RBS Chairman sees challenges for SWIFT

At the closing plenary, Sir George Mathewson addresses the question of SWIFT transformation and looks to its future.

As the curtain draws on Sibos 2005 in Copenhagen, many of the delegates, exhibitors and most notably, SWIFT executives, were asking whether the theme of transformation lived up to its headline billing.

The short answer to this was yes, but for all involved, talk then inevitably turned to the ongoing spirit of transformation and SWIFT's continual role in this challenging evolution.

At the closing plenary in Copenhagen, these were questions posed by one of the event's key note speakers, Sir George Mathewson, chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland Group (RBS), the UK's second largest banking group by market capitalization.

The plenary was one of the event's best attended sessions. Mathewson pondered SWIFT's evolution and although he applauded the community-backed corporation, he outlined a number of challenges ahead. The challenges presented by standards, regulation and technology would ensure that the road ahead for SWIFT was not going to be easy.

"One of the key challenges for SWIFT is how it responds to external transformations," said Mathewson. "SWIFTNet migration must be considered a success but its evolution has still not been up to pace and it will face strategic challenges going forward."

Mathewson pointed to potential problems with the Single Euro Payment Area (SEPA), corporate access, relationships with card services and processes, financial supply management and corporate strategies.

On the implementation of SEPA in Europe, Mathewson stressed that the cross-border payments idea was lacking practicality and that SWIFT needed to have a bigger role in its implementation. He described the large payment undertaking in the Eurozone as a real opportunity for SWIFT to be involved further and influence its outcome.

Mathewson also indicated that SWIFT could do more to ensure corporate access to the network, stressing that the group "required a bigger and more radical solution" for this sector. Failure to do so, in his opinion, could present SWIFT with the danger of customers trying to work around it.

However, it was Mathewson's comments on SWIFT's corporate strategy that pricked the most ears. He said there was no guarantee that good times would continue, and painted a worst case scenario in which messaging traffic would begin to decline. Mathewson said such a scenario would lead to "a vicious circle" and it was time for SWIFT to exploit its strategy and understand the value in strategic options.

Aside from directing a few questions regarding imminent challenges, the RBS chairman was generally very complimentary of SWIFT. "SWIFT is a critical component of global financial infrastructure and it has the opportunity to expand into new and adjacent markets," stressed Mathewson. "Overall, it has effectively adapted to change and maintained its status as a service that is quick to exploit its strategies."

Mathewson's words pertaining to the theme of transformation were echoed by Finn Otto Hansen, general manager of strategy-risk management at DnB NOR Bank ASA and member of the SWIFT board of directors. "Our industry deals with change and evolution all the time but not as quickly and efficiently as we are able," he told the closing plenary.

"We all share a common vision whether this is coming from the financial services industry, vendors, regulators and customers. Transformation is a frightening word but we all know what we have to do and the time is now."

Judging by the talk of delegates filling out of the Bella Centre and video clips shown at the conference's conclusion, everyone appeared to be in complete agreement.