In the final month of 2018, as news of market volatility, losses from fraud, and demand for accelerated profit from shareholders continues to challenge treasury professionals, it is tempting to look forward at what treasury trends and innovations we can expect to improve outcomes in 2019. The demand for digital transformation is driving new strategic opportunities and tactical challenges for treasury. While there are many possibilities to consider, I predict the following for 2019:
It is well known that that the US Federal Reserve intends to continue hiking interest rates in 2019. This progression will push rates to a level where corporate cash managers will want to revise their investing and borrowing practices. As rates rise, the opportunity cost of leaving money in the bank also increases, and many corporates may want to optimize working capital to offset these costs. In many cases, this will mean reviewing payables strategies and potentially adopting supply chain finance programs to preserve cash for longer periods on the balance sheet and consequently earn higher returns.
Similarly, borrowing practices may change as CFOs look to pay down debt with existing cash balances as well as establish in-house banks to reduce unnecessary short-term borrowing. Many treasury teams can expect KPIs in 2019 targeting interest expense reductions—so, the earlier treasurers can plan, the easier it will be to achieve of these objectives.
Global payments remain a very expensive and logistically challenging process, although 2019 offers hope with many types of payment vendors striving to develop frictionless (and sometimes costless) cross-border payments. Those working with emerging and/or illiquid destination currencies may have the most to gain; as the illiquidity in these markets increases so too does the cost of delivering funds in these regions. Whether treasury works with their existing banks (who may embed payment fintech solutions within their platforms), non-bank channels, or even blockchain-fueled vendors, there are many different players interested in gaining a foothold in cross-border payments. The increased competition will only help treasury teams who are willing to move away from traditional bank solutions save time and money.
2019 will be the year for API connectivity in treasury. Already most large global banks – and many smaller regional institutions – have either implemented or are in the final stages of development for an API that allows external systems access to download bank reporting and upload payments. APIs will replace traditional connectivity protocols such as FTP or SWIFT as the default technology to link a treasury management system and/or ERP platform to the bank for straight through processing. While regulations such as PSD2 and Open Banking have spurred many banks to rollout APIs, the real win for banks is not compliance but rather the delivery of new technologies. In the payments space alone, banks are planning to broaden the types of payment channels to include real-time and business-to-consumer (B2C) payment channels. Yet these new real-time payment services will only be supported via a real-time interface like an API, meaning that advancements in corporate payments go hand-in-hand with rollout of APIs to TMS and ERP.
There is an ongoing trend for treasury teams to become more digitized and data-driven in order to deliver faster strategic decision support. This thirst for information is enabled by the availability of better reporting tools within treasury systems. Most TMS and ERP platforms include embedded data visualization software such as Qlik or Tableau. These tools not only allow graphical analysis of treasury information, they also can draw upon significantly larger data sets (“big data”) which was previously impossible for treasury to leverage. Organizing unstructured financial data to improve functions such as cash forecasting, fraud detection, and payment optimization will be a leap forward for treasury teams in 2019 – leading treasury to become more “business intelligent” than ever before.
The main driver of this solution offering in 2019 is the availability of data visualization technology and data warehouses within treasury management systems. Historically, treasury has had to rely on internal IT to construct a data warehouse (or data lake) to support the integration of this data source with other internal systems, and support the purchase and maintenance of a data visualization software that treasury must use in addition to their existing treasury software.
Fortunately, 2019 sees the amalgamation of this technology within the TMS – simplifying accessibility and reducing costs to achieve a new level of reporting and data analysis.
Many experts have been discussing the distributed ledger technology (a.k.a. blockchain) that supports popular cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and ethereum. The two most popular digital currencies have failed to enter the mainstream due to supply limitations but also scalability issues; the technology is not sufficient to handle more than eight transactions per second. While that performance barrier may be going away in 2019 according to industry insiders, that innovation will not be enough for cryptocurrencies and blockchain to achieve success in treasury in 2019. While there may still be a future for distributed ledger technology and blockchain applications in treasury, it won’t be in the next 12 months as treasurers require certainty in two areas:
- Counterparty risk – treasury will always make the safest choice, even if it costs more. Treasurers don’t know enough about Blockchain FinTech vendors to trust payments or other financial transactions to them. Only certainty delivered through regulation, via embedding of blockchain solutions within bank channels, or emergence of recognized names into the blockchain “market” will allow viability of these solutions in treasury.
- Performance and scalability – although there is talk of increased performance for existing blockchains such as bitcoin and ethereum, until this happens treasury will not be adopting technology solutions that actually slow the payments and transactional experience. In this era of immediacy, treasury will demand faster and (near) real-time acknowledgements.
Until these needs are met, blockchain will not be a success in treasury.
One of the most polarizing topics in treasury technology is robotics and artificial intelligence. Treasury teams are both fascinated with the idea of additional treasury automation and more intelligent treasury software – and yet are simultaneously fearful of exactly how much of their jobs can be managed by robotic process automation software.
2019 will see some progress in robotics within treasury – although much progress outside of corporate finance. Robotic software will make significant inroads within other parts of the organization: those departments that are more predictable and process driven. The biggest impact to treasury will be in the allocation of roles and responsibilities, knowing that job functions with predictable steps (e.g. actual to forecast reconciliation) will be ripe for automation and be among the first to be managed entirely be robots.
It is conceivable – in fact, preferred by most – that treasury robots will actually be part of existing treasury management systems rather than something separate. For the same reason that treasury teams prefer to select a TMS that offers all required capabilities in one system, it is simpler for treasury if all of their treasury software comes from one vendor and is delivered through a single interface. There will be some progress in robotics in 2019 for finance, although the bulk of this innovation will be in 2020 and beyond.
It is unlikely that the global economy will suddenly become predictable in 2019. Therefore, we can expect treasury to remain complicated, searching for ways to be proactive instead of reactive. Advanced treasury technologies such as robotics, business intelligence and APIs will help increase automation, visibility, and controls – allowing treasury teams to continue their efforts to deliver more strategic contribution to the overall business. Treasury will continue to push for better, faster, less expensive payments – driven by API connectivity – most especially for cross-border funds transfer to support global supply chains. 2019 will be a progressive year for treasury and one that will further demonstrate the treasury team’s value to the organization.