How secure is Cash Against Documents really?

In international trade one of the most established ways used to procure supplies from far-away places is by settlement of cash against documents (CAD). What this means is that importers only pay when presented with the documents that give them ownership of the goods in transit. CAD is a much cheaper way to settle in international trade compared to the use of LoCs – and also much simpler, as banks can make the issue of an LoC a cumbersome process (see earlier case studies, but just to recap: the key differences between CAD and LoCs are that with Letters of Credit, the process is initiated by the importer, whereas exporters initiate the process when it comes to CAD. When LoCs are used, banks are much more involved in the process, as they are responsible for checking the conditions before importers make any payment, rather than merely holding cash for payment. This makes CAD more affordable for both parties than LoCs. The bank has less to do, takes less risk and hence demands lower fees). However, if we look at security, how secure is CAD really?

The CAD is really a compromise, the documents are usually offered at a late stage in the transaction, meaning following transport when the goods are offered to the buyer for settlement. There is hence no guarantee that the importer will actually pay. If the importer refuses to pay, the transaction has to be reversed and the exporter will have to pay for the costs. If it concerns an item that was specifically manufactured for the buyer, the exporter will lose money on both the extra transportation costs for repatriation and the fact the goods cannot easily be (re)sold to a third party.

Having established these ‘holes’ in the security CAD is still promoted as a method to protect the seller when he does not have a history with the buyer, the order is very large, or the buyer’s credit standing is poor. A way of settling transactions in international trade that is not or hardly ever used, and could offer an alternative is escrow. This is probably because escrow is mostly associated with old-fashioned, manually driven, processes. Escrow is a settlement method whereby the seller pays cash in advance, like in the picture above, but not to the seller. Instead, he pays to an independent third party, the escrow agent. Upon arrival of the goods, the Escrow agent is served with a notice that the goods have arrived at the agreed place of destination. Only then the monies are released to the seller. The escrow settlement method allows for the inclusion of milestones. For example,the parties can agree that a quality check is built into the process. A confirmation of safe arrival must in that case be accompanied with a report confirming the quality of the goods as agreed (a ‘milestone’). If confirmed, settlement will take place.

A completely digitalised and user friendly escrow process, whereby parties can agree everything on-line from behind their desks, thus avoids the administrative burden of an LoC, whilst giving more security than CAD settlement. This more secure, easier and better alternative for CAD can be found at www.mercuriontrade.com . If you recognise the situation as described in this briefing note, why not check it out today?

Secure & Agile Procurement

Taking a flyer on a supplier

Most manufacturers and whole-sale distributors are dependent on a regular flow of goods through import, often from far away. For this type of ‘flow’ traditional security documents, if at all appropriate, are often a bureaucracy that can slow things down. What are the alternatives? It would help the business dependent on a regular and steady flow of raw material (in terms of frequency and volume) to be able to quickly change suppliers if one of its established relationships fails to deliver – potentially due to events beyond the control of this supplier (covid being a prominent recent example). When suddenly having to deal with an alternative supplier relatively unknown to the buyer, he would benefit from a flexible security arrangement that can be set-up quickly, to mitigate any lack of comfort that a longstanding relationship brings.

Supply chain problems

Having looked into the aftermath of the covid crisis a few issues have come to the forth: as officials in China locked down large parts of the country manufacturing came to an instant hold (mostly still on hold at present as 80% of staff seem to be infected with the virus in some areas). Recovery is uncertain as many manufacturing hubs are still without enough staff today. Businesses have hence become more and more sceptical about their reliance on Chinese manufacturing. As supply chains are integrated and currently very much reliant on manufacturing facilities in China, there does not seem to be a quick way out. However, some businesses have taken the risk to try out new manufacturing hubs previously seen as unknown entities in places such as Vietnam, India and Indonesia. In particular the latter has been pushing Western businesses hard to start producing there. In November 2022 over 20,000 Tier 1 suppliers to US businesses were still shut down; overall, including Tier 2 & 3, the number stood at approximately 250,000. If production processes are put on ice due a lack of supply companies cannot possibly fulfil customers’ expectations.

Agile Procurement

As a result of this experience more and more businesses are thinking about being more agile, less integrated. One important issue here is trust. Suppliers that have become part of a supply-chain that was established long were deemed reliable partners (notwithstanding the impossibility to deliver). Suddenly changing tack into the unknown requires taking risks. The question is how businesses can create a set-up that mitigates these risks. The biggest risk is the payment risk. If a manufacturer far away claims he can deliver to the specs required, he may have ‘bitten off more than he can chew’. This is not rare. It happens very often, as in times of stress competitors abroad will oversell themselves to pick up new business. In these situations there is often a stampede to the alternative suppliers, perceived to be able to get the flow going again. Decisions have to make very quickly, which frequently compromises the security aspect.

The traditional way of creating security in trade is by means of a Letter of Credit (LoC). However, when the buyer is asked to make upfront payments (being put under pressure in competitive situations), the main risk is not one of ‘non-payment’ by the buyer, typically mitigated by the LoC, but one of ‘non delivery’ by the seller.

So, apart from the fact that banks are usually not willing to shift to different counterparties within 48hrs or so (the required window that it sometimes takes) LoCs are not really meant for this purpose, either.

So, what are the alternatives? What can be implemented in real time and will offer the protection during these times of procurement stress?

Flexible Security

It should be some kind of mechanism that would allow for settlement when it is as clear as can be that both parties will have delivered on what they agreed on. So, how could this delayed or conditional settlement be effected and how could this be done safely and efficiently? The mechanism described here is called ‘Escrow’.

Escrow means that payment only takes place against delivery and that an independent party controlling the money flow will check whether this has been the case (by looking at the terms and conditions of the agreement). Are there ways of setting up an Escrow agreement quickly? Yes there are. There is a platform run by Mercurion that allows the input of the trade agreement on-line.

Once the terms are finalised between parties, which is done through the platform, there is a record of what needs to be done and the buyer can pay the purchase price to the Escrow agent. The latter being the independent party that will test whether both buyer and seller will have fulfilled the conditions in the agreement.

The Mercurion platform uses the Baltic Exchange as the Escrow Agent. Being an over 300 year old London based institution owned by Singapore Exchange, one of Asia’s premier institutions when it comes to the settlement of financial assets (Aa2 rated), financial security should not be an issue. A digital Escrow arrangement backed by the strength of a strong Escrow agent provides the required security, is accessible instantly and can be set-up in a very short time-span; ideal when changing tag is required in times of supply uncertainty!

Confusing Legal Jargon

Different types of documents explained

The moment one’s valuable cargo is loaded on a ship, the carrier (often via an agent) will usually provide a set of documents that are necessary to claim the goods once they have arrived in the port of destination (effectively being put into storage in a warehouse).

Typically three bills are issued—one for the shipper, one for the consignee, and one for the banker, broker, or third party assisting in the delivery. There is no restriction on the number of bills of lading that can be issued, but the number of bills issued must be stated on the bill itself. Because the bill of lading is a document of title, it evidences and confers ownership.

In practice different sets of documents are issued each having their own specific characteristics. This briefing note will explain the fundamental differences between the three main types of documents used in trade: the Bill of Lading, the Sea Waybill and the more recently introduced E-Bill (of Lading).

The Bill of Lading

There are many different versions of the ‘Bill of Lading’, but since a Bill of Lading is a document of title it means that however turns up with this document is deemed to be the owner of the goods. The Warehouse will hence release the goods to this person. One of the main disadvantages of this document is that it can be lost by a courier or other postal service. The problem then becomes two-fold: if someone else finds the bill he can then (fraudulently) present himself as the owner of the goods, or the cargo simply cannot be released, thereby incurring extra warehouse costs and a lot of frustration.

The Sea Waybill

A Sea Waybill is used when the shipper decides to release ownership of the cargo immediately. This means that the goods can be delivered to the person mentioned in the document, and they will only have to identify themselves instead of presenting a document to prove ownership. Through the Sea Waybill the ownership has effectively already been transferred to the person (or company) named in the document.

It is important to mention that a Sea Waybill is only documentary evidence of ownership and is not a document of title; it hence does not confer ownership to the goods (another word for this is a ‘non-negotiable’ bill). In case one wants to have the flexibility to trade the goods during transport, it is probably better to use a Bill of Lading as it will be difficult, if not impossible to transfer ownership without a document of title.

From a security perspective a Sea Waybill is a better alternative when used in combination with an escrow service as the title to the goods cannot be lost in the post and end up in the hands of an unscrupulous third party. By using a Sea Waybill, the Mercurion platform offers the possibility to settle a transaction safely without running the risk of a document of title (and hence the ownership) getting lost. The way this is done is by using a proof of delivery document at the port of destination. The seller and the escrow agent then know that the goods have arrived and are ready for collection. An important consideration is that the goods will not be tradable during transport.

E Bill of Lading

The E Bill of Lading (offered for example by WAVE BL) replaces the physical Bill of Lading and is hence also a document of title. With the help of block-chain technology the ownership can then be transferred safely to the buyer without running the risk of lost documentation. To settle the transaction one will still need a proof of delivery document to prove to the buyer that the goods have arrived and the money can be released to the seller.

Not a trace – our Bill of Lading got lost

Many companies, indirectly involved in the shipping of goods, underestimate the risk of loss of the ‘Original Bill of Lading’ which forms an integral part of the Letter of Credit process. 

The Bill of Lading is a set of physical documents that have to be transported across the globe, usually by courier, to the place of delivery in order to get the goods in transit released. 

As it happens, they sometimes get lost. These documents are essential as they are documents of title, meaning that whoever owns the bill is entitled to delivery of the goods. This also means that losing this document has major repercussions, which one of our customers experienced recently when they tried to get a cargo, containing chemicals, in Africa delivered. 

The loss of the Original Bill of Lading required them to get a letter of indemnity (LoI) and a bank guarantee, both involving cumbersome processes. The result of the fact that the shipper refused to take any risk in terms of his liability in case of a potential claim of non-delivery, which could occur if he were to have delivered the cargo to the wrong party.

The LoI had to formally discharge him of any responsibility in this regard. The guarantee would then cover a potential subsequent refusal of the rightful consignee to pay, not having received the goods. To get these documents we had to produce a lot of supporting documentation, such as, a written statement of loss, the packing list, the commercial invoice, and a copy of the LC (its validity being conditional on the existence of an OBL). Lastly they needed to put in a formal request to have the goods released without OBL as the issuance of a new OBL would have taken even longer; more work for the lawyers, more costs.

Having gone through all of this, incurring significant costs and ending up with some very unhappy customers they wondered if there wasn’t a better way to manage this risk or even to avoid it altogether. We introduced then to Mercurion Trade Services, a company offering a platform through which transactions can be safely settled without the need for an OBL, and at the same time offering an alternative for an LC.

The process is simple, safe and much more efficient. It’s based on an Escrow process: buyer pays in Escrow and only when the confirmation of delivery at the agreed place of destination has been uploaded onto the platform, funds will be released. All through an entirely digital interface in real time. They are glad to have found this new way of doing business; less bureaucracy feels so much better! 

Let’s open the Floodgate again

If security is required we simply decline the business!

Having had experience with the LoC process in a number of different contexts, our customer has had a disproportional number of problems with these documents. In particular, considering the small volume of business they conducted with counterparties requiring LoCs.

The problem was that as soon as something changes that is not foreseen in the schedule the existence of the LoC leads to delays in settling the transaction. In some occasions entangling a transaction that was put on hold due to discrepancies in the documentation, (small) delays, or procedural issues raised by one of the banks involved, required too much time and effort and on average made these transactions unprofitable. 

Having had this experience management decided to decline all business where clients asked for LoCs, or where they felt they needed security. This involved keeping their customer-base tight and only trade with our longstanding relationships or through solid referrals.

So, the question we needed to solve is how to speed the expansion of our client universe without having to set up a larger infrastructure to deal with LoCs.

We introduced them to ‘Mercurion Trade Services’, who offered an alternative based on the principle behind an exchange: ‘settlement against delivery’. Effectively an escrow service conducted through a user-friendly cloud-based platform; easily accessible for everyone, globally. Any monies to settle a transaction prior to delivery are held by Baltic Exchange, an institution involved in the business of trade for over 300 years with offices around the world. Being part of Singapore Exchange their security is very solid. The group has a first class record in providing security and settling transactions.

Having discovered Mercurion they were able to open the ‘flood gates’ a bit more and placate our sales force. All in all the implementation of Mercurion’s offering solved some organisational behaviour problems in tandem with our more straight-forward objective to increase profitability. A risk management tool without the complications of the LoC, which is embedded in a state of the art platform providing a very clear and user-friendly interface, really is a no-brainer!   

The benefits of a digitalised escrow service

A digitalised Escrow service is easier to access, reducing cost by eliminating needless bureaucracy typically involved with traditional trade security products offered by banks, such as Letters of Credit. The result is a service that can efficiently cater for smaller as well as larger consignments, shipped by ocean container, air or truck.

The extent of the bureaucracy involved in traditional banking products is such that it can discourage parties from completing the required processes, or even sway them to decline potential business altogether. Additional complications can arise when attempting to mitigate financial weakness of an issuing bank, leaving aside the conditionality contained in the document itself potentially making it unenforceable. The Escrow service is hence simpler and safer:

  • A transparent fee structure, competitive pricing and a less operationally cumbersome alternative to the traditional trade security services as provided by banks.
  • Safeguarding the interests of both buyer and seller, as funds are only released to the seller and the goods transferred to the buyer when both parties have performed under the Escrow Agreement in accordance with the Trade Agreement.
  • A straightforward and efficient KYC on-boarding process finalised promptly.
  • On-boarding less administratively intensive in respect of repeat transactions as the KYC data-set is securely held on the platform. Subject to the KYC data-set remaining the same.
  • Faster and less cumbersome settlement of transactions will bring about quicker receipt of funds leading to an increase of available working capital for buyer as well as seller.
  • Due to the digitalised nature of the process, there is no longer the risk of loss of physical documentation and the potential for fraud is greatly reduced.
  • The lack of the contractual conditionality compared to traditional bank security documentation, such as letters of credit, will enhance the flow of the process, avoiding delays and additional costs.
  • A fully transparent and auditable process comprising the activities of all parties involved.
  • 24/7 access to a secure cloud-based platform  
  • Dashboard functionality, document uploads and (optional) notifications
  • We invite you to have a look at www.mercuriontrade.com