Who pays what when you make an international payment? And when will the money be available in the beneficiary's account? The latter depends on the cut-off time.
The principal and the beneficiary decide between themselves how the costs of an international payment are to be divided. This can be done in three ways:
The principal pays all of the costs, including those charged by the correspondent bank and the beneficiary's bank.
2. SHA ('shared')
The costs are shared. The principal pays the costs charged by their own bank, and the beneficiary pays the costs charged by the other bank(s). Within the EEA, the 'shared' option is in principle the only one applied in accordance with the PSD (Payment Services Directive).
3. BEN ('beneficiary')
The beneficiary pays all the costs, including the costs charged by the principal's bank.
Another tricky question is the duration: when will the money be available in the beneficiary's account? This depends on the cut-off time. This is the latest time at which your bank can guarantee that the funds will be credited to the correspondent banker of the beneficiary's bank on the agreed date. Remember: this does not necessarily mean that the beneficiary will receive the money on that payment date.
Alwin Vande Loock (Senior Product Manager International Payments at the BNP Paribas Cash Management Competence Center):
'The cut-off time depends on the payment method and the currency. For an urgent international payment in EUR, the cut-off time is 4:00 pm Belgian time. In principle, a beneficiary in Europe should receive the funds on the same day. An Asian beneficiary would probably receive them the following day.'
International payments: go with the processing flow
What goes on behind the scenes when an international payment is made? We reveal all and demonstrate the various processing stages.
Better understanding results in fewer errors. Here you will find an animated film explaining the basics of international payments.
Let's look at the four steps in the processing of an international payment
1. The customer sends the payment order to the bank
The payment order is sent to the bank via an online banking system (e-banking) or a bulk upload system, in other words a file containing a large number of payments.
- Banks have their own internal e-banking systems (such as Easy Banking Business at BNP Paribas Fortis), but there are also systems that can communicate with multiple banks, such as SWIFTNet and Isabel.
- A limited number of corporates and public institutions can send large volumes of payments to the bank directly from their own ERP systems via bulk upload (sometimes referred to as 'host-to-host').
Remember to provide all the necessary information in the payment request. For transactions outside the SEPA zone, specific rules often apply. A few typical examples:
Not sure what you're doing? Check the Currency Guide here for information on all currencies.
2. The bank validates the input and sets the payment in motion
The bank performs the necessary compliance checks. The bank has an obligation to carry out a number of checks, for example in order to prevent payments being sent to countries under embargo or to people/entities subject to financial sanctions. The EU, the US, the UN and individual countries have such embargo lists.
3. The bank chooses the appropriate routing for executing the payment
For payments in EUR in the SEPA zone, agreed clearing systems are used. Elsewhere in the world, there is no system that is able to connect with any bank in any currency. That makes things complicated, as your banker must find correspondent bankers to ensure the money is received by the final beneficiary. Banks usually have one or several correspondents in each country for the currencies they allow payments in. Matching them with one another for every payment is no small feat. When that has been done, the money can subsequently pass through each of those banks. Your bank will determine the optimal routing on the basis of a number of criteria. These are the main ones:
For payments between accounts held with the same bank. This is an accounting movement, whereby the money does not leave the bank.
The daily transaction volumes between banks are enormous. They are processed in clearing systems. These systems process payments on a 'net basis': all incoming and outgoing payments are listed per bank, and then the net amount to be paid or received ('settled') is calculated for each bank in question. This process takes place multiple times a day. This is called 'net settlement'. Depending on the clearing system, there is usually a focus on either large, relatively urgent amounts or greater numbers of smaller, less urgent transactions.
- ‘Correspondent banking’
The actual settlement can only take place in the country to which the currency belongs, i.e. via a local clearing system. Often, one of the two banks involved is not connected to the clearing system of the third country. In this case, direct routing to this system is not possible.
The solution? A 'correspondent bank' that does have access to the local clearing system. Many banks have a worldwide network of such correspondent banks. They hold accounts with them (called 'nostro' accounts) via which they can route payments. The correspondent bankers then settle the amounts so that the beneficiary bank receives the money and can pay the final beneficiary.
4. The customer receives the details of the payment
The entire process concludes with reporting: the customer sees all credit and debit information on their bank statements.
Watch out for 'restricted' currencies
Only convertible currencies can be used to make international payments. Some currencies are 'restricted': this means that in accordance with local legislation, these currencies are not permitted to leave the country. As such, it is not possible to open an account in Belgium in this currency or to use it to make international payments.
An example of a 'restricted' currency is the BRL, the Brazilian real. Banks have a workaround for this problem. They conclude an agreement with a correspondent who does have access to the currency. They send the equivalent value in EUR or USD, convert the amount into the local currency in the country (in this case BRL), and forward that amount to the beneficiary.
What is SWIFT?
To ensure routing is successful, banks communicate with one another via the SWIFT network (Society for Worldwide Financial Communication). SWIFT is owned by financial organisations worldwide. There is a specific standard for each form of communication, for example MT 101, MT 202, etc. In the case of SWIFT, a specific address is also required: the BIC (Bank Identification Code).
How to automatically get the best exchange rate
Companies working with several currencies often want to avoid exchange rate risks and administrative hassle. That is why the bank has come up with a behind-the-scenes solution: the 'embedded FX' service.
Embedded FX? You don't even need to remember the name, because the system works automatically, without you even having to think about it. FX doesn't stand for Hollywood-style special effects, but for Foreign Exchange, sometimes referred to as Cross Currency. You are guaranteed to come across this at some point if you make international payments, since they are not always executed in the currency of the debit account (referred to as 'mono-currency payments'). Sometimes, the currencies of the accounts the payment is being debited from or credited to may not be the same. These are FX payments. During such payments, an exchange takes place: one currency is sold and another bought, without you having to lift a finger.
The volumes on the FX market might be greater than you'd think. To put it plainly: they are enormous. Every day, more than 5 trillion American dollars are traded. That is 5000 billion American dollars, more than the volume involved in global equities trading...in a single day. The FX market operates day and night, and only closes over the weekend from 10 pm on Friday until 10 pm on Sunday.
Wim Grosemans (Head of Product Management Payments and Receivables at the BNP Paribas Cash Management Competence Center):
'On the FX market, banks essentially play the role of a wholesaler: they buy and sell currencies on the international market, and then sell them on to the customer with a mark-up. BNP Paribas is one of the biggest players, ranking among the global top ten. There is no official market rate in this over-the-counter market. Each bank determines the rate at which it wants to buy and sell currencies itself. Unofficial market rates can be found in publications from a number of public institutions (such as the European Central Bank) and private organisations (Reuters, Bloomberg etc.). These are based on the average rate offered by a number of major banks.'
The rate is always determined per currency pair, for example the euro versus the American dollar: EUR/USD = 1.1119. The most traded pair is EUR/USD, which represents 25% of daily trade. Second on the list is the pair American dollar/Japanese yen
(USD/JPY) with 18%, with British pound/American dollar (GBP/USD) coming in third at 9%.
Alwin Vande Loock (Product Marketing Manager Payments and Receivables at the BNP Paribas Cash Management Competence Center):
'As for the rate, banks offer a number of options. The rate can be a live market rate that is continuously being updated. The EUR/USD rate, for example, is adjusted more than 50 times per second. Another option is a daily rate. In this case, a rate is offered that will apply for a certain period.'
For many companies, all of this hassle with exchange rates is a real headache. Too complex, too expensive in terms of administrative costs and too many exchange rate risks. For those customers, banks have a solution: embedded FX.
Wim Grosemans (Head of Product Management Payments and Receivables at the BNP Paribas Cash Management Competence Center):
'When you make a payment in a currency you do not hold an account in, the bank will immediately retrieve a good exchange rate from its colleagues in the dealing room of the Global Markets department. The rate is usually confirmed within one hour after the customer has sent the payment. Unless large amounts are being transferred, the entire process is automatic. The IT systems used are much more efficient than they were just a few years ago, meaning that the bank is less exposed to volatility and can offer its customers a competitive rate. Embedded FX is an efficient and simple alternative for anyone who doesn't want to hold accounts in different currencies and run the exchange rate risks that entails. For the customer, it no longer matters what currency they use: the process is exactly the same. What's more, it gives them peace of mind, because they know that they'll always get a great rate.'
Working capital: far more than just an accounting term
Working capital, also known as net operating capital, presents a picture of the operational liquidity of a business. But there is more to it than meets the eye.
The success of a business actually depends to a significant extent on how it deals with its working capital needs.
The difference between working capital and working capital needs
Within the financial analysis, working capital is just one of the indicators that present a picture of the operational liquidity of a business. It not only affects general management, but also the access to bank credit or the valuation of the business, for example. This is calculated as follows:
Equity capital and other resources in the long term - fixed assets
This allows you to see whether sufficient long-term funds are available to finance the production chain. Where there is a positive result that is indeed the case, whereas with a negative result it is actually the production chain that must safeguard the long-term financing.
It is therefore useful to calculate the working capital needs as well:
Current assets (excluding cash) - current liabilities (excluding financial liabilities)
The result shows the amount the business needs in order to finance its production chain, and may be both positive and negative:
- where working capital needs are positive, the commercial debts no longer cover the short-term assets (excluding the financial). In that case, a business can rely on its working capital. If this is insufficient, it will need additional financing for its operational cycle in the short term;
- where working capital needs are negative, a business can meet its short-term liabilities without any problem. Nevertheless, it is advisable to reduce working capital needs (further).
In short, working capital presents a picture of the operational liquidity of a business, whereas working capital needs represent the amount the business needs in order to finance its production chain.
In other words, it boils down to limiting working capital needs as far as possible, thus increasing liquidity. This is crucial, especially in times of economic or financial difficulty. After all, customers tend to pay later then, while your stocks are increasing and your suppliers are imposing stricter payment terms. As a result, more and more working capital gets 'frozen' in your operating cycle, precisely when circumstances make it more difficult to attract additional financing.
Optimising working capital is not only a question of long-term considerations. In the short term, too, the business can release cash that is not being used optimally, or is being used unnecessarily, more specifically in the purchasing, production and sales processes within the operating cycle.
The working capital and the working capital needs must, above all, be geared effectively to each other. The working capital needs must be structurally less than the working capital itself, preferably with an extra buffer. However, there is no mathematical truth regarding the amount of working capital and working capital needs. Sector, activity and business model can affect this, for example.
Cover yourself before embarking on a quest for global markets
Any company that begins to trade abroad is buying into the idea that it can conquer brand new markets, but also that new risks are an inevitability. And although the risks are often worth taking, informed directors will evaluate the danger in order to be better prepared.
In love, as in business, distance makes things more complicated. However, in an increasingly globalised world, expanding your business activity into other countries remains essential – especially in an export-oriented country like Belgium. This strategic challenge demands an appropriate approach that will allow the company to move into new territory successfully. Whether internationalisation takes a physical or virtual form, a number of risks of a new type will join those you are already managing at local level, including hazards associated with transportation, exchange rate risks, poor knowledge of regional regulations, cultural or ethical "gaps", and difficulties arising from unpaid sums and recovering these abroad, etc. To minimise the impact on your business, take precautions and correctly signpost the pathway separating you from your international customers.
Where should you venture to?
If you have identified a particular continent or country of interest, you have presumably spotted obvious commercial benefits. You know your business and are convinced that this move can work well. But before you take the plunge, a step back is necessary so that you can analyse the country-related risks: from the geopolitical context (an embargo would be disastrous for your plans) to the political and socio-economic situation on the ground. It is not uncommon, for example, for elections to have a destabilising effect on the climate of a nation.
Do you have sufficient local knowledge?
This question may appear trivial at first, but culture and traditions have a major influence on the way trade is conducted – even in a globalised world. Beyond market expectations and the chances your product has of success, it is imperative to grasp the cultural differences that could have an impact on your business. A Japanese company does not take the same approach as its equivalent in Chile. Do not hesitate to recruit a trustworthy consultant who fully understands the region.
Have you planned for the worst?
This piece of advice is highly pertinent when the country in question uses a currency other than the euro because foreign exchange rates fluctuate continuously, with the result that you could be obliged to convert money according to less favourable terms than those initially expected. Adopt an effective foreign exchange policy (stabilise your profit margins, control your cash flow, mitigate potential adverse effects, etc.) and employ hedging techniques that best suit your situation.
How do you evaluate your international customers?
Once you have analysed the context, drop down a level to gauge the reliability of your customer in terms of their financial situation and history (e.g. of making payments), their degree of solvency, etc. While such research may not be simple, it is decisive in order to prevent payment defaults that can do enormous harm. If in doubt, take out an appropriate insurance policy to protect yourself. Paying for this could prevent you from becoming embroiled in perilous (not to mention costly) recovery action abroad. Should you end up in a crisis situation, you should ideally obtain local support in the country. Finally, be aware that in the EU, debt recovery is simplified by the European Payment Order procedure.
Have you adequately adapted the tools you use?
One of the greatest risks of international trade is transportation (loss, theft, accidents, seizures, contamination, etc.) in addition to customs formalities. Once dispatched, the goods are no longer within your control, and so you must ensure your carriers accept adequate liability. This means, for example, having suitable insurance cover, but also anticipating the multitude of procedures to be launched in any dispute. More generally, you will need to review and adapt the contracts you have with transport companies, as well as your international customers. Ensure you clearly set out the terms and conditions that apply (payment deadlines, exchange rates, compensation, etc.) and include realistic clauses that safeguard your own interests.