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SWIFT Blockchain POC: Enhanced cross-border payments

| 8-8-2017 | Carlo de Meijer |

Early July SWIFT announced that 22 global banks recently joined its Blockchain proof of concept (PoC) initiative introduced in January this year in collaboration with six leading correspondent banks (ANZ, BNP Paribas, BNY Mellon, RBC Royal Bank and Wells Fargo). The PoC is part of SWIFT’s ‘gpi’ (global payments innovation) service, the new standard for cross-border payments, aimed to “re-arm the correspondent banking system for a new age of technological disruption”. 

This Blockchain PoC initiative is designed to explore whether blockchain technology can help banks to improve the reconciliation of their international nostro accounts in real-time, optimising their global liquidity. If so, that would be a break through event for both SWIFT and blockchain.

Present state

Currently, banks cannot monitor their account positions in real-time due to lack of intraday reporting coverage. The present pain points banks currently experience when making cross-border payments center around a lack of visibility into the end-to-end transactions lifecycle. Under the current correspondent banking model, banks need to monitor the funds in their overseas accounts via debit and credit updates and end-of-day statements. The maintenance and operational work involved represents a significant portion of the cost of making cross-border payments.

“Cross border payments are like a black box for us. We don’t know when the funds will be credited, we don’t know what fees will be charged and we also have problems with reconciliation”. states Martin Schlageter, head of Treasury Operations at Swiss healthcare conglomerate Roche.

As such, the POC recognises the need for banks to receive real-time liquidity data in order to manage funds throughout the business day.

SWIFT GPI service

The PoC is being undertaken as part of SWIFT gpi, a new service that “may revolutionise the cross-border payments industry by combining real-time payments tracking with the speed and certainty of same-day settlement for international payments”.

The SWIFT gpi should be seen as SWIFT’s response to the problems they faced after a series of attacks events that showed that “all was not as secure as everyone believed”. SWIFT gpi initiative was first announced at the annual Sibos conference in 2015. The project went into live production in January this year to address core problems related to speed, transparency and traceability of cross border payments.

SWIFT gpi not only delivers a much-needed improvement in the speed of transaction, but also improves overall customer experience by creating predictable settlement times and clear statuses, through additional (unaltered transfer of) information on remittances and transparency around the FX rates and fees applied throughout the payment cycle.

“The ability to deliver enhanced remittance information alongside the payment will help customers make better decisions along the payment chain, while also creating better efficiency opportunities. The decision to make gpi available in the “cloud” is also exciting, and we anticipate this will lead to the development of entirely new services, that combine SWIFT gpi with capabilities provided by banks, clients and vendors.“ says Tom Halpin, Global Head of Payments Product Management, HSBC Global Liquidity and Cash Management

Key features

Key features of the SWIFT gpi service include a secure tracking database in the cloud accessible via APIs, and enhanced business rules.

Cornerstone of SWIFT gpi is the highly innovative new cross-border TRACKER, a special tracking feature that enables international payments to be traced real-time. It allows banks to provide corporate treasurers with a real-time, end-to-end view (visibility) on the status of their payments, including confirmations of the amount credited to the beneficiaries’ account. The Tracker is available via an open API, making it compatible with proprietary banking systems worldwide – helping to ensure maximum impact of gpi benefits at a greater adoption speed.

A second key feature is the OBSERVER, a quality assurance tool that monitors participants’ adherence to the gpi business rules. Gpi’s transparency ensures that remittance information such as invoice references, is transferred unaltered to recipients.

Gpi uptake

Membership is open to any supervised financial institution that agrees to comply with SWIFT’s business rules. But also non-bank organisations can join SWIFT gpi initiative. The SWIFT gpi service has received considerable bank support across the globe. And the number of global transaction banks that are actively using SWIFT’s gpi service is continuously growing. Since its launch the number of banks that are live with SWIFT gpi has risen beyond 100, and hundreds of thousands GPI payments have already been sent across 85 country corridors. This represents more than 75% of all SWIFT cross border payments.

“The increasing number of banks going live on this service addresses the demands of corporate treasurers. Hence, banks cannot afford to not join the initiative and go live as soon as possible. Our expectation is that all of our cross-border payments will be end-to-end Swift gpi payments in the future.” Group of Swiss corporates

SWIFT expects that numerous additional banks will join the gpi initiative in the coming months. The ambition is for all countries to be live by the end of 2017.

Phased approach

Next to the design of the second phase of SWIFT gpi, that is already underway focusing on additional digital capabilities and further enhancements such as ‘a rich payment data service’, for its third gpi phase SWIFT started exploring the potential of new technologies such as Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT), including blockchain, through a Proof of Concept (PoC).

SWIFT Blockchain PoC

Launched in January 2017 with six founding banks the SWIFT Blockchain PoC initiative, designed to validate/explore whether blockchain can be used by banks to improve the reconciliation of their international nostro accounts (these are accounts that a bank holds in a foreign currency in another bank to handle international financial transactions for their customers) (these are accounts that a bank holds in a foreign currency in another bank to handle international financial transactions for their customers) in real –time, optimising their global liquidity. At its core, the PoC builds on SWIFT’s rulebook as part of the intraday liquidity standard gpi.

This SWIFT Blockchain PoC initiative aims to help banks overcome significant challenges in monitoring and managing their international nostro accounts, which are crucial to the facilitation of cross border payments.

“Whilst existing DLTs are not currently mature enough for cross-border payments, this technology, bolstered by some additional features from SWIFT, may be interesting for the associated account reconciliation,” “This PoC gives us the opportunity to test DLT and determine if it can be applied to this particular use case.” Wim Raymaekers, Head of Banking Market and SWIFT gpi at SWIFT

Characteristics

In developing the POC, SWIFT is leveraging the Hyperledger Fabric v1.0 technology, and combining it with key SWIFT assets, to bring it in line with the financial industry’s requirements.

“SWIFT will leverage its strong governance, PKI security scheme, BIC legal identifier framework and liquidity standards expertise to deliver a distinctive DLT PoC platform for the benefit of its community.” Damien Vanderveken, Head of R&D, SWIFTLabs and User Experience at SWIFT 

The PoC application will use a private permissioned blockchain in a closed user group environment, with specific user profiles and strong data controls. User privileges and data access will be strictly governed. This to ensure that all the information related to nostro/vostro accounts is kept private. Only account owners and its correspondent banking partners will see the details.

Collaboration

SWIFT gpi member banks can apply to participate in this Blockchain PoC. Next to the 6 founding banks, another 22 banks have recently joined the SWIFT blockchain PoC. They include include:

ABN AMRO Bank; ABSA Bank; BBVA; Banco Santander; China Construction Bank; China Minsheng Banking; Commerzbank; Deutsche Bank; Erste Group Bank; FirstRand Bank; Intesa Sanpaolo; JPMorgan Chase; Lloyds Bank; Mashreq Bank; Nedbank; Rabobank; Société Générale; Standard Bank of South Africa; Standard Chartered Bank; Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation; UniCredit; Westpac Banking Corporation.

“Collaboration is the cornerstone of innovation,” “This new group of banks allows us to greatly extend the scope of multi-lateral testing of the blockchain application and thus adds considerable weight to the findings. We warmly welcome the new banks and look forward to their insights”  says Wim Raymaekers, head of banking markets and SWIFT gpi at SWIFT.

Process

Moving forward, the SWIFT PoC Blockchain application will undergo testing, with the results scheduled to be published in September and presented at Sibos in Toronto in October. Working independently of the founding banks, the 22 institutions will act as a validation group to test in a deeper way the PoC’s Blockchain application, that is currently under development by SWIFT and the group of six founding banks. They will evaluate how the technology scales and performs.

Benefits

For banks

The potential business benefits ensuing from a successful SWIFT blockchain POC may be significant. If it proves to enable banks reconcile those nostro accounts more efficiently and in real time, that may lower costs and operational risk.

“The potential business benefits ensuing from the PoC are clear,” “If banks could manage their nostro account liquidity in real-time, it would allow them to accurately gauge how much money is required in each account at any given point, ultimately enabling them to free up significant funds for other investments.” Damien Vanderveken, head of R&D, SWIFTLab and UX at SWIFT.

It brings together banks worldwide who want to offer an enhanced cross-border payments experience to their corporate clients. By being part of SWIFT gpi, banks may improve the quality of their correspondent relationships and networks, helping to reduce risks and management costs and improve compliance.

“Transparency is key to a good end-to-end client experience. SWIFT gpi is a significant step in the evolution of correspondent banking, which remains the primary means through which cross-border payments are delivered worldwide. Bank of America Merrill Lynch is pleased to be working with like-minded institutions around the world to better serve each other and our respective customers.” states Greg Murray, head of Global Product Management for High Value Payments and FI/NBFI Products in Global Transaction Services at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

For corporate treasurers

SWIFT gpi may enable corporates engaged in international trade to get paid for services, or delivery of goods, in a more timely fashion, enabling a faster supply chain process. It also enables a more accurate reconciliation of payments and invoices, optimizes liquidity with improved cash forecasts and reduces exposure to FX risks with same-day processing of funds in the beneficiary’s time zone.

“Being part of SWIFT gpi, and working with our industry counterparts, is giving correspondent banks a platform to examine and refine current processes, and to collaborate and explore different, more efficient ways of doing things. Ultimately, our clients will benefit most from this initiative,” Kent Marais, head of TPS product management at Standard Bank SA.

SWIFT and the banks have designed the gpi services so that banks have flexibility in how they offer the new services. They can deliver the gpi service in very different ways. Services could potentially include enhanced invoice presentment and reconciliation to facilitate financial supply chains, exchange of supply chain documentation to improve global trade, exchange and interactive enquiry of account and processing conditions to improve end-to-end straight through processing, and providing additional party and transaction information to support compliance and sanctions screening of cross-border payments.

Enhanced cross-border payment service

“SWIFT has addressed several of the pain points corporates have had with cross-border payments,” “Changes to existing corporate payments infrastructures should be very limited, if any. So hopefully, corporates won’t need to make any major investments to benefit from smoother cross-border payments.” says Magnus Carlsson, AFP’s manager of treasury and payments

Given the size of the number of banks and corporates participating in SWIFT gpi, the SWIFT Blockchain PoC may face the challenge of scalability. If that could be solved in a successful way it may be another prove of the viability of blockchain and DLT to enhance cross-border payments.

 

Carlo de Meijer

Economist and researcher

 

 

 

More on blockchain from this author:

Blockchain: accelerated activity in trade finance

Blockchain and derivatives: Re-imagining the industry

The digital trade chain: The blockchain train is rolling

Please feel free to visit the treasuryXL/articles page to see more articles.

 

Blockchain regulation in the securities industry: Still many unanswered questions!

| 24-3-2017 | Carlo de Meijer |

One of the obstacles for massive adoption of blockchain technology is the lack of clarity from regulators. Regulators world-wide have long time taken a wait-and-see attitude towards blockchain and distributed ledger technology (DLT) (see my Blog “Blockchain and Regulation: do no stiffle …. April 4, 2016). But that is changing. Regulators across the globe have turned their attention and are now considering how existing regulations may (or may not!) accommodate the development of new distributed ledger technologies. This growing interest shows that it is becoming all the more serious for regulators in the securities industry that blockchain is coming to reality and that this asks for a more closer look a this technology.

Since the start of 2017 a number of regulatory organisations including ESMA (EU), FINRA (US) and IOSCO (Global) have launched reports asking for answers to meet the various challenges of blockchain or distributed ledger technology in the securities industry.

“Regulators prepare to address perceived weaknesses or potential risks relating to blockchains in their regulatory frameworks, and be ready to voice any concerns to, or discuss potential DLT benefits with the relevant authorities”.   

What have regulators been doing up till now

To keep pace with the developments in the DLT space some regulators have already established dedicated Fintech offices, contact points and hubs. Others launched regulatory sandbox frameworks that enable innovators to experiment with Fintech solutions for financial services (see my Blog, “Blockchain: playing in the Sandbox September 7, 2016”). And there are regulators that have set up labs and accelerator programs to explore how new technologies including DLT can help them better achieve their regulatory objectives.

To give some examples:

  • Regulators, such as the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the US Securities Exchange Commission (SEC), have attempted to incorporate DLT innovations into existing legal and regulatory frameworks. Also, the French Parliament last June approved a law that lets some securities vouchers be issued and exchanged on a DLT.
  • Others, such as the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority (FINMA), and the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), have created regulatory sandboxes for companies utilizing innovative technologies.

But, as FINRA, ESMA and IOSCO all note in their recent reports, integrating novel DLT products into existing regulatory regimes may prove challenging as DLT continues to develop.

FINRA Report

Early January this year, the US Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) published a report titled “Distributed Ledger Technology Implications for the Securities Industry. The FINRA report provides, while structured as only a “request for comments”, an overview of DLT, highlights applications and gives a detailed review of how blockchain technology may impact existing securities regulations affecting dealers and marketplaces.

The report thereby gives a clear picture of the many regulatory considerations for broker dealers that (it says) “market participants may want to consider and regulators will want to have worked out before such infant technologies can be allowed to leave their sandboxes.
US regulatory considerations include issues such as governance, operational structure, network security and regulatory considerations, customer data privacy, trade and order reporting requirements, supervision and surveillance, fees and commissions, customer confirmations and account statements and business continuity planning.

This report is intended to be an “initial contribution to an ongoing dialogue with market participants” about the use of DLT in the securities industry. Accordingly, FINRA is requesting comments from all interested parties regarding all of the areas covered by this paper.

“FINRA welcomes an open dialogue with market participants to help proactively identify and address any potential risks or hurdles in order to tap into the full potential of DLT, while maintaining the core principles of investor protection and market integrity”. FINRA Report

  • More questions than answers!

The FINRA report doesn’t provide specific guidance for many questions, but it does represent something of a practical checklist of issues that will need to be addressed by regulated securities businesses considering implementing DLT networks more broadly.

To give an idea of the many questions raised:
How would the governance structure be determined? Who would be responsible for the business continuity plan, addressing conflicts of interest? How would errors or omissions on the blockchain be rectified? What type of access will be provided to regulators? In the event of fraud, who covers the cost? How will regulated entities deal with DLT transactions? Who is the custodian? Does the DLT network itself affect the market risk or liquidity of the digital asset? How is access to the data controlled? Which entities are playing what roles. Would dealers become clearing agencies? How is customer information updated for changes? How is the process supervised and tested? And many, many more!!

  • Possible implications for existing US regulation

Many FINRA rules, as well as some rules implemented by other regulators, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), that FINRA is responsible for examining or enforcing with respect to broker-dealers, are potentially implicated by various DLT applications.
For example, a DLT application that seeks to alter clearing arrangements or serve as a source of recordkeeping by broker-dealers may implicate FINRA’s rules related to carrying agreements and books and records requirements. The use of DLT may also have implications for trade and order reporting requirements to the extent it seeks to alter the equity or debt trading process.

Other FINRA rules such as those related to financial condition, verification of assets, anti-money laundering, know-your-customer, supervision and surveillance, fees and commissions, payment to unregistered persons, customer confirmations, materiality impact on business operations, and business continuity plans, also may to be impacted depending on the nature of the DLT application.
The head of the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission Christopher (CFTC) Giancarlo recently said that US fintech policy should take a “do no harm” approach. He added that US regulators should coordinate to “avoid stifling innovation”.

ESMA Report

Early February 2017, the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) published a report regarding distributed ledger technology (DLT). In this report named ”The Distributed Ledger Technology Applied to Securities Markets” ESMA summarizes its position on DLT, with a note that it will continue to monitor this “dynamic” technology and consider whether a regulatory response may become a necessity. It sets out ESMA’s views on DLT, its potential applications, benefits, risks and how it maps to existing EU regulation.
ESMA concluded that regulatory action is premature at this stage, but may not be in the longer term. The report anticipates that early applications of DLT will focus on optimising processes under the current market structure, particularly less automated processes in low volume market segments.

ESMA “has not identified any major impediments in the current European Union regulatory framework that would need to be addressed in the short term to allow for the first applications of DLT to securities markets to emerge in a scenario where DLT would be used to optimise processes within the current market structure”.

Longer term, and based on industry responses to the discussion paper, ESMA in its report notes the potential of the technology to support clearing and settlement activities. Potential risks outlined in the report include cyber-attacks, fraudulent activity, operational risk if errors are disseminated, fair competition issues, and market volatility.

Also ESMA “appreciates that broader legal issues, such as securities ownership, company law, insolvency law or competition/antitrust law may have an impact on the deployment of DLT”.

IOSCO Report

The “IOSCO Research Report on Financial Technology”, also published in February this year by the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO), highlights the increasingly important intersection between financial technology (Fintech) and securities market regulation. It describes a variety of innovative business models and emerging technologies that are transforming the securities industry including the application of the blockchain technology and shared ledgers.

  • Risk assessment

The IOSCO report analyses both the opportunities and risks that these new technologies present to investors, securities markets and their regulators. Though the risks differ depending on the technology, certain risks are recurring across the Fintech sector, such as those arising from unlicensed cross-border activity, programing errors in the algorithms that underlie automation, breaches in cyber security, and the failure of investors to understand financial products and services. Another risk is the failure of financial firms to “know-the-client” for reasons of anti-money laundering and fraud control.

“Financial technology regulators may need to develop “highly automated” surveillance and hire technology experts if they want to closely monitor risks posed by blockchain and other distributed ledger technologies” IOSCO Report

  • Cross border challenge

And there is the cross-border challenge. While tech firms operate globally, regulation is conducted largely within national or sub-national borders. The local nature of regulation may create challenges regarding cross-border supervision and enforcement, whereas regulatory inconsistency across jurisdictions increases the potential for regulatory arbitrage.

“The global nature of Fintech therefore creates challenges that regulators should address through international cooperation and the exchange of information”,according to the report.

DLT and blockchain Regulation: not today!

Regulation of blockchain and distributed ledger technology in the securities industry is not to be expected short term. There are still more questions than answers. Before regulators will be able to address the various issues raised, they must better understand their impact. And that takes time. It is in the securities industry’s interest that they remain in an ongoing dialogue with regulators to get the best of both worlds.

 

Carlo de Meijer

Economist and researcher

 

 

 

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