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The Cross-Border Payment Revolution: How Transactions Are Becoming Friction-Free

As the financial services sector rushes to phase out legacy systems, the future of cross-border transactions is looking brighter by the day.

Posted: 17th February 2021 by Finance Monthly
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Finance Monthly hears from Stan Cole, Head of Financial Institutions at Inpay, on the progress that has been made towards creating seamless cross-border payment solutions.

Modern technology continues to advance at astonishing speeds, and recent years have given us plenty of remarkable developments in the fintech sector in particular. Yet, despite phenomenal progress in other areas, the trillion-dollar cross-border payment industry was stuck in the dark ages for an inexplicably long time. Banks and other financial institutions had to make do with outdated models, which slowed down international transactions, rendering them expensive and unreliable. And to make these frictions even more frustrating, many cross-border payment systems offered very limited transparency.

Improvements were long overdue, and thanks to rapid modernisation within the industry, customers are now enjoying a far better experience. However, we’re only at the beginning of the cross-border payment revolution. In fact, changes are expected to come even faster in the wake of the coronavirus. For example, Stephen Grainger, executive vice president of Mastercard’s New Payment Platforms, believes that global eCommerce will transcend the need for face-to-face transactions, while more remote and migrant workers move overseas, and more people enter the gig economy. “As the change becomes reality, it's the financial institutions that will be expected to step up and provide efficient cross-border payment systems that their clients demand — especially in regions where the need for trusted, reliable cross-border payments is increasing rapidly,” he explained to Business Insider.

With goods and services moving more quickly and across greater distances than ever before, customers are increasingly demanding cross-border payments that are as seamless and convenient as domestic ones. Huge progress has already been made and the future is just as exciting, and we’ll explore how all of that has transpired below.

How have cross-border payments modernised so far?

Cross-border payments have traditionally been the domain of correspondent banks. While these institutions are still major players in the industry, the rapid advances in technology and consumer demands mean that times have changed. With the click of a button, people are able to send emails, photos and videos globally, and these are received in real-time. Why shouldn’t consumers expect the same convenience when wiring money abroad?

With goods and services moving more quickly and across greater distances than ever before, customers are increasingly demanding cross-border payments that are as seamless and convenient as domestic ones.

There have been a host of new arrivals in the cross-border payments sector, so people are no longer forced to undertake a costly, slow, non-transparent international bank transfer. In lots of countries around the world, innovative services have made it possible to make an instant payment to a mobile number, email address or another unique ID form. This ID is mapped to the correspondent bank details, so in many nations, sending money is already as easy as sending an email. This marks a huge evolution from the traditional way of transferring money internationally.

In the face of stiff industry competition, banks need to embrace today’s consumer demands more than ever, and speed up their product propositions, reduce costs, and offer new, modern digital solutions if they are to retain their customers.

What does the future look like for cross-border payments?

Stablecoins

The future of payments is digital and tokenised, which explains why stablecoins have been gaining such popularity. These are cryptocurrencies that attempt to peg their value to an external reference, like a hard currency or commodity, in order to resist the high volatility usually experienced by the likes of bitcoin.

We have already seen this digitisation in action in South Korea, which has started to move from card to stablecoin payments. Likewise, Chinese central banks have partnered with e-money providers to test and provide central bank digital currencies (CBDC), vowing to launch a system like this before the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. “As cross-border payments involve numerous players, time zones, jurisdictions, and regulations, they are often slow, opaque, and expensive, making us believe that an interoperable CBDC could play a role in improving cross-border payments,” explained Senior Editor Mirela Ciobanu in a feature for The Paypers.

However, it remains to be seen how large financial players in the current marketplace will respond to this shift. They could try to remain in the centre of such infrastructure and charge fees to their users for making transactions, or merely provide platform access to allow users to make peer-to-peer [stablecoin] transactions. We already know that Visa plans to help partners launch cryptocurrency services through its partnerships with wallets and exchanges, while Mastercard is also introducing cryptocurrency to its network, “allowing [customers] to transact in an entirely new form of payment”.

The future of payments is digital and tokenised, which explains why stablecoins have been gaining such popularity.

Blockchain & cryptocurrency

Incorporating blockchain into the cross-border payments space will help resolve key drawbacks of using correspondent bank transfers for overseas transactions. Banks that proactively adopt blockchain solutions will be able to attract and retain customers by offering cheap, real-time international money transfers that are more reliable and secure.

As Payments Journal notes in its feature on blockchain in cross-border payments, many issues with international transfers “stem from the high number of intermediaries in the form of correspondent banks that are involved in processing a transaction. Each additional intermediary drives up the processing fee, increases the number of failure points, and adds to the risk of fraud somewhere along the payment pathway”. Blockchain means these intermediary stages are not required, and the risk of fraud is significantly reduced, as all transaction information is stored on the network and is very difficult to modify.

A big obstacle to blockchain adoption has been its regulatory uncertainty. However, the situation is changing now that governments across the world are increasingly looking into blockchain, and developing CBDCs to distribute and receive payments outside of traditional banking systems.

Collaboration between banks and fintech PSPs

As an ex-banker and an ex-oil/gas professional, I like the analogy of banks being oil tankers — they’re big and strong, but take a long time to change direction when out at sea. The key issue here is that banks tend to rely on systems for international payment products which were developed last century, requiring customers to provide standardised legacy data. And as banking systems vary between different countries, one size certainly doesn’t fit all.

Fintech PSPs, on the other hand, are speedboats — fast and agile, jumping over the waves. Collaborating with these organisations means that banks can take advantage of the right data and access new instant payment infrastructures that are being created around the world.

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Having worked on both sides, my view is that banks and fintech PSPs both need each other. Banks have already acquired a long-standing, loyal customer base, and although fintech PSPs don’t yet have that in their favour, their freedom from client acquisition and legacy infrastructure costs lets them concentrate exclusively on product and service delivery. Therefore, teaming up with them enables banks to enhance their product offering, improve time-to-market, reduce costs, and retain their customers. Collaboration beats competition, and results in a win-win outcome for both sides.

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