How is SWIFT still relevant after five decades?
Too many people in the payments industry today hold the misconception that the SWIFT network is only for cross-border payments. This was indeed the case in 1973, when 239 banks from 15 countries joined forces to create an efficient, automated, and secure payments network.
At launch, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) was built on three pillars, a secure and reliable communication protocol, a set of message standards and continuous new services aligning with its members’ needs.
A global network with a global reach
These pillars remain just as relevant 48 years later. So much more than a “cross-border payments network,” SWIFT has grown to serve more than 11,000 members in over 200 countries, providing a wide array of financial messaging services and influencing and innovating payments worldwide.
SWIFT has reimagined domestic high-value payments. Over 60 market infrastructures, covering 85 countries, rely on the SWIFT network to clear and settle domestic transactions. SWIFT FileAct, a bulk message exchange, allows correspondents to send and receive files mostly used to exchange bank statements or to exchange low-value, high-volume transactions.
SWIFT has extended the network to non-bank financial institutions, allowing the exchange of securities, foreign exchange and all other types of financial messages needed by its members. In fact, today more than 50% of messages on the SWIFT network involve securities trade transactions.
As the network expanded to cover most financial institutions worldwide, SWIFT opened its doors to large corporations such as Microsoft and GE. SWIFT became these companies’ single standardized connection to all their banks, adding efficiency and cost savings to treasuries worldwide.
Message standards and worldwide influence
From its inception, one of the key pillars of the SWIFT network is the message standard, a common language understood and processed by all its members.
The ISO 15022 standard, more commonly known as the SWIFT MT or Message Type standard, was introduced in 1995. It was similar in structure to that of the Telex technology that the network replaced. While it has evolved over the years, the MT standard remains the most used message format on the SWIFT network, and it has made its way to many domestic and private networks worldwide.
In the late 90s, SWIFT realized that the MT standard, although very useful, was restrictive in light of evolving technologies. SWIFT MT would not support the data that will be needed to be processed with each transaction. In 1999, SWIFT decided to adopt XML and develop a message standard that would recognize the richness of the data. ISO 20022 is often referred to as the “new standard.” But it was actually launched in 2004 in collaboration with SWIFT members. The new standard had some issues catching on, since adoption was voluntary and required heavy investment in backend systems, But on the heels of a 2019 mandate, ISO 20022 is now being deployed in every major network worldwide, and it is the foundation for interoperability.
Given its prominence in finance, SWIFT has become a prime target for hackers. In fact, multiple hacking collectives have targeted the SWIFT network in attempts to divert funds. In 2016, hackers robbed over $80M from a large bank, money that today remains unrecovered. Although the network itself was not breached, SWIFT quickly realized that each of its 11,000 members did not meet industry standard security levels.
To level the playing field, SWIFT launched the Customer Security Program, a set of 27 security controls forcing each member to completely reassess its infrastructure, thereby securing the overall network. Within the first year, 91% of SWIFT members (covering over 99% of volume) had confirmed their compliance with the controls. This shows the influence the SWIFT organization has developed over the years to ensure compliance in a typically slow-paced industry.
SWIFT has not rested on its laurels. The network is continuously focused on innovation to improve the member’s experience.
The SWIFT global payment innovation (SWIFT gpi) launched in 2017 with an objective to deliver cross-border payments faster, cheaper and with full transparency and traceability. Following a successful mass adoption of SWIFT gpi, over 90% of wire transactions were credited within 24 hours, including 40% credited within 30 minutes. SWIFT gpi is now extending its capabilities to reduce the number of rejected transactions through pre-validation and to deliver value to corporations looking for transparency of fees and better traceability on inbound and outbound treasury payments. With the launch of SWIFT Go, the foundation piece for real-time cross-border payments, the gpi model is also applied to low-value payments.
In the past 5 years alone, SWIFT has launched several new services and completed multiple proofs-of-concept, ranging from launching the first real-time cross-border payment to assessing the use of blockchain technology as part of the SWIFT network while implementing Financial Crimes and data analytics services.
The future of SWIFT
If you still think SWIFT is “just for cross-border payments” you might need to take a second look. SWIFT is the heart and soul of payments worldwide, and without access to it, any economy could easily collapse.
As a result of recent global events, interest in SWIFT and its functions in financial services has certainly grown. Banks and large corporations have relied on SWIFT for secure messaging since 1973, but it doesn’t often get public visibility. By consistently delivering efficient and secure payments, SWIFT has earned the trust of 11,000+ members. As long as it continues to listen to their needs and collaborate and innovate to provide new value, SWIFT will continue to grow and dominate payments worldwide.