Cash managers who had decided the “e” in eBAM stood for “eventually” can take heart. “We’ve reached the floodgate moment,” says Dan Gill, director of corporate solutions for Weiland/Open Solutions, a tech vendor for bank account management in Bannockburn, Ill. “The testing is done. The message formats are set. And live, production-level messages will be moving by January.”
Open Solutions is implementing its first electronic bank account management (eBAM) client, a large insurance company, using SWIFT to communicate with three banks—J.P. Morgan, Citigroup and Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Gill reports. “We picked this company to be the pioneer, and we have a line of others ready to follow quickly. A lot of the 100 clients using our eBAM-ready BAweb™ solution are ready to go, but we’ll pace the implementations and add more banks when they are ready.”
Traffic started a few years ago on banks’ proprietary eBAM platforms, but Open Solutions is introducing multibank connectivity through SWIFT, using Fundtech as its service bureau, Gill explains. “More treasuries are moving to adopt eBAM and SWIFT in tandem and sending the messages over the SWIFT network,” he says.
The first generation of multibank eBAM users will be dominated by “big players with high volumes of bank accounts, especially at the large global banks,” Gill predicts. “You’ll see insurance companies and property management companies—those that have a lot of churn—among the early adopters. The benefit will be greatest for those with hundreds of accounts at dozens of banks.”
A lot of the initial activity may be domestic, he adds. “It gets more complicated in Europe with the various country rules,” Gill notes. And given big companies’ relationships with big banks, it won’t take a large number of banks offering eBAM to achieve critical mass for those big users, he points out.
“We’re leading the charge and onboarding a list of clients now,” reports Glen Solimine, executive director of J.P. Morgan Treasury Services and the founder of Speranza, a bank account management software provider that is now part of WallStreet Systems. J.P. Morgan’s first clients are those ready to go with their internal eBAM applications, whether they are home-built or bought from a vendor.
Is live traffic imminent? Not quite. “There is a level of preparation that is required before going live,” Solimine notes. “It takes testing to be sure that all the communication channels work as they should and that communication protocols are aligned.” But he promises messages will be humming through the system before the end of the first quarter.
Typically four parties have to be in alignment: the corporate treasury, its technology vendor (a treasury system, ERP system or a specialized provider), a SWIFT service bureau and the bank. Most of J.P. Morgan’s implementations involve SWIFT, Solimine reports.
Although multibank eBAM is still in pre-production pilots at J.P. Morgan and Open Solutions, there’s no doubt that it will work, he insists.
“EBAM has gone through very intensive testing for years,” says Solimine, pictured at left. “We ran trials and tried repeatedly to break it and then fix it where it broke. The standards are all mature and ISO-certified. We’ve run pilots and they’ve worked as expected. We have a high degree of confidence that eBAM is now ready to roll.” It’s not some complex, whiz-bang technology, he adds. “We’re just moving good data from point A to point B. The only change is that we’ll be doing it electronically instead of with paper.”
While the standards and infrastructure may have passed all the tests, bank readiness is still a work in progress. From the corporate perspective, the pace of banks’ adoption of eBAM continues to hold back a promising technology, reports Tom Hunt, director of treasury services at the Association for Financial Professionals.
“We had a roundtable at our conference in October that was supposed to be interactive but was dominated by the technical experts and focused on definitions,” Hunt says. “There is progress. J.P. Morgan Chase announced that they are now ready to process eBAM messages. But many banks appear to be still struggling with back-office issues.” Large corporates are quite vocal, he says; they want standardized eBAM. Technology vendors like SunGard, IT2 and WallStreet Systems/Speranza have products available, but all the major cash management banks will have to support a single multibank standard before eBAM really takes off, he suggests.
Companies like GE and Microsoft led the way. “Those big bats were able to get the banks to provide eBAM for them,” Gill notes. Microsoft was particularly helpful in building corporate momentum for SWIFT, he says. “Now the solution needs to be mass-produced.”
If banks are not entirely ready to turn on eBAM, the same is true for corporate treasuries. While eBAM will add efficiency, it’s not really the foundation for automated bank-treasury communication, Gill notes. “EBAM is awesome and transformational, but you can’t communicate electronically until you have your records in order,” he says. “You have to have good records and controls in internal treasury systems before you can take advantage of eBAM.” Open Solutions, through its 2010 acquisition of Weiland Financial, sells a leading bank account management system built for eBAM, but any treasury with an accurate database of account records can feed eBAM communications, Gill says.
Now that implementations have begun, there is a waiting list to get onboarded, reports Anand Mitra, eBAM global product manager at Citigroup. “We’re being selective about which clients we take on and rolling out the product in a controlled way.”
Citi has had live eBAM traffic since 2009 over a proprietary network that handles all eBAM message types but only for Citi accounts. “There is proprietary eBAM and host-to-host messaging using ISO 20022 formats,” Mitra points out. Now Citi is in pre-production pilots for host-to-host multibank eBAM using the SWIFT network. While multibank eBAM is the new frontier, it won’t replace proprietary solutions, Mitra says, because proprietary solutions are more flexible and can be customized, while multibank is strictly standardized.
“We’ve moved from weighing the benefits to implementation discussions,” says Tom Durkin, global head of integrated channels in Bank of America’s Global Transaction Services unit. “Clients making their 2013 plans are coming to us to discuss how they can leverage eBAM,” he reports. “There’s still interest in bank proprietary access as well as host-to-host file exchanges through networks like SWIFT. Both channels are working.”
The biggest driver in eBAM adoption is the number of accounts a company has, Mitra says. More accounts equals more potential savings. The secondary driver is the company’s technology culture. Some companies prize technologically clean treasury operations, and eBAM soon will be a piece of that immaculate process. Electronic account opening is a big draw, but treasuries open an account once but change signing authority more often, so “account management is where the greatest value lies for many treasuries,” he says.
Solimine says that while opening and closing accounts is an obvious use for eBAM, the greatest value may lie in using it to generate account reports. A good way to start an eBAM project is to collect reports on all the company’s bank accounts and feed them into the system of record to be sure the database is complete and up-to-date, he explains. That may be a one-time event, but the reports are also useful for supporting annual audits, Solimine points out. “It’s a powerful tool, a way to verify the status of all accounts, something treasurers would like to see before the annual audit.”
So far, no bank is a clear winner. The big banks are racing to bring eBAM to market, but no bank is close to “crossing the finish line,” Durkin says. “It’s a marathon. We’re running in a pack, sometimes appropriately cooperating, with a long ways to go.”