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Connecting the World: The Importance of Intermediary Banks

intermediary banks

Connecting the World: The Importance of Intermediary Banks

Whether you are initiating electronic international payments through a fintech solution or buying physical currency, the chances are high that a bank will be involved. The relationship between banks, as well as the role of intermediary banks, often eludes the general public, who are content with the process as long as it works.

However, understanding how the sausage is made can provide valuable insight into the way you conduct your business. Let’s take a closer look at intermediary banks and their subsequent relationship with currency exchange.

What is an Intermediary Bank?

In layman’s terms, an intermediary bank is where funds are transferred prior to reaching their destination, the payment bank. 

To transfer money, banks must hold accounts with each other in the same way that a typical client would. However, there are too many banks for one to hold accounts with all the others, so instead, they strategically choose where to open accounts. The result is a fragmented network of financial institutions. 

When a bank needs to send money to a location where their bank does not hold an account, the bank instructs an intermediary bank to act as a “middle man” to pass on the funds on their behalf. Funds can transfer between multiple intermediaries, especially if one of the banks is not networked with many larger banks. If the payment bank is across an international border, the intermediary bank may also act as the currency exchange provider.

The Role of Currency Exchange

Currency exchange refers to the use of one currency to purchase the same value in another currency. It’s required any time one entity wishes to pay another in a currency different from their default option.

Each country has either a “fixed” or “floating” exchange rate. A “fixed” exchange rate—also known as the “gold standard”—means that all the country’s money has a physical equivalent in gold or another precious material. “Floating” exchange rates may not have a physical worth, but are influenced by the market and politics, as is currently the case with the Great British pound’s relationship with Brexit.

Breaking Down the Cost

For businesses, currency exchange is vital to a true international payment process. Some vendors may wish to be paid in their customer’s default currency, which would not warrant an exchange. U.S. businesses may experience this when working with vendors in countries like China or Japan, who often prefer payments in USD. This happens when a vendor finds it cheaper to open accounts specific to currencies other than their own in order to avoid exchange fees.

Some vendors have opened multi-currency accounts, which enable vendors to accept and store more than one currency in a single account. Because this method is still gaining traction, it’s good practice to ask if vendors have multi-currency accounts before sending them money. If they don’t, and their account cannot support your currency, the payment bank will likely reject the funds.

Other hidden costs to consider when working with international payments are:

The exchange. If your origin currency is weaker than the payment currency, your money may lose some value in the trade. However, the market is continuously shifting, so the exchange will also gain value at times. The more international payments you make, the likelier that this cost will even out over time.

Intermediary bank fees. Some intermediary banks shave off a fee for their services, which is usually taken from the sum – the net amount is deposited into the vendor’s account. Not all intermediary banks will charge this fee, and it’s not immediately obvious which banks will do so.

Payment bank fees. Similar to the intermediary banks, certain payment banks also charge a fee for processing international payments. Again, not every bank charges this fee, but those that do will deduct it from the payment sum before depositing the net amount into the vendor’s account. Vendors can discuss this charge with their bank if it occurs.

Disrupting the Status Quo

With all these nuances to keep in mind, it can feel like involving a fintech will only add another cog to an already-overwhelming process. However, a fintech can determine the most efficient route through an intermediary bank, and assist in locating missing payments. If funds are returned for any reason, fintechs also act as a holding account while you decide if you want to exchange the funds back or resend them. Following a process like this ultimately saves time, money, and hassle.

If you’re on the fence about using a fintech for international payments, keep in mind that you aren’t losing out by mitigating an overly complicated bank processes. You’re merely side-stepping the complications in favor of usability.

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Alyssa Callahan is a Technical Marketing Writer at Nvoicepay. She has four years of experience in the B2B payment industry, specializing in cross-border B2B payment processes.

How to Find Your Way in the World of International Payments

Credit card, direct deposit, check, cash, e-pay… making domestic payments is a breeze these days, with enough flexibility to offer optimization based on your vendor’s payment preferences. International payments, on the other hand, are much more complex, and bring to mind painful images of cumbersome wire submissions.

Alternate options, such as fintech solutions, enable companies to submit all their domestic and international payments in one file. If the fintech also includes vendor maintenance as part of their services, then the payment file draws banking details from the fintech’s vendor network, eliminating the responsibility of maintaining that data from AP teams’ plates.

But before we delve too deeply into the process, let’s take a step back and explore nomenclature. Over time, companies have imposed their own internal vocabulary over common terms. Terms like ‘wire’, ‘direct deposit’, and ‘ACH’ are often used interchangeably, even though they operate differently. Let’s synchronize our understanding of these words.

What’s in a name?

International vs. cross-border vs. FX

“Cross-border payments” is a self-explanatory term—the definition is right in the name. These funds cross international borders to reach their destination.

“International payments” also describes cross-border payment activity, but carries other specific interpretations as well. For example, it may also refer to funds transferred within a single country through a bank or fintech located outside of that country (e.g. Canada to Canada, but through a U.S. fintech).

The term “FX” (Foreign Exchange) is occasionally thrown around to describe international payments, though it typically refers to currency exchange instead of the transmission of funds.

At the end of the day, as long as your company recognizes the nuances, the use of any term is fine. For simplicity’s sake, the rest of this article will refer to “international payments.”

Stepping out of history and into the future

Wire vs. EFT

Wire is the most popular and recognizable form of international payment processing. From a simplistic, yet technical standpoint, wire payments transmit account data from one bank to another. It’s sometimes the only method for sending money from one country to another, especially when working with specific currency exchanges or infrequently paid countries.

The term “EFT” (Electronic Funds Transfer) is quite a bit broader. It is a catch-all phrase used to describe any electronic payment process. Wire, ACH, direct deposit, and other methods fall under this umbrella.

Standardized codes

Codes are commonly used to determine various international payment factors. Use of the wrong codes can cause downstream payment issues, so it’s worth identifying each type, since they often appear to be very similar to one another.

Country Codes

ISO (International Organization for Standardization) country codes are country-specific abbreviations with varied uses.  Although three ISO country code variations exist—ISO Alpha-2, ISO Alpha-3, and ISO Alpha numeric—the ISO Alpha-2 code is used most in the international payment scope, in IBANs and SWIFT codes. 

As the name suggests, ISO Alpha-2 codes are 2-character codes assigned to each country for identification purposes.  For example, the United States is “US”, the United Kingdom is “GB”, and China is “CN.”

Currency Codes

Currency codes are 3-digit codes that identify currencies. Their resemblance to ISO Alpha-3 country codes may cause confusion, so it’s always worthwhile to make sure you’ve got the right code before adding it to payment instructions.

For example, the ISO Alpha-3 country code for the United States is “USA” while the currency code for U.S. dollars is “USD”. Similarly, “CHE” is the ISO Alpha-3 country code for Switzerland, while the currency code for Swiss francs is “CHF.”

Payment specifications

Information requirements for international payments are far less cut-and-dried than those for domestic processes. The details often vary depending on the payment type, currencies, and the countries involved.

SWIFT/BIC Codes

Veteran AP personnel are likely very familiar with the SWIFT system (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications), which is known as the BIC system (Bank Identifier Code) in some countries.

SWIFT codes were introduced in the ‘70s as a way to streamline the global money-transferring process and reduce the possibility of human error. SWIFT codes are a series of characters that identify the bank, country, and branch location to which a payment should be sent. Decades later, they still play a significant role.

Routing Numbers

While SWIFT codes are still essential to send international payments, the growing financial industry has highlighted the need for additional details.

Routing numbers are the collective answer, and play a fairly large role in the modern payment structure.

The caveat is that they may not always be called “routing numbers”, which is a U.S. term. For example, Australia has the “BSB Code”, China the “CNAPS”, and India the “ISFC Code”.

While it may seem redundant to provide both the SWIFT and routing details, it is an excellent way to clarify the payment destination.

IBANs and Account Numbers

IBANs (International Bank Account Number) arrived in the ‘90s as a way to further standardize banking information, and have been adopted primarily by countries in the European Union, the Middle East, and several countries in Africa. While IBANs vary in length depending on the country, they contain these common factors:

ISO alpha-2 country code

Check digits

Bank identifier

Branch identifier

Account number

Because IBANs often include the bank identifier (which shares digits with the SWIFT code), further account information isn’t typically necessary, which massively simplifies the payment process.

Countries that have not adopted the IBAN must still provide the SWIFT code, routing details, and the account number, as well as any country-specific requirements with their invoices.

Country-specific details

Additional details can include purpose of payment, tax documentation, and company phone numbers, amongst other things. Since each country requires specific information, it can be tricky to know exactly what to supply.

When in doubt, ask your payment solution provider—they can outline each country’s requirements, as needed.

Putting it all together

While international payment processes have evolved over time, the task is still nothing to sneeze at. Fortunately, fintechs like Nvoicepay have simplified the process, and store and maintain banking details on your behalf. That way, when you’re ready to pay your international vendors, you’re good to go in just a few clicks of your mouse—no more painful single-payment submissions through the bank.

Alyssa Callahan is a Technical Marketing Writer at Nvoicepay. She has four years of experience in the B2B payment industry, specializing in cross-border B2B payment processes.

 

Fintechs

Excellent Service is the Hero of the Fintech World

Customer service isn’t what it used to be—in a good way. The financial world has witnessed rapid technological advancements over the last century, but customer service remains a steadfast priority through it all.

Ensuring a good experience for buyers not only gives companies an edge over their competition, but it has practically become a requirement for company growth. With the increasing popularity of information-sharing websites and apps like Facebook or Yelp, reputations can expand or shatter within moments.

Fintechs are in a unique position as the liaison between customers and their suppliers. However, they tend to limit services offered to suppliers in favor of a more customer-oriented focus. As such, supplier support remains a well of untapped potential. How is this important, and why should fintechs care about suppliers?

Redefining “end-to-end”

“End-to-end,” from a B2B payment perspective, defines the customer’s processes from the time they receive an invoice to final reconciliation. Fintechs that prioritize customer-focused solutions risk their reputations by not providing decent supplier support. In reality, suppliers are customers too. Though they may not be required to pay for the back-end services that fintechs offer, they are just as capable of leaving reviews of their poor experiences on social media.

Nvoicepay recognized this long ago and redefined what “support” meant in the B2B payments space by dedicating teams for both customer and supplier assistance. Our daily interactions with suppliers act as a valuable means for us to determine the most beneficial improvements to our solution. It has paid off so far: The services we provide to suppliers who seek payment assistance have earned our support teams a consistent satisfaction rating of 98%. Clearly, the need for AR services within AP solutions is out there.

Suppliers: The new customers

Fintechs often completely disregard supplier support. In some ways, this approach makes sense: customers pay for the service. This often means that suppliers are reduced to a “commodity” status. Tales of suppliers being strong-armed into accepting certain payment types are rampant. To no one’s surprise, this method for supporting customers does not encourage stable, long-term business relationships.

To improve our own services, Nvoicepay has explored ways to make suppliers feel like more than just a cog in their customer’s AP process.

Nvoicepay’s vendor enablement services offer a medley of benefits that ease the burden from both AP and AR teams. When a supplier joins our robust network, they become immediately payable by all current and future customers. When the supplier needs to update their information, a single call or email to Nvoicepay covers all bases, thus limiting touchpoints and mispayment risks. Customers aren’t required to maintain extensive payment details for their suppliers—it’s all done in-house by Nvoicepay’s supplier support team.

Making payments is also a breeze. Suppliers who are used to being pressured into specific payment types are pleasantly surprised to be offered alternatives. Credit card—commonly preferred by customers looking to limit their payment file count—can be a hardship for some suppliers. Nvoicepay’s holistic approach enables customers to submit a single payment file for all payment types, letting suppliers choose from credit card, ACH, or check options without extra work on the AP side. This symbiotic process maintains healthy business relationships and improves workflows for all parties involved.

A new industry standard

By choosing a SaaS that treats your suppliers well, you’re getting the whole AP support package. Without supplier services, any payment follow-ups wind up in the laps of your AP team—not exactly the groundbreaking automation you were promised.

While it’s likely not the first thing on your mind when you browse for AP solutions, choosing one that also benefits your suppliers gives you an overlooked advantage, and will leave you with both a happier AP team and satisfied suppliers. Ultimately, a solution without a holistic approach to the “end-to-end” process is no solution at all.

Alyssa Callahan is a Technical Marketing Writer at Nvoicepay. She has four years of experience in the B2B payment industry, specializing in cross-border B2B payment processes.

Uncertainty Over Brexit Leaves the B2B World in Suspense

When talk turns to Brexit, much of the discussion revolves around what will happen once the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland leaves the European Union. While the United Kingdom Parliament hashes out a withdrawal agreement, with Prime Minister Theresa May at the helm, the economy is already shifting in anticipation of… what? The trouble is, no one is quite sure. Even experts can only make educated guesses since their research hinges on the type of withdrawal the United Kingdom and European Union ultimately consent to.

Where Brexit currently stands – A high-level view

The European Union recently approved a second extension of the Brexit deadline to allow May additional time to forge a deal in Parliament and finalize the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the Union. While the new October 31, 2019 deadline offers some breathing room, it leaves the United Kingdom and European Union in an uncertain economic limbo for most of this year.

The spiderweb of potential events that lay ahead for the United Kingdom stem from two of the most likely outcomes:

-May passes her withdrawal agreement in Parliament by October 31st. If she succeeds, the United Kingdom can hammer out future trade deals with the European Union, to be expanded upon after the separation is finalized.

-May does not pass her withdrawal agreement by October 31st. This would mean the United Kingdom leaves with no trade deals in place, and very little room to negotiate ideal terms in the future. A “no-deal” situation has the potential to create lingering consequences, particularly at the border between Northern Ireland – which is part of the United Kingdom – and the Republic of Ireland, with the European Union.

While those in favor of Brexit are eager for a more economically independent United Kingdom, others hope that the withdrawal agreement will come with lenient tariffs, not just at the Irish border, but for trade across the United Kingdom and European Union. Unfortunately, only time (and an approved withdrawal agreement) will tell how the trade relationship between the United Kingdom and Europe continues.

What Brexit means for businesses in the United Kingdom

Politics aside, the United Kingdom has already seen changes to their market and businesses since the original Brexit vote in late 2016. The pound sterling (GBP), which dropped drastically after the majority of United Kingdom citizens voted to leave the European Union, remains weakened in comparison to the United States Dollar (USD). The approach of each Brexit deadline has triggered a slight drop in the market, followed by a recovery a few days after the granted extensions.

The GBP and Euro (EUR) have become tied to shifts in the political sphere, rather than the market. Companies are making financial decisions in anticipation of a plummeting currency values caused by Brexit.  Many banks have already moved their home offices  from London to various European cities. Healthcare facilities are stockpiling life-saving medicines in the event of a shortage. United Kingdom-based businesses are reducing their investments and employment opportunities. 

How will Brexit affect U.S. business with the United Kingdom?

With a diminished value for pound sterling, currency exchanges between USD, GBP, and EUR won’t be very attractive for a while, especially when considering the added per-payment fees charged by banks to transmit funds across international borders. Global businesses depend on stable markets to keep exchange rates as uniform as possible; someone will always be paying the difference, whether it’s the buyer purchasing more currency, or the supplier receiving a reduced amount.

Companies whose accounts payable teams have adopted payment automation into their processes can use their rebates to mitigate irregular exchange rates. Payment solutions that lower the cost of electronic payments through exchange rate transparency ultimately improve the buyer’s relationships with their suppliers.

Only one thing left to do

The United Kingdom and European Union are in a transitory stage – and that is an enormous understatement. The Brexit experience is genuinely frustrating because it has no precedent, so no one’s sure what will ultimately happen. Economic growth may stagnate for a while, but as with any market, where there are ebbs, there will be flows. The only thing left to do is what the United Kingdom already does best: “Keep calm and carry on.”

Alyssa Callahan is a Technical Marketing Writer at Nvoicepay.  She has four years of experience in the B2B payment industry, specializing in cross-border B2B payment processes.