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Enhancing efficiency in international trade – the time is now

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Enhancing efficiency in international trade – the time is now 1

By Carl Wegner, CEO of Contour

Despite significant advances in digital enterprise technology in recent years, international trade remains overwhelmingly manual and fraught with inefficiency.

Financial market participants spend millions of dollars to save fractions of seconds. Central banks are rushing to offer “fast” domestic payments in under three seconds. But cross-border trade relies on payments involving more than one country and bank, with no common central bank to provide cover and currency conversion. It takes at least a day or, in most cases, two – and that’s not even the most inefficient part of cross-border trade.

These processes are lightning quick compared to trade-related finance and risk mitigation products such as Letters of Credit (LCs), which can take over a week to settle. These involve more parties, more complexity, more paper and less trust.

In global trade finance, a bank will agree to pay an overseas seller after receiving proof that the seller has met their obligations. There is no common network for the seller to provide this proof, and no global database of shipments. Sellers rely on the gold standard of banking communication: wet ink-signed paper documents. Collecting, presenting and checking these documents can take days, if not weeks, stalling payments and leaving goods sitting on the dock rather than working through the economy.

The perceived credibility of “wet ink” signatures on documents is holding the industry back even as other areas are embracing new technologies. Unfortunately, it is all the industry has and the highest common denominator of communication. Bringing trade finance into the twenty-first century will need the development of a new gold standard – a common and trusted digital infrastructure. Luckily, the technology to ease this change and inject massive efficiency gains into the industry is now available.

More than a few small tweaks

Banks, buyers, sellers, shipping companies, ports, customs, and so on; the number of parties involved in international trade and the relative lack of trust among them makes any change a significant challenge.

Even before paper documents are involved for proof of shipment, there are trust challenges in communication for trade finance. While banks have a trusted form of communication among themselves, this does not extend to corporates or other parties. These groups are left with paper communication, email and fax – hardly efficient methods of communication. The industry needs a network,  a common identity, and a way to share data securely and privately with all participants. This is the first step and can lead to significant increases in efficiency, especially if communication between participants can be synced in real-time.

Building the network

The future of global trade communication is decentralised. With today’s technologies, it is no longer feasible to have the world’s sensitive trade data sitting in one place susceptible to attack or commercial manipulation.

Every bank and corporate must own their own data and share it only with their trading partners where necessary. Decentralised technologies go further than this, allowing data to be synchronised with trading partners, enabling a new level of trust between parties through the deceptively complicated concept of ”what I see, you see”.

The practicalities of title transfer

The problem of paper and wet-ink signatures seems simple to solve once the network is in place. Remove the couriers, upload PDFs of all that paper onto the decentralised and synchronised network built to authenticate the sender, and trade is digitised. However, while this process is easy in theory, the variety of documents involved in a single transaction complicates matters – especially when it comes to the transfer of title.

The bill of lading is a key example of this – issued in triplicate on original letterhead and signed by an authorised party on behalf of the ship’s captain. They represent title to the documents and can be used as a negotiable document much like a bank cheque.

Digitising these documents has come a long way in the last few years, with specialised platforms and digital registries created and new legal standards drafted to allow electronic bills of lading (eBLs) to be used instead. But adoption still lags behind, and for their efficiency to be realised across the majority of global trade, the concept of digital documents such as eBLs needs to be married to decentralised networks for trade finance.

The security issue

For documents not related to title transfer, the long-held argument that an original signed document is more secure than a digital version is extremely outdated. With the right protocols in place, a digital document can present a more private and secure option than its physical counterpart.

Even an uploaded PDF can be a “digital document” with the right controls in place. Using a decentralised network every member will have an immutable audit log for every transaction, with the uploading party taking responsibility for the documents they introduce to the network in the same way a sender can take responsibility through their signature. These security protocols will also enhance the time it takes to manage trade documents, allowing parties to track and match items to real-time data.

Scaling

There has already been phenomenal success in combining a decentralised network with electronic bill of lading solutions. Rather than seven days, the time from presentation to payment instruction can be reduced to 24 hours. However, for any of this to be achieved at scale, we need coordinated collaboration to ensure a new global digital standard can emerge, rather than a series of disconnected digital islands.

Fortunately, the industry is well on its way. The Asian Development Bank recently reported that 85% of banks are gearing up to serve the trade finance needs of more businesses through technology, addressing concerns such as inefficiencies and KYC, showing a clear demand for more efficient processes to be established in the sector.

While removing a few hours from overseas payments is a worthwhile goal, reducing a week from trade finance processes can have an even greater impact on businesses’ working capital efficiency and accelerating growth in the wider global economy.

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