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05 October 2022

Bridging the centuries of navigating and financing trade at ITFA Porto

Head of Trade, Treasury and Risk
The heady history of port helped marry tradition and innovation at ITFA’s in person annual trade finance event in Porto. TXF’s Katharine Morton kept her feet steady while the boats are borne ceaselessly forward into the future.

The 48th International Trade and Forfaiting Association (ITFA) annual conference was held in Porto and the event and the city’s geography, rich history and investments for the future provided plenty of metaphors for the themes of tradition and innovation which captured the attention of delegates.

Portugal’s second city lies either side of the Douro river with six bridges straddling Porto and its neighbouring Vila Nova de Gaia (Gaia), the river flowing through the wine region of the Douro valley in the east to the Atlantic. 

The appropriately named Adrian Bridge, CEO of Taylor Fladgate, led the event. The former army officer and banker recalled the tradition of Port wine and its history in the Douro valley as the first denominated wine region, the founding of Taylor’s Port in 1692 (just halfway between the signing of the Anglo Portuguese Alliance, the world’s oldest trade treaty, and the 2020 Porto Protocol, an ESG initiative to share best practice in the wine industry). 

How do you marry tradition and innovation in trade? The not so secret ingredients of making ultimate quality Port wine still involve treading grapes with feet, and yet, winemakers with their Porto Protocol may unlock good ESG practice built on the oldest branded and trackable agricultural goods. Bridge illustrated how innovation does not have to be the enemy of tradition. If the principles are right, don’t change them. 

The lesson is to innovate in implementation to changing circumstances. What makes Port special – identity, verification and trust – are the same three core axioms that should govern the movement from paper to paperless trade finance.

Examples of the past, present and future demonstrated the span of the event. From that 650-year old trade treaty between Portugal and England, the Great Gatsby, to the futuristic world of digital trade tokens, through developments in trade digitisation regulation which bring centuries old techniques such as forfaiting into a digital world and apply digital techniques to help navigate new trade corridors in emerging markets. Even the venue for ITFA Porto was in a redeveloped area of the city where port wine from the Douro valley had been warehoused before heading to sea.

A heady sip of history

Bridge told the rollercoaster story of trade, port and Porto and how he has navigated a traditional business into this century. He began the event with a question: “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?” You will have to wait for the answer to that, and why that particular question is important to the end.

Some fun facts. Centuries after that trade agreement between England and Portugal, Taylor’s, one of the original port houses, was inspired by a publican of the Ram pub in Spitalfields, London, who imported barrels of port in the ships returning from exporting wool to Portugal, subsequently financed using letters of credit. In 1744 the family bought an estate in the Douro valley.

Twelve years later, the Douro became the world’s first demarcated wine region, the year after an earthquake, tsunami and fire devastated Lisbon. That was to raise money by taxing (mainly foreign-owned) port wine production. Another half century on, the Napoleonic wars served the port industry well as the UK embargoed French wine and the Duke of Wellington used the Taylor’s winery as a field hospital.

Fast forward to this century, and the demarcation of wine is a very useful tool for being able to develop the Porto Protocol, to share best practice (particularly in drought management) with other companies and global wine regions.

Technology has been introduced, but the pinnacle of quality in port production remains the human foot. There has been consolidation at the top end of the port market over the past 20 years and Bridge’s company doesn’t use much trade finance, mostly financing through commercial banks and local agents, with credit risks taken by them, and payment in advance. It does, however, own a lot of real-estate – 26 hectares of Porto and more in Douro valley – and has collateral of 40 million litres of aging bank stocks of port, a volume that would fill 16.5 Olympic swimming pools which, as Bridge quips, would make for an interesting Olympic games.

Bridge has also been involved with the redevelopment of Porto as a tourism venue, creating the WOW (World of Wine) as a new cultural district, launched just as the pandemic hit. With wine a long term capital intensive business and tourism a tertiary economic activity, the company’s aim is to use the cashflow from tourism to invest in wine stocks and fund wine business growth in a symbiotic way. Don’t say financing trade can’t involve fun.

From WOW to other concerns of now

Elsewhere, in a dive into the non-Olympic sized pool of recent events and their impact on the world, trade and the future, John Raines, director, market intelligence, at S&P Global asked whether the world is becoming more fragmented. He pointed to the “geopolitical constellations” emerging where some countries are hedging their bets in terms of their energy needs versus security relationships. While he argued globalisation is “not on life support”, there is not the drive supporting it of previous decades, particularly from the US. There are also efforts towards de-dollarisation, which need to be watched. Nonetheless, there will not be complete decoupling.

Raines expressed some optimism that digital developments in trade, as evidenced at the event, will be “bottom up rather than top down”.

Energy security and energy transition are current concerns and Raines pointed to a short term pause in the impetus on climate action as European countries want to heat their homes in winter. Other negatives included addressing supply chain vulnerabilities by reshoring, “friend shoring”, nearshoring, all of which mean that “just in time is out the door.” From a US perspective, Raines points to the raft of legislation under President Biden including the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) Act of 2022, Inflation Reduction Act, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), a “trade agreement that is not a trade agreement.” All of these have impacts on trade.

The C-suite’s perspective on global volatility session at the event picked the export winners from the current crisis – energy and food exporters (the former as long as they are not facing high refining margins, for instance, and the latter as long as they are not hitting inflated input costs) and those that can sit between the different (rival in some cases) trade ecosystems that are slowly developing. Those not faring so well included importers, particularly those in emerging markets paying high energy import prices.

Marrying tradition and innovation is not always easy, especially if that innovation isn’t always that helpful. Interestingly, one banker pointed out that for all the discussion of collaboration between fintechs and banks, fintechs often do not pitch their products to banks effectively. The key question is “is the product useful in as far as it solves problems such as regulation, and does it stop the banks getting sued rather than simply looking shiny and good and ‘improving user experience’?”

Is digitisation growing up?

How do you get comfort with new digital solutions? First comes legal comfort and then technology comfort. Identity, verification and trust are the three core axioms.

A promise of usefulness versus actual delivery is a perennial challenge for trade digitisation. Throughout the event, the (sometimes frustrated and often slow) potential of trade digitisation was in the spotlight. Several themes emerged, which are all interlinked – trade digitisation can be a nexus for ESG improvements, it is seen as a potential hope for mitigating trade fraud, and in particular there is the vital importance of engaging trade digitisation as a way of helping emerging markets to narrow the trade finance gap.

The progress in trade regulation was also highlighted.

Bringing forfaiting into the digital world has been one interesting journey in marrying tradition with innovation. The creation of Uniform Rules for Transferable Electronic Payment Obligations (URTEPO) was one area of progress. The decision was taken not to amend creaking URF800, rather to do something else, particularly in light of changing trade digitisation legislation in the UK, the development of MLETR and the fact that electronic payment undertakings already exist.

“For the first time in ages UK law will be ahead of the technology in order to transfer TEPO but we may still want to write the transfer agreement in paper – and the law says we can do it any way. We will be stepping into the unknown as with the magic word of ‘control’, and the tech companies will still need to solve what the law allows,” says Geoffrey Wynne, partner at Sullivan & Worcester. “Although the elephant in the room is still the element of how it is transferred.”

The UK’s Electronic Trade Documents Bill will likely to come into force by the middle of 2023. Although change won’t happen overnight, a large proportion of trade is regulated under English law, and there is the potential to influence nearly 80% of global trade documentation according to Catherine Lang Anderson at A&O. It is important to be prepared for the change to come, and she advises companies to map a vision of what good process could look like.

Frustrations that fraud not always a driver for change

The importance of digitisation as a tool to mitigate trade fraud was highlighted. As one panellist noted, the presence of paper and the absence of transparency is common to most, if not all, recent trade finance frauds. Trade finance lends itself to fraud as it is for the most part secret, confidential, and is the ‘icing on’ rather than the underlying commodity itself. Trade instruments themselves, such as LCs, may not be the problem, it is more the documents around those instruments and the dilution of standards around them (sloppiness/complacency/expediency).

One thing that surprised panellists was that despite the leviathan frauds (such as 2020’s Hin Leong, which one participant described as a “fully integrated business with a fully integrated fraud”) the abuse of trade instruments has not led to a wave of momentum to change. Paper exists, so will paper frauds. Michael Hogan, managing director at MonetaGo says, “For all the talk of digitisation, a lot of the paper islands are sitting in peoples’ drawers.” And while digitisation is not a panacea (digitisation exists, and so there will be digital frauds), an ageing trade finance community will not be replaced by an eager younger cohort able or willing to ‘smell test’ paper documents.

Calls were made for registries to be in place to help prevent double financing of invoices. Norway, for example, has created a centralised registry for inventory pledges.

There remains a lag between regulation in payments such as PSD2 and trade, but an expectation that “it will happen in trade”. What is holding back progress? Priorities, resources and nobody wanting to be a first mover are part of the answer.

Narrowing the gap – new solutions are key

Hogan at MonetaGo says: “Everyone has heard of the trade finance gap, everybody wants to fix it, but how many companies actually have it in their objectives to measure and manage?” For sure, SMEs and supply chain finance in some emerging markets remain digital underdogs. There have been noteworthy positive developments such as Lloyd’s Bank’s digital promissory notes in August.

As Pouya Jafari, vice president, trade innovation in the global trade finance department of SMBC points out, there are two categories of the trade finance gap – companies who would be creditworthy and should be able to borrow, and companies who should not get trade finance. “If we don’t address the trade finance gap with new solutions, we won’t narrow it. Companies don’t need to be 100% digital for SME financing,” Jafari adds.

Basel – fighting yesterday’s fires?

In ‘Basel 3.1 – the good, the bad and the ugly’, Krishnan Ramadurai, chair, ICC Trade Register and global head of capital management for the global trade portfolio at HSBC, highlighted that Basel regulations are not on the backburner, even if some consider they should be. Regulators still want to push the changes through even if the current crisis was not started in the financial markets. Basel 3.1, though will be delivered in the middle of a real economy crisis, and that will create winners and losers.

Some of those that have lost out continue to be banks and their corporate clients in emerging markets that have already been ‘derisked’ from international correspondent relationships, an issue that also occupied several of the speakers on the ultimate session, emerging markets trade corridors, who also discussed the costly concerns of KYC and onboarding new clients. They also picked up on the issues raised in trade as an investible asset class – a challenge for investors in emerging markets.

Dongfang Shi, head of financial institutions at Bank of China in London, Lucio Feijó Lopes, senior partner at Feijó Lopes Advogados, George RR Wilson, head of institutional trade finance at Investec, Uve Poom, COO of SupplierPlus, and Nelli Kocharyan, head of international relations and trade finance at Converse Bank, honed in on how best to navigate emerging markets that they are familiar with through the lens of sustainability, inflation and creating investable trade assets. They discussed the best ways to approach and invest in emerging markets and how to break new ground around digitalising risk assessment and compliance.

Forced to import inflation – but opportunities abound in sustainable trade finance

These are very challenging times for trade in emerging markets, with multiple inflationary pressures being brought to bear on fragile global supply chains. “We're basically being forced to import inflation,” says Wilson. “Trade finance in Africa, like everywhere else in the world, is denominated in dollars. Dollars and dollar liquidity is an issue, and in trade finance, it's that short term dollar liquidity that’s a challenge. We managed very well throughout the pandemic but we are moving from that close to zero borrowing cost environment to substantial increases in borrowing costs in some of the worst credit jurisdictions on the planet.”

Nonetheless, there remains a large opportunity for sustainable trade finance in Africa, about which ITFA is publishing a white paper in the runup to COP27 in November. “Although there's a $120 billion trade gap in Africa, there are potentially billions of dollars of ESG, sustainably earmarked investment funds, which could easily fill the gap and take up the missing capacity. The issue is that despite the fact that trade finance in Africa is intuitively sustainable and hits at least 12 of the 17 UN SDGs, certification frameworks and taxonomies that are emerging are drafted by the northern hemisphere and don't cater for Africa and particularly African trade finance,” Wilson notes.

Is there opportunity to be bold in new markets, or is it more a case of retrenchment and following demand for multinational companies trying to ‘reshore’ supply chains, or are they able to deepen existing relationships?

In the Baltic and Nordic regions, post the challenges of supply chains and logistics amid the war in Ukraine, buyer-led solutions can help with financing. “There are definitely new opportunities in there precisely because of the turmoil,” says one panellist.

Brazil has also witnessed some opportunities from crisis. “Brazil has faced several challenges over the past 20 years,” says one speaker. “There have been so many improvements in the market, in the region, in the country, including digitisation, including improvements in regulations and in the improvement in the role of Brazil as a producer net exporter, now is the best time ever for trade finance in the country.”

China still sees opportunities for international investors along its ongoing belt and road initiative, such as in a banana supply chain centre being developed with Cambodia along the corridor and also with Malaysia to build up a resources supply chain centre. While there has been a degree of retrenchment, carefully answering the four questions of ‘who, where, where and how’ to do business allows for a measured approach – building out business with trusted clients is a major part of the approach, as is balancing working capital requests with risks.

Back to the Bishop of Norwich, forwards with Gatsby

The 48th Annual conference at ITFA started with the Bishop of Norwich and ended with the Great Gatsby. And now, the Bishop of Norwich. Adrian Bridge explained that the bishop was notorious for delayed the progress of port wine in its traditional leftwards trajectory around a table. “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?,” became code for “please pass the port”. A tale of unblocking liquidity, I guess.

And Gatsby? The last words of the conference went to Sean Edwards, ITFA Chairman and head of legal and special advisor to the global trade finance department at SMBC. After the Great Gatsby celebration of the previous night, Edwards quoted the last lines of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, but emphasised that he hoped that the opposite would be the case.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

For Edwards, the idea is to go with the current, and go ceaselessly into the future, and more specifically, to next year’s 49th event scheduled for Abu Dhabi. Here’s hoping.

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