December 7, 2023

Are AML (Anti-Money Laundering) requirements hindering SME access to trade finance?

Alicia Nicholls

Trade finance is the lubricant which facilitates the smooth conduct of international trade transactions. It allows traders to manage the commercial, country and currency risks inherent in cross-border trade transactions. In other words, trade finance is what helps importers pay for goods and services and ensures exporters are paid in full and on time for goods and services rendered internationally.

A recent World Trade Organisation (WTO) report highlighted that “up to 80 per cent of global trade is supported by some sort of financing or credit insurance”. Although bank-intermediated trade finance instruments, such as documentary letters of credit and documentary collections are major types of trade finance, inter-company credit is also of importance.

Trade Finance Gaps

Despite the centrality of trade finance to global trade, the above-mentioned WTO report entitled “Trade Finance and SMES: Bridging the Gap in Provision” found that access to trade finance was not geographically uniform. This is supported by the  Asia Development Bank’s 2015 Trade Finance Gaps, Growth, and Jobs Survey which highlighted that “the global trade finance gap stands at $1.4 trillion, $693 billion of which is in developing Asia (including India and the Peoples Republic of China)” and that “while availability of trade finance has improved, gaps have become more concentrated”.

Equally striking but not unsurprising is the large gap in access to trade finance between SMEs and MNCs. According to the WTO Report, “globally, 52 per cent of SMEs see requests for their trade finance rejected, against 7 per cent for MNCs”. Even more disconcerting is that “in some large developed countries, up to a third of SMEs face such challenges.”  In the aftermath of the Global Financial and Economic Crisis of 2008, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), particularly in Africa and Asia, have found accessing credit for trade increasingly difficult. The Caribbean was not mentioned in the WTO Report but 41.6% of respondents in Latin America identified ease of trade finance as a major obstacle to company’s exports, second only to Africa where 66% shared that view.

SMEs are important drivers of trade, as well as generators of employment and economic activity. An OECD report stated that SMEs account for 60 to 70 per cent of jobs in most OECD countries. In developing countries, particularly small island developing states like the Caribbean, the majority of businesses would be classified as SMEs. Advances in technology have made new opportunities possible for SMEs. They generate growth and employment, which means trade is not just the domain of multinational corporations (MNCs) anymore. Access to trade finance is vital for SMEs not just to engage in international trade but to expand and to capitalise on market access openings created by trade agreements.

In the aftermath of the Global Economic and Financial Crisis, banks have become a lot more conservative in their lending practices. SMEs lower access to “good collateral” and often shorter credit histories make them riskier prospects than established companies.  In cases where trade finance requests are rejected, SMEs either have to find an alternative source of financing the transaction or abandon it altogether. SMEs also often lack information on the trade finance options available to them.

AML/Trade Finance Nexus

According to the WTO Report, 41.4% of respondent banks cited anti-money laundering and know-your-customer (KYC) requirements as a barrier to providing trade finance. Moreover, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) identified the main regulations affecting Trade Finance as the Basel Accords on capital adequacy, liquidity and leverage, as well as regulations relating to AML/KYC/KYCC and sanctions.

There are three main methods of laundering illicit monies are through the financial system, physical movement of proceeds across borders and through the international trade system. In regards to the latter, the FATF in its 2006 paper raised the importance of combatting trade-based money laundering (TBML).

In its 2008 Best Practices Paper the FATF defined Trade-based money laundering and terrorist financing (TBML/FT) as:

“the process of disguising the proceeds of crime and moving value through the use of trade transactions in an attempt to legitimize their illegal origin or finance their activities.”

Common techniques include over or under-invoicing, multi-invoicing, false descriptions of goods and over and under-shipments if goods.

Regulators in developed countries have been punitive in the fines and sanctions meted out to banks found to be in violation of anti-money laundering (AML) and know your customer (KYC) regulations. One of the unintended consequences is that banks have started to de-risk, that is, instead of identifying and managing risks on a case by case basis, they have sought to avoid risk altogether through cutting off correspondent banking relationships with banks in high risk jurisdictions or refusing to provide trade finance to firms with higher risk profiles. While banks could reduce their exposure through higher levels of KYC/CDD, the increased costs they would incur often outweigh the profitability from these business lines.

One of the key findings from International Chamber of Commerce research shows that trade finance transactions have low risks of default, with an average default rate of short-term international trade credit of 0.021%, something which makes trade finance a lot less risky than one might originally think.

The bottom line

AML and KYC regulations are important for ensuring the stability and integrity of the global financial system and help to prevent trade-based money laundering which has negative consequences for both developed and developing countries. However, care must be taken that these regulations do not undermine SMEs access to trade finance, especially in poor countries. Denial of access to trade finance has implications not just for SMEs’ ability to engage in international trade, but to expand and to contribute to job creation and economic activity, with wider economic and sustainable development implications.

In regards to improving access to trade finance, the WTO Report made 6 recommendations, namely reducing the limitations in existing multilateral programmes and increase programme size where possible, set a realistic objective for total trade coverage, increasing capacity building support, maintaining an open dialogue with trade finance regulators, improving the capacity of the international community to read markets and predict problems.

Indeed, there is a role for closer WTO engagement with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global standard-setter for AML/CFT rules, in dealing with the trade finance/AML intersection. Director General of the WTO, Roberto Azevedo, reiterated these sentiments in his speech at a meeting of the WTO’s Working Group on Trade, Debt and Finance where he opined that “greater cooperation between organisations could again lead to better market intelligence, which would enable us to be more responsive to problems as they emerge”.

According to the informal report published by the WTO Secretariat of the Expert Group on Trade Finance’s Meeting in April, 2016, a proposal was also discussed by the Expert Group in regards to tentatively increasing the amount of trade covered by existing trade finance facilitation programmes operated by multilateral development banks from the current $30 billion to $50 billion, as well as discussions on the need for improved capacity-building in trade finance in developing countries.

Besides this, official data on trade finance is lacking, and especially so in the Caribbean. As was noted by the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) in a 2014 report, there is no single or comprehensive source of statistics from which one can estimate the size or composition of trade finance markets. Further research needs to be done on financing challenges experienced by SMEs seeking to participate in international trade and on the impact that de-risking is having on trade finance. Such research will be critical in identifying the scope of the problem and in crafting strategies for monitoring and mitigation.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is an international trade and development consultant. You can read more of her commentaries here or follow her on Twitter @Licylaw.


The Caribbean Trade Law and Development Blog is owned and was founded by Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc. (Hons), M.Sc. (Dist.), LL.B. (Hons), a Caribbean-based trade and development consultant. She writes and presents regularly on trade and development matters affecting the Caribbean and other small states. You can follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw. All views expressed on this Blog are Alicia's personal views and do NOT necessarily reflect the views of any institution or entity with which she may from time to time be affiliated.

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