Fintech developments, geopolitical risk and changes in market conditions present challenges for all involved in trade. Representatives from some of the most important players in regional trade gathered in Singapore recently to discuss these daunting and dynamic times.

Roundtable participants:

  • Charles Dufourcq, executive vice-president, Tinubu Square
  • Rupert Evill, director, Control Risks
  • Michael Ho, engagement manager, Oliver Wyman
  • Vipin Vashishtha, head, trade asset sales and syndication, Standard Chartered (chair)
  • Ashish Sethi, head of structured finance, Asia Pacific and India, Nokia Networks
  • Anna Tipping, head of insurance, Asia, Norton Rose Fulbright
  • Anne Simpson, underwriting manager, political risk and credit, Chubb
  • Joergen Oerstroem Moeller, adjunct professor, Singapore Management University
  • Eric Trijbels, head of trade credit insurance, Standard Chartered


Vashishtha: In the discussion today, we are going to look at the trade funding gap for developing markets and SMEs and what can we do to reduce this gap. Trade flows are very active drivers of the global economy. After a great growth rate of 6-7% between the 1990s and early-2007, trade has slowed down in recent years, to 2-3% levels. There are some fundamental structural issues, causing this, but one consistent theme comes across – availability of trade funding for SMEs, who account for almost 95% of the companies participating in trade in most countries. How can we play a role in reducing this funding gap, which according to recent studies is estimated to be US$1.6tn across the globe, and almost US$700bn in emerging Asia? What are the opportunities and the threats, which would contribute towards reducing or widening this gap?

Oerstroem Moeller: The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently made a new forecast for 2017 and 2018, and it was actually encouraging. They upgraded global growth marginally, from around 2.4% in 2016 to approximately 4% in 2017. So, the macroeconomic outlook looks good for the rest of 2017, and well into 2018.

The two negative sides are the US and UK. The IMF was pessimistic about the US and downgraded its growth outlook, and even more pessimistic about Britain. On the other hand, they were optimistic about the eurozone.

All in all, we have a fairly good macroeconomic climate to operate in, both with regard to economic growth and international trade in goods and services. The IMF did not specifically comment on capital movements and international investment, but other sources indicate that that is also a big marker.

Ho: I think we see a bifurcated trend. In the west, wesee more uncertainty coming from the US and parts of Europe, while in Asia it tends to be more optimistic. There is deep integration with the Asean economic community and other initiatives trying to drive economic integration and trade across the region. There is China trying to push its Belt and Road policy across different corridors. These are all contributing to growth. It is Asia’s response to protectionism rising in parts of the world, offsetting it with intraregional growth.

Evill: My nature is obviously to be a touch more cautious. I’m not going to be making generalisations because we’re only a few incidents away from a very different picture. But all you need is a couple of things that tip Southeast Asia a little bit; a spat in the maritime disputes between China and Japan or Vietnam, so overall, everyone talks broadly positively about Asia, but the advice is still to pick your projects, who you’re doing them with, where you are doing them, and what you are doing. Some of them are more vulnerable than others. Protectionism is on the rise in Asia. I think this is something that people may be overlooking, but particularly in markets such as Indonesia.

Trijbels: Where does that vulnerability come from and are there things that can help with that?

Evill: I think there is pragmatism. Let’s look at China and Japan. There is a lot of manufacturing done by Japanese companies in China, so there is going to be a pragmatic approach to any dispute there, because both sides would lose from any reactionary measures. However, look at what has just happened with Repsol in the South China Sea [a subsidiary of Spanish oil company Repsol was forced to suspend drilling in disputed territory, after pressure from China]. If you’re prospecting for gas in waters where China and Vietnam have a dispute, that’s higher risk. It is always about risk-return. If you’re doing high-risk transactions in a place with a somewhat uncertain rule of law, then you’re taking a gamble.


Vashishtha: We have also seen a build up of regulations, and not only capital-related, but also anti-money-laundering, KYC and so on. Are there any specific areas where you see this impacting us?

Trijbels: I see three things: increased protectionism in certain countries, increased political uncertainty, and almost a lack of global leadership; first the former Soviet Union falling away from the world stage some 25 years ago and now the US showing signs of increasingly winding back its global role and becoming more protectionist, while China and India haven’t yet decided whether they want to play a big role. Meanwhile there are a lot of countries nowadays that depend on one specific strong man, who may at times resort to pragmatic but unpredictable action.

Oerstroem Moeller: Can I generalise by saying that the main trend we see is that the world is becoming less predictable? People, policymakers and politicians do not act any longer as we expect them to. The rulebook has been thrown out and for the first time, we see a serious question mark on economic globalisation.

Vashishtha: Implementation of trade finance regulations has been at differing levels across markets. But most banks have highlighted regulatory compliance cost as one of the factors impeding their ability to fund corporates. Ashish, how do you position yourself as a corporate to deal with these challenges?

Sethi: Our biggest partners for trade finance are obviously the banks. The challenge we have today is that the banks are risk averse. If you go to any bank, they are very happy financing the top one or two customers in any segment in most markets, but it’s not the top one or two customers who really need the financing. It is the tier-two and the tier-three customers who are looking for financing and who need support.

When it comes to banks, because of Basel III and other regulations, they are chasing assets which give them good yield. When you talk about banks dealing with SMEs, this is a more vulnerable sector; the smaller corporates are the ones with which banks will probably see more losses. You need more administration of these accounts to be able to ensure that they are performing well, which means a higher cost for banks and potentially lower returns. That is the challenge in funding to SMEs.

Another challenge is being able to provide financing solutions in local currency. Most of the transactions we do are cross-border and, therefore, in hard currency. With local banks being adequately liquid and local interest rates coming off, offshore financing is now less attractive due to the high cost of hedging, it becomes very difficult for corporates to be able to borrow without taking some kind of currency risk on their books. We need to, and are, working on solutions to provide local currency financing to our trade partners, especially SMEs.

Trijbels: In currency risk, what we see is connected with the almost necessary split within the way banks are organised. In banks, different teams often work independently and in silos, therefore currency risk is not something that is taken in account when trade finance deals are being reviewed.

One thing that we’ve started to do, although it is still very early days, is combining these forces and creating cross-functional teams, where we can provide the funding solution and tag a hedging solution to the back of it.

Vashishtha: Anna [Tipping], what have you experienced around regulations coming in and constraining banks?


Tipping: At the supra-regulatory level for banks, we have Basel III, and for insurance we have the Core Principles of International Association of Insurance Supervisors [IAIS], neither of which is a regulatory body, they are a committee and association of supervisors. The problem with both those regimes is that they need to be locally implemented. That is where we see protectionism creeping in.

We hear a lot about Asean, and its aspirations to create free trade zones in Southeast Asia. Asean’s ambitions are freedom of market access, freedom of movement for employees, and cross-border services. In financial services, that is still aspirational. If anything, the barriers are going up. It is getting more difficult. Indonesia is a case in point. I understand now that directors on the board of financial services companies have to be able to speak Bahasa, which makes it difficult to bring in international expertise.

What is going on in Europe, with Brexit and the other countries pulling back from the common market, isn’t going to help either. If anything, Asia is more diverse in terms of nationality, ethnicity, religion, etc, so if Europe can’t make it work, I think Asean is in a difficult place. I don’t think we’re going to see regulation becoming an enabler of cross-border global trade any time soon. Banking regulation is a little more accommodating than insurance regulation at the wholesale level, but not in all countries. It is inconsistent.

Evill: I couldn’t agree more. I think there are some great opportunities, but as an example, in Vietnam a couple of years ago, the banking sector was being used as a political football to beat up the former prime minister’s coterie. There are pockets where you can see better co-operation, and there are trends of improved governance, but if you are talking about a pan-Asean and East Asian integration, there are too many problematic areas that need to be fundamentally reformed, and countries that are just not on a positive trajectory.

Vashishtha: We also see an impact on correspondent banking relationships. From high numbers, these are now down to only a few in most markets.

Trijbels: Correspondent banking is one part of the picture, and the corporate client is the other part of it. If a company wants to do business in certain countries, even if it does have the intel and insight, it still needs banks to come to the table to actually fund it. Therefore we need to take this exposure against a counterparty in-country, rather than rely on a repurchase by the client which would possibly jeopardise off-balance sheet treatment for the client. Looking at structures, this means we sometimes try to carve out the local content.

Tipping: You have to take a step back and develop a legitimate compliance structure that can be followed in order to get deals like this across the line. The parallel funders from China and elsewhere, that either don’t have the same restrictions on KYC and AML or don’t care, compose their deals very differently. You’re at a competitive disadvantage because of the western regime that you are subject to.

Vashishtha: From a regulatory perspective, the pressures are different for different banks, as every bank is going through a lifecycle curve. But it will even out. We have seen players who in the past played the pricing game but are now constrained probably because they overdid it. These differences may damage the balance of the ecosystem in the short-term, but in the mid to long-term I believe the pressure will be almost equal across the board.

Also, for most cross-border trade flows, where a local bank is on one side, there is typically an international bank involved on the other side. As the international banks follow a higher level of scrutinising standards, correspondent banks will feel higher pressure too, and local banks will have to up their game in terms of regulatory compliance, to make the bilateral relationship work.

Dufourcq: Technology can be a positive factor. Having said that, I think on the banking side and on the financing side you hear a lot of things about digitisation and blockchain, you hear distributed ledger, artificial intelligence, machine learning… all this terminology that, quite frankly, not many people understand. We don’t really understand what it does, and the value proposition to the bankers or SMEs is not quite solid.

Coming back to bridging the funding gap, we see new models emerging. Visible marketplaces are emerging on the back of a deregulated asset class, with innovations such as peer-to-peer lending. We see all these marketplaces coming up with a new value proposition which is: ‘We have appetite for risk, we are willing to take the wedges of risk that your bank and your financing counterparty are not willing to take, so give it to us because we have the ability to operate without regulatory pressure.’

Overall, I think technology is going to be potentially the deciding factor between those that are willing to get money, and the bank that is willing to give money, but is constrained in its ability to do so. Some regulators are actually pushing for that. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) is doing a lot in terms of enabling technology for receivables financing, factoring, and securitisation-type products.


Vashishtha: What kind of funding solutions have you seen evolving recently?

Sethi: We have been engaging with a couple of fintech firms, and are working with banks who are looking at developing their own technology as well. We are, of course, a technology company, so we embrace new technology happily, but when it comes to trade finance, the understanding of a lot of the general terms is very limited, especially within the SME sector.

As for Nokia, there we’re collaborating with a couple of service providers around automating processes and dynamic discounting. As of now, we’re continuing with the supply chain finance programmes implemented with our partner banks, and very soon we’ll do a pilot. Once you get the critical mass, and you have enough of your suppliers onboard these platforms, one can really benefit from these programmes.

One other emerging trend is the securitisation of trade finance assets. Fintech companies have come to that space as well, but they are not regulated as heavily, and this is where we’ve been slightly sceptical. We want to be sure of what we’re doing. We want to be very sure we’re partnering with the right partners and that there are enough checks and balances in place. Our own banks are actually introducing us to some of these platforms, so rather than competing with them the banks themselves, these companies are collaborating with them.

Trijbels: Do you see any barriers, other than that uncertainty, to using these kinds of platforms, in terms of upfront cost, technology or integration?

Sethi: When it comes to cost, for us to be able to migrate to an entirely new platform, it has to make economic sense. The first thing we do is a cost-benefit analysis. It makes sense to migrate the entire supply chain to one of these platforms. We will have economies of scale and be able to recover the cost. But as yet, somehow, it hasn’t really worked for us. Let’s take dynamic discounting, for example. Will our biggest suppliers use that? Probably not. The way it is structured right now, it’s the smaller suppliers who would use it, but then the volumes are limited. I don’t think we’ll gain enough benefit at this point in time to justify the cost but we continue to watch this space closely.


Vashishtha: Michael [Ho], you provide consulting to most banks and corporates, what new trends are you seeing and what are you advising your clients?

Ho: In the fintech space, I think there are two points. First, a lot of the momentum is coming from regulatory arbitrage. Eventually, they will be brought into the scope of regulators when they become big enough to pose systematic risk. At that point, they will require scale, and naturally the industry will consolidate.

Secondly, small fintechs are not the only option within this space. Some tech giants are leveraging their existing ERP client base, trying to do receivables management and, to some extent, partnering with banks to find financing for their suppliers and distributors on that basis.

With the smaller fintechs, we will wait and see, and maybe you would need to make some opportunistic acquisitions just to keep pace with the market, but there is no way we can say which standards will win five years from now, because it’s changing too rapidly.


Vashishtha: In the space of fintech and insurtech, we’re trying to bring it together, but it will take time. Are there any views on what is going to accelerate this convergence or how we can influence it?

Simpson: Something which would be useful for SMEs would be to have a scoring system in the market which is more adapted to their needs. The rate of rejections for SMEs is significantly higher than for large corporates, so we should look at breaking this trend using new technologies. For example, some of the large players in consumer data in China who handle millions of transactions, are looking at different approaches to run scoring models. This could make a real difference in terms of access to funding for SMEs.

Dufourcq: If you talk to insurers, there is a high level of reluctance in adopting these scores for many different reasons, be it that they have different risk appetites, or that it’s a threat to underwriting jobs.

Tipping: Is this not potentially another level of disruption? Every single aspect of this, from the original buyers through to the distributors, the banks, the insurers, the data management, is being compartmentalised. If someone could somehow bring it all together, provide an end-to-end service, they’d capture the market.


Vashishtha: How can we provide this end-to-end service for our clients and meet the needs of the whole ecosystem? What partners do we need?

Oerstroem Moeller: The data collection companies, such as Google and Facebook actually know about clients, they know about the debtors. The problem for the banking sector is gaining access to this knowledge. Do you do that by linking up with the data collection companies? The risk is that the data collection companies can simply go it alone. This is a big risk for the banking business.

Trijbels: We have big data of our own. Our key clients all have an ecosystem. We know the suppliers and buyers of our anchor clients, because we see the cash flows from that client to their suppliers and from their buyers. That in itself is a huge source of information. Even though we may not bank these customers, we have their corresponding details. That kind of big data we’re currently trying to use to provide more support if we want to bank that client’s ecosystem. Are there any thoughts on whether that will ever get easier, in terms of data protection?

Tipping: There are two levels to think about: personal data, which is where most regulators focus their attention, and non-personal data. Quite how these big data companies collect their data, you have to question whether that in turn is going to become regulated at some point, because the amount of data they are collecting and what they can do with it is positively terrifying.

Vashishtha: This is a real concern. Although banks want to embrace technology as fast as they can, the compliance experts are trying to protect them against such regulatory threats. If you want to partner with fintech today, it’s not an easy ride.

Dufourcq: My view from the fintech side is exactly the same. It’s a challenge for medium-sized companies to look at a 247-page compliance questionnaire. We understand the constraints, but we see limited value in this. Coming back to data and privacy, we’re getting all kinds of questions from regulators, especially in insurance. I understand the regulators being strict in what we do with data that we process for insurers. This is an issue for small fintechs. It’s a challenge for medium-sized companies.

Evill: As somebody who is not in tech, it seems that all of this big data is better than a doctor prodding you or cutting you open to find problems. It is an MRI scanner. It just tells you of potential heat spots that you need to interrogate with a bit more information. There still needs to be somebody following up on it. All of the issues we talked about, whether it be fake news or whether it be where data is hosted, comes down to humans. When it comes down to humans, it’s about what is the motivation, not what is being said. Data could potentially be very useful, but it’s not going to get you your solutions entirely. There is still going to need to be an executive decision at some point, or a human focus.

Trijbels: For large enough deals, that is true, but we already see the impact of certain regulatory changes, which the banks have subsequently responded to by simply saying that certain sectors or countries are simply too hot for them. If you do identify these hotspots, the computer flags it up. If you have a database of 1 million SMEs, we are not going to look at the smallest ones for another round of scrutiny to see whether we can do anything with them. We will scrap them, along with a safety buffer just to be safe. And if all the banks do that, the contagion risk would be that if somehow you have a negative blip somewhere on the ether, you will be completely locked out from financing.


Vashishtha: One other key support area is trade distribution, beyond the traditional investors – banks and insurers. There is further support coming through development finance institutions (DFIs). They are the real game-changers when we talk about funding SMEs. Secondly, syndication in the trade space needs to evolve similar to the loan space, especially for supply chain financing, taking into account the operational inefficiencies. Banks and investors need to partner with each other more often to develop this option further. What else could help?

Oerstroem Moeller: My first recommendation would be to channel the savings from where they are, and mainly global savings are found in China and in Japan, into SMEs via the banks. You need to reshuffle savings from where they originate into other purposes, which the original savers may not always agree with. The second point is to increase predictability and transparency, and that can be done by official institutions, at least in this part of the world. I would recommend strong economic integration.

Ho: We have talked a lot about fintech, but I think we can make better use of the information between the SMEs, the anchor clients, and the banks. The anchor corporates have a lot of information about those SMEs, because most of the time they will be the biggest buyer or seller for those SMEs. Enabling banks to finance those SME suppliers and distributors helps their businesses, because it reduces risks and lowers financing costs in the supply chain.

As an example, we see car manufacturers partner with wholesale distributors to monitor inventory levels in real-time with the banks, so that when there are variations in inventory levels at the distributor, the supply chain can be adjusted accordingly, and the banks can also assess if there is a risk issue emerging.

We should also be thinking about whether the large corporates can leverage their own balance sheet to fund the SME in a creative way, by adjusting the accounting and payment period. That could have a significant impact on SMEs, although it may not seem significant from the large corporate side.

Sethi: I tend to agree with Michael’s point. Every big corporate wants their supply chain run well, so it is in their own interest to ensure the SMEs are supported. But I also think that it should be part of the social responsibility of these big corporates, given their size, market standing and access to funding solutions, to support their SME vendors, as these are the ones who create the maximum employment in any country. Governments should ensure big corporates are supporting the SMEs as part of their CSR or other programmes and helping them get access to cash. They can do that by running supply chain finance programmes through the banking channels or through fintech.

Trijbels: Banks increasingly face more regulation, market volatility and changing client needs. I will be looking to the government to reconnect bilateral trade agreements to reshape the landscape of trade, to increase interdependency. You can’t have a world in which every country is doing whatever they like. The second thing is to have the government play a bigger role in fast-tracking this convergence of technology, finding a new way of trade finance supported by technology. I think Singapore by nature is a very good hub. It is a small, confined space with great infrastructure. France is another very good example, with a new president with a new mandate. Unfortunately, I do see the original innovator, the US, slowing down in terms of its R&D, so I don’t expect too much from that space now.

Vashishtha: To summarise the discussion today, we are seeing a new normal in terms of trade growth rates, but there is a positive outlook at least for the next year. There is a real need to address the issue around funding gap for the SMEs and the key recommendations made today are that there has to be joint responsibility across the eco-system players, end-to-end. It is not only about corporates, it is not only about banks or other partners either: the responsibility lies across the board, including with DFIs and government bodies. Technology is a key enabler, but the risks are also very daunting. Let’s embrace technology, cover the risk aspects and move positively into the future, with increased partnership.