How the ICC Plans to Restructure Global Trade Finance for a More Sustainable Global Economy

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How the ICC Plans to Restructure Global Trade Finance for a More Sustainable Global Economy


One of the most enduring effects of the COVID pandemic has been the disruption of the global supply chain. Micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) constitute the majority of companies and employers worldwide and are major contributors to the total global gross domestic product. They frequently encounter more difficulties than other companies because they have less access to global trade finance systems.

The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) viewed the pandemic as an opportunity for positive disruption in favor of all global financial market participants. Accordingly, in August 2020, it created an Advisory Group on Trade Finance (ATF) and charged it with addressing trade finance challenges that hinder full participation by MSMEs. 

The ATF, in a joint effort with McKinsey and Fung Business Intelligence, recently released a proposal for restructuring global trade finance to better promote financial inclusion and sustainable finance. The report proposes a ten-year, three-phase process for modernizing and standardizing global trade finance systems through the introduction of an “interoperability layer.” 

In this article, we’ll summarize the report’s primary recommendations, provide an overview of the structure of the proposed interoperability layer, and discuss the anticipated effects on MSMEs worldwide. 

The current global trade finance market

In 2020, the finance market covered transactions totaling $5.2 trillion, or approximately 6% of the global gross domestic product. For financial institutions, this translated into 2% of their total revenue or roughly $40 billion. However, despite the size of the market, a finance availability gap of $1.7 trillion still exists, largely affecting MSMEs.

Fintech companies are relatively new participants in the market. However, they are actively working to develop new products at every stage in the supply chain, and the ICC report looks to leverage the capabilities of fintechs.

The vast majority (85%) of global trade finance addresses documentation issues associated with cross-border transactions, such as letters of credit, international guarantees, and international bills of lading, among other services. Documentation products and services also deal with regulatory and compliance issues, for example, anti-money laundering rules. The remainder is split between buyer-led financing (10%) and supplier-side finance (5%). 

What trade finance challenges does the proposal address?

Despite the sizable, robust trade finance market, there is substantial room for improvement, especially as it relates to MSMEs. According to the World Bank, as of 2017, approximately 65 million MSMEs were credit constrained. There are several reasons that MSMEs are less than full participants in the global trade finance arena, all of which the ICC seeks to rectify with its current proposal. Some of the most significant issues facing MSMEs are:

Lack of access to liquidity

Traditionally, MSMEs have had more difficulty accessing trade credit than larger corporations because they have less available collateral or are unable to meet established strict credit requirements. Credit requirements have not evolved to reflect changes in the global economy and there is a dearth of alternative financing options for international transactions. Because of this, MSMEs frequently find themselves without available credit for purchases or sales. 

Transaction complexity

The disparate requirements for international transactions and financing worldwide impose additional challenges on smaller firms with more limited resources. Just keeping track of the different requirements for each jurisdiction can be an overwhelming task. And when it comes time to meet the documentation requirements for each transaction, the burden only increases.

Limited access to B2B markets

B2B marketplaces create tremendous efficiencies in the market by pairing suppliers and purchasers quickly and simply. MSMEs, however, often lack either the knowledge base or the resources to gain access to these marketplaces. And for MSME suppliers, financing, capital, and cash flow issues can prevent them from establishing themselves as effective participants in B2B markets. 

What is the ICC’s reconception of global finance?

The ICC proposes a three-phase, ten-year plan for developing globally accepted standards that serve as a framework for common systems, all of which come together in an interoperability layer. The interoperability layer will not be hardware or software, but instead a virtual construct that sets the baseline standards and best practices supporting trade finance digitization. Digitization is increasingly important to MSMEs, after all. According to recent studies, 43% of small businesses now fully rely on online banks. 

Ultimately, the ICC envisions new standardized and shared architectures equally accessible to all market participants. The interoperability layer would replace the patchwork of standards and protocols that currently exist and fill regulatory gaps by developing a unified and consistent set of standards and practices. The proposed interoperability layer accomplishes three main missions. 

First, it encourages widespread adoption of existing trade finance standards to bring market participants into a common network. Second, it creates new standards and processes to fill existing gaps, including standards for sustainable finance. 

There are two main areas where the ICC identifies specific needs for additional standards, both of which focus on easing and increasing digital transformation of trade finance: uniform data models and API standards. API standards constitute an immediate need because many banks currently suggest that the lack of such standards inhibits their ability to develop strategies for API usage in their operations.

Finally, it creates operational playbooks for market participants that embody the full set of standards. The consolidation of standards and protocols into the interoperability layer will occur with full knowledge of the challenges that prevent or hinder participation by entities with fewer resources or credit histories. With simplified access to the trade finance system, more players at every level will be able to join. 

As for governance, the ICC envisions an industry organization or consortium overseeing the development, implementation, and ongoing management of the interoperability layer. The governing body should include participants from all functions, regions, and company sizes.

How does the interoperability layer benefit MSMEs?

The interoperability layer has benefits for all market participants, but the impact for MSMEs is particularly notable. With new standards and processes for assessing transaction risks, MSMEs will gain greater access to alternatives for credit and liquidity. 

Recent research suggests that traditional bank credit assessment models underperform newer tech-based models for determining creditworthiness. Applying real-time data and highly advanced analytical tools like AI, newer models provide a more timely and accurate assessment of a firm’s payment capabilities. In turn, better credit scoring results in more efficient allocation of resources, particularly for smaller firms like MSMEs.

In addition, new documentary standards and digitization of documentation requirements will reduce costs for all market participants. Because these costs disproportionately impact MSMEs, they will see the greatest benefit. But as finance processes become more streamlined and more participants enter the market, the large financial institutions will see corresponding revenue increases which, coupled with lower expenses, lead to higher profit.

Will the interoperability layer promote sustainable finance?

The ICC report recognizes that sustainability is an increasingly important issue for corporations and governments. However, there is currently a lack of standards for sustainable finance, including the lack of a commonly accepted vocabulary. One of the major tasks the ICC envisions is the creation of a standard taxonomy for sustainable finance that all market players can apply in future transactions. Once the market has a common language, it can better develop standards for applying the principles of sustainability in the global trade finance industry. 

Time will tell if the ICC proposal gains any traction. Further digitization is inevitable with or without the report. But building a common framework for the digitization that makes it easier for firms of all sizes to effectively participate in international trade is a valuable goal.



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