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Could blockchain reduce the global trade finance gap and reach the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?

Global trade now faces a $3.4 trillion financing gap
It’s commonly known that small-medium enterprises (SMEs) struggle to access trade finance. This is driven by a combination of factors including creditworthiness, collateral requirements, short-term liquidity, and political or currency risk. The repercussions however are less known. The global trade finance gap is a major impediment toward reducing poverty and minimizing inequality — two areas that the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out to eradicate.
In 2019, the Asian Development Bank already estimated the global trade finance gap at a staggering $1.5 trillion, but amid the fallout from Covid-19 the trade finance gap has skyrocketed.
New research from the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) estimates a capacity of $1.9 to $5 trillion in the trade credit market is necessary simply to return to the 2019 levels. Factoring in this estimation along with the existing 2019 trade finance gap ($1.5 trillion), that means, we now need between $3.4 and $6.5 trillion to be able to meet the SDGs. In the ongoing debate as to how this can be achieved, the role that banks can play should not be overlooked.

SMEs in emerging economies are the hardest hit
40% of SMEs faced loan rejection
While the barrier to trade finance hurts all countries, it is SMEs in emerging economies that are impacted the most. A report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 2019 shows that over 40 percent of trade finance applications by SMEs faced rejection and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development supports this stating that, “SMEs remain underrepresented in global trade ….” The irony is, in emerging economies, SMEs are the largest employers and economic contributors. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) a lack of access to trade finance is a top-three export barrier for half of the world’s countries — particularly the poorest ones.

Banks need to step up
As crucial providers of trade finance, banks need to take concerted action toward reducing the trade finance gap. The importance becomes even more pronounced when considering the immense potential for trade growth, especially in emerging economies.
In Standard Chartered’s Trade20 Index Report launched in September 2019, it shows, emerging markets are quickly building momentum in boosting their trade prowess, giving them high growth potential relative to their size.

Technology can help
To overcome the financing hurdles faced by SMEs, technology will play an important role. One promising and sometimes overlooked solution is blockchain. A common misconception is that blockchain can only be used by large companies, but it can also be a game changer for SMEs in their quest for trade finance. Enterprise grade blockchain such as Corda, eliminates inefficient paper-based processes, and ensures regulatory compliance while its irrevocable and easily auditable ledger function means it has the potential to improve transparency among transaction parties while preserving data privacy.
Standard Chartered recognized this potential and invested in Contour, a blockchain-based industry platform focused on digital letters of credit (L/Cs). The investment led to several successful pilots, including the first yuan-denominated L/C using blockchain. The bank is now exploring the possibility of launching guarantees for clients in emerging markets.
The bank has shown that its digital drive has a much higher degree of urgency compared with before. Tim Zhang, Director, Global Trade Digital Product Management at Standard Chartered, said, “The Covid-19 situation has led to the realization in the business community that digitization is no longer a mere efficient play, but also a resilient play.”
Standard Chartered has also upgraded their data capabilities to improve financing to underserved clients. Ashish Kohli, Standard Chartered’s Director of Ecosystem Program Management said: “Current processes are focused on assessing risk based on credit risk models and placing emphasis on regulatory requirements. This approach may put smaller enterprises at a disadvantage as consideration is not given to other significant risk factors. To even out the disadvantage, Standard Chartered has constructed a risk assessment model that is also performance based, which considers SME transaction information and therefore can support suppliers by considering their past track records.”
Standard Chartered Bank is using the power of machine learning and big data analytics to extend financing to suppliers which have traditionally struggled to obtain formal financing.

The bottom line
Among the suite of banking products available, trade finance is one of the casualties of the Covid-19 outbreak. However, banks have an immense opportunity to channel capital to where it is needed most. And, the hard truth is, unless banks and financial institutions take concerted action toward reducing the trade finance gap, the chance of achieving the SDGs is under threat.
By deploying technology and process improvements in tandem, an opportunity exists for banks to help bridge the growing trade finance gap. This will enable SMEs to fulfill their role as the much-needed engines of economic growth. Most importantly, by doing so, the world will be one step closer toward alleviating poverty and inequality.

Source: cnbc
Sep 9, 2020 12:20
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