Treasury and supply chain disruption caused by external factors is nothing new, but recent developments may be making it the new normal. Therefore, the ability to switch technology and supply chains to new locations/suppliers with the minimum of upheaval is becoming a business imperative. This applies not just to the physical supply chain but also the financial one that underpins it, which presents corporate treasuries with significant additional challenges. Fortunately, as Lance Kawaguchi, Managing Director and Global Head – Corporates, Global Liquidity and Cash Management and Vinay Mendonca, Managing Director and Global Head of Products, Propositions, Structured Trade Solutions, Global Trade and Receivables Finance at HSBC explain, these are not insuperable.

    While the global trade environment may never have been entirely static, there have been periods of relative stability where corporates were not regularly confronted with the need to make pro-active assessment of their supply chains. Now does not appear to be one of those periods. For instance, although geopolitical upheaval has long had a bearing on trade, coupling this with emergent factors like climate change, sustainability and technology creates the need for heighted preparedness for Corporates. Either in isolation or conjunction, these all have the potential to force changes to corporate supply chains.

    Within the past decade climate change has begun to affect various major manufacturers' supply chains in sectors such as automotive and technology1,2 among others. If anything, this situation is likely to become more acute, given the complexity of supply chains and the number that have extensive exposure to tropical climates, which are proving more prone to climate change influenced weather extremes than the temperate West3. Ultimately, corporates may find they have to shift parts of their supply chains away from locations at risk of extreme weather events resulting from climate change.

    Sustainability and ethics are also driving disruption, particularly as consumers become more aware and switch their buying away from companies they perceive as having sustainability/ethics issues in their supply chains. More generally, sustainability/ethics issues can inflict long term reputational damage. The flip side to this is that a sustainable supply chain can enhance brand value, while at the same reduce costs in the long term (despite upfront expenses)4. As a result, a growing number of corporates may find themselves effectively forced to make (possibly wide ranging) supply chain changes because of sustainability/ethics concerns.

    While the disruptors outlined above are largely negative, technology is slightly different in that the main negative point is if the opportunities it presents are ignored. Otherwise, it is its positive potential that will create disruption, with technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics (both individually and in combination) offering considerable potential for reducing costs in supply chains as well as making treasury more efficient, digital and real-time. Nevertheless, in order to benefit from these advances, corporates may have to make changes to their supply chains and adopting new technologies for treasury.

    In addition to their impact at a corporate level, all these factors can have major ramifications for corporate treasuries. Changes or disruption to the physical supply chains will have a knock on effect on the financial supply chain for which treasury bears core responsibility. If a factory has to be relocated, then so may many of the constituents of the supply chain leading to that factory. Therefore, not only will treasury need to fund the new factory, it will also have to handle a raft of other associated changes, such as supplier and supplier financing.

    Visibility

    Corporate supply chains are very similar to corporate cash: what you cannot see, you cannot manage. Therefore, managing supply chains effectively in the light of the challenges outlined above will often require the corporation to improve the transparency and visibility of its supply chain. For example, in the context of sustainability and ethics, how certain can you be that the SME supplier five steps removed from you in your supply chain is not acting in a way that could severely damage your brand and reputation? On the flip side, can improved visibility be used to improve potential and existing customers' perception of the corporation to the point where they buy more or are prepared to pay a transparency premium for its products/services?

    Two technologies that can assist in achieving this are distributed ledger technology (DLT) and application programming interfaces (APIs). DLT has attracted considerable hype in recent years, but there are now some organisations putting it to practical use. For example HSBC executed the first commercial trade-finance transaction with Cargill using DLT with the shipment of soybeans from Argentina to Malaysia5. APIs have transformed the ease with which data can be shared among disparate systems that hitherto were largely discrete and did not communicate readily with others. In combination, DLT and APIs can deliver the necessary supply chain transparency that will enable the corporation not just to manage supply chain risks in real time, but also to understand all the flows and thereby also any points of inefficiency or friction, which can then be addressed. This would be an important step forward, because while a growing number of corporations have improved visibility of their own cash globally, the same cannot as yet be said of their supply chains.

    In the case of DLT, an additional potential benefit is improved supply chain flexibility. A number of organisations, such as the IEEE Standards Association6 and SWIFT7, now define common standards for DLT, which will facilitate wider industry adoption. This in turn means that should a supply chain require reconfiguring, it will be more likely that new participants will already be using DLT, thus helping to minimise the transparency impact of supply chain changes.

    Today’s reality is that treasury and a corporate’s supply chain disruption is becoming persistent

    Resilience

    Assuming the desired level of supply chain visibility, it becomes potentially considerably easier to improve supply chain resilience as well. However, an important preliminary step is ensuring the corporation's own working capital resilience. How well might it hold up to any geopolitical, climate change or sustainability/ethics impacts? How might that affect partners in the supply chain and how might they respond? This is an area where a suitable banking partner can add value by offering insight, not just in terms of industry best practice and performance, but also on entities within the corporation. Global analysis by such a bank may reveal certain businesses within the corporation that are outperforming their peers in working capital terms and from which lessons for more widespread improvement might be learned.

    Another internal aspect of the corporation that can also help drive better supply chain resilience is closer collaboration between those responsible for the physical and financial supply chains. At HSBC we have noticed that it is increasingly common for treasurers to also include those directly involved in procurement and the day to day operation of the supply chain in discussions with the bank. This give all parties a more holistic insight into the exact workings of each supply chain and its participants, plus any specific risk and/or friction points.

    The importance of this collaboration should not be underestimated. For example, a particular supplier might in terms of financial scale appear to treasury to be a relatively unimportant part of the financial supply chain. However, in the physical supply chain that same supplier might be critical. Armed with this understanding, treasury might in partnership with the bank be able to offer targeted supply chain financing to that supplier in order to improve its financial strength (and thus could reduce the risk of its financial failure and consequent supply chain disruption).

    More generally, this approach facilitates treasury's ability to push working capital (such by supplier financing) to the points in the corporate supply chain where it is most needed. Apart from the extreme of helping to prevent supplier failure, this more precise targeting of working capital can provide other benefits, such as increased supplier loyalty that may be reflected in supply priority or sharing innovation gains.

    In some circumstances, a combination of this understanding and supply chain transparency can be used to influence supplier behaviour in relation to some of the risks outlined earlier. For instance, HSBC has recently been involved in the creation of a supply chain financing scheme on behalf of a major retailer, whereby suppliers can earn attractive financing rate if they help towards the retailer’s sustainability initiatives like reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

    Speed

    As a result of some of the technological and payment system changes currently underway, a transparent and resilient supply chain can also be a faster one. For example, several countries have now moved into Real Time payment systems which impacts the speed of both collection and payments in the supply chain. New collection methods are also now available such as via QR Codes, Messaging Apps, e-wallets and a variety of channels which increases complexity for Treasury to manage the financial flow of funds, reconciliation and overall management of suppliers and customers. This applies to both the financial and physical aspects of the chain. One example of this is that if the partner bank is able to obtain complete transparency on a corporation's suppliers, it also has more timely access to suppliers' financial and commercial performance. This is relevant because the bank is thereby no longer purely reliant on historical financial data (which may be considerably out of date) when assessing a supplier's creditworthiness. The data it obtains will also typically be more granular and informative than conventional financial data. This may mean the bank is able to lend earlier in the supply chain to key suppliers, enabling them to increase output or to invest in development.

    A related opportunity in a transparent supply chain is the possibility of using purchase orders (POs) as the basis for financing shipments. Essentially, the combination of a PO and timely supplier performance data become the new collateral. This also works well in conjunction with the emergence of instant payment systems, where cleared payments arrive in seconds rather than days. The working capital cycle of the entire supply chain can be compressed because real time data on the delivery of goods/services can be matched with real time payment for those same goods/services. Therefore, all participants in the supply chain can potentially benefit from lower working capital requirements as a result of this acceleration.

    Physical foundations

    Given that technology plays such a significant role in enhancing the supply chain, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing it is a universal solution for supply chain challenges, when in practice this is not the case. For instance, if a corporate suddenly needs to switch production to another country, technology alone will not facilitate this. In this sort of situation, the immediate need is for accurate information on matters such as local business practice, regulation and payment systems, in order to facilitate a smooth deployment. A key part of that deployment will then be setting up all the systems needed to pay/finance suppliers in the most efficient manner possible.

    Choice of technology may play an important role in this, but in practice choice of bank can be far more critical. A global bank with an extensive physical network will have the resources on the ground to provide the sort of hard information (and introductions) that can appreciably de-risk a major change in a supply chain. It will also be capable of the sort of consultative relationship that will ensure any suggestions it makes on matters such as possible changes in bank account structure are specific rather than generic. That bank will allow the corporate to facilitate global payment methods with improved visibility of cash and a global approach to quickly setting up the necessary accounts. The same degree of support should also be applicable to its ability to setup payment/financing of new suppliers swiftly.

    A key distinction here is that while some banks may be global, very few of these will bank all sizes of customer (from large corporate to SME) globally. Any global bank that does bank the full spectrum of client size can be especially useful when relocating some/all of a supply chain. Not only may it already be banking some potential new suppliers that it can introduce, but it may also be able to on-board those suppliers more rapidly, as it will already have conducted know your customer due diligence on them.

    While it is not technology alone that will safely facilitate a major supply chain change, the interaction across the corporate, the bank and technology will definitely play an important role in this. Any necessary changes or additions to corporate ERP or treasury management systems, will be more quickly and reliably made if the bank is able to offer local language expertise for these technologies.

    Conclusion

    Today's reality is that treasury and a corporate’s supply chain disruption is becoming persistent. Geopolitical factors are on the rise which, in conjunction with more recent additional considerations such as climate change and sustainability, makes it essential that treasury is prepared for this eventuality. However, while disruption-proofing treasury and the financial supply chain in support of the physical one is not trivial, it is by no means impossible. A combination of preparation, internal co-operation and the assistance of a suitable banking partner can not only accomplish this, but may also ultimately provide a competitive edge by enabling the corporation to respond rapidly to opportunity as well as necessity.

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