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  • Writer's picturePeak Frameworks Team

What is the SWIFT Banking System? (Definition, Benefits, Challenges)

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SWIFT in Finance

SWIFT
Source: Verifo

SWIFT is the international digital system that enables money to be seamlessly transferred through the world. SWIFT stands for Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications and is an integral part of global finance.

History of SWIFT

In the early 1970s, banks predominantly used telex for international communications, which was not just cumbersome but lacked standardization. To address these inefficiencies, 239 banks from 15 countries collaborated in 1973 to form SWIFT, aiming for a standardized global transaction protocol.

Consider the issue banks faced in the 1960s and 1970s with the European Union’s formation. With numerous currencies and no standardized transaction method, international financial transactions were a logistical nightmare.

How SWIFT Works

SWIFT does not transfer money per se but provides a secure messaging network where banks can send and receive money transfer orders.

SWIFT Codes

Every bank associated with SWIFT has a unique code—usually 8-11 characters long. This code helps identify banks globally. For instance, the SWIFT code for Bank of America's main office in New York is BOFAUS3N.

Transaction Process

The sender's bank sends a message to the receiver's bank with payment instructions through SWIFT. The correspondent banks then settle the payment on a bilateral basis.

For instance, If John in New York wants to send money to Emma in Paris, his bank, says JPMorgan Chase, will send a SWIFT message to Emma's bank in Paris detailing the amount, account number, and other vital details. The two banks then sort out the actual fund transfer behind the scenes.

How SWIFT works
Source: MarqueEX

Intermediary Banks

For banks that don't have a direct relationship, intermediary (or correspondent) banks act as middlemen, ensuring the transaction reaches its final destination.

What is SWIFTNet's FIN?

The banking industry uses SWIFTNet's FIN as a messaging platform to exchange financial messages. It operates on the SWIFTNet platform, offering a secure and reliable communication channel for transactions.

SWIFT FIN
Source: Business Insider India

Core Features

SWIFTNet's FIN boasts standardized structured financial messages, message storage, and end-to-end security.

Example: Large corporations might use SWIFTNet's FIN to initiate multi-million dollar trade settlements, ensuring that transaction details are both secure and standardized.

Who Uses SWIFT?

SWIFT is not exclusive to banks. Its vast network caters to:

  • Banks and Financial Institutions: For interbank transactions, international trade, and securities exchanges.

  • Corporations: Large multinational corporations utilize SWIFT for their international dealings, especially in trade finance.

  • Government Entities: Many government agencies and central banks use SWIFT for their cross-border transactions.

Example: Apple, with its vast international supply chain and numerous international transactions, would be a typical corporate user of SWIFT.

Costs When Making a SWIFT Transfer

The costs associated with SWIFT transfers can vary based on various factors, including:

  • Bank Charges: Banks usually charge fees for both sending and receiving international transfers.

  • Intermediary Bank Fees: If intermediary banks are involved, they might deduct a fee, leading to the recipient getting slightly less than the original amount sent.

  • Currency Conversion Rates: If a transfer involves currency conversion, banks might offer rates that have a margin, resulting in additional costs.

Example: A person sending $1,000 from the US to Europe might incur a $25 bank charge. If an intermediary bank is involved, another $10 might be deducted. Lastly, if currency conversion is required, the recipient might get an amount equivalent to $950 due to conversion rates and fees.

Benefits of Using SWIFT

The universal adoption of SWIFT offers several benefits:

  • Speed and Reliability: Gone are the days of waiting weeks for international transfers. With SWIFT, transactions are mostly completed within a day or two.

  • Security: SWIFT's encrypted messaging platform ensures that transaction details remain confidential. After the 2016 Bangladesh Bank heist, SWIFT ramped up its security, making it more robust.

  • Global Reach: SWIFT connects over 11,000 institutions in more than 200 countries.

Example: A business in Texas can easily make payments to its supplier in Tokyo without worrying about the complexities of international money transfers, thanks to SWIFT's vast network.

Challenges and Criticisms

However, like all systems, SWIFT has its challenges:

  • Security Concerns: Despite enhancements, some critics argue that the centralized nature of SWIFT makes it vulnerable.

  • Transaction Costs: SWIFT transfers, especially through intermediary banks, can be costly.

  • Emerging Alternatives: New technologies, like blockchain, offer decentralized transaction methods that might challenge SWIFT's dominance.

Example: Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin offer peer-to-peer transactions without intermediaries, potentially reducing costs and increasing speed.

SWIFT's Role in Compliance and Regulation

Regulatory compliance is an unavoidable aspect of finance, and SWIFT plays a crucial role here:

  1. SWIFT Compliance Program: It assists banks in adhering to international regulations.

  2. Tracking Malfeasance: Regulators have used SWIFT to trace illicit activities, highlighting its importance in global financial security.

  3. International Sanctions: US sanctions against countries like Iran have leveraged SWIFT, demonstrating its geopolitical significance.

Future of SWIFT

With evolving technologies and increasing demand for real-time transactions:

  • Technological Advancements: SWIFT is continuously innovating, with projects to integrate with blockchain and reduce transaction times.

  • Competition: New platforms might challenge SWIFT, but its established trust and vast network provide a significant competitive edge.

Example: Facebook's Libra project, although different in nature, indicates a potential future where multiple global transaction systems coexist.

Conclusion

The complex web of global finance relies heavily on systems like SWIFT. As we move towards an increasingly interconnected world, understanding these systems becomes paramount for professionals and laymen alike. Whether you're making an international transaction or considering a career in finance, knowledge of SWIFT and its workings is invaluable.

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