Digital change in world trade is creating a more favourable climate for SMES

By Simon Streat, VP Product Strategy, Bolero International.

It is becoming clear that trade digitisation has huge potential to unlock access to world trade for small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The move away from laborious, manual, paper-based processes will lever simpler access to trade finance, now that it is being provided by more agile, technology-friendly alternative funding providers.

Regulatory burden has meant that SMEs often don’t fulfil certain criteria for banks to justify lending to. The demands of anti-money laundering (AML), Know Your Customer (KYC) rules, sanctions and other banking stipulations have been deemed too time-consuming and too costly to be worth the trouble where smaller exporters and importers are concerned. This is a significant blow, since by some estimates, more than 80 per cent of world trade is funded by one form of credit or another. Until now, if your business was deemed too small to be worth considering for finance, there was hardly anywhere else to go.

The result has been deleterious to the prosperity of SMEs and detrimental to international trade. In 2016, the ICC Banking Commission’s report found that 58 per cent of trade finance applications by SMEs were refused. This, as the authors pointed out, hampered growth, since as many as two out of every three jobs around the world are created by smaller businesses.

This rather depressing view was supported by a survey of more than 1000 decision-makers at UK SMEs which was conducted in February this year by international payments company WorldFirst. It found that the number of SMEs conducting international trade dropped to 26 per cent in Q4 2017, compared with 52 per cent at the end of 2016. Economic conditions and confidence have much to do with this, but so does access to trade finance.

There is a growing realisation, however, that if digitisation makes sense for corporates seeking big gains in speed of execution, transaction-visibility and faster access to finance and payment, it definitely will for SMEs. The ICC Banking Commission report of 2017 estimated that the elimination of paper from trade transactions could reduce compliance costs by 30 per cent.

Over the past few years, for example a number of trade digitisation platforms have emerged offering innovative business models for supplying trade finance and liquidity, while optimising working capital, and enhancing processes for faster handling and cost savings. Progress is under way, but it requires expertise.

Fintechs in trade hubs such as Singapore, where there is huge emphasis on innovation, are taking the lead, transforming the availability and access to finance for SMEs. By making the necessary checks so much faster and easier and opening up direct contact with a greater range of banks, digital platforms enable customers to gain approval for financing of transactions that would otherwise be almost impossible. Not only that, they enjoy shorter transaction times and enhanced connectivity with their supply chain partners.

If we scan the horizon a little further we can also expect to see SMEs benefit from the influence of the open banking regulations, which require institutions to exchange data with authorised and trusted third parties in order to create new services that benefit customers.

Although the focus of these new regulations is primarily the retail banking sector, the tide of change will extend to trade finance, creating a far more sympathetic environment for the fintech companies and alternative funders. Yet the fintechs cannot do it alone, they need to be part of a network of networks that operates on the basis of established trust and digital efficiency.

No technology can work unless it is capable of satisfying the raw business need of bringing together buyers, sellers, the banks into transaction communities. That requires the building of confidence and the establishment of relationships, along with – very importantly – a real understanding of trade transactions and the processes of all involved. It also requires on-boarding and you can only achieve that once everyone knows a solution will deliver the efficiency gains it promises, as well as being totally reliable, secure and based on an enforceable legal framework. All this requires a level of expertise and insight that cannot simply be downloaded in a couple of clicks.

Nonetheless, it seems pretty obvious that thanks to digitisation, the market for SME financing in international trade is set for real expansion.

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