Financing trade is increasingly seen as an element within corporates’ holistic working capital and liquidity management solutions. Katharine Morton (Editor in Chief, TFR) explores the changing SCF landscape from the perspective of corporate end users and banks and fintechs and the convergence that’s inevitable.
Corporates are increasingly seeing trade as less of a separate ‘thing’ to be financed and more of a part of an integrated global working capital picture. That’s been one of the big shifts in trade finance over the past decade. And for many companies, that means making sure trade finance fits into supply chain finance (SCF) solutions.
SCF is a rather clunky and unfortunate term – but it now benefits from having a master definition  as a series of processes and techniques (rather than simply supplier finance).
In this, SCF is defined as ‘the use of financing and risk mitigation practices and techniques to optimise the management of the working capital and liquidity invested in supply chain processes and transactions. The term is most often applied to open account trade and is triggered by supply chain events. Visibility of underlying trade flows by the finance provider(s) is a necessary component of such financing arrangements which can be enabled by a technology platform.’
This definition has evolved hand in hand with the evolution of technology (and particularly the visibility of e-invoices digitally). Successful SCF is viewed as a programme rather than a product, or series of products. Moreover, many corporate treasurers and providers are moving away from using the term SCF at all, and wholly focusing on working capital and/or liquidity management solutions.
A convergence of factors is driving change. First is the evolution in global trade patterns, embracing cross border e-commerce and open account trade and changing the expectations both of consumers and, in turn, corporates themselves. Second is the (albeit gradual) improved ability of banks to adopt new technologies, and their appetite to adapt to their clients’ changing needs.
Corporates traditionally bought trade products separately from treasury products. That’s changing and there is now a shift in the buying behaviour for trade as companies increasingly focus on the working capital cycle. ''The metrics for CFOs have changed, and they are increasingly being measured on improvements across the working capital cycle. That is filtering down, creating the need for end-to-end solutions. Trade is a critical component of that change,'' says Percy Batliwalla, global head of trade and supply chain finance, GTS at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
It’s not only banks active in SCF, but they have dominated the more mature areas of the market where a single large company typically acts as an ‘anchor’ credit for its suppliers in the case of reverse-factoring/supplier financing solutions. Banks have also generally focused on the largest corporates.
''SCF dominance still largely resides within five or six banks with the platforms and financial muscle,'' says Prabhat Vira, president at Tungsten Network Finance. ''What’s happening, or is about to happen, is a convergence in terms of the efficiency play between the digital automation of suppliers and buyers and working capital between supplier and buyer trade flow relationships.''
For sure, in a post-Basel world where capital is tight, banks are not always finding SCF the product they thought it was. ''The number one thing for banks is return on capital,'' says Vira. ''The second and third together is that the amount of administrative work and effort required to integrate technology and onboard suppliers is a lot so not every deal is making sense as they are too finely priced and the work is too much. The product itself within banks is not growing by leaps and bounds.''
A convergence among platform providers and cooperation and partnership with banks makes sense as the marketplace in which they operate is complimentary – particularly in the emerging area that spans smaller suppliers. Technology has enabled visibility, bulk and scalability for the emerging generation of platform providers (Prime Revenue, Tungsten Network, GT Nexus (Infor), Misys, Demica, Taulia, Basware, Orbian, C2F0 to name just a handful). Many invoices can be on show at a time to be processed and all the providers offer slightly different solutions – some including dynamic discounting. The market is consolidating all the time.
Tungsten itself partnered in February with Orbian to expand the scope of its offering beyond simply e-invoicing through the latter’s bank agnostic platform. Vira points to the fact that larger companies are using SCF for efficiency purposes, and not just to extend payment terms. ''From 2000 until now SCF was a working capital solution extended by banks and it didn’t have digital optimisation – but imagine power of digital plus banks and strategic implication of one stop solution it means better efficiency plus the ability to fulfil strategic objectives.''
Some corporates don’t simply want to extend days payable outstanding (DPOs), which, to be frank, has traditionally been the primary objective of many SCF programmes for corporates (particularly those with supplier finance at the core). In fact, extending payment terms may not be a consideration at all. If that’s the case and the corporate wants to infuse liquidity into its supply chain, say to its SME suppliers to support them sustainably, improve market perceptions or for other strategic objectives, then the new generation of tech-enabled solutions can help.
Platform providers are onboarding larger quantities of smaller suppliers. Tungsten, for instance, boasts 235,000 on its platforms, not limited to the largest suppliers.
Banks too are teaming up with platform providers. In late March, HSBC announced that it was partnering with Tradeshift, a platform provider in which the bank took a minority shareholding in June last year. Tradeshift boasts that it connects more than 1.5m companies in 190 countries, processing transactions valued at more than US$0.5trn a year. The proposition is that, from July, buyers will be able to automate and digitise supply chain processes from all their suppliers and, by combining the benefits of electronic ordering and invoices, document matching and early payment capabilities, will be able to manage all this in one place. Clients will have greater visibility and ease of managing risk as they will be able to manage procurement, accounts payable, supply chain finance and settlement all on one platform on any device. HSBC plans to roll out further working capital solutions through the integrated platform next year.
The promise of technology
These are early days. Technology is constantly poised to digitise trade, but the jump hasn’t quite happened yet. Trade needs to be part of working capital end-to-end solutions, and that involves digitisation. The perception of trade finance being the Cinderella part of supply chain solutions is still prevalent.
For sure, trade remains a paper based business and multiple touchpoints have to be digitised along the way. It’s going to take time. ''There are significant opportunities for financial institutions to change the way they transact within the banking system,'' says Peter Jameson, co-head of product management, GTS EMEA at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. ''Banks historically used to look at how they could drive efficiencies within their own trade back-office environment. Now, it is critical for banks to take a view across the end-to-end transaction cycle and consider not just the improvements for their own business, but also what benefits and efficiencies it will deliver to their clients and their clients’ suppliers and customers.''
But when the move does happen, it could happen quickly, it could be driven in part by regulation and, many argue it’s already underway, particularly in Asia.