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SWIFT must stick to its “True North” (#Sibos 18)

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As we leave SIBOS 2013, there are many good memories from
the great conversations around innotribe, to the buzz of the exhibit hall – and
yes, there was a buzz this year – to the immersion in the mainstream sessions
to the fun evenings engaging in fine wine, food and dialogue. 

That’s what SIBOS is all about, and this year was no

From a business perspective, the main conversation seemd to
focus upon financial inclusion through mobile technologies to a major focus upon governance and policing of the financial system by sifting through Big
Data analytics to find small perpetrators of terrorism, money laundering and

Sanctions control was a big meme this year, alongside
cybersecurity as illustrated by the wrap up plenary yesterday.

But that brings in another perspective.

In the discussions of SWIFT over the past decade, a regular
meme has been interference in the network from governments, and specifically
the US government.  Is the cooperative a
political football or is it the globally independent network it claims to be?

This was the undercurrent flowing through the closing
plenary session from Ian Bremmer of Eurasia Group, which made a nice bookend to
the opening plenary.

In the opening session Yawah Shah, Chairman of SWIFT, called
for the cooperative to stick to its “True North” of independent neutrality, and
that’s what was reinforced by Ian’s discussions of geopolitical forces and
issues yesterday. 

But is SWIFT truly independent and neutral today, or is it a
pawn of political gamesmasters?

Some might say the latter and with some just cause.

First, there was the breaking story back in summer 2006,
when an investigative journalist found that SWIFT’s messages were being accessed
by US investigators to track terrorism. 
This was seriously refuted by SWIFT at the time, but came to light due
to the fact that the US Treasury issued subpoenas to get the data they needed
and, as a company with offices in the USA, the cooperative had to comply.

More recently we had the Iranian sanctions being pushed hard
by the USA in early 2012.  In a final
push towards compliance, the American government formally asked the European
government to tell SWIFT they had to throw the Iranian banks off the
network.  Sure enough, the European
Commission issued a legal mandate authorising such action and, as a European
headquartered institution, SWIFT had to comply.

This action was soon followed by HSBC and Standard Chartered
suffering billion and multimillion dollar record fines respectfully for money
laundering – again involving Iran, as well as Mexico and other nations – and
the US government, as the world’s superpower, has shown its strength.

But is the USA the world’s superpower it used to be, and will it still be in
the future?  What about China and, soon
after, India, Russia and Brazil?  Will
these nations support such actions in the same way that Europe supports

Of course not, and there’s the rub as this is why we are now
concerned about the political minefield that SWIFT could become.  In the nightmare scenario, the interest of
one nation’s concerns about criminal and terrorist activities could be used as
pure excuse to gain access to individual and corporate transaction records, to
look for tax avoidance or even just monetary movements against their national

That is the extreme, and one that some nations believe is
the focus of others as they interfere with SWIFT’s neutrality.

SWIFT is not an instument to be used for one country's interests, or it shouldn’t be,
and that is the concern as we see nations muscling nations today.

That was quite clearly what Ian Bremmer's presentation was saying, and making clear that America has historically had the muscle to force actions
upon the SWIFT community that it might not want to take but, as other economies
become dominant, that attitude has to change.

SWIFT should be independent of such political manoeuvring and, a little like the United Nations, needs to sit above local, national and regional agendas.

As we leave Dubai to head for America next year, we
also leave a Middle East that has been embraced by the SWIFT community.  That embrace will only last as long as SWIFT
can maintain its True North, and that is the hope we all walk away with as we
head for Boston in 2014.


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Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog,, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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