Wirecard's arrested CEO is making Europe look bad

Fully Charged

Hey all, it's Natalia. Wirecard was supposed to be proof that Europe has what it takes to build a tech success.

But now that $1.9 billion has gone missing from its balance sheets, its Chief Executive Officer was briefly arrested and the company has filed for insolvency, Wirecard sends the world a very different signal about Europe's tech scene.  

Founded in 1999, the German fintech almost went under in the dot-com bust. But after a remarkable turnaround, it eventually grew to report 2.1 billion euros in revenue for 2018. That year, it also replaced Commerzbank AG in Germany's 30-company DAX stock index. Picking up premier brands as clients along the way, the payments processor was lauded as one of Germany's hottest young companies.

In recent years, Wirecard's meteoric rise dove-tailed nicely with the broader narrative pushed by European officials about the promise of the bloc's technology sector.

Sure, Silicon Valley dominates in social media and other consumer-facing products—be it Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. or Alphabet Inc.'s Google—but Europe's got a leading edge in tech when it comes to business-to-business services, European officials have said.

Wirecard seemed to find its place in Europe's fintech firmament alongside companies like Adyen NV, with a more than $40 billion market cap, and Sweden's Klarna, most recently valued by investors at $5.5 billion. Meanwhile, the region was regularly anointing new stars. The financial technology sector has been the largest recipient of venture capital investment in Europe, taking in about 20% of all VC dollars in the region, according to the EU.

Now, though, the Wirecard scandal has tarnished the image of corporate Germany. Even with ample warning, German authorities failed to catch accounting issues at the digital-payments company.

And the startup's theatrical collapse could have a ripple effect on Europe's tech industry as a whole. For starters, it highlights a lack of clear oversight for a sector that relies on trust from customers and business partners. A joint project between the European Investment Fund and students from the London School of Economics' Master of Public Administration showed 31% of fintech firms in Europe are not subject to any regulation.

For a region known for regulating global tech companies, European authorities appear to have been less diligent in applying the same scrutiny on their own home-grown firms as they do to Google, Apple Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and others.

The irony is that for an industry like fintech, where $1.9 billion is liable to go missing, more oversight may be the very way to help speed along European tech success. Natalia Drozdiak

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