Who Will Be the Bankers for B2B?

Some big banks are forming alliances with B2B technology providers as they try to sell financial products to E-marketplace members.
Joseph RadiganApril 17, 2001

CFOs and other financial executives at firms that participate in E- marketplace supply chains might find themselves dealing far less with familiar bank officers.

More and more, they might find themselves doing business with brokers and intermediaries who operate solely in cyberspace.

Those observations are part of an upcoming report from AMR Research, a Boston-based technology market researcher. According to Randi Purchia, AMR’s research director for financial services, a host of banks are already forming alliances with technology providers as they position themselves to be lenders of choice for B2B supply chains.

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“Some of the really large commercial banks are determined to figure out what they need to do to integrate their services with logistics and supply chain systems,” she says. “There’s a recognition that there’s an opportunity here that they could miss if they don’t come forward with an understanding of the very critical needs of the particular industries.”

Purchia says banks fear that they could find themselves cut off from some profitable businesses if they don’t act quickly enough. Essentially, some small technology providers that already supply electronic bank drafts and other bank-like products could act as clearing agents and warehouse bank services from a wide array of lenders. Corporate borrowers can then pick and choose loans and bank services with the lowest price or best terms, while banks are largely stuck in the background selling little more than commodity, low-margin corporate loans.

“It’s a matter of customer relationships,” Purchia says. “Who does the corporate CFO think of as the provider of this service?”

In the current world of corporate lending, letters of credit and trade finance are low-margin services that banks sell as loss leaders so that they can lock in business clients with more profitable products such as managing receivables and payables, loan syndication, and asset-based lending.

A host of major banks, including but hardly limited to, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Fleet Financial, Wells Fargo, and UBS PaineWebber, are in the early stages of forming alliances with software companies and service providers in the business-to-business field, according to the AMR report.

But Purchia stresses that these developments are still at an early stage, and there are few instances where alliances have already locked in their member banks and software firms.

“A lot of this is still on the whiteboard,” she says. “There’s not a critical mass yet.”

But some steps are already in motion. Ariba has teamed up with Bank of America, FleetBoston, and PNC Bank to create customer-focused supply chains. In another instance, ABN Amro is using technology from Aucxis, a Toronto-based provider of E-marketplace systems for a Dutch food exchange. Finally, Citigroup and SAP are funding Orbian, a provider of online trade credit.

The report also cites other relatively small firms, including eCredible and Actrade that “bring their own sets of credit, insurance, and payment guarantee products that have the potential to take over pieces of trade finance.” Already, some of these services can offer borrowers in a supply chain access to credit at a price that may not be available from a commercial bank.

Purchia says the largest corporate participants in supply chains will typically have their own credit facilities available. The battle that is shaping up is for the second-tier and middle-market suppliers, companies that are often less creditworthy than the manufacturers at the end of the supply chain, but who often must pay higher interest rates for their access to credit.

As the manufacturers at the end of the chains arrange their own financing, their bank drafts or commercial paper will be repackaged to fund the receivables for their suppliers. Suppliers, in turn, will use the receivables to fund their own borrowing with their lenders, and put in orders with their sub-contractors.

Payables and receivables will be packaged and repackaged throughout the supply chain, and lenders will collect a fee for facilitating the transaction. Banks fear losing these fees to the upstart providers of E- payment products, but Purchia says she expects individual banks to carve out niches in electronic supply chains serving specific industries.

But it won’t be easy. The commercial banks are not only facing off against the young tech companies. They also face competition from familiar, non-bank competitors like GE Capital and General Motors Acceptance Corp.

The banks are also dealing with legacy systems–many of which use electronic data interchange (EDI), a decades-old format that the banking industry developed in the 1970s and 1980s for moving wholesale payments. Such systems aren’t fully compatible with Web languages such as Extensible Markup Language, or XML. XML is rapidly becoming the development language of choice for B2B marketplaces.

The report says the costs of integrating existing bank systems with those from the technology providers may be prohibitive and limit the types of services banks can offer.

BroadVision, Vignette, and ThinkXML are among the B2B software providers whose products can translate an EDI file into XML, but these systems start at a cost $100,000 and can easily exceed $1 million based on the complexity of the installation.

Ultimately, Purchia does not see any one class of competitors as enjoying an advantage, and it’s far from clear if any one group will dominate the lending market for E-marketplaces.

“It’s going to be about execution,” she says. “Whoever can step up and extend their global cash management business has an opportunity.”