Trade finance digitisation: the views of the ecosystem
DBS and GTR gathered players from throughout the trade cycle to discuss the major developments in the digital space.
- Finbarr Bermingham, Asia editor, GTR (chair)
- Chong Kok Keong, CEO, Global eTrade Services (GeTS)
- Daniel Lit, executive director, global trade product management, global transaction services, DBS
- Kam Poh Yuen, assistant vice-president of group technology, PSA International
- Jesse Satria Oeni, deputy director, financing ecosystem development division, Enterprise Singapore
- Daniel Thong, global head for strategic development, Halcyon Agri Corporation
- Alan Yeo, head of financial markets development, Monetary Authority of Singapore
GTR: What work are you doing to move towards a digital future for trade finance?
Lit: We are very aggressive in looking at the various ways that we can digitise the end-to-end process. Unlike consumer banking or payments, where it is quite straightforward, trade is challenging and complex because each transaction involves multiple parties, end-to-end. Because of that, you need everyone to come in and collaborate to make sure that you can sustain the process throughout the whole journey.
When we look at digitisation in the trade space, we are not just looking internally at how we create a digital solution then going to the customer to present this. We will engage the customer early, and then seek to integrate our product and services in the customer journey. To do that, we need to truly understand the customer processes, how they do their work, and then we can co-create something that is part of the job to be done. We call it “making banking invisible”.
We have three key pillars driving our strategy. The first one is around acquiring a transaction. As much as possible, we want to acquire transactions digitally, because in order to digitise the process, the data has to be digitised at source. We have been enhancing our digital touch points so that as far as possible, regardless of how the customer wants to operate and on whichever platform, we are able to acquire the transaction, or the business, digitally.
We have also been implementing robotic processes to automate our back-end processes. Essentially, at the end of the whole journey, we can have a transaction process without any human intervention. We are also enhancing the way we engage with our customers. We use chatbots to handle customer enquiries rather than phone calls, and we avail documents, status updates and advice digitally to our customers.
Chong: I’ll pick up on where Daniel left off, regarding the importance of getting data at source, and making the experience easy and simple for customers to adopt technology. We focus on these two main principles when designing our services. That is how we started, by building an engine that helps companies manage and transform data, and also to have it developed a simple way through which companies can interact and collaborate on data exchange, and then creating something new around that.
We have also looked at the security aspect, because companies are concerned about sharing data and the use of technology. There are a lot of questions about whether data will be compromised, if they are sending data to the right party, if they are receiving the right stuff. Recently, we launched our blockchain platform. This actually helped to underlay security and trust for the services that we have been implementing.
This service is based on a permission blockchain, which is run by trusted nodes, so the level of security is much higher. All the nodes are run by whitelisted trade compliance organisations or agencies that are accredited by their respective countries. This blockchain platform is also borderless, in the sense that it has garnered the participation of nodes from multiple countries in Asean and soon China, Latin America and North America. So, from this trusted and borderless concept of a blockchain platform, we hope that we can address the concern of some customers when it comes to trust.
Kam: At PSA, our connection to trade finance is through our port-plus services and through the supply chain platform, Calista, jointly developed with GeTS. Because of technology, disruption, and the rise of e-commerce, we believe that cargo flows will change. As such, we want to better serve the shippers and their service providers by extending our focus into the terminal adjacencies and the container supply chain. We want to provide offerings like our special port-plus services, where we can offer better connectivity and better inventory management.
Oeni: Being a government agency, we are looking at the wholesale trade sector. The sector is incredibly important to Singapore. It has something like 34,000 companies, and that accounts for 9% of Singapore’s workforce. Any advances, when it comes to productivity in terms of accessibility of finance, or even changes in global trends, impact our companies quite substantially, which is why we really would like to work with the rest of the ecosystem to ensure that some of these key messages and key initiatives are actually linked in to how enterprises can adopt them.
We see our role primarily as one of promoting our reach. There are all these initiatives that key players in the marketplace are introducing. We are keen to work with everyone in the ecosystem to convey some of these benefits around how trade digitalisation can translate into better financing of companies.
Yeo: From MAS’ perspective, it’s more than just trade finance. We look at it as facilitating the whole trade network. Trade finance is one element of that, but if we only focus on facilitating that, I don’t think we will get anywhere. Ultimately, we need to think about and engage the entire chain of stakeholders. This is why engagement of the corporate end-users is key. It’s not about developing a financial solution and then saying, here, everyone just plug in. It’s really about designing the process that works best for the corporate end-users, including SMEs, so that you have a way that brings them into the system. That is one connection that we are thinking very hard about.
We are seeing quite a few attempts at using technology to build frameworks for trade finance and trade-related ecosystems. There is nothing wrong with that, and in a sense, we are doing it ourselves.
On the Singapore domestic front, we have the National Trade Platform (NTP), and different jurisdictions have their domestic platforms as well, and there are also commercial platforms. We do want to encourage that experimentation, but the key point is: how do you do the connections among all those ecosystems? That is something that I think needs to be worked on concurrently.
It is a chicken and egg issue. You can say, let’s have a whole bunch of ecosystems up and running. I think concurrently, you want to think about how do we ensure interoperability and connectivity, so you achieve that true global scale in the long run. It is quite easy to say, well, let’s do one first, and then when you’ve got all these networks up, then let’s try and build linkages. Given the way the technology is being built, and the way it is advancing, I think there’s some merit in trying to do those things in parallel.
GTR: A couple of years ago, many people, especially in banking, were talking about digitising trade finance, but without taking into account the fact that you have to digitise the underlying trade first.
Lit: There is no lack of effort to digitise trade. This started happening decades ago. A lot of the solutions have not reached scale in terms of adoption, and there are reasons for that. We can all draw lessons from them and close that gap.
In the case of Bolero and essDOCS, I think they are good solutions, but they work in a closed ecosystem, and I would say that it is impossible to have one network that rules the whole world. It is not practical to expect everybody to join one network. So, the existence of many networks is something that we have to accept. But the question is, how do we connect these and make them interoperable?
The other example is the BPO, and this speaks to the point that you need to complete the job that needs to be done. I think the BPO does only part of the job, and therefore, when corporates see that there is no instant fulfilment and it doesn’t completely solve the problem, then they continue with the existing process.
Thong: I would echo Daniel [Lit]’s point about both scale and interoperability. The scale for a financing platform or whatever platform you might have is important, because you need to reach out to all of the participants in the value chain.
At Halcyon, we have a wide supply chain. We ship to secondary and tertiary ports around the world, and we need the scale to reach everybody. So, multiple platforms will happen, and we have to embrace it. The key thing is to ensure from the technology provider that we get interoperability among all these platforms, so at least you do not slow down. If you are waiting for one particular platform to take over the world, you will be waiting forever. But if you have four or five good platforms, and they are communicating with each other and they are allowed to exchange information and data flow with each other, then the speed at which we achieve scale is much faster.
GTR: How much of a priority is digitalisation for you?
Thong: It is very important. As a natural rubber supply chain manager, our industry has not changed a lot over the last 70 or 80 years. Halcyon is one of the few consolidators in the industry. As we consolidate, we start to look at the benefits of trade digitisation, and how that is going to allow us to grow the organisation while keeping a hold on our costs. I think a lot of the work that is being done in trade documentation digitisation, reducing the processing time and document flow will eventually end up reflecting in our KPIs. We are very focused on that. But again, we are very early on in our process.
GTR: The point about encouraging more of collaboration is something I would like to discuss. Alan, from MAS’ perspective, how are you encouraging corporate buy-in?
Yeo: We don’t do this directly on our own, because we don’t have the direct interaction with corporates, as a central bank and a financial services regulator. But “platform” is kind of the keyword. I think that is a very good way of capturing the channel with which we engage with the corporate end-users and with all the other stakeholders within the ecosystem.
The NTP is led by Singapore Customs. We are involved in that from the trade finance angle in terms of engaging banks and making sure that they are part of the process, but the whole idea of the NTP is to create a more open-ended ecosystem that is a one-stop shop for all information.
The idea is that various stakeholders get the plug-in, and they make use of the components within the NTP that are most pertinent to them. So, it can be implementation, it can be documentation, it can be finance, or some combination. The idea is to keep it open so you have collaboration. Hopefully, with that, alongside initiatives with Enterprise Singapore to engage the end users, that is where corporates see the value, the services or the potential for the use of data coming out of such platforms.
That is one element. I think the other project that I see some optimism is our collaboration with Hong Kong [the Global Trade Connectivity Network (GTCN)], which we announced last year. And that really is looking beyond domestic networks to think about connectivity across networks. We think that is the way of the future.
Oeni: In terms of getting corporate buy in, trade is inherently cross-border. On the one hand, Enterprise Singapore can do a lot with companies that are based here. But that still leaves a very large pool of corporates that are based around the region. How do we reach out to them? Obviously, we are cognisant that there is only so much that we can do as either the regulators or as a government agency.
We are also looking to actively reach out to the relevant international chambers, like the International Chamber of Commerce, because these are the multiple partners that we would have to work with in order to really get some form of a global consensus. And again, we don’t need to wait for the entire world to move together – I think it is a case of identifying who are some of the key trading partners that are somewhat like-minded and who can drive some of these initiatives as well.
GTR: From PSA’s perspective, what can you say about the various initiatives that are ongoing such as NTP and GTCN. Are these initiatives
that excite you?
Kam: We are in discussions with multiple government agencies so that we can compare notes with them to make sure that Calista complements these platforms. We also rely on Singapore Customs to speak with their compliance counterparts. Let’s say we want to support the southern trade corridor, not only do we need to address the physical flow, we would also need to address trade compliance issues. We will check if Singapore Customs and their customs counterparts are able to streamline their processes. If they are able to, it would then be possible to streamline the entire shipment process.
Chong: I think that the whole idea of working with governments is a definite must for a trade platform, because nothing can enter or exit a country without some form of customs clearance or government document.
However, I hope that in the future, official requirements will be as touchless as possible, where the scenario is not one of having to submit to government. We should look to a scenario where during the daily operations of company, the relevant information or data could be pushed to the government. This would make the whole process seamless, and I believe it will reduce the cost of technology also for the government. Leave it to the businesses. Leave it to the platform players like us. We can do a good job.
GTR: This sounds very utopian. How far in the future are you talking?
Chong: A utopia can start in a very small place, because then it can grow. This is what we are saying. We don’t need to wait. It is anyone’s guess how long it will take, but we can always start in our own small way, and this is exactly what we have been doing with our platform and with our customers.
Thong: Can I challenge the thinking around whether industry can move faster than government when it comes to pushing out international digitisation for trade? Why do we have to sit and say that the government has to get these areas ready first? Why can’t we leapfrog them?
From my perspective, we should do our part. If I have to sit and wait for governments to get their act together, I’ll be here for a long time. And I cannot afford to sit and wait for both the national government and the regional government to decide and implement change in the time that that takes. Can industry and political players such as yourselves come in and bring corporates forward, and then let the government see what we are doing, and then they will come aboard? We should not have to wait for the government.
Chong: Definitely, this is exactly our mindset. When I talk about the cross-border connectivity with the customs authorities in 25 countries, we did it within three years. Today, if you look at the Asean single window concept, it has been around for, I think, more than 20 years of discussion. I think to get one government to digitise is hard work – but think about getting a regional set of countries coming together to do it the same way!
Rather than wait for a G2G situation to happen, we have done it the B2B way. I think the businesses are the ones who really feel the pain sometimes, more than the governments. And so, we have more of an incentive to charge forward.
Lit: I think from a solutioning perspective, we don’t have to wait for the government to create the solution. We can create a B2B success story. But, in order to promote mass adoption, I think government can play an instrumental role in providing the standards, setting up the framework, and giving the assurance to the market that actually, this is something that is safe to adopt.
Based on past experiences with industry digital solutions, although a solution actually works and there are already transactions going through, there will always be questions coming from some of the companies, such as: “Are you sure that this is acceptable in that jurisdiction?” If you don’t have any precedents, I think there will be reservations around widespread adoption of these digital solutions, especially given some high profile security risk incidents. So, governments can create market standards and legal frameworks to help accelerate mass adoption.
GTR: A number of speakers already have mentioned blockchain. Is this a technology you feel will be to the forefront of trade finance digitisation efforts, or is it overhyped?
Lit: Blockchain is not an answer to all problems. However, I think there are attributes that you can leverage. We are evaluating blockchain to address certain problems that we see in supply chain financing. For example, how do we use it to keep track of the end- to-end flows, maybe to use it to support sustainable financing, or use it as a register to prevent fraud or duplicate financing.
But, we are not jumping straight into the technology to build something and then saying we have the ultimate solution. We are talking to our customers to identify areas that we can leverage the technology, and the attributes that technology can bring about to solve a specific challenge.
We are currently working together with MAS on the GTCN, and I think that is one area where we think blockchain could be used to connect different networks and facilitate data exchange. So, from our perspective, it has to be very specific to the problem that we want to solve before we leverage blockchain technology.
GTR: One of the most interesting uses of blockchain in trade has been in the physical supply chain. Is that something that you are interested in at Halcyon?
Thong: We have looked at the potential of a distributed ledger technology (DLT) solution in terms of supply chain traceability and sustainability. I think it is an exciting area and the attributes of DLT can be exploited and used to great advantage for trade and for supply chain.
We are mindful that DLT is very early in its adoption cycle. For different parties using DLT, the cost of implementation can be quite high. I will go back to the interoperability challenge as well, because as you use DLT in disparate parts of the supply chain, whether you are talking about trade and commodity finance, smart contracts, document flow, or whether further upstream where traceability of raw material supply, where sustainability and having multiple parties coming and using the blockchain to authenticate or certify that a certain practice or product is sustainable, then hooking up all the different technologies across the whole supply chain itself is going to be important.
So, you cannot have companies using one technology and one DLT protocol, while another company is using another DLT protocol and then not having the connectivity of data between those two protocols. Different types of DLT are being designed and used for different purposes. You might use an open network on one end of the spectrum, and a closed network on the other. More than likely, it is going to be a combination of open and closed networks, so we have been cautious in adopting DLT.
GTR: As a service provider, which such a prominent discussion, do you almost feel under pressure to use blockchain, or to say you have some sort of blockchain element to your offering?
Chong: Yes – the pressure has been lifted, because we have just launched our blockchain solution. While there is hype, unfortunately it is hype that has not led to much pervasive adoption, and yet it is a technology that I think many parties see as valuable. They see the possibility of making data, documents and even processes a lot more secure. The key challenge to me is that we do not see very much pervasive adoption. You have different blockchain communities springing up and different people using protocols.
Only when people start to feel comfortable using a new technology like that, especially SMEs, will they then start to think about how they can truly use it for higher-value activities, for example applying to trade finance.
Thong: When do you think high enough adoption of DLT will happen, such that there are enough players within the ecosystem that are connected? When you look at the hype cycle, we are probably just off the peak of the initial hype.
Chong: I think five to seven years. But if you look at it perhaps from your own ecosystem perspective, it can be fast tracked if you are able to adopt a more open platform technology then leave it to the platform player to onboard your community. If the service is simple to use, and if it is of immediate value to your ecosystem, I believe that adoption can be much faster.
Kam: We are watching this space closely. In fact, we have had a couple of blockchain trials. One is a container clearance process in one of our European ports, and the other trial was a shipment from China to Singapore and then on to Asean.
Watching this space of interoperability, most of our shipping line customers are exploring the use of blockchain to digitise the bill of lading. Currently, they are using different solutions. We are in dialogue with shipping lines to let them know that, going forward, there will be a need to have interoperability, because eventually they will be connected to either Calista or our port community system.
Yeo: Ultimately, the technology is a tool. If you think of digitisation, it is a change of form, in that you are just moving it from analogue to digital. What these tools do is they facilitate making processes shorter, faster, and more efficient.
Digitisation means rather than taking the same old process and just making it faster, cutting out a few steps, it is a mindset change around how you think about your processes. What can the technology give us that can change the way we do something and the way we think about something? I think we shouldn’t be too worried about what is the current hot technology, but think about what we are trying to solve and what is the technology that helps, or the tool that helps us address the problem.
GTR: Daniel [Thong], as a corporate, what for you would represent material progress on the digitisation journey in say, one or two years?
Thong: Generally, when new technologies roll through our industry, we hit an inflection point where there is a certain penetration rate. Once you go beyond that point, then mass adoption is quicker, because leading up to the inflection point, the early adopters are feeling the pain of the implementation and the cost of implementation, but they are not getting the benefits of the connected network.
Then, when they hit that inflection point, and the other players in the market see the benefits and they can very quickly realise cost efficiencies, then everybody jumps in. I hope we reach that inflection point, and that is about a 20 to 25% market penetration rate within the industry. I hope that we hit that within the next three to four years. I don’t expect it to be something that is going to happen within one to two years, but if we can get that 20 to 25% in the next two to three years, the shift to the next 25% will come in another year or two.