From the November 2009 issue of Treasury & Risk magazine

Why SEPA Matters

The Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA) aims to eliminate national divergences in cross-border payments by enabling cashless payments from a single payment account anywhere in the euro zone. It calls for one set of standardized instruments for credit transfers, direct debits and card payments. While SEPA is an initiative of the European Payments Council, supported by the European Central Bank and the European Commission, the Payment Services Directive (PSD) is legislation that provides the legal framework for implementing SEPA. Together, SEPA and PSD are the building blocks of a harmonized European payment market that will benefit European consumers and businesses as well as U.S. companies with European operations.

T&R: How are U.S. companies affected?
Boden: The mandatory deadline for banks to be able to process SEPA payments is November 2010, but some, like the Royal Bank of Scotland, will be ready on Nov. 2. U.S. and European companies may continue using legacy payment instruments, but should check to see if their banks in Europe are accepting SEPA payments now. Also on Nov. 2, European banks must follow the PSD directive in every European state.

T&R: When do U.S. companies need to be SEPA-compliant?
Boden: Currently, there is no end date for decommissioning legacy instruments. Since the first SEPA instrument, credit transfers, launched in January, now accounts for just 4% of all payments, it's unclear when a mandatory date will be set. There is no doubt, however, that SEPA will become reality at some point, and while it may seem that companies have time on their side, the ramifications of SEPA are complex. Timing will be critical in the overall success of a company's SEPA strategy. It may also take as long as 18 months to execute a SEPA migration strategy, so companies should start planning now.

T&R: What steps should they take?
Boden: SEPA and PSD are all about what banks can do for their customers and not what companies must do for their banks. Companies should address SEPA as an intrinsic part of their European treasury strategy, not an isolated event. If implementing a new payment factory, shared service center or enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, SEPA should be a primary consideration. The worst possible scenario is to implement a treasury strategy that does not address SEPA, after which a decommissioning for legacy instrument end date is announced. In this case, a company will have lost the advantage of becoming SEPA-compliant on its own terms. Instead, it will end up scrambling to become SEPA-compliant at significant incremental cost and effort.

T&R: What can treasurers do?
Boden: They should talk regularly with their European cash management bank and participate in their bank's SEPA round tables and training sessions. Together, they should start planning on the optimal country-by-country migration strategy that will maximize working capital use. Since SEPA adoption varies by country and instrument, SEPA compliance may actually slow things down and tie up working capital if not properly timed. Companies also need to factor in consumer behavior, which varies from one European country to another, and tailor their strategy for a cost-efficient and user-friendly transition.

Based in London, Anne Boden leads RBS Global Transaction Services (GTS) in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. GTS combines RBS' commercial cards and merchant acquiring businesses with the international cash management and trade finance businesses RBS acquired from ABN AMRO Bank N.V. in 2007.

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