Tom explores the history, purpose, benefits, and potential competitors to the SWIFT financial messaging system.
Featuring Tom Merritt.
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I heard about this SWIFT network for banks
So that’s how banks talk to each other. Why is such a big deal?
And what does that have to do with cryptocurrency?
Let’s help you Know A Little More About SWIFT.
SWIFT stands for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. It is a cooperative based in Belgium that is co-owned by 2,000 institutions. More than 11,000 financial institutions participate in it.
It was founded in 1973 and the first message was sent on its network in 1977.
Before SWIFT when one bank wanted to make a transaction with another bank a written message was sent by Telex. There was not a clear standard for such messages and they could be open to misinterpretation. Also Telex was not really secure. Pretty open.
So First National City Bank of New York created a protocol that it hoped would become the standard but several competing banks did not want FNCB to have that much influence over global finance. So 239 banks in 15 countries got together to create SWIFT in order to create a standard for the creation and transmission of financial messages.
Over time SWIFT has grown from just payments and transfers to accommodate securities, currency exchanges, derivatives, compliance reporting, anti money laundering and almost all types of financial services. 45% of SWIFT is still used for payment-based messages and 49% for securities the other 6% is everything else.
It’s important to understand that SWIFT is simply messaging, not settlement. Settlement is the actual moving of the money or the security from one holder to another. Messaging is the agreement of what’s going where.
SWIFT is three main things.
A standard for financial messages that avoids confusion.
A secure network for transmitting those messages.
And software and services for using that network to send and receive messages.
So how does it work in practice. And apologies to financial professionals for the inevitable oversimplification that I’m about to engage in.
Let’s say I live in Toronto and I want to send $5,000 to a company in Seoul. I get the account number of the person in Seoul and I tell my bank that I want to send money to that account number at Seoul City Bank.
Bank of Toronto uses the SWIFT code of Seoul City Bank and sends a message there saying that my account number at the SWIFT code of Bank of Toronto wants to send $5,000 to the account number at the SWIFT code of Seoul City Bank.
Seoul City Bank then takes that information and does all the bank things you need to do to credit that money to their account. Clearing, settlement what have you. (Again apologies for the oversimplification here) Again, SWIFT is just the way the banks agree to communicate about these transactions. The actual moving of the money happens separately. But it doesn’t happen without the message.
If you’re like me you’re probably curious about those SWIFT codes. They’re kind of like Airport codes.
The first four characters are the institution, like the bank. The next two are the country code. The next two are the location, usually a city. And the last three are optionally used to designate an individual branch.
So for example, the SWIFT code for the Citibank branch at Canary Wharf in London is
OK so SWIFT runs a network to help banks talk to each other about moving money and stuff around. Great. Who profits? It’s banking after all. Right? Who’s the big fat moneybags in the top hat and how do they get their cut?
Well, SWIFT is what’s called a cooperative society. So it’s co-owned by its members and its purpose is to maintain the service not turn a profit for shareholders. In practice it’s managed by the National Bank of Belgium in partnership with major central banks like the Bank of England and US Federal Reserve.
SWIFT makes its money by charging members annually and also a per message charge based on type and length. It also sells business intelligence services based on analysis of its data.
So what happens if a bank is not part of SWIFT? Is it illegal to not use SWIFT?
SWIFT is entirely voluntary but it’s so widespread it’s difficult, slow and more expensive not to use it. So the banks that don’t use it, usually are prevented from doing so by some political measure or other. Usually sanctions as has happened to Iranian and Russian banks among others.
But why do they need SWIFT? Can’t they just wire each other money? Again oversimplification coming but here’s kind of why.
To make any transaction, two banks need to talk to each other. And they have to have an agreed on method of talking. That agreed on method is almost always SWIFT. If one bank just decided that it didn’t want to use SWIFT to talk, the other bank can and does decline to make transactions with the non-SWIFT bank.
There are of course ways around that. Find a third bank that does use SWIFT but will also agree to message in another way to broker the transaction. In that scenario, the Non-SWIFT bank sends the info to the SWIFT bank through another means, and then that 3rd bank sends a message to the SWIFT-only bank to complete the transactions. The charges for such transfers will be quite a bit higher and the transaction will take quite a lot longer than if everybody was using SWIFT.
There are alternative systems to using SWIFT. These are being developed by countries who do not want to depend on SWIFT which is heavily influenced by European and US banks.
China has the Cross-border Interbank Payments System or CIPS. India operates the Structured Financial Messaging System or SFMS. And Russia operates the SPFS which in Russian translates to System for Transfer of Financial Messages. China’s and Indias are small but operate internationally. Russia’s operates almost entirely within Russia.
Banks can also use settlement systems like Fedwire and the Clearing House Interbank Payments System or CHIPS but they are not as widely used for messaging as SWIFT.
However, blockchain-based systems are being tested as a way to simplify even more than SWIFT has. There are multiple regional tests that use a Central Bank Digital Currency for cross-border transactions. And Ripple has operated since 2012 as an attempt to replace SWIFT with a blockchain-based system. It claims near instant and low-cost transactions as its advantage.
The main advantage of a system like Ripple would be efficiency and low cost.
SWIFT’s benefit when it was launched was simplicity and well, swiftness. But as time goes on SWIFT has been criticized for not moving with the times… swiftly… enough. The rise in automated transactions has raised costs and slowed the system
SWIFT launched an upgraded system in 2018 called Global Payments Innovation which sped things up significantly. Swift claimed the hundreds of banks using GPI saw payments completing within 30 minutes.
For now, SWIFT is still the dominant way financial institutions communicate transactions. And if a bank can’t use SWIFT it’s going to slow it down and cost it more.
That’s a fast explanation of SWIFT.
In other words, I hope you know a little more, about SWIFT.