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How the ICC Plans to Restructure Global Trade Finance for a More Sustainable Global Economy

global trade finance

How the ICC Plans to Restructure Global Trade Finance for a More Sustainable Global Economy

One of the most enduring effects of the COVID pandemic has been the disruption of the global supply chain. Micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) constitute the majority of companies and employers worldwide and are major contributors to the total global gross domestic product. They frequently encounter more difficulties than other companies because they have less access to global trade finance systems.

The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) viewed the pandemic as an opportunity for positive disruption in favor of all global financial market participants. Accordingly, in August 2020, it created an Advisory Group on Trade Finance (ATF) and charged it with addressing trade finance challenges that hinder full participation by MSMEs. 

The ATF, in a joint effort with McKinsey and Fung Business Intelligence, recently released a proposal for restructuring global trade finance to better promote financial inclusion and sustainable finance. The report proposes a ten-year, three-phase process for modernizing and standardizing global trade finance systems through the introduction of an “interoperability layer.” 

In this article, we’ll summarize the report’s primary recommendations, provide an overview of the structure of the proposed interoperability layer, and discuss the anticipated effects on MSMEs worldwide. 

The current global trade finance market

In 2020, the finance market covered transactions totaling $5.2 trillion, or approximately 6% of the global gross domestic product. For financial institutions, this translated into 2% of their total revenue or roughly $40 billion. However, despite the size of the market, a finance availability gap of $1.7 trillion still exists, largely affecting MSMEs.

Fintech companies are relatively new participants in the market. However, they are actively working to develop new products at every stage in the supply chain, and the ICC report looks to leverage the capabilities of fintechs.

The vast majority (85%) of global trade finance addresses documentation issues associated with cross-border transactions, such as letters of credit, international guarantees, and international bills of lading, among other services. Documentation products and services also deal with regulatory and compliance issues, for example, anti-money laundering rules. The remainder is split between buyer-led financing (10%) and supplier-side finance (5%). 

What trade finance challenges does the proposal address?

Despite the sizable, robust trade finance market, there is substantial room for improvement, especially as it relates to MSMEs. According to the World Bank, as of 2017, approximately 65 million MSMEs were credit constrained. There are several reasons that MSMEs are less than full participants in the global trade finance arena, all of which the ICC seeks to rectify with its current proposal. Some of the most significant issues facing MSMEs are:

Lack of access to liquidity

Traditionally, MSMEs have had more difficulty accessing trade credit than larger corporations because they have less available collateral or are unable to meet established strict credit requirements. Credit requirements have not evolved to reflect changes in the global economy and there is a dearth of alternative financing options for international transactions. Because of this, MSMEs frequently find themselves without available credit for purchases or sales. 

Transaction complexity

The disparate requirements for international transactions and financing worldwide impose additional challenges on smaller firms with more limited resources. Just keeping track of the different requirements for each jurisdiction can be an overwhelming task. And when it comes time to meet the documentation requirements for each transaction, the burden only increases.

Limited access to B2B markets

B2B marketplaces create tremendous efficiencies in the market by pairing suppliers and purchasers quickly and simply. MSMEs, however, often lack either the knowledge base or the resources to gain access to these marketplaces. And for MSME suppliers, financing, capital, and cash flow issues can prevent them from establishing themselves as effective participants in B2B markets. 

What is the ICC’s reconception of global finance?

The ICC proposes a three-phase, ten-year plan for developing globally accepted standards that serve as a framework for common systems, all of which come together in an interoperability layer. The interoperability layer will not be hardware or software, but instead a virtual construct that sets the baseline standards and best practices supporting trade finance digitization. Digitization is increasingly important to MSMEs, after all. According to recent studies, 43% of small businesses now fully rely on online banks. 

Ultimately, the ICC envisions new standardized and shared architectures equally accessible to all market participants. The interoperability layer would replace the patchwork of standards and protocols that currently exist and fill regulatory gaps by developing a unified and consistent set of standards and practices. The proposed interoperability layer accomplishes three main missions. 

First, it encourages widespread adoption of existing trade finance standards to bring market participants into a common network. Second, it creates new standards and processes to fill existing gaps, including standards for sustainable finance. 

There are two main areas where the ICC identifies specific needs for additional standards, both of which focus on easing and increasing digital transformation of trade finance: uniform data models and API standards. API standards constitute an immediate need because many banks currently suggest that the lack of such standards inhibits their ability to develop strategies for API usage in their operations.

Finally, it creates operational playbooks for market participants that embody the full set of standards. The consolidation of standards and protocols into the interoperability layer will occur with full knowledge of the challenges that prevent or hinder participation by entities with fewer resources or credit histories. With simplified access to the trade finance system, more players at every level will be able to join. 

As for governance, the ICC envisions an industry organization or consortium overseeing the development, implementation, and ongoing management of the interoperability layer. The governing body should include participants from all functions, regions, and company sizes.

How does the interoperability layer benefit MSMEs?

The interoperability layer has benefits for all market participants, but the impact for MSMEs is particularly notable. With new standards and processes for assessing transaction risks, MSMEs will gain greater access to alternatives for credit and liquidity. 

Recent research suggests that traditional bank credit assessment models underperform newer tech-based models for determining creditworthiness. Applying real-time data and highly advanced analytical tools like AI, newer models provide a more timely and accurate assessment of a firm’s payment capabilities. In turn, better credit scoring results in more efficient allocation of resources, particularly for smaller firms like MSMEs.

In addition, new documentary standards and digitization of documentation requirements will reduce costs for all market participants. Because these costs disproportionately impact MSMEs, they will see the greatest benefit. But as finance processes become more streamlined and more participants enter the market, the large financial institutions will see corresponding revenue increases which, coupled with lower expenses, lead to higher profit.

Will the interoperability layer promote sustainable finance?

The ICC report recognizes that sustainability is an increasingly important issue for corporations and governments. However, there is currently a lack of standards for sustainable finance, including the lack of a commonly accepted vocabulary. One of the major tasks the ICC envisions is the creation of a standard taxonomy for sustainable finance that all market players can apply in future transactions. Once the market has a common language, it can better develop standards for applying the principles of sustainability in the global trade finance industry. 

Time will tell if the ICC proposal gains any traction. Further digitization is inevitable with or without the report. But building a common framework for the digitization that makes it easier for firms of all sizes to effectively participate in international trade is a valuable goal.

Trade credit

ITFA Takes A Harmonized Step Towards Trade Credit Insurance

The ITFA (International Trade and Forfaiting Association) recently released a new initiative in the form of a Basel III-compliant trade credit insurance policy form. Designed to assist insurers and financial institutions to negotiate new deals and help establish a standardized Basel III policy, the IFTA’s initiative also represents an effort to help trade credit insurers in an era where insurance companies are seriously re-evaluating how they operate.

Trade credit insurers, and the insurance industry as a whole, have been greatly challenged by the economic fallout created by the pandemic and the lockdowns. The frequency of insolvencies from commercial customers due to financial difficulty has risen greatly. Normally, credit insurers would cancel (or at least limit) coverage for buyers who display signs of being unable to pay. 

But due to the serious economic situation created by the pandemic, there is now the dramatically increased risk of trade credit being withdrawn across the board. In this article, we’ll cover why insurance plans including TCIs have become more relevant since the start of the pandemic, how the IFTA’s new policy should help trade insurers, and then what we can expect the near future to look like for the insurance industry overall.

What is trade credit insurance?

Trade credit insurance, or TCI, protects businesses against the inability of commercial customers to pay for services or products. The inability of customers to pay may result from financial woes, bankruptcy, societal upheaval, or other factors. The purpose of a TCI plan is therefore to help businesses ensure they still receive proper cash flow as a result of doing business with a customer who won’t or can’t pay. Banks, in particular, utilize trade credit insurance for capital relief and to reduce financial risk when conducting transactions. 

In many industries, it’s common for customers to take out a line of credit in order to make a large purchase. Of course, any business that lends money to customers is taking a risk that the total amount lent (in addition to any interest) will not be repaid. It’s even a greater risk when the debt is unsecured and there is no collateral to reinforce the loan. 

A comprehensive TCI plan will compensate a business for any unpaid debt, depending on what the coverage limits and other details of the plan are. Since most lines of credit that businesses give for large purchases are unsecured, having a TCI plan in place will mitigate much of the risk. In other words, businesses with a TCI plan at the very least should be more comfortable with extending lines of credit to customers, and they will have a backup plan in the event that the entire debt is not paid. 

Why the pandemic has demonstrated a need for insurance 

Due to greater financial uncertainty since the pandemic began, there has been a drastic increase in the number of businesses and individuals alike applying for insurance coverage. It’s not just TCI plans either. The number of business owners applying for life insurance coverage, for instance, has increased dramatically as a means to protect their financial assets in the event that the worse happens.

It’s not hard to see why. Covid has proven to be deadly for patients who are older and/or have existing health issues. That’s most likely why the number of adults who have purchased a life insurance plan has increased to 50% of adults in Canada and 52% of adults in the United States. 

If anything, the pandemic has demonstrated that there is a very real need for businesses and organizations to have an insurance plan (or plans) in place to help ensure financial stability in an increasingly volatile era. It’s also demonstrated a greatly increased demand for insurance coverage across a number of different policies and plans. Other insurance plans that are in greatly increased demand from business owners include general liability insurance, worker’s compensation insurance, and commercial property insurance. 

And now that insurance companies (in general) are experiencing much higher demand since the start of the pandemic, there is much more uncertainty in regards to the timing and extent of claims, as well as the fact that most insurance agencies are being forced to increase premiums and raise additional capital to help reverse the decrease in return on equity. Like the businesses they are insuring, insurance companies themselves are likewise at increased risk.

Even though the policy by the ITFA is in regards to trade credit specifically, it may provide us with a blueprint on how risks and costs may be reduced for insurance companies overall as well as the financial institutions they work with. 

What does the ITFA’s new policy form do?

Basel III is an international regulatory framework that was made as a response to the 2008 financial crisis. The new ‘harmonized’ Basel III-compliant policy form that was released is designed to help insurance companies and banks negotiate new deals as well as standardize a trade credit policy. 

The new form covers receivables policies and is intended to generate more insurable opportunities while keeping costs and time spent to a minimum. As noted previously, banks and financial institutions often rely on TCIs for capital relief and to keep risk to a minimum. The issue, however, is that banks and TCI agencies often each possess their own Basel III policy forms. 

When a bank and TCI agency attempt to work together, many hours or even days are spent on negotiating forms. This is difficult because all forms being negotiated are kept confidential and much work goes into settling on similar wording. Needless to say, negotiations can be extended and expensive. 

The goal of the ITFA’s form is to ‘harmonize’ wording during negotiations between banks and insurance companies so that two primary goals are accomplished: one, that insurance carriers can more clearly based on their services provided and the details of their policies versus policy wordings, and so that banks can focus more on their pricing. To put it into simpler terms, it aims to standardize how insurance policies are worded. 

As Sean Edwards, the CEO and Chairman of ITFA stated at the 2021 ITFA conference, “Consistency, predictability and a reliable form is paramount to regulatory bodies further recognizing trade credit insurance as a viable risk transfer mechanism for capital substitution. We need all banks, insurance companies, law firms, and brokers moving in the same direction if we are to grow the overall industry.”

Streamlining policy negotiations between banks and insurance companies with standardized wording is certainly one way to provide relief to insurance companies, and one that could be applied to other insurance companies outside of TCI carriers as well. 

Other actions include governments offering their support to insurance markets by guaranteeing transactions made by insurance companies through reinsurance agreements and, in the case of the European Union, having export credit agencies ensure short-term trading risks instead of private insurance companies. 

Conclusion

As the world starts to emerge out of the economic crisis generated by the pandemic, private businesses, banks, and insurance companies are all at greater risk than they were before. Insurance companies including TCIs are in a position where their services are in much greater demand than before, and they need to minimize financial losses. The move by the ITFA to standardize language and streamline negotiations between banks and insurers is one-way costs can be reduced. 

digital currencies

Central Banks to Adopt Their Own Digital Currencies to Eliminate Potential Risks

Digital currencies backed by central banks, or central bank digital currencies (CBDCs), are becoming a reality for residents in a few countries around the world. The evolution from checks, to debit cards, and now to digital payments give cause to wonder if we really need cash anymore. While economists agree that we still need cash for now, some governments are discussing the effects of implementing a CBDC nationally. 

However, not everyone is as interested in the prospect of implementing a nationwide digital currency. Commercial lending and banking would be affected, as the widespread use of CBDCs could take a bite out of commercial deposits and put the industry’s funding in jeopardy. But with China currently developing a digital Yuan, that leaves government and supply chain leaders wondering about the potential trade risks of not competing in the global economy with CBDCs. 

Luckily, lawmakers have come up with a slew of solutions that include strict regulations and controls, hard limits on transfers and holdings, and a long-term transition period before the new digital assets could be launched in full effect. In the meantime, central bankers in the US are contemplating adopting their own digital tokens for instant, low friction international transactions. 

What is Central Bank Digital Currency?

A CBDC is the virtual form of a certain fiat currency. You can think of it as an electronic record or a digital token of how currency is spent, held, and moved. CBDCs are issued and regulated by central banks and backed by the credit of their issuer. They aren’t really a new kind of money, it just changes the way we track transactions. 

While seemingly very similar at first glance, CBDCs are not cryptocurrencies. Cryptocurrencies are digital currencies that are secured by cryptography and exist on decentralized blockchain networks. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are not backed by any government or banking entity and are purely digital currencies. CBDCs, in contrast, are backed by legal tender and are only a digital representation of fiat money.

Part of the draw to create CBDCs is inspired by their crypto-cousins’ distributed ledger technology. DLT, or blockchain technology, refers to the digital infrastructure and protocols that allow access, validation, and continuity across a vast network. This means that, in contrast to fiat currency that exists today, digital currencies can be tracked and verified in real-time, limiting the risk of theft and fraud. 

Blockchain technology is usually associated with cryptocurrency, but it has the potential for numerous applications that could help governments organizations and banking entities run more smoothly with accountability and transparency. Another reason why countries are drawn to CBDCs is they have the ability to help increase banking access for otherwise underbanked populations. 

Currently, there are 81 countries exploring CBDCs. China is racing ahead of the pack with their development of the digital Yuan, putting pressure on countries that will want to remain competitive. It raises the question of whether China will at some point accept only digital currency, meaning other countries would need their own CBDCs to remain competitive on a global scale. 

China’s digital Yuan

China has long been known to resist cryptocurrencies and crypto trading, so when the news broke that their central bank has been developing a CBDC there was some confusion. However, it has now become clear that the Chinese government is creating an environment where citizens who want to use digital currencies like crypto will have to use the digital Yuan, removing any competition from DeFi banking initiatives. 

Before their crackdown on Bitcoin and crypto, local investors made up 80% of the crypto trading market. This shows promise when it comes to the adoption of the digital Yuan, with so many Chinese citizens open to adopting and spending digital currency. 

They have already started real-world trials in a number of cities and are expecting the digital Yuan to increase competition in China’s mobile payments market. It is still not entirely clear how users will hold and spend the new digital Yuan whenever it is available nationwide. Right now the most popular form of mobile payment in the country relies on QR codes scanned by merchants. 

Alipay and WeChat Pay could eventually integrate CBDC functionality, and smartphones could also potentially be used as a digital wallet for CBDCs. There is still a lot to be discussed, tested, and fixed before the digital Yuan can be distributed nationwide, but China is currently the country closest to rolling out its own CBDC. 

Where does the United States stand?

Crypto thefts, hacks, and frauds amounted to about $1.9 billion in 2020, so many leaders have reservations when it comes to enforcing and regulating CBDCs in the US. But there is evidence that CBDCs would have no issues being adopted by the American people. Crypto aside, the digital payments sector is booming with about 75% of Americans already using digital payments apps and services. 

But there is not yet a single widely accepted infrastructure available that could handle CBDCs, and lawmakers are lagging behind when it comes to regulations for fintechs as it is. The US could take a page from China’s book and explore adding CBDC functionality to existing banking fintechs like Chime, Paypal, and ApplePay. According to online trader Gary Stevens from Hosting Canada, it would also be wise to look at banks that offer trading services as well. 

In the US, banks offering online trading services (such as Merrill Edge through Bank of America) tend to provide a seamless client experience,” says Stevens. “They strive to provide a consistent login interface between the bank and its brokerage arm, making switching between these platforms easier. This also makes other tasks like moving money between these accounts more flexible. Therefore, US residents have come to expect a more integrated, holistic experience with similar core functionality.”

The Future of CBDCs

The onset of the pandemic has created the perfect storm for CBDCs to come to fruition. Telework, online education, and streaming services have experienced growth while brick-and-mortar establishments have suffered. The same is true for the financial services industry. Banks have struggled to compete with fintech solutions, and more people are utilizing digital payments than ever before. 

Since CBDCs are such a new technology, there is still much to learn when it comes to implementing CBDCs nationwide and around the globe. Offline accessibility and resilience are only a couple of concerns regarding digital currency adoption worldwide. Other issues include user privacy, using private and public blockchain networks, and how digital currencies will be exchanged on a global scale. Only time will tell how central banks choose to seriously pursue this route to make it more mainstream. 

Conclusion

There are a lot of details still up in the air regarding CBDCs, as well as a considerable amount of research, testing, and development left to unfold. But one thing is clear: central bank digital currencies are already under development. Whether you are getting into online trading or just like the convenience of e-payments, they might be coming to a digital wallet near you sooner than you think. 

global trade

Asia Takes the Lead For Recovery and Regional Growth For Global Trade

As global trade rebounds, the economies from East Asian and Pacific countries are increasing at a faster pace than their Western counterparts. China is fully expected to be the leader of this rise.

While part of this is because China is the largest economy in the region, another perhaps lesser-known reason is the fact that China (as well as other East Asian nations such as Vietnam) has not suffered from lockdowns and economic restrictions due to Covid to the same degree that Western countries have. 

In this article, we’ll dive into the increase in trade during the first half of 2021 from Asia in comparison to their Western counterparts. We will also talk about whether China has a stronger grip on world trade than ever before due to the pandemic…or if the evidence alternatively suggests that China’s position as a trade leader may be nearing its peak instead.

A Return to Normal Trade Levels in Asia

Businesses based out of East Asian countries have good reason to be optimistic as global trade starts to return to pre-pandemic levels. It’s clear that Asian economies have not been hit to the same level as countries in the rest of the world have. 

According to research conducted by the East Asia Forum, the digital economy is projected to add over $1 trillion to the Asian economy over the next decade, the most of any region in the world. And it’s not just projections about the future that are favorable to Asia. The results already speak for themselves. 

For instance, total export volumes from East Asian countries for the first quarter of 2021 were actually up 15.4% more than what they were in the first quarter of 2019. Meanwhile, exports have collapsed amongst nations in other regions of the world. Europe has reported a 2.9% decline in exports when compared to two years ago, with an even sharper decline of 11.2% and 19.9% for Africa and the Middle East respectively. 

There are two significant reasons why East Asian economies have rebounded so quickly in comparison to the rest of the world. The first is because they have largely followed China’s lead. The World Bank has forecasted that China’s economy will expand by 8.1% by the end of this year, which has helped carry an increase of 4.4% for other closely-tied countries in the East Asian and Pacific region as a whole. 

Then there’s the fact that Asian nations, including China, did not have to endure lockdowns and economic restrictions to the same level that the United States or Europe did. In the summer of 2020, for instance, it was widely reported how a massive pool party was held in none other than Wuhan while Western countries remained under strict lockdowns that were tightly enforced. 

This year, Western countries like the United States continue to feel the negative effects of the imposed economic restrictions in the form of a lower participation rate in the labor force, severe non-labor shortages (such as in the form of lumber and semiconductors), higher inflation, and costlier prices for basic goods.

This naturally begs the question:

Has The West Truly Fallen Behind?

In Western countries like the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, small businesses are perhaps the worst affected of all. Small businesses are responsible for a majority of private-sector employment and have also been the most severely hit. 

According to the Business Resiliency During Covid-19 study conducted by Freshbooks, 77% of surveyed business owners stated that they were either not confident or only somewhat confident in the state of their businesses. Among the reasons cited included a loss of income, reduced cash flow, and not having enough staff or resources to keep operations up and running.   

Of course, only time will tell if Western economies have truly fallen behind their Western counterparts. The United States has long been a leader in the global economy and even now remains the world’s largest economy when measured by nominal GDP…though China is now in a close second.

It’s also concerning that many businesses do not appear to have the appropriate financial security measures in place in the event of further financial or personal disaster. For example, in the same Business Resiliency survey, nearly a quarter of surveyed business owners indicated that they did not have any kind of an insurance policy in place.

Business owners who have taken out large business loans or a line of credit, for instance, would benefit strongly from a comprehensive insurance plan that covers most or all of the financial damages in the event of defaulting on the debt from a lack of incoming cash flow, or worse, in their death that would essentially transfer the liabilities to their family members. 

When you combine the fact that most business owners do not have an insurance policy as a cushion in place with the realities that many of those same owners have burnt through their emergency funds during the lockdown and that Covid relief packages from the Federal government are set to expire (or have already), it’s easy to see how the situation is a bit dire.

In the short term at least, it’s clear that the economies of East Asian countries, spearheaded by China, have emerged out of the pandemic more favorably than the countries of the West. 

But is China’s rise set to last? And if not, what does this mean for the rest of East Asia?

Has China’s Grip Over World Trade Peaked?

China has been the largest exporter of goods worldwide since 2009, and it became the world’s largest trading nation in 2013. Both of these positions had previously been held by the United States.

In other words, China as a trading leader on the world stage is nothing new, and this is also why the faster recovery of Asian economies versus Western countries should not be surprising. More than half of all e-commerce transactions in the world are now coming out of China, which likewise has borne well for the Asian market.

But there are many who believe that China is nearing the peak of its current economic capacity, and with it, perhaps the rest of Asia as well. A report last spring by UNCTAD (the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) argued that while China is almost certain to remain as the leading exporter in the world for the next few years, there are several inherent vulnerabilities that threaten to cut its rise a bit short.

Among the reasons cited for this include simmering geopolitical tensions that hinder social development, rising labor costs that could lead to production processes either being automated or transferred elsewhere, increased tariffs on Chinese exports from the U.S. and EU, and major companies pulling the production of their products out of China completely. 

As an example of the last mentioned reason, electronics conglomerate Samsung announced last year that they would cease manufacturing computers and phones in China in favor of other Asian countries like Vietnam and India. This decision was made in the face of both rising costs to manufacture in China and increasing international tensions. 

Each of the aforementioned factors means that China could become more dependent on domestic rather than international demand, and therefore stands to chip away at China’s competitiveness on the global scale if those factors don’t change. 

And the spread of the Delta variant has also spurred new lockdowns in China and other Asian countries, which means it’s almost certain that we will see new disruption to Asian supply chains, and particularly in regards to consumer goods and high tech equipment. 

In other words, even though East Asia may have taken the lead in economic recovery and trade growth for now, it’s still far from certain that this will last over the long term. 

Conclusion

Has the pandemic truly created a major economic realignment to global trade and the world order, or are the shifts we are seeing now temporary?

The evidence is clear that the economies of East Asian companies have recovered from the pandemic faster than the United States, Canada, or Europe. But those economies have also largely followed the lead set by China’s current dominance as a world trade leader, and vulnerabilities in China’s economy mean it’s easily possible the country’s grip over world trade could start to slip.

china

China Will Continue to Be a Major Contributor to Global Trade Growth in 2022

Despite the twin impacts of the pandemic and the US-China trade war, economic indicators suggest that China will continue to grow rapidly through the next year and will be one of the biggest contributors to global trade growth in 2022. 

Indeed, in some ways, the current trajectory of China’s economic growth and trade surplus – both highly positive – is a return to normal. Though many feared that the pandemic and the US trade war would cause long-term, structural damage to China’s trading and economic infrastructure, it appears that this was not the case. In fact, changes to the way supply chains work may mean that China is now in a stronger position than it was at the beginning of the pandemic – a luxury that other countries can only dream of.

In this article, we’ll look at the most recent economic indications from China, explain what they mean for global trade, and see how analysts and governments in the West are responding to these signs.

Positive indications

First, let’s look at the state of the Chinese economy. Here, the news is very positive. On almost any measure that is commonly used as a proxy for consumer demand – the Purchasing Managers’ Indexes (PMI), electricity consumption, bank lending, etc. – the Chinese economy is booming. 

Though many analysts expected that consumer demand would be significantly down in 2021, in actuality, China is experiencing strong demand in both domestic and foreign markets. The Chinese government continues to invest heavily in making China a tech superpower, and so far, they are mostly succeeding. 

There are some complexities hidden behind this headline, though. One is that China has seen heavy food price inflation over the past few months driven, in part, by the US-China trade war. For many households in the country, food makes up a sizable proportion of the household budget. 

On the other hand, it seems that the pandemic has not affected the Chinese economy to anywhere near the degree that some experts expected. The transition to remote working for office workers, for instance, went more smoothly than had been predicted and occurred without a net loss to the economy. This was the case in some other countries too – remote workers contributed $1.2 trillion to the US economy alone last year, a 22% increase from 2019 – but it was especially pronounced in China.

 

Increased foreign trade

Since both domestic and foreign demand for Chinese goods remains high, we are likely to see China’s share of global trade increase over the next year. This is also a continuation of the pre-pandemic trend, which saw gradually increasing volumes of high-value finished goods being exported from China.

When it comes to global trade volumes, the picture is not completely positive, however. Though demand for Chinese goods remains high, the pandemic has imposed new restrictions and complexities on exporters. This is likely to slightly reduce trading volumes over the next year. That said, China is already a titan when it comes to global trade, and a slight reduction in growth is not likely to affect that. 

Liang Ming of the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation predicted that the country’s total foreign trade will be near five and a half trillion by the end of 2021. In fact, since that prediction was made, market conditions have only grown more positive for Chinese exporters. 

Many manufacturers in the country have used enforced lockdown periods to update and improve their logistics and supply chains for the post-Covid world, and many of their trading partners have come out of the pandemic more quickly than expected. 

Calls for decoupling

All this is great news for China, and specifically for Chinese exporters. It might not be such good news, however, for the countries that buy goods from China. This includes the US and the majority of European nations, all of whom are heavy consumers of Chinese-made goods. Many analysts are alarmed at the growing dominance of China in global trade, pointing out that this could be dangerous for the world’s privacy and safety.

The numbers are certainly impressive. Official data released from the Chinese government in July 2021 showed that for the first half of the year the country’s foreign trade surged to 18.07 trillion yuan, equal to roughly $2.79 trillion USD. This was despite many industries being affected by the US trade war and despite calls in the US for the country to transition away from its dependence on China.

There are other concerns about granting China a larger portion of the global economy. Specifically, concerns about the privacy of data collected by Chinese companies remain high, as do concerns that Chinese banks are being used to launder money on behalf of Mexican and Colombian drug cartels.

All of these concerns have led some think tanks to call for a “decoupling” from the Chinese economy. This would involve selected trade embargos in order to promote domestic production of consumer items in Western economies and to give these economies time to make back some of the gap that is opening in global trade.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the trajectory that China now finds itself on – with a growing economy and a rapidly increasing trade surplus – has been the norm for much of the last two decades. And if a global pandemic and a US-directed trade war has been unable to stop the growth of the Chinese share of global trade, it’s unlikely that anything will. 

fintech

Is Saudi Arabia Leading the Race for FinTech Financial Inclusion?

It can be hard to keep up with Fintech. Just as the sector appears to be settling into some form of pattern in the UK and USA, where the next notable round of innovation is widely expected to be the automation that is changing the industry, new markets and new centers are emerging. 

One of these – and one that was thought to be rather unlikely until fairly recently – is Saudi Arabia. Though the Middle East has long had a promising fintech sector, this has largely been confined to Saudi’s smaller neighbor, UAE. 

Now, a range of Saudi startups have raised large sums in seed capital, and seem poised to make a major impact on the industry. In this article, we’ll look at these recent success stories, and explore when they mean for Saudi’s nascent fintech sector. 

Saudi Arabia: A New Frontier?

First, let’s take a look at those recent headlines. Back in April, a promising but relatively small Saudi fintech startup, Tamara, announced that it had raised $110 million for its Series A funding. This came as a real shock to industry, and with good reasons – not only was this the largest level of Series A funding ever raised by a Saudi startup, but it was the largest Series A ever raised by a middle eastern startup.

Perhaps the news shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, though. Observant investors noted that the Saudi fintech sector has been growing steadily over the past few years – from just 10 startups registered under the Fintech Saudi initiative in 2018, to a total of 155 in 2020. And with extra companies comes extra funding – from January to May this year, fintech startups based in Saudi Arabia raised almost $130 million, a whopping jump compared to the $23 million raised by the sector from 2015-2020.

This growth is also likely to continue in the medium term. This level of investment is proving to be an incentive for Western fintech startups, as well, who are now looking to the Middle East as a potential new market for their services. Whether they will be able to take advantage of the size of the market in the region will, however, depend on a number of factors.

As we will see, the biggest problem standing in the way of creating a dynamic Fintech sector in Saudi is not the demand for innovative banking services – that is certainly strong enough. Rather, it is a somewhat traditional banking sector that may be reluctant to open up to technology companies.

Growth Across the Region

Saudi certainly has some well-established models to follow when it comes to catalyzing fintech growth. Bahrain, for instance, is widely regarded as having some of the most fintech-friendly banking regulations in the world, and the sector in that company is growing rapidly. Similarly, Egypt is seen as a real growth market for the sector, given the country’s huge population and a government that seems to be supportive of novel approaches to small business finance.

In both of these countries, government support has been key to encouraging the fintech sector, and Saudi Arabia appears to have recognized this. The Fintech Saudi initiative is the flag bearer for this support, and was launched back in 2018 by the Saudi Central Bank. The bank partnered with the Capital Markets Authority (CMA) in the kingdom, which has played a pivotal role in providing investment funding for fintech startups. 

The goals of these investments are certainly ambitious. The mission statement of the CMA states that it is tasked with “transforming Saudi Arabia into an innovative fintech hub with a thriving and responsible fintech ecosystem”. As part of this wide mandate, Fintech Saudi facilitates the licensing process for startups, connects entrepreneurs with investors, service providers, and banks, and has an accelerator program run by Flat6Labs.

This government support is, in turn, part of a broader change across the region, in which governments who were previously averse to change are embracing new ways of doing business. Just as the oil industry is changing, and becoming more transparent, so is the financial sector. And that will have impacts far beyond investors and bank staff because fintech might just be able to make banking truly inclusive.

Open Banking and Inclusion

If, as seems likely, Saudi Arabia becomes a leader in the fintech space, it will act not just as a catalyst for the development of fintech solutions across the region. It will also be the biggest test run yet of one of the central promises of fintech – that this technology can open up banking in a way never seen before.

On the one hand, Saudi Arabia seems like an unlikely place to be at the forefront of inclusive banking. The country is still very conservative and has some of the most secretive banking practices in the world. However, there are signs that the kingdom is open to change – both socially and in regard to the way it does business.

This has been overtly stated by Fintech Saudi, which is developing an open baking framework for the kingdom. Their aim, they say, is to force Saudi banks to be more open, and to share data about their activities more widely. This, in turn, will likely make it easier for under-represented groups in the country – women, most of all – to access banking services. 

At the moment, many guest workers and women in the country are under-served by financial institutions, and by allowing them to open accounts it is hoped that the country can become more open generally. In addition, fintech can help these workers to make international payments more easily, sending money back home and sharing the benefits of the strident Saudi economy.

The Challenges

Of course, changing the way in which a conservative country runs its banking system is not going to be easy. The Fintech sector in the country, while attracting a lot of funding, will have to overcome some real challenges if it is going to succeed.

One of these is a skills gap. A recent report from Fintech Saudi, for instance, shows that hiring qualified talent was the primary challenge for 40% of startups in the fintech space. Without qualified workers to power the work of startups, it’s likely that these will either stall or be forced to move their activities (and their profits) elsewhere.

Secondly, there is the issue of cybersecurity. Saudi has been a major target of cyberattacks in recent years, many of which appear to have originated in Iran. While the average fintech startup might not be a target of global cyber-weapons, the sheer number of common cybersecurity risks that the average Saudi company experiences every year could be enough to deter some startups and investors from working in the country.

The Bottom Line

That’s not to say that these challenges don’t have solutions, of course.  Open banking has progressed in two ways around the globe in recent years, either via regulators forcing traditional banks to embrace it and work with fintech startups (as is the case in the European Union) or (as we see in the US) incumbent banks opting to partner with open banking providers to keep pace with innovation.

If Saudi Arabia can do the same, while also recognizing that both talent acquisition and customer service are key to success in Fintech, there is no reason why it cannot emulate the success of its neighbors, and become the next global fintech hub.

investors

Why Investors Need to be Wary of the Investment Herd Mentality

The past year has been one of exceptional volatility – volatility for personal lives while dealing with COVID restrictions, volatility in job markets due to government-mandated shutdowns, and volatility in markets as economies collapsed and began to rebound. After a drop of over 10,000 points from February to March 2020 at the onset of the COVID crisis, the Dow Jones Industrial Index entered a strong recovery. Investors flooded back into the market, driving prices to new heights in early 2021.

Much of this new investment came as investors responded to positive news about the launch of COVID vaccines and the prospect of world economies reopening. Markets began to show the effects of herd mentality investing as investors pursued profit opportunities. While herd investing may lead to profitable spikes, it is also capable of causing sudden drops with accompanying losses for the herd. 

Understanding the herd

Humans are naturally prone to herding. While perhaps originally a protective measure against predators, herding spread through every facet of human life. Throughout their lives, people join any number of herd groups – social groups, religious groups, political groups, sports groups and others. They rely on the mutual support found in these settings and the information sharing that occurs in the group.

Herd investing behavior has many underlying causes. Some seek to achieve the same wealth and status as the successful investors they see in the news. Many people who know little to nothing about investing but who also want to take advantage of investing in markets rely on the herd to provide them with information about investment opportunities. Many investors just have FOMO – the fear of missing out on a good thing. 

Frequently, it is uninformed investors, and those with the most to lose, who form the bulk of the investing herd. Trying to get rich quickly by following the example of successful traders, they wind up losing everything. 

But even with post-COVID volatility roiling markets, there are good opportunities in the markets for informed investors who pursue sensible investing strategies.

The dangers of following the herd

Unfortunately, herd mentality all too frequently results in the herd running off a cliff together. The history of markets is replete with examples of investors driving markets drastically upwards, only for herd panic to crash those markets. 

The dangers of herd investing first appeared in the 17th-century tulip buying craze in the Netherlands. Tulipmania, as it is now known, was the first market bubble. Just before the bubble burst, the most sought-after tulips were selling for upwards of 5000 florins. 

To put this in context, at the time, you could buy four oxen (and not just any oxen, fat ones) for 480 florins. A thousand pounds of cheese was 120 florins, and the equivalent of 65 kegs of beer was 32 florins. The cost of tulips grew to exceed annual salaries, and the most expensive tulips cost more than a house. 

Using margin contracts, buying on credit, leveraging assets, investors did whatever was needed to get their hands on tulip bulbs. But prices began to fall, and the market quickly and completely collapsed, leaving many investors bankrupt.

History has repeated itself several times since the beginning of the 20th century. The Great Depression of the 1920s, the dotcom bubble in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the subprime mortgage crisis culminating in the housing crash of 2008 are all examples of herd-driven bubbles. 

Herd activity drives market volatility

Herd investing appears to be increasingly driving market volatility. The past year alone has seen several glaring examples of herd-created bubbles.

The herd creates crypto bubbles

A more recent example of herd investing is the explosion of interest in the cryptocurrency markets. From October 2020 to April 2021, the price of Bitcoin increased sixfold, from $10,000 to over $60,000. Since that time, it has lost a third of its value. And this is the second crypto bubble in less than five years. In early 2018, Bitcoin lost 65% of its value in a single month. By the end of 2018, cryptocurrency markets had seen a larger percentage decline than the stock market did during the dotcom bubble.

Cryptocurrency is an attractive investment. But it is notoriously volatile, and the crypto investing herd quickly responds to even minute suggestions about price direction. Tesla founder Elon Musk’s support for dogecoin helped its price skyrocket in early 2021. But when he made a joke on Saturday Night Live about dogecoin being a “hustle,” the price quickly plummeted.

Robinhood and GameStop

The GameStop price rollercoaster in early 2021 is a particularly alarming example of herd investing because it involved an intentional manipulation of the herd. A group of investors decided to punish investment firms that were relying on shorting stocks by driving up the prices of those stocks. They then promoted the stocks on an investment board on Reddit. GameStop became the poster child for their efforts, but other frequently shorted stocks also began to rise.

GameStop’s price skyrocketed as social media-based investors followed the Reddit group. Trading volume increased as well, with GameStop becoming the most traded stock on the S&P 500 at one point. Once again, Elon Musk got involved, sending out a tweet about GameStop that exacerbated the frenzy, causing the price to nearly double shortly after the tweet. 

GameStop quickly fell again after the Robinhood trading platform and others suspended trading. The fallout from this event is ongoing.

Fears about post-COVID inflation

At present, the herd is spooked about the prospect for significant inflation as world economies rebound from the COVID crisis. Consumer prices have been rising, even more so than expected at this point in the recovery. And, despite reassurances from the Fed that the inflationary spike is temporary, the fears of the herd have made themselves known in the markets. 

The fastest increase in the consumer price index in nearly fifteen years caused selloffs in the markets. At the same time, yields on treasury bonds have been rising. Home prices are also experiencing rapid upswings, leading to fears of another housing bubble.

The herd may be edging towards its next cliff.

Don’t get trampled by the herd 

Knowledgeable and prudent investors can still take advantage of hot market opportunities while avoiding suffering substantial losses by simply following the herd. Portfolio diversification is one important tool savvy should employ to counteract the effects of market volatility. Balancing risky herd-friendly investments with more stable options like bonds, mutual funds, or even gold helps portfolios avoid wild swings from market volatility.

There are also positive herd-style options, such as investment funds, that take advantage of the knowledge of investment experts. According to London-based financial advisor Alex Williams of Hosting Data, investment funds are a collection of capital that is owned by a conglomeration of investors. 

“These investors collect shares together, while each member remains in full ownership and control of their own individual shares,” says Williams. “The benefit to investment funds is that you have a wider selection of investment options and opportunities. You can also get access to better management expertise and there’s less commission than you’d be able to get on your own.”

And for those investors who do want to rely on social media, like the Reddit GameStop investors, without risking the downsides of herd investing, there are more well-founded options. Social investing platforms (distinct from socially responsible investment platforms) allow inexperienced investors to benefit from the knowledge and insights of experienced traders through copy trading and mirror trading.

Conclusion

With a bit of effort and prudent selection of a range of investments, even the most novice investors can take advantage of a booming stock market while protecting themselves from the whims of the herd.