This could be the year of SEPA — whether treasury departments like it or not — because companies will have to accelerate efforts to make their European operations compliant with the new 32-nation single European payments area.

A recent survey reveals that many companies still have a long way to go before they have completed the systems and database upgrades necessary to work with the new SEPA payment protocols and formats. But the rules come into effect in a little more than a year: for euro area countries, the deadline is February 1, 2014. (The deadline for non-euro-area member states is October 31, 2016.)

More than half (52%) of corporate treasuries affected have not yet begun serious work on their SEPA conversion project, according to a survey by EuroFinance. (EuroFinance is owned by the Economist Group, which owns a stake in CFO.) Many of these companies have started evaluating options or putting plans, teams, and budgets in place, but their projects are not actually under way.

In fact, one in eight of that 52% say they have done absolutely nothing yet. More disturbingly, corporate treasurers that are based outside the SEPA area but that make euro payments are seriously lagging behind: more than 60% have not started planning or evaluating options.

A total of 273 finance and treasury professionals responded to the survey, which was sent out on November 27.

The SEPA rules standardize the protocols and data formats for payments (called SEPA credit transfers) and for collections (SEPA direct debits). The debits allow organizations to make repeated, authorized withdrawals from, say, a customer’s account. Corporates need to change their own systems to match those of banks.

But almost a third of SEPA-based treasurers say they do not yet know exactly how to achieve compliance. There is conflicting advice from banks about how to interpret some of the rules and uncertainty as to how long existing payment formats will co-exist with new SEPA formats. There is also confusion about extensible markup language (XML) implementation.

Perhaps as a result, almost 60% of treasury departments say they will be satisfied just achieving basic compliance — meaning no payment instructions are rejected. Only a little more than a quarter indicate they are looking to derive additional efficiencies out of SEPA.

A senior finance professional of a French subsidiary of a U.S. technology company (who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity because of commercial confidentiality and compliance issues) says it is important for businesses to figure out SEPA compliance now. “As we move towards 2014, there will be some bottlenecks at the bank level and the enterprise resource planning system level,” he says. “Resources are not extensive, and if you have not planned what you will be expecting to do and when, you may find yourself blocked.”

This finance professional says that for now his company is aiming for minimum compliance. One reason: the business restructured its payment systems some years ago and effectively eliminated cross-border payments. It did that by having payments handled through local bank accounts controlled by its European treasury center. So for now there are no major gains to be had.

The company also hasn’t had time to do anything more ambitious. It’s been hampered in that respect because there was no firm deadline in place for the mandatory introduction of SEPA until February 2012, the finance executive says. It’s difficult to put forward a business case when there is no legal requirement to comply and no big commercial gain to be had, he points out.

Once SEPA is up and running, however, the technology company will take another look. “We’ll look and see how SEPA actually operates then,” the finance executive says. “Will we really be able to consider it as a single market in terms of execution of transactions? If so, then we will move to the next stage.”

Two benefits the company would want from SEPA are having to maintain fewer bank accounts and fewer banking partners. Currently the company has five cash-management banks, but that may fall to two or three within a few years. “That would be the optimum level,” the finance executive says. “We could switch banks quite easily if we wanted to and we would retain some bargaining power.”

Andrew Sawers is editor of CFO European Briefing, a CFO online publication.

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