Our expert Carlo de Meijer is our blockchain specialist and publishes his articles on a regular basis. We present his latest article about blockchain and supply chain finance in a shorter version.
Carlo writes: Whereas the focus on the use of blockchain long time has been on payments and securities, an important but still undervalued use case has been supply chain finance. But that is changing. The complexity and scale of existing supply chain finance solutions has posed major challenges in ensuring adequate funding and efficient operations. According to some blockchain technology has the potential to be a game-changer for supply-chain finance. Let’s have a look.
Supply chain finance (SCF) is a generic term for a wide variety of financing instruments, used to finance various parties in a supply chain. SCF refers to the use of short-term credit to balance working capital between a buyer and a seller, thus minimising aggregate supply chain cost. Businesses can use supply chain financing to build stronger relationships with suppliers, decrease currency risk and ultimately improve liquidity.
Financial institutions offer supply chain financing solutions aimed at improving the purchaser’s working capital, and the supplier’s liquidity, by providing an efficient payables platform to streamline the payment process. Compared to the “old-fashioned” Letter of Credit, SCF now also encompasses new trade finance instruments including factoring, reverse factoring, payables financing, and dynamic discounting. Reverse factoring is the most popular and most widely used supply chain finance instrument. In reverse factoring, receivables are sold to a bank at a discount as soon as they are approved by the buyer. The bank then commits to pay the company’s invoices to the suppliers.
It is important to understand that supply chains are complex by nature; various parties are involved from raw goods supplier, producer and distributor all the way up to the consumer. This has posed major challenges in ensuring adequate funding and efficient operations.
Blockchain and supply chain finance
The question is: what can blockchain mean for supply chain finance and how could it be applied?
A blockchain-based supply chain finance solution more specific via so-called smart contracts will essentially enable all parties in a supply chain finance solution to act on a single shared ledger. A supplier and manufacturer, along with every other participant, will solely update their parts of the transaction, enabling efficiency and an “unprecedented” level of trust and transparency on a ledger record that is immutable.
“If you talk to supply chain experts, their three primary areas of pain are visibility, process optimization, and demand management. Blockchain provides a system of trusted records that addresses all three.” Brigid McDermott, vice president, Blockchain Business Development & Ecosystem, at IBM
Blockchain technology can offer great potential for both corporates and banks in terms of increased control, speed and reliability of their supply chain and at a fraction of the cost of their current infrastructure. Payments made via this digital system can be monitored by both parties, meaning that suppliers are no longer at a disadvantaged positon in the buying process while they wait for processing. Blockchain will speed up the process, giving the two companies more control, and in the long-term would ultimately create more robust supply chains.
Because the bank can see both the original contract as well as the order placed with “Company B by Company A”, it can verify both authenticity and provenance. Further, if the contract tracks manufacturing or transportation events, the bank can also know the state of fulfilment at any given time. What should be quite clear is that the visibility and auditability that are main characteristics of blockchain technology allow financial collaboration across supply chain echelons, not just bilaterally.
The time required from initiation to payment can therefore be dramatically reduced. In addition to the reduced transaction time, other benefits for importers and exporters include reduced bank fees (due to less manual activity on the part of the banks), reduced time for loan approval, and reduced risk of fraud. This way of financing a supply chain is radically cheaper and more efficient than the current way of doing business.
Blockchain: the missing link
Using blockchain may provide a simple system of secure record keeping that allows the bank redeeming CFS “to ensure that the CFS presented by the holders has been used to finance appropriate supply chain smart contracts”. At the same time suppliers using the blockchain system may retain the privacy that is need in their financial transactions with their sub-suppliers.
There are still challenges to be dealt with, too, such as the need to implement paperless trade, issues of data privacy, and how to get all members of a supply chain to participate. If global supply chains are to gain the full benefit of this technology for managing payments and related data, all parties that play a role in global trade must be involved!
By providing this missing piece of the information and supply chain management puzzle, blockchain may become the missing link!
Blockchain SCF projects
Since early this year the number of blockchain projects to improve supply chain finance is growing firmly. Especially IBM is very active in this area and partnered with companies in China and India to work on new blockchain-based solutions. IBM also teamed with Danish logistic and transport company Maersk Line, to create a new solution to digitize the global, cross-border supply chain using blockchain technology. Start-ups are at the same time popping up to help bridge the gap to this new technology, such as blockchain-based financial operating network Fluent, which aims to streamline supply chain finance.
“Blockchains built into supply chains can offer trust and accountability, as well as compliance with government regulations and internal rules and processes, resulting in reductions in costs and time delays, improved quality, and reduced risks,”Arvind Krishna, IBM Research Senior Vice President and Director Yijian Blockchain Technology Application System
Economist and researcher