Uniform Bank Messaging

A new standard is in the works for the messages that banks use to report cash management information to corporate treasuries, and according to a recent survey of finance executives, that new standard can't arrive too soon.

Messages about things like bank account balances, lockbox services and controlled disbursements currently use a Bank Administration Institute (BAI) format that was last updated in 1987. In the more than two decades since then, banks have responded to changes in the services they offer by independently adjusting the messaging format, forcing treasuries to make alterations to their workstations and other technology to deal with the variations in the messages from different banks.

Eighty-four percent of the more than 1,100 finance professionals surveyed by the Association for Financial Professionals say they want the BAI format to be standardized across all banks, and 44% would also like to see the tags standardized and the information made readable by both machines and humans.

The BAI format "really is not a standard anymore because over time the banks customized," says David Bellinger, AFP's director of payments. "The cost to maintain it, the headaches involved in just dealing with the differences among the banks, got to be pretty large. The pain has reached a point on both the bank and the corporate side that folks have gotten together to create a uniform standard."

Last fall, Accredited Standards Committee X9 (ASC X9) announced that it was beginning work on a new standard that would incorporate best practices and codes from both the BAI format and ISO 20022, the international standard for such messages. Members of the committee working on the new standard include major cash management such as Bank of America, Bank of New York Mellon, Citi, JP Morgan and Wells Fargo, as well as the Federal Reserve and SWIFT.

Cindy Fuller, executive director of ASC X9, says the proposed standard is almost ready for the next step, a voting process that takes 4 to 4 1/2 months. "The balloting process could start as early as September," Fuller says, which suggests the final standard will be ready early next year.

From a corporate standpoint, the key is probably the amount of time it takes banks to adopt the standard. Fuller says that while there's no timeline for adoption, "clearly the banks are supporting this and the banks are possibly even making changes now.

"Each bank will take a look at how their corporate customers benefit from these changes and will do adoption on that basis and roll it out in a timeframe that's appropriate," she adds.

"Larger banks will probably move on it pretty quickly," says Nancy Atkinson, a senior analyst at Aite Group, a financial services research firm in Boston, "especially if their large corporates are demanding it."

The effort benefits banks as well as their customers, Atkinson notes, because moving to a standard format from the jerry-rigged messaging that they have been using should help banks automate their processes. On the downside, once messaging is standardized, corporates can switch banks more easily, she says.


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