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December 18, 2017
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Why blockchain is not just for banks

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If global supply chains are to gain the full benefit of this technology for managing payments and related data, all parties that play a role in global trade must be involved.

The last two years or so have been like a rollercoaster ride in the land of blockchain. Both existing and new players have been considering and evaluating the opportunities and the downsides of this important technological development.

The blockchain concept originally was developed as an efficient and secure way to manage and register transactions made with cryptocurrencies (for example, Bitcoin). Until now, it has mostly been of interest to individuals and financial institutions. But with its distributed-ledger technology (DLT) and smart contracts, blockchain has great potential to benefit all companies across the global supply chain—not just banks. This article will briefly explain what blockchain is, and then discuss why it is important for all parties involved in global trade transactions to adopt it.

DLT, smart contracts, and digital payments

Blockchain is a new computing infrastructure that emerged to power the Bitcoin digital currency application. In essence, blockchain provides the opportunity to have a connected, secure world with a distributed ledger that centralizes data for the involved parties and the ability to run automated checks and processes (called "smart code" or "smart contracts," depending on the legal implications of the code) that trigger all kinds of events (for example, payments).

The distributed-ledger technology component of blockchain allows each counterparty to have its own copy of the same ledger, similar to the way a Google doc allows multiple parties to view the same information at the same time. The database is built to be immutable, which means there is inherent security. Blockchain also allows for smart contracts to be coded and connected in such a way that the contract automatically executes an event if certain preconditions are met. An example would be a (near) real-time payment when goods are delivered.

Blockchain beyond banks

Banks that deal in trade finance—those that would, for example, give importers or exporters a loan to finance their global trading activities—are viewing blockchain as a technology that can provide these entities with a single view of the trade finance transactions in real time. But what about the other parties involved in trade finance? In addition to traditional banks, non-banking participants (for example, shipping companies, insurers of the goods, and credit-rating agencies, among others) and entities that fulfill the role of importers and/or exporters are all part of the trade finance chain. They already play a role in traditional payment methods, such as the commonly used letter of credit (L/C) described below.

We believe that for a trade finance blockchain to be successful, it requires more than just banks coming together. Instead, it requires a critical mass of organizations to adopt "straight-through processing" (STP), an automated workflow from the point when the loan is requested through to when the goods are received and the payment for the shipment is processed. Participation by non-banking participants is critical to its success. However, each will need an incentive to become part of a blockchain. Let's consider just a few of the potential participants and how they could benefit from involvement in blockchain.

Benefits for importers and exporters

Blockchain enables faster processing of transactions between and within parties. Consider the example of an international letter of credit. (Other trade finance products can benefit from blockchain technology, but this article will focus on the example of L/Cs.) In very simple terms, a letter of credit is a written guarantee by the buyer's or importer's bank (the "issuing bank") to the seller's or exporter's bank (the "advising bank") to pay an agreed amount for the goods when specified conditions, including time limits and the presentation of documents, have been met.

When the importer applies to its bank for a letter of credit, all kinds of checks (for example risk, compliance, and credit) are required before the L/C can be initiated. Once it has been initiated, the importer must then wait for the exporter's bank and, subsequently, the exporter to be informed. When the goods have been shipped, it could take up to five days for both the advising and issuing banks to complete their parts of the transaction; only then can the importer retrieve the documents required for picking up the shipment.

With blockchain, however, smart contracts perform the automated execution of the L/C application steps and checks, issuance and advising processes, document checking, execution of payments, and the registration of all these transactions on the blockchain. All of this can occur outside of business hours. The time required from initiation to payment can therefore be dramatically reduced. For example, because blockchain automates the document checking steps (paperless trade is a prerequisite), the time required from sending the documents to the exporter's bank until document retrieval by the importer—including all settlements and payments, if they are not deferred—can be reduced from as many as 10 days to only one hour.

This, of course, assumes no discrepancies that could still occur, depending on the setup of the blockchain. If there are discrepancies, they will be detected right after the documents are created—much sooner than in traditional processes—and all applicable participants will immediately be aware of them. In addition to the reduced transaction time, other benefits for importers and exporters include reduced bank fees (due to less manual activity on the part of the banks), reduced time for loan approval, and reduced risk of fraud.

Why others should join the blockchain

Blockchain initiatives hold great promise for non-banking participants and other organizations involved in international trade. Let us highlight some of those benefits, what the impact on their existing activities would be, and the possible role they could play in the future.

We'll start with the insurers of transported goods. Data is key for them; they use it, for example, to determine the risk involved in a transaction and the associated pricing of insurance premiums. As a consequence of the blockchain's distributed ledger, all participants involved have insight into all validated trade finance data. This would make a wealth of information available to insurers, allowing them to conduct a deeper analysis and make better decisions around the type of insurance product to be offered and at what premium. In addition, the information would be available in near real time—even while the transaction is still ongoing.

So with blockchain technology, insurers could obtain information much faster and the data would be more accurate, thus helping them to enhance their offerings to clients and reduce their own risk. Furthermore, blockchain technology enables faster processing between and within parties (for example, document checking), which reduces the duration of an insurance policy.

Some of the benefits for insurers are also applicable to credit-rating agencies. For example, if blockchain makes data about importers and exporters more accurate as well as more widely available in near real time, then credit-rating agencies will be able to create more accurate models, thereby enhancing their ability to operate in the trade finance chain. However, because data is stored on the blockchain in a distributed ledger, the method of retrieving data and making it available to clients without conversion would no longer be a unique selling point for the credit-rating agencies. Instead, they will have to focus on their ability not just to retrieve data but also to enrich or convert it to useful information for their clients. In other words, they'll need to rethink their commercial models and consider where they can add value with the new data that becomes available through blockchain.

Currently, credit-rating agencies measure the creditworthiness of individuals and corporations based on historical records related to transactions, financial behavior, and other factors. With blockchain, they could combine proprietary data on the financial history of the individual or entity with the aggregated import/export data now made available on the blockchain. This would create the opportunity to draw insights related to the type and concentration of deals, which customers are seeking what types of deals, what buyers are looking for from their suppliers, and related analytics. Right now this data is is not always or not completely available; with blockchain, it would be available to all intermediaries (on a private, permissioned blockchain if the parties prefer). In short, combining private credit-rating data with the blockchain data could create a powerful revenue stream for credit-rating agencies. This could also take some of the pressure off of shipping and logistics companies to provide this data.

Get ready for the future

In this article we've highlighted how importers and exporters, insurers, and credit-rating agencies could benefit from blockchain technology. They are not the only ones, of course. Blockchain would allow any participant in the value chain—not just those mentioned above, but also shipping companies and related logistics service providers, among others—to share a single view of the financing around a shipment.

In fact, many parties that are interested in exploring the benefits of blockchain have moved in the past year from the "thinking and learning about it" phase to the "experimenting with it" phase. All kinds of questions have come up, such as (to name just a few examples): Who should be involved? What will their role be? How are we going to make money? Not all questions have been answered yet; a lot depends on the role existing parties want to play in the future trade finance chain of activities as well as on the incentives they have to participate in blockchain.

There are challenges to be dealt with, too, such as the need to implement paperless trade, issues of data privacy, and how to get all members of a supply chain to participate. Most of the trade finance-related blockchain pilots today are being run by banks, with limited outside participants. The problem with that approach is that banks will only get their own networks to join, limiting the value when other participants are needed for the redesign and adoption of an existing process and product.

All in all, though, huge opportunities and benefits can be achieved if all parties get involved. So for banks, non-banking participants, and other companies that are considering blockchain, the benefits are clear. Luckily it's not too late to start thinking about their future and how they can join the blockchain revolution.

Alexander van Tuyll van Serooskerken is senior management consultant at the technology services and consulting firm Synechron.

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