Comparing the beginning with the end of 2009, you could use the cliché that the global economy has been involved in a game of two-halves. The problem is that it can’t be said that the financial services industry ‘won’ either half. However, I think it’s safe to say that most would prefer the current economic conditions to those of January. The year began with terrible news and results almost everywhere – annual performance data from the major stock markets showed substantial falls, with Germany’s Xetra Dax, Japan’s Kikkei 225 and the UK’s FTSE 100 recording the worst performances in their history; bank stocks at major institutions continued to slump, leading to a shift in global power evidenced by both UBS and the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) selling their stakes in the Bank of China; while governments around the world implemented stimulus packages to bail-out their economies, failing banks and other major industries, at the taxpayers’ expense. According to Thomson Reuters, the amount of money pledged to economic stimulus around the world, as of 21 December 2009, stands at an eye-watering US$7,199,037,381,538. To follow how events have unfolded throughout the year, take a look at parts 1 and 2 of gtnews’ regularly updated Credit Crisis Timeline.
All the time that the global economy was charging towards apparent meltdown, corporate treasurers across the world were fighting hard to ensure that their organisations were in the best position to survive, or even prosper in, the storm. Before the credit crisis hit, the role of the treasurer was rather low profile, and had already begun to expand into a number of different areas beyond core treasury competencies, such as cash management. But the credit crisis has brought the role of the treasurer front and centre. As Dub Newman, global treasury executive at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, pointed out to gtnews: “There’s now a treasurer-level focus in the C-Suite business.” Treasurers have never engaged with their chief financial officers (CFOs) and chief executive officers (CEOs) as much as now. And judging by the content that gtnews readers have been reading this year, the focus for treasury has now clearly shifted back to basics – managing cash, liquidity and payments. The gtnews top 10 most-read features and articles in the two boxes below take the temperature of the hot treasury topics of 2009:
gtnews Top 10 Most Read Features 2009
- The Treasury Insider – Are the Days of Notional Pooling Numbered? – 03 Mar 2009
- Treasurers’ Trends and Predictions for 2009 – Ben Poole, Editor, gtnews – 06 Jan 2009
- Evolution of the Global Notional Cash Pool – Karen Kombrink and Greet van der Steen, Bank Mendes Gans – 21 Apr 2009
- Guide to European Payments – Part 1: SEPA Direct Debits: Benefits for Corporates – Tony Richter, HSBC Global Transaction Banking – 04 Aug 2009
- Cash Management Survey 2009: Corporates Put Accounts Receivable and Centralisation in the Spotlight – in association with SEB – 20 Oct 2009
- Counterparty Risk a Key Concern as Treasurers Predict More Bad News to Come – Ben Poole, Editor, gtnews – 03 Nov 2009
- SEPA and the Changing Payments Landscape – Part 1: Payment Services Directive – A First Assessment of the Live State – Ruth Wandhöfer, Citi – 17 Nov 2009
- Trade Finance Survey 2009: Why Treasury Needs to Take Control of Trade Finance – in association with SEB – 09 Jun 2009
- Guide to SWIFTNet – Part 6: Developments in 2009 – Valerie Morel, SunGard AvantGard – 10 Feb 2009
- Guide to Shared Service Centres – Part 5: Leveraging Best Practices in Collections – C.J. Wimley, SunGard AvantGard – 13 Jan 2009
gtnews Top 10 Most Read Articles 2009
- SWIFT Message MT202 COV: Background and Impact Points for Banks – Vijay Sankar, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) – 26 May 2009
- Latest Techniques for Pan-European Cash and Liquidity Management – Vincenzo Calla, BNP Paribas – 20 Jan 2009
- Credit Ratings Agency Answers gtnews Readers’ Questions – Barry Hancock, Standard & Poor’s – 17 Feb 2009
- Challenges Treasurers Faced in 2008 and What to Expect in 2009 – Peter Reynolds, Reval – 06 Jan 2009
- The New Bank Account Management Paradigm – Hilary Ward, Citi – 07 Jul 2009:
- Emerging Trends and Developments in Liquidity Management – Luc Belpaire, SunGard Avantgard – 24 Mar 2009
- Global Cash Manager: A Case Study – Anna-Karin Lundin, AB Electrolux – 24 Feb 2009
- Payments Automation: Building the Business Case – Chris Bozek, Bank of America Global Treasury Services – 24 Mar 2009
- Back to Basics – Reviving Cash and Working Capital Management – Patrik Zekkar, Niclas Osmund and Niklas Callerström, SEB – 16 Jun 2009
- 10 Must-have Accounts Payable Metrics – Rakesh Shukla, 170 Systems, and Jon Casher, Casher Associates – 25 Aug 2009
Best Practice in Cash Management Crucial
Renewed focus on pooling techniques
With the credit crisis biting hard in 2009, the main focus for corporate treasurers has been on their cash and liquidity management strategies. Topics such as netting and pooling, for a long time thought of as dull, dusty topics, have suddenly found themselves back in vogue as treasurers are forced to examine every possible avenue in their quest to achieve best practice in cash management. This is one example of the ‘back-to-basics’ approach to treasury management that has grown out of the credit crisis.
Two of the top three most-read features on gtnews look at the subject of notional pooling – although from fairly different perspectives. In Evolution of the Global Notional Cash Pool, Karen Kombrink, executive vice president, and Greet van der Steen, managing director, from Bank Mendes Gans looks at the evolving uses of the global notional cash pool.
To understand the potential benefits of global notional cash pooling, it is important to understand what it is and how it works. In a traditional notional pool, credit and debit positions are offset, which reduces the expense of paying interest on overdrafts, and there is no physical movement of funds. A global notional cash pool uses a global overlay structure based on either a notional or inter-company loan cash pool (physical or zero balance cash pooling); in both cases the need to perform FX and/or swap transactions is eliminated. Again, no funds are physically moved. This offsetting process results in a total consolidated cash position, which is used to apply proper interest conditions to all of the cash pool accounts. The cash pool bank re-allocates the cash pool interest margins, which is effectively an inter-company margin, to its customers on compensated balances in the cash pool. The global notional cash pool is supported by a suite of applications on the internet. These should include bank account reporting, third-party payment abilities, and full integration of data into treasury workstations, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and proprietary bank systems.
The case that BMG makes for notional pooling is convincing – however, as with all corporate-bank relationships, there are areas that treasurers need to pay close attention to in order to ensure the process fits their needs. The Treasury Insider, featuring gtnews’s own treasury professional blogger, drew attention to these points in their post Are the Days of Notional Pooling Numbered?. The top three points from this blog are:
- For a bank to have even a chance at meeting a Basel II partial offset possibility, it will have to have credit facilities in place for the overdrafts and documentation to ensure full right of set-off in an insolvency. The documentation will probably encompass cross-guarantees that may affect negative pledge clauses in other bank documentation. Ask any corporate that has recently put a notional pooling agreement in place what the major headache was and documentation often comes out on top.
- There is more attention being given now to thin capitalisation rules. Whereas in a company-wide group, consolidation may be adequately capitalised, notional pooling arrangements (just like intercompany lending) may mean individual companies are inadequately capitalised.
- There is the possible tax impact with notional pooling. Unless notional interest costs and revenues are charged based on the usual arm’s length principles, the tax authorities may not look favourably on the profit transfer effect of pooling.
These are all valid points that treasurers should explore before entering such a banking relationship. However, when it works, companies do find benefits. For example, Stacy Cordier, assistant treasurer at Thermo Fisher Scientific, found that their global notional cash pool gave the company “much better visibility of our cash around the globe.” The company is now also self-reliant in terms of working capital requirements. Cordier adds: “Where we have excess cash, we can move that into money markets to increase the return a little bit – even though, in today’s markets, excess cash does not generate much return.” Another of BMG’s clients, PSA Peugeot Citroën’s treasurer, Benoit Mulsant, explains how its two global notional cash pools proved their worth during the credit crisis, with reference to the company’s subsidiaries in eastern Europe. “The money markets were so disrupted that liquidity management would have been just unaffordable on these markets. With [our global notional cash pools], we were still able to manage our cash at money market rates without extra spreads. It has provided considerable protection for us,” explains Mulsant.
Accounts receivable takes centre stage
In 2009, the gtnews Fourth Annual Cash Management Survey in association with SEB, produced interesting findings pertaining to how corporates were managing their cash in the credit crisis. In particular, when asked about which cash management process has the greatest potential to improve, our survey respondents did not disappoint. Over the past four years, survey respondents have provided different responses – reflecting the changing dynamics of the cash management environment. In 2006 and 2007, cash flow forecasting was highlighted as the cash management process with the greatest potential for improvement; last year, liquidity management topped the survey. In 2009, the priority has shifted once more, with 33% of the respondents agreeing that accounts receivable (A/R) is now the process with the greatest potential for improving cash management.
“Working capital management has been elevated on the corporate agenda and for companies assessing their internal operations, A/R is a logical starting point to improve working capital management from a process-orientated angle,” explains Niclas Osmund, head of cash management advisory, at SEB.
Osmund adds: “The current concern for corporates is not when they will get paid but whether they will get paid at all by some of their customers. As with any balancing act, there are two sides. It is very easy for corporates to get stuck between customers prolonging payment terms and suppliers requesting early payment in order to survive today. If this is the case, it is time for them to consider different options for discounting their cash flow.” One respondent, a senior manager at a western European company with revenues of US$500m-1bn, commented: “Decreasing margins in the business and longer payment terms demanded by our clients means that we carry the working capital burden. This is coupled with shorter payment terms from suppliers as a result of high insecurity in the current economic climate.” Another, an executive/director at a North American company with revenues of US$500m-1bn, said: “Maintaining current payment terms with customers can be difficult, as they look for longer terms to aid their own working capital.”
The important thing to remember during this potential squeeze between customers and suppliers is that, by and large, everyone is experiencing the same problems. The key is not to alienate either side of this problem, as in the long-term this could lose your organisation important ongoing business. It is certainly a time for the arts of negotiation and diplomacy to take centre stage – for example, if you can work with your suppliers on payment terms that help them avoid bankruptcy, they may well be willing to provide more beneficial terms for you later on.
Trade Finance Best Practice to Manage Cash and Counterparty Risk
Treasurers can use trade finance techniques to help optimise their working capital position, but another gtnews survey in 2009 found that there is still a knowledge gap on this subject in some treasury departments. The gtnews Trade Finance Survey 2009, in association with SEB, highlighted a ‘blind spot’ between how corporates manage their trade finance activity and the way they manage and monitor other cash flows. Only 20% of those surveyed manage their trade finance operations on a global basis, compared to approximately 75% that have global control over their cash management. By centralising the trade finance function, treasurers can claim control over a process that has a significant impact on their company’s working capital position.
The credit crisis drove corporates to leverage their trade flows, but this in turn has, in some cases, exposed weaknesses in both the physical and financial supply chain processes. This comes back to a company’s governance models for trade finance processing, for example identifying who takes responsibility for trade flows. Corporate treasurers need to examine many internal issues before they can truly leverage their trade flows. For example:
- How efficient and accurate are the invoicing/trade document procedures?
- What proportion of the trade flows is included in the forecasting?
- What are the payment conditions, for example, for a Chinese supplier? Is the buyer fundamentally financing their operation as well?
- How much political risk is the purchaser covering and has the new risk factor in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries horizon been strategically evaluated and a procedure developed for how to handle this risk (given the fact that many corporates lack a risk management strategy for the emerging market)?
The focus on counterparty risk that currently exists among corporates has spilled out into trade finance, with the previous trend towards open account trade finance now actually falling away as many see it as increasing counterparty risk. To mitigate this perceived risk, instruments such as guarantees, documentary collections and letters of credit (LCs) are back in fashion again. LCs are being pushed by suppliers as they give them stronger contracts with the buyer, and also by the buyer themselves, who are seeing the free provision of funded credit facilities from banks, such as overdraft facilities, dry up. Instruments that were being faded out are now fashionable again – another example of the ‘back-to-basics’ approach to treasury management that has come out of the reaction to the credit crisis.
Payments Automation and Standards
Managing payments has been one of the other key treasury issues in 2009. The credit crisis has pressured treasurers into finding the most efficient ways to run their operations, and in the world of payments one of the best ways to achieve this is to automate the process and remove paper as much as possible. However, treasurers may also find that, due to the economic uncertainty, their company is less willing to provide the funds needed in the short term to aid the move from paper to electronic processes. To overcome this resistance, treasury departments need to build a convincing business case for the expenditure, something that Chris Bozek, integrated debt and treasury solutions manager at Bank of America Global Treasury Services, highlights in his well-read 2009 article, Payments Automation: Building the Business Case. Bozek argues that corporates need to have the ability to construct a compelling business case and financial model with all the relevant components, and that accounts payable (A/P) departments not aligned with finance, procurement, and technology groups need to agree on and drive forward a change process. His four-point plan to achieve this is:
- Conduct a high-level enterprise to enterprise audit by key payment types.
- Build a financial benefits model focusing on revenue and potential cost savings.
- Form a comprehensive plan to internally sell the business case.
- Construct a framework to evaluate solutions in the marketplace to support your organisation’s specific goals.
Automation can help corporates quickly improve their bottom line. However, the increasing number of choices combined with the process to drive change can be daunting. Treasurers should engage their banks and technology providers for help and advice about what is available to them and which solutions suit their specific needs.
SEPA deadlines pass to mixed responses
One of the largest ongoing payments projects in 2009 was the continued implementation of the single euro payments area (SEPA). November 2009 was the key implementation month for SEPA, with both the Payment Services Directive (PSD) and the SEPA Direct Debit (SDD) scheme coming into being. Well, sort of. Implementation of the PSD has not yet been universal across all participating countries, banks don’t have to accept SDDs until November 2010, and some countries are culturally opposed to any kind of direct debit at all. Speaking to gtnews, Jonathan Williams, director of strategic development at Experian Payments, sums up the problems SEPA implementation has faced in 2009: “While French banks earlier this year declared that they were planning to make SDD available only from November 2010, German retailers have now stated that they don’t see any direct benefits from SDDs in the first place. For retailers in Germany, the current ELV system works perfectly fine, so why would they want to make changes? Furthermore, a band of consumer and industry groups suggested that SDDs could be in danger of failure if issues on pricing, security and migration are not resolved.”
Additionally, as Tony Richter, director, global transaction banking from HSBC Global Transaction Banking points out in Part 1 of our Guide to European Payments, on 24 April 2009, the European Parliament revised Regulation 2560/2001, stipulating that it will be mandatory for banks in the eurozone to be reachable for SDDs by 1 November 2010 onwards. For banks that operate outside the eurozone, the deadline is no later than 2014. While this has been a frustration for those that wish to see SEPA up and running as soon as possible, it does at least hold the tantalising possibility of 2010 being the year that SEPA gets one step closer to an end date. Speaking to gtnews, Richard Davies, director of global payments at Logica, agrees: “A mandated end-date for SEPA is needed for it to progress, of course. 2010 has to be better than 2009, so for example the end date of November 2010 for banks to be compliant for the SDD scheme will help.” Despite this, the way that implementation of SEPA seems to be so disjointed is a concern. “It is a shame that SEPA Credit Transfers (SCTs) went live before SDDs, as this led some banks to implement short-term fixes for SCTs, rather than taking an overall approach to SEPA,” notes Davies.
But in the meantime, what are the potential issues for countries that are delayed in implementing the PSD or the SDD scheme? Ruth Wandhöfer, head of payment strategy and market policy, EMEA, Citi, asks the question as to how these delays will affect the rollout of services from payment services providers in the first part of our Guide to SEPA and the Changing Payments Landscape, which provides a first assessment of the live state of the PSD.
The positive news on this matter is that the EC recently issued a statement that “Swedish PSPs will still be able to adhere to the SDD scheme if they wish to do so, as long as the scheme rules do not conflict with existing laws in Sweden. SDDs may therefore be offered in Sweden and cross-border on a temporary contractual basis, before the directive is implemented.” This sets a precedent that should apply to the other Member States that have also failed to transpose the PSD.
One positive view of SEPA is to see the process as a catalyst to develop harmonised solutions across Europe. This is the view put forward by Vincenzo Calla, global head of CIB international cash management at BNP Paribas, in his article, Latest Techniques for Pan-European Cash and Liquidity Management, for the following reasons:
- The EU opted for three SEPA means of payments:
a. SEPA Credit Transfer (SCT) – From January 2008.
b. SEPA Direct Debit (SDD) – From November 2009.
c. SEPA Card Framework (SCF) – From January 2008.
- SEPA will promote homogenous means of payments across the eurozone and reduce cross-border charges
- It will be based on one common standard (ISO UNIFI 20022 XML), which will facilitate end-to-end automation and facilitate payment reconciliation data.
- SEPA will lead to the introduction of additional optional services (AOS), such as electronic reconciliation, electronic invoicing (e-invoicing), improved straight-through processing (STP), cost reductions, better cash flow forecasting and compliance.
- SEPA will also lead to the development of new solutions such as electronic bank account management (EBAM) standardisation, i.e. one public standard for interoperability and dematerialisation of the account management process as developed by SWIFT.
Clearly for these benefits to come online for corporates, banks, PSPs and, indeed, governments need to provide consistency of implementation and service. But while this is lacking at the moment, treasurers can still prepare for how to efficiently use SEPA services as part of their overall treasury operations. Patrick Villers, managing director, global business services, corporate treasury at General Electric (GE) advocates that a company’s SEPA strategy game plan is also an important project to consider right now in terms of pan-European liquidity management: “A SEPA review must be consistent with other internal strategic initiatives, such as centralisation, automation and standardisation through SWIFT and XML,” Villers says. “There is no right and wrong blueprint but it helps to use a structured approach to evaluate what is best for your business.”
This year, ISO 20022 has emerged from the bank-to-bank space, and it is not just in Europe that this has been the case. As Experian’s Williams explains to gtnews: “For US banks, this development has provided a reason to join in with international bank account numbers (IBANs), as it reduces the number of standards that have to be maintained – one of the wider benefits Europe is already experiencing as part of the migration to SEPA. However, given the hesitations corporates have had in migrating to SEPA, especially around the conversion to IBAN and bank indicator code (BIC) formats, the US can learn a valuable lesson when it comes to standardising formats.
“While a single, global payment initiation format is still some time away, the US should be looking at converting its data in time, setting clear guidelines and communicating the benefits to avoid wide-spread confusion among the corporates and the banks,” Williams adds.
Banks Buffeted by Post-crisis Winds of Criticism
The banking industry has clearly emerged from the credit crisis showing the most damage. The huge bank failures of 2008 were followed in 2009 by some vast restructuring programmes – swathes of staff laid off, take-overs and mergers, as some previously large players found they were unable to protect themselves, and of course, ultimately, the (part-) nationalisation of some of the largest financial institutions in the world in order to prevent their certain collapse. Such all-permeating failure of management among the world’s largest financial institutions led to a collapse of corporate confidence. Because of this, banks are now desperately trying to win back the confidence of disaffected customers, mainly by attempting to prove how great the value-added services that they offer are. But while attention is on innovative new technologies, such as contactless and mobile payments, the number of transactions generated by these emerging channels is still low. It is the traditional card-based payments that continue to generate significant transaction volumes and revenues. Speaking to gtnews, Paul Love, business solutions consultant at ACI Worldwide, comments: “While it is important that banks are ready to adopt new products when they reach critical mass, they must also ensure that their current card products remain competitive so that they bring in that important core payments revenue.”
Love added: “The biggest innovation a bank should make is to equip itself with a stable, reliable and flexible platform to drive its current payments products and to facilitate smaller-scale innovation, where new products are configured, rather than coded, and then tested on selected customer segments. If a bank’s core platform can deliver this without the need for additional development or capital spending, it reinforces the business case and encourages innovation. When approached in this way, innovation can be very quick to market and can carry much lower operational and reputational risk than usually associated with the introduction of new products.”
Looking globally, and while the large banks from Europe and North America continued to suffer in 2009, there were some strong signs of life in Asia and the Middle East. Chinese banks found themselves in a position to buy back stakes that overseas banks held in them, and the renminbi (RMB) is now being offered as a trade settlement currency outside of China.
The Middle East has also seen a growth in its banking business, something that has meant financial institutions in the region have had to pay close attention to compliance issues in the new markets they are entering. Speaking to gtnews, Nolan Gesher, senior product manager at Fiserv, pointed out that banks in the region are putting more emphasis on controls, “especially with automating transaction matching and accounts reconciliation.”
Regulatory Response to the Credit Crisis
2008 cast the largest shadow over the regulatory world in 2009. How had such huge failures been allowed to happen? How can similar catastrophes be prevented in the future? Speaking to gtnews, Selwyn Blair-Ford, senior domain expert at FRSGlobal, points out that
acceptance in the financial community that the regulatory environment has to change has occurred inf four phases:
- The aftermath of the Lehmans collapse – banks realised that, in this financial crisis, anyone can go.
- Passive acceptance of change.
- Denial from the financial services industry (some of which is still around).
- Arrival of the new liquidity regime, and other regulatory policy initiatives – change can now happen.
The early part of 2009 saw a series of regulatory reports published, such as the Financial Services Authority (FSA) papers and the Turner review in the UK and the Geithner review in the US. Reports and reviews of this kind were all designed to tackle the both the problems caused by the credit crisis and address the underlying factors that created the crisis in the first place.
When it comes to looking at how the implementation of the reports has gone, Blair-Ford says that we are currently in a dangerous place: “
The issue is now in the political arena, where they’re used to having a year or two to debate these issues. It is important that the political will around post-credit crisis regulation does not lose impetus.”
While the recommended regulatory change will happen, it may take six to 12 months to really start achieving this implementation. With this time lag, it’s possible that these changes will no longer be at the top of the agenda for the financial services industry and it may be caught out by the changes when they are implemented. Political will may also fade and the regulators need to be wary of this happening. It is possible that, rather than all of the regulatory changes being made, some may not be implemented because of the lack of political will. There’s a real danger that if this happens – if not all of the issues are tackled and changes implemented – financial services could sleepwalk into another financial crisis of a comparable magnitude.
Focussing on the UK, FRSGlobal’s Blair-Ford sees that the parliamentary election next year could potentially have a disastrous effect on the new regulatory regime. The policy being promoted by the opposition party, the Conservatives, of abolishing the FSA is clearly vote-driven and short-termist. ”
In fact, their pledge to abolish the FSA if the Conservatives win the next UK election would set the UK’s regulatory landscape back by seven years. The FSA is little more than ten years old and it has taken the best part of the last decade for the financial industry to adjust to them as regulator,” he adds.
Signing Off in a Stronger Position – but it is all Relative
The economic conditions that treasurers operate in are, by and large, more positive than they were this time 12 months ago. Whereas at the turn of the year, treasurers could have been forgiven for feeling uncertain that all of their banking partners would still be standing the following week, today you can be fairly sure that they will be, thanks to the M&As and unprecedented government action. Credit can still be hard to come by, but there is a general acceptance that it is available (if not necessarily at the exact time you want it and for an inflated price). This level of certainty means that corporate treasurers can get on with the business at hand – managing their company’s cash and liquidity to the best of their ability. The re-evaluation of old methods of cash management and trade finance, for example, have seen treasurers find new and innovative ways of adapting to the poor economic climate. And as well as merely going ‘back to the future’, treasurers have also shown a great appetite for the latest technological breakthroughs that can add efficiency to their department – for example, EBAM and SWIFT connectivity are both issues that have appeared in the most read gtnews content this year. This flexibility of combining the best of traditional methods with the latest technological developments is something that treasurers can rightly be proud of as 2009 comes to a close.
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