The bills that banks send to companies are complicated—so complicated that various vendors offer software for checking bank statements to see whether the fees a company was charged are in line with its agreement with the bank. But companies can’t use that software unless their banks provide them with electronic statements, and getting such statements from many overseas banks is still a struggle.
In a session at the 2015 Association for Financial Professionals conference, consulting firm Redbridge Debt & Treasury Advisory surveyed attendees about bank e-billing. Of the 48 survey participants who use international banks, just 16% receive electronic statements that follow the TWIST BSB global bank-billing standard.
But those corporate treasury practitioners are interested in getting standardized electronic statements: 51.4% of those surveyed said that whether an international bank made such a statement available would definitely influence their decision on which bank to use, while another 37.8% said it would probably influence their decision.
U.S. Banks Lead the Way in E-Billing
In the United States, it’s common for companies to get their bank bills in an electronic format.
Robert Blair, a partner at Vick Consulting Group, said electronic billing has been available from many U.S. banks for close to 20 years. In the U.S., “the usage is far more extensive and the support for it is far more extensive, just in terms of the number of banks that have deployed,” he said.
On the international front, TWIST, a not-for-profit that works on XML-based standards for the financial supply chain, has a group that is developing and promoting TWIST BSB as a billing standard for global banks’ services. (U.S. banks often use a different standard, EDI 822).
Blair, the editor of the group’s TWIST BSB Newsletter, said the differences in banks’ practices from country to country make the adoption of a global standard challenging.
“In some banking markets, it’s uncommon to charge for services. In some banking markets, it’s common to charge for services but deduct them immediately from the bank account,” he said. “That makes it just a bit more challenging for certain banks in certain markets to fully adopt and fully embrace the standards.”
Banks have little motivation to provide companies with more transparent billing, Blair noted, since their corporate customers may turn around and question some of the charges.
That means it’s up to companies to push banks to make electronic billing happen. “More corporate advocacy and pressure, and the inclusion of questions about BSB capability in RFPs and RFIs by corporates, would make a material difference,” Blair said.
He pointed to the success of corporate advocacy back in the 2004–2006 period, when GE led an effort among U.S. corporates to demand electronic billing from international banks.
That effort led to the creation of the TWIST BSB standard, Blair said. “It’s conceptually the same as EDI 822, but it differs in that it’s more modern and more capable” and can support multiple currencies and value-added taxes, he said.
Progress has been made. The TWIST BSB Newsletter shows the number of international banks providing BSB billing statements rose from 12 in 2012 to 16 earlier this year.
Treating Banks Like Other Vendors
Redbridge, which traditionally provided outsourced monitoring of companies’ bank statements, recently rolled out a software-as-a-service (SaaS) bank account analysis software, Hawkeye BSB.
Bridget Meyer, a senior director at Redbridge, argued that companies should be monitoring their banks just as they do their other suppliers.
Such an effort could lead to savings. Companies that use account analysis software should be able to cut their bank fees by 10%, Meyer said.
She cited a Redbridge study of 100 different account statements submitted to Hawkeye; the software’s analysis found 242 errors in those 100 statements. “Some were as little as $1; others were thousands of dollars,” Meyer said.
Meyer said the current level of interest rates is fueling interest in taking a closer look at bank statements, given that many U.S. companies have relied on their earnings credit rate to cover their bank fees. “When interest rates are high in the U.S., people don’t pay transaction fees because they’re earning such great interest rates that that’s offsetting the cost of transaction banking,” she said. “But now, in a low-interest-rate environment, companies are taking a hard look at their transaction costs because they’re having to pay for them.”
Meyer also cited “momentum” overseas and noted that Germany has passed a law mandating that vendors provide bills electronically, which corporates hope will encourage electronic billing by banks there.
European companies are less interested in analyzing their bank statements to be sure the banks are charging them accurately than they are in using the information to get a clearer view of their banking relationships, she said.
“Most of the time, the No. 1 concern for them is visibility,” Meyer said. “So when they’re making their share of the wallet decisions, they have something to talk to the bank about.”