Jacco de Jong, Global Head of Sales

Natural calamities such as the current COVID-19 coronavirus demonstrate how reliance on paper trade documentation continues to expose the global supply chain to disruption.

The International Chamber of Shipping estimates COVID-19 is costing the industry $350 million each week. Container spot rates are down, and idle capacity in the world fleet on the increase, while boxes stack up on Chinese quaysides. The impact of the virus has caused some carmakers to suspend operations and there are warnings of falls in Apple smartphone production.

Adverse events such as COVID-19 almost always have complex ramifications for international trade. However, digital technology has now given us the means of alleviating many of the problems – especially in relation to the paperwork that is essential to export/import transactions.

The electronic transfer of critical documents such as bills of lading, letters of credit and letters of indemnity in digital format delivers huge advantages. Think about what happens to paper documents. They have to be couriered either by people using land or air transport crossing physical borders. If there are restrictions in travel and the movement of people  (as there is in China and South Korea)  in force to prevent the spread of infection, then documents stay put and the transaction they support cannot proceed. Similarly, if office staff (at either end) are absent for prolonged periods because of a virus outbreak, all the creation, checking and dispatching of these documents are subsequently halted.

Now consider what happens if we digitise that paper flow. Automation takes care of the data uploading necessary to create digital trade finance documents. The transfer between parties is at the click of a mouse across secure digital networks, which is all a huge advantage in offices short of staff. Compliance checking, too, is automated.

End-to-end visibility on an advanced digital platform also means documents do not disappear, as paper versions frequently do in transit. Encryption and audit trails, meanwhile, reduce the many opportunities for fraud and forgery with paper documents, as they are never out of sight.

One feature of supply chain disruption is that carriers under pressure to achieve fast turn-around are sometimes tempted to release cargoes without presentation of the bill of lading, causing significant problems. The sheer speed of electronic transfer reduces the chances of this happening. Electronic bills of lading (eBLs), letters of credit, packing lists, guarantees and letters of indemnity all transfer at the speed of the internet. There is no waiting around for documents to arrive.

Research has revealed that electronic bills of lading (eBLs) require a tenth of the time it takes to process their traditional paper equivalents. Even without delays caused by acts of god and disease outbreaks, cargoes often sit in port awaiting the arrival of the paper documentation, heightening the potential for demurrage penalties. This is especially true on shorter routes.

Transferring eBLs so swiftly is critical during a time of great disruption. Bills of lading are documents of title and confer ownership of cargo. Without a bill of lading or, where necessary, a letter of indemnity, shipowners may be unwilling to release the relevant cargo. Yet the shipment that has all the correct documentation attached to it is most likely to be released first, especially when normal operations resume.

Digitisation also alleviates many of the difficulties in the financial supply chain connecting exporters, carriers and importers. When bank branches suspend operations to reduce the spread of infection, for example, letters of credit may not be issued in time to meet the payment requirements for goods.

As we move into an era of more powerful storms, increased trade friction and unpredictable virus outbreaks, corporates, banks and carriers all need to think harder about digitising their trade finance documentation if they want to avoid severe delays.

In an article on the COVID-19 difficulties, the Financial Times said the outbreak had prompted a surge in the use of remote working solutions in Asia.  Now is the time for global trade to undergo a similar digital transformation and end the dependence on paper.

The digitisation of trade finance documents cannot eradicate all the problems of epidemics or regional disputes, but it will make trade safer, smarter and faster, abolishing the reliance on out-dated methods that only increase the level of risk.