The structure of global trade finance: Evolution from market based to bank based

Olivier Accominotti and Stefano Ugolini in this piece look at evolution of global trade finance.

Trade finance is the oldest domain of international finance. From the very beginnings of the history of international commerce, merchants and firms have been in need of working capital in order to finance their commercial transactions and have looked for methods to reduce the risks involved in long-distance trade. However, relatively little is known about how trade finance evolved over the very long run. In a recent study, we review the main developments in international trade finance from the Middle Ages to today and compare its structure and governance across time (Accominotti and Ugolini 2019). Our goal is to understand whether alternative structures existed in the past that might provide regulators with insights on how to design more resilient trade finance.

They say that earlier trade finance was mainly through bills of exchange and was more market driven. Now it is mainly driven by Letters of Credit via banking system:

The 2008 crisis has revealed how banking and liquidity problems can have far-reaching consequences on global trade. This column reconstructs the evolution of global trade finance from the Middle Ages until today. Just like in medieval times, today’s global trade is predominantly financed through banks so that banking problems automatically transmit to international trade. In contrast, from the 16th to the 20th century, trade finance was mostly market-based. The decline of market-based trade finance was triggered by major geopolitical shocks.

However, much of this market was centralised in London. Now this bank-based system is widely spread:

The long-run evolution in the structure of international trade finance has implications for its governance. In the 19th century, the global trade finance market was highly centralised and regulation was exercised by the leading political and economic power of the time – the UK. London’s monopoly over the trade finance market was criticised by potential competitors as it granted UK financial institutions a significant rent. By contrast, the more decentralised structure that prevails nowadays makes international control over the trade finance market less feasible. While this market structure clearly has advantages, it also makes exporting and importing firms more dependent on local credit conditions and pushes back the governance of the trade finance market into a sort of anarchy.

Hmm.. 

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