billion euros in 2020, net debt only increased by 13 billion euros, Bank of France data shows.

The new plans target between 5% and 8% of French companies — mainly in hospitality and retail — that have seen debt increase and cash reserves dwindle in recent months.

The difficulty for the government is identifying the firms in trouble and selecting those with a viable future.

For the first step, Le Maire said the government will use artificial intelligence to cross reference data from the economy ministry, the tax office, social security accounts and the Bank of France in order to find companies at risk. Government officials will then contact business leaders confidentially to advise them.

The transition fund would provide deeply subordinated loans based on an independent assessment, designed to avoid political decisions on lending public funds.

“The work needs to be done rigorously, seriously, and economically,” Le Maire said. “This is taxpayer money and taxpayer money should only go to viable companies.”

By William Horobin and Alexandre Rajbhandari with assistance from Zoe Schneeweiss (Bloomberg Mercury)