Banking: Seven questions to ask a prospective banker about their global capabilities
In a stringent regulatory environment, US exporters should be exploring new international banking relationships
The global trade landscape is riskier now than it was a few years ago. Gone are the days before the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 when liquidity flooded the market and everyone thought we were headed to a low-risk, seamless global framework.
Subsequent developments—from the Brexit vote to the inauguration of Donald Trump—have increased risks for international traders, including US exporters and the financial institutions that serve them. Enhanced regulatory scrutiny has also increased the cost of capital, making trade finance services more expensive.
All of this means that many United States exporters—and small and midsized ones especially—may be, or should be, looking for new banking relationships to help them with international trade. Here are seven key questions to ask your prospective banker in the quest to make that decision.
What can you do for me?
It’s not as flip as it sounds, as today’s rigorous banking regulatory environment has adversely affected the practice of trade finance. Banks are taking steps to lower their exposure to risk, which in some cases has meant they have dropped entire portfolios of business, including trade finance. So it’s necessary as a first step to ascertain whether, and to what extent, that bank is in the trade finance business.
The good news is those banks that have maintained international trade departments are likely to be the ones most dedicated, experienced, and expert in that craft. These tend to be larger national and multinational banks, but these increasingly feel comfortable serving the trade finance needs of all sizes of exporters, including relatively small ones.
What can I do for you?
This may sound counterintuitive, but it’s related to the de-risking phenomenon discussed above. In some cases, banks have exited individual customers they consider to be too risky, so exporters should be looking to put their best foot forward and to groom themselves as attractive customers for international banks.
Again, the regulatory environment—such as anti-money laundering regulations and sanctions regimes—make international trade transactions particularly sensitive. These days, banks must know their customers—and their customers’ customers as well. All this means that you, as an exporter and prospective bank client, need to educate yourself on what banks will require from you. Be prepared to provide the bank with in-depth information about your businesses, flows, and counterparties. Know which are the sanction countries. Do your homework and be transparent.
What relationships do you have with correspondent banks?
Banks of all sizes have terminated large numbers of relationships with correspondent banks in recent years. Correspondent banks are located in foreign markets and cooperate with your bank to facilitate international trade deals. Unless your bank has a presence in all the markets you export to, your bank will need such a relationship to make your deals happen.
Some regional banks still identify international trade as a core competency, and may be attractive to deal with because of their lack of mammoth proportions and nearby location. (On the other hand, they may be less keen to take exposures in risky markets.) Those banks will almost certainly not have much or any international presence and will need robust relationships with financial institutions in your current and prospective overseas markets if they are to be of use to your business.
What other business can we do with each other?
In many ways, banking is a relationship business, and, as banks become more selective about their clients, customers with wide ranging relationships with their financial institutions are more likely to come out ahead. Banks tend to focus on clients with which they have holistic banking relationship—not a one-off export transaction. The more business the bank have done with a customer, the more the bank is willing and able to tailor services to those clients and to cater to their individual needs.
What trade instruments do you offer?
Traditional trade instruments, such as letters of credit, discredited by some in an era of open terms and for being expensive and cumbersome, have made a resurgence in new guises. Documentary letters of credit and collections has evolved into supply-chain finance, with banks becoming involved in import/export transactions and adding value at an earlier stage in the process. Technology is making it easier for banks to match purchase orders against invoices and then settling the transaction between buyer and seller. This allows the bank to assess the transaction and offer financing through a receivables program.
Exporters are increasingly using letters of credit to offer more aggressive sales terms and to access financing to manage cash flow. Exporters bidding on deals that can offer not only a great product at a good price but financing to help the customer, are in a position to crush it.
How are you on technology adoption?
Technology has long been touted as a potential game changer for international trade and finance, and new technology developments are starting to take hold. Electronic presentation of documents is speeding up payments and blockchain technology is also making inroads in the area of trade finance.
Blockchain works across borders and counterparties and has the benefit of providing more visibility and reliability of data. That’s a good fit in the current banking regulatory environment. Experts say blockchain should also allow banks to approach financing and risk management more flexibly, offering credit across product lifecycles. Technology leaders are creating efficiencies and lowering the costs of trade finance by offering greater technological integration with their customers and with artificial intelligence.
What parties do you work with to manage risk?
The Export Import Bank of the U.S. is the obvious reference here, but it’s not the only one. Exporters might be selling themselves short if EXIM is the only party available to them to reduce risk. The US Small Business Administration provides export support on deals EXIM won’t touch. Private-market insurance companies might be more willing to take exposures in emerging markets, as are private investors like insurance companies and pension funds, which are available to take trade-finance positions and spread the risk.
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