Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Are corporates being heard on e-invoicing?

SEPA Credit Transfers are live and in recent months we have seen announcements from various vendors (Sterling Commerce's partnership with VAT and GST experts TrustWeaver, Fundtech's acquisition of Accountis)about their forays into the e-invoicing space, which is the 'e-SEPA' corporates often talk about.

Does that mean that banks are finally waking up to the fact that most corporates do not really give a damn about SEPA Credit Transfers (SCT) and SEPA Direct Debits (SDD), which lets face it are interbank instruments?

Not that there aren't advantages for companies using SCT and SDD, but that is not really what SEPA is about for most corporates. Corporate associations such as the European Associations of Corporate Treasurers (EACT)have been particularly vocal about their desire to leverage SEPA to overcome the remaining hurdles to pan-European e-invoicing.

The European Commission appeared to heed their call by setting up an Informal Task Force on e-Invoicing, which has issued recommendations for removing the remaining hurdles to pan-European e-invoicing.

While corporates are in dialogue with the EC Task Force, via a Corporate Supply Chain Panel set up by TWIST and EACT, we hear on the grapevine that any attempts by corporates to have a stronger voice in helping architect pan-European payment processing and e-invoicing standards, are being impeded by the Commission, or more correctly, the strongly represented and funded European banking lobby.

Some of the banks maintain that it is only a handful of larger corporates that want 'e-SEPA' and that to deliver what the corporates are asking for is all too difficult. Yet, just as banks(the European Payments Council) chose to sideline corporate opinions when they were drafting the frameworks for SCTs and SDDs, it seems they may be trying to do the same when it comes to pan-European e-invoicing.

The banks were so eager to be seen to be doing something about reducing the cost of cross-border euro payments, in order to avoid further regulation, that they only focused on the inter-bank processing aspects of SEPA rather than looking at the 'bigger picture' and the real opportunities SEPA presents to truly transform the European payments landscape.

Could this have something to do with banks wanting to tout their own proprietary e-invoicing solutions to corporates? After all, if they are losing so much revenue from standardising cross-border euro payments, they are going to have to make up the slack somewhere else, by trying to lock customers in somehow with proprietary solutions.

Yet, time and time again corporates, particularly those that are multi-banked, have said they don't want proprietary banking solutions; the same argument perhaps applies to e-invoicing. And while the banks maintain that they are best placed to drive widespread adoption of e-invoicing, corporates are far from convinced.

Despite all the rhetoric and the conciliatory attempts by the EC to engage corporate demands for pan-European e-invoicing, it appears that self-interest and preservation may be at work again and that SEPA merely represents a 'band aid' that banks have put over the existing infrastructure in their efforts to appease the regulators, rather than trying to treat what is intrinsically wrong with the existing infrastructure.

Me thinks that the European payments landscape may be setting itself up for its own 'Project Turquoise', except this time it won't be driven by banks but by corporates disgruntled with the status quo.

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