The legal entity identifier (LEI) has had its value for trade and supply chain finance further demonstrated, following a study carried out by the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) trade finance programme which showed the LEI was affordable and easy to obtain by SMEs and large companies alike.

Established in 2014 by the G20, the LEI is a unique, electronic, 20-digit standard identifier for legal entities, including financial institutions, corporations, governments and companies. Just like a passport or a car registration number, the LEI represents a common and recognisable code which can be used to connect to key reference information that enables clear and unique identification of legal entities participating in global financial transactions.

Uptake thus far has been slow. As of the first quarter of 2019, 1.3 million companies in 224 jurisdictions have acquired an LEI, and this is mostly because they have been forced to do so by regulators. Currently, the LEI is required for over-the-counter derivatives transaction reporting by all legal entities in India, and is also mandatory for European Union (EU) and non-EU legal entities involved in certain financial transactions such as derivatives.

But for the ADB, the LEI presents an opportunity to transform trade. According to the multilateral, by easing the flow of information about companies, the LEI can help banks conduct know your client (KYC) due diligence. It would also mitigate the risk of correspondent bank relationships being cut, and increase access to finance for SMEs in emerging markets by making information about them easier to come by.

“The LEI can play a role in helping to close the trade finance gap,” Steven Beck, head of trade and supply chain finance at the ADB, tells GTR. “When we conduct our trade finance gaps survey and talk with banks around what impedes them from providing more financing, they tell us that going through the due diligence process, particularly on SMEs, is onerous, it is complicated, and it is costly. With an LEI, we are providing confidence around who is who, who owns whom and who owns what in a way that is quick and effortless. So the LEI could be a big part of the solution to this impediment to closing gaps.”

Although implementing legislation to mandate LEI obtention for all exporters would seem to be the obvious way forward, the ADB was concerned about the potential impact on SMEs of doing so, and therefore its trade finance programme designed a survey to see whether large and small companies in developing countries – including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Samoa and Mongolia – could acquire an LEI relatively easily and at reasonable cost.

Of those surveyed, 87% rated the LEI registration process very easy, easy, or average. Of the entities surveyed, 65% had paid US$75 or less to acquire an LEI. Annual renewal fees were as low as US$5. Over three-quarters of the survey respondents considered the LEI registration fees to be acceptable and within their reach.

“The question is, is it reasonable to expect an SME in, say, Cambodia to get an LEI? The survey really set out to answer that question, and the answer is yes. Companies in far-flung, isolated markets can acquire an LEI, and they can acquire it relatively easily without it being too onerous and at a reasonable cost,” says Beck.

Given the positive survey results, the ADB now wants to see greater take-up of the LEI around Asia. “We have encouraged partner banks in our trade finance business to acquire an LEI, and the rate of adoption is over 80%. We are going to get to 100%, because we’ll insist that all of them have one,” says Beck, who adds that he strongly supports the ICC B20 Consultation recommendation to legislate a requirement for all importers and exporters to acquire an LEI. “I hope our study proving that SMEs in smaller and remote countries can acquire an LEI with reasonable cost and effort will underpin serious consideration around legislation requiring LEIs. The potential of the LEI to be transformative is really exciting and it’s incumbent on us to work together to help drive its global adoption.”

Home to the world’s largest exporting economy and criss-crossed by global supply chains, the potential for Asia to give the LEI the push it needs in trade is tremendous, says Beck.  “If you look at the rise of Asia over the past few decades, most of it can be attributed to trade. In conversations I have with tech, the financial sector and governments around Asia, they are very receptive to the idea of adopting the LEI.  The Asian mindset is geared towards trade, driving transparency, and solving problems through tech, and this could lend itself to Asia being a leader in driving global LEI implementation.”


Driving global adoption

But it is not just in Asia where the LEI is poised to change the face of trade. Stephan Wolf, CEO of the Global Legal Identifier Foundation (GLEIF), a not-for-profit organisation created to support the implementation and use of the LEI, tells GTR that take-up is now increasing around the world.

“Five years ago [when the LEI was introduced], banks and many others in the market viewed the LEI as yet another regulatory burden. This has changed a lot over the course of the last two years. When we talk now with banks, they understand the value of the LEI and what it brings to their business,” he says. He points to examples in the industry where bank employees have sent each other emails and text messages about clients, only to discover later that they were talking about completely different entities with the same or similar names. “Some of these banks have started now to require an LEI in all of these conversations to make sure they really understand who they are talking about and who they are doing business with,” says Wolf.

He also highlights the cost savings for all players along the supply chain of making sure every company has a unique identifying number. “Across the supply chain world, the money flow goes via the banks, while the shipment flows go over the logistical firms and platforms. And they don’t talk with each other, so they don’t use the same keys and they don’t use the same identities. It is all bilaterally managed between individual firms and banks, and that costs the industry a tremendous amount of money. The LEI can be the lynchpin between all these systems. It is the key that brings all the other data assets together.”

Cheered by the positive results from the ADB survey, GLEIF has now contracted consulting firm McKinsey to carry out research to demonstrate the potential of the LEI for trade. Its next step will be to explore boosting take-up by empowering banks to obtain LEIs on behalf of their clients, which Wolf says has met with a positive response from the market.

“Today the LEI is in use because of mandatory regulation. We would like to overcome this and turn the LEI into something that people would voluntarily like to have because they have other benefits from it. Our strategy is to address the private sector. As an example, banks could use the LEI requirement in their favour by offering the LEI issuance service to their clients alongside their own onboarding and KYC processes. For them, it’s a small step. They have to do the background check anyway. It is not much of an extra burden, most of it just interfacing with us.”