Despite the enormous progress of technology over the past 25 years, trade remains a heavily paper-based business. Many outside observers feel it is characterized by a lack of global standards and a preponderance of local regulations instead, almost inevitably introducing additional complications.
What every corporate wants
Funding, pricing, quality of service and risk appetite have traditionally been, and will remain, important criteria for corporates when choosing their trading and financing partners. Corporates expect financial services to be in the right place, at the right time for an easy client journey. We already see this “bankless banking” trend happening in business to consumer (B2C) models that fluently embed financial services within the underlying business processes. In an ideal world, corporates are looking for a unified and seamless digital environment to manage their trade flows, enabling them to connect to all stakeholders involved in their supply chain, end-to-end, for tracking goods, financing, payment solutions, managing purchase orders and invoices, etc. We are not there yet, but this is a goal that banks must take on board when defining their strategic vision of the future of trade.
New world, new solutions
New digital solutions to manage trade flows have emerged, but they are often focused on a single segment of the trade value chain (commercial flows, physical flows or financial flows) and struggle to expand into others. In this fragmented landscape are many of the foundation stones of a new digital ecosystem, but corporates are not convinced that they can yet see a clear route to an “end-to-end” offering. Some players in the supply chain have started to expand their activities to cover a broader spectrum, as we can see from the introduction of marketplaces providing loans or payment solutions, such as Tradeshift or Qupital. Although this trend fosters new ways of conducting business between corporates, it remains far from being the fully integrated ecosystem they aspire to. Banks are also switching the way they operate trade finance products, moving away from paper-based document management and towards data-driven processes. This enables quicker and safer compliance checks, process automation and better processing times.
We have to talk about blockchain
And, of course, we have to talk about blockchain – a technology that is very important for trade and trade finance because of its distributed nature and its strong native network effect. New business opportunities arise from these new technologies. A number of banks have partnered with other banks and IT firms to build digital trade platforms using blockchain with the aim of securing and financing domestic and international trade. Marco Polo, we.trade and Voltron are just some of the new names on the block. For example, we.trade helps small and mid-sized companies handle their intra-European flows by offering the ability to secure transactions that are currently processed on an open account basis: thanks to blockchain smart contracts, partners can agree on the events that will automatically trigger payment and eventually financing. As a result, transactions are much more secure than in the open account trading systems of the past. However well you might know your trading partner, history shows the advantage of having an independent source of support and comfort.
Across the universe
For the future, we envisage the emergence of large, interconnected trade ecosystems that bring together players from across the trade and supply chain, sharing a secure international legal framework and developing global standards across the entire trade value chain. Common standards, shared legal frameworks and interoperability of platforms are the three pillars that are absolutely essential to succeed. As trusted third parties, banks sit on a huge goldmine of data. The combination of such data and the use of artificial intelligence will enable banks to leverage their greater understanding of trade transactions (in tracking and analysing patterns, for example) and to offer new services. One added complexity is that banks face a number of hurdles that would-be disruptors do not, in the form of legacy systems – whether in terms of IT, human beings or ossified processes. Corporates want quicker, more transparent and more secure systems, and many do not particularly care about who provides them. If banks miss that particular train, it is likely that more agile players will jump on, and include financial services initiation in their ecosystems (as in B2C payments with Amazon’s one-click button or an Adyen card payment-type solution as used by Uber, Netflix and Leboncoin). Banks run the risk of being distanced further from their customers, and of losing contextualised data, cross-selling opportunities and simple everyday interactions.
A clear path to the future
To retain customer loyalty and remain a trusted partner to their corporate clients, banks need to focus not only on building the future of trade around blockchain, data and artificial intelligence but also to keep steadily investing in improving customer experience and cost-efficiency. There is a clear path to the future for those who have the vision to see it. Those who can turn that vision into effective implementation and execution will have a central role to play in the exciting future that awaits.