November marked a crucial milestone in the international financial community’s goal of making cross-border payments more transparent. Here’s what you should know.
For years SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications) has worked to address customer demand for ‘real-time tracking’ of the funds sent through its global system. 22 November 2020, saw the rollout of an important feature to deliver that transparency.
“This is the date by which SWIFT has mandated banks implement Universal Confirmations,” says Clayton McDonald, the Head of Sales, Global Payments Division at StoneX. This means Global NGOs will be able to access enhanced visibility on payments, anywhere in the world.” StoneX, a payment services company serving the aid and development sector, has been preparing for this day for years and was the first non-bank member to join SWIFT’s gpi (Global Payments Initiative) in June 2017.
Here we explain what ‘gpi’ and ‘Universal Confirmations’ are and, most importantly, how together they will benefit international aid and development organizations.
What is gpi?
Global Payments Initiative, commonly known as gpi, is a feature SWIFT created to provide greater transparency to payments.
Prior to gpi, a payment could not be tracked end-to-end. This created a challenge particularly for cross-border payments, which, by their nature, often pass through multiple banks on their way to the beneficiary. Gpi introduced a reference number (called UETR – Unique End-to-End Transaction Reference) that tracks the payment along the entire chain. Banks in the chain update the status in a central database created by SWIFT called the Tracker.
Why Universal Confirmations?
The goal was to have all banks use the Tracker; however, gpi was launched as an optional, paid service. This meant many smaller banks did not subscribe and preferred to rely on their existing, more manual methods. Payments delivered to these banks were a ‘gap in the chain’.
To address this gap, SWIFT introduced ‘Universal Confirmations’, providing free but limited access to the Tracker and mandated that, from 22 November 2020 onward, all banks contribute payment status via this free feature.
What does this mean for your Organization?
International Aid and Development Organizations, through the combined effect of gpi and Universal Confirmations, will now see a step forward in the efficiency of resolving global payment questions. “Before SWIFT gpi existed,” McDonald says, “If there were questions about a global payment, we’d raise investigations with the local bank, having a back and forth exchange to gather information.” Depending on time-zones, staff availability in the local country, and local holidays, there could be days of delay in addressing client questions. “SWIFT gpi instantly solved this for us. Straight away, we were able to run more efficient operations and respond to our clients faster,” said McDonald. “Adding the Universal Confirmations feature from 22 November this year will improve that visibility further”.
But take note! Only Banks and institutions which have subscribed to the full gpi service will be able to provide nonprofits enhanced visibility into payments and additional data to track the end-to-end path of each payment (Banks that contribute only to Universal Confirmations will not).
It’s important to realize that, even with a 22 November 2020 deadline, it’s unlikely that 100 percent of local banks in emerging markets will comply from day one. “Many local banks have worked hard to implement Universal Confirmations; however, there are practical limitations in some markets that mean it’s unlikely there will be instant traceability in every market from day one,” McDonald cautions.
For example, some countries’ domestic payment systems currently cannot technically support a status confirmation to the Tracker. In this case, gpi continues to provide instant traceability of the payment as it is sent to the destination country’s local correspondent bank. It’s the ‘last mile’ in the transaction that may remain obscure (at least initially).
Additionally, so far, there is no automated mechanism to validate that banks have confirmed every single payment in the Tracker. So, until mid-2021 when SWIFT implements some ‘consequences’ for non-compliance, we rely on banks voluntarily adopting the feature.
SWIFT expects tracking to improve over time as local banks upgrade their payment systems and (or) make their manual processes more efficient.
There is no doubt that, compared to the opacity of the system in years past, with the right financial partners, Aid and Development Organizations now have access to far more real-time certainty about where funds are in the global system than ever before.
The vision of real-time tracking of every stage of a payment globally took another step forward as of November 2020, but as those organizations working in emerging markets are certainly already aware, achieving a big vision is a slow and measured march —not a sprint.
Nonetheless, given the challenges of 2020, the global payment community managing to deliver on November’s milestone is certainly worth a quiet celebration!