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ESG in the finance and banking industry – are you ready?

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By Julian Moffett, CTO BFSI, EDB

 

Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) has soared towards the top of banking, financial services, and insurance (BFSI) and other boardroom interests. Organisations everywhere know they need to take ESG and greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) seriously not only because it is the right thing to do for the future of the planet or because it can help attract and retain talent, but also, because failing to do so may pose a risk to the economic value of their businesses and encourage probes by governments, watchdogs and non-execs. However, complying with complex reporting and going the extra mile to actually deliver on the goals of the rules is a challenge in many ways, not the least of which is in achieving the required excellence in data management to underpin strong reporting on ESG.

 

What is ESG? 

Julian Moffett

ESG is an umbrella term that covers a broad gamut of activities. Gartner defines ESG as “…a collection of corporate performance evaluation criteria that assess the robustness of a company’s governance mechanisms and its ability to effectively manage its environmental and social impacts.”

The CFA Institute describes the environmental element as focusing on “the conservation of the natural world” and includes measuring “climate change and carbon emissions,” “air and water pollution” and “biodiversity” among many other measures. Social considers “people and relationships” looking at areas including “customer satisfaction,” and “gender and diversity.” Governance covers “standards for running a company” and analyses factors such as “board composition,” “audit committee structure” and “audit committee structure.”

 

Status of the current regulatory environment

There are many bodies proposing rules to formalise ESG monitoring and seeking to ensure corporate compliance. Some example groups, frameworks and bodies:

  • The Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD)
  • Streamlined Energy and Carbon Reporting (SECR)
  • The International Regulatory Strategy Group (ISRG)
  • The Sustainability Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR)
  • The International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB)
  • The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB)
  • Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) support efforts such as the US SEC’s Climate and ESG Task Force.

Financial services organisations are very aware that the current regulatory landscape is far from mature (and will continue changing) both in terms of alignment between bodies and also with regard to when the new rules will come into effect. At the of time of writing:

  • The requirement for Scope 2 disclosures (see below for description) for the Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR) will likely come into effect in 2023
  • A proposed Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) should be agreed by the European Parliament this year for implementation in 2024 to report on performance in 2023.
  • Meanwhile, the SEC has just released its proposed rules for climate-related disclosures, which,if passed in legislation, may come into effect as early as year end 2022.

 

Reporting Obligations 

Reporting can cover a wide range of areas covering energy consumption, GHG emissions, water consumption and waste management to health and safety, labour rights, diversity and inclusion to ethical conduct, and even areas such as appropriate executive compensation.

While the regulatory reporting obligations are not yet finalised, the expectation is that compliance may prove to be an onerous task. For example, organisations are under pressure to monitor carbon emissions but even so-called Scope 1 emissions (those that come from owned or controlled emissions) can be hard to track. Factor in Scope 2 (indirect emissions such as purchased power) as well as Scope 3 emissions from up and down value chains, and the reporting task at hand is difficult indeed.

To measure, monitor and manage in addition to staying on the right side of rules, organisations need to have excellent data management fundamentals, strong reporting tools and a new class of applications, which also have the agility to adapt to rapidly changing regulatory demands. Data will be used both to support decarbonisation measures but also to identify where there are disclosure gaps. It was telling that when the SEC issued a press release on its Enforcement Task Force, it specifically referred to data:

“The task force will also coordinate the effective use of Division resources, including through the use of sophisticated data analysis to mine and assess information across registrants, to identify potential violations.”

Having reliable data comply with emerging rules isn’t the only essential requirement for organisations. Institutions need such data to understand where they are in their journey to sustainability, so that they can set sensible targets and track progress against them. Organisations will have to cover the data trifecta of availability, management and transparency. Many organisations may be stuck in the early stages of managing ESG, overly relying on manual processes, spreadsheets and email. But their target should be to get to real-time data insights that are easily visualised, understood and shared. As a foundation, BFSIs need to capture, manage and securely share data reflecting consumption and safety to emissions, financials and data from surveys measuring results against ESG targets. Data emanating from ERP and other back-office systems, performance data from third-party associates, media and social network coverage, spatial/geolocation systems and beyond should also be factored in.

 

Actually reducing GHGs

Organisations are using a wide variety of ways to reduce emissions and improve their footprints from using renewable energy sources to making secondary use of energy; for example, in the case of one university, this is done through capturing data centre heat in hydroponics. For IT, making broader use of multitenancy in cloud computing and hosting services is a popular way to reduce emissions. Not only do these large data centres offer an economy of scale, they also tend to be state of the art in their use of renewables and highly efficient hardware and other infrastructure. Gartner, in an article titled The Data Centre Is Almost Dead, says it expects 80 percent of enterprises will close in-house datacenters by 2025. For me, the jury is out on this one but an interesting one to monitor going forward.

 

Conclusion

We are at the start of a very significant inflection point in regulatory and consumer expectations around ESG. BFSIs should be under no illusion that momentum is building rapidly in terms of having to address strict reporting requirements and implement strategies to reduce GHGs.

However, we also see this as a time of positive change. As the leading provider of Postgres, EDB is excited to help organisations further their ESG goals as the journey unfolds. We are closely monitoring the implications of ESG regulations as they will give rise to a new class of applications and drive adoption of green data centres. We see OSS, including Postgres, as playing a key role in this shift as often the movement to private and public cloud helps accelerate application modernisation and enables displacement of outdated incumbent technology (including database) platforms. As the leading provider of Postgres, EDB is excited to help organisations further their ESG goals as the journey unfolds.

 

Banking

Is traditional business banking the best option for SME finance squeezes?

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Airto Vienola, CEO, AREX Markets 

The pressures facing business and personal finances alike have been well documented.

Stories are now starting to emerge about how smaller enterprises around the UK – which make up well over 90% of the companies in the country – are coping with that mounting stress. The picture starting to emerge suggests, not well.

Personal borrowing is bridging gaps in business books

One survey released recently suggested that one in five of the country’s small businesses have taken out personal loans by the business owner to try to cover gaps in their incomes and profit margins. A further 43% said they were considering doing the same. This rush to secure additional funds by any means may be understandable for businesses feeling the pinch, but it’s neither sustainable nor savvy. Many of these enterprises are already burdened with additional debt from the Covid relief scheme, and given rising interest rates, soaring energy costs and rising cost of goods, taking on additional debt is not an attractive prospect. Add to that the fact that rates from traditional business banking providers are proving steep, smaller enterprises could be forgiven for looking to personal means to shore up the balance sheet. A recent study from members of the Federation of Small Businesses found that one in five small businesses are struggling to find business lending rates under 11%. To help these companies to survive, something clearly has to give.

Not all Alt-Fi options are equal

Alternative finance services have been proliferating in recent times, and yet almost half of small business operators have concerns about pursuing this option, despite actively seeking additional funding support. Clarity over terms and conditions is an often-cited reason for this reticence, which is only natural when undertaking proper due diligence on financial lending. This is a wise choice, especially as it has become so easy for business owners to quickly and simply access new services through embedded finance services, just a few clicks away on existing digital accounting and bookkeeping services. Many of these are still not clear about any detailed fine print, lengthy contract terms or potentially high fees, and yet these too can look like accessible and viable options to business owners facing mounting financial issues.So, it can be hard to pick the right provider without a lot of research. Those wary of the long tail of taking on debt should be particularly careful when it comes to business Buy Now Pay Later or BNPL offers, which are currently entering the UK market, though that isn’t to say that other alternative financing services won’t suit their specific needs whilst mitigating fears over risk.

A fresh perspective on an established technique

So, if debt should not be an option, and embedded finance can have downsides, where should SMEs turn if they don’t want to kick the can of cashflow problems just a few months down the road? One area to reevaluate, which has seen a tremendous shift given the fresh thinking from alternative finance is invoice financing or spot factoring. No longer the imbalanced option of last resort it was traditionally perceived to be, the option has become much fairer to the SME, in addition to providing a swifter and more flexible alternative. In years gone by, invoice financing was the purview of the banks, which led to low rates of return for businesses looking to unlock the value in their organisation, and often much better value flowing back instead to the lender taking on the risk. This is no longer the case. Likewise, invoice financing earned a bad reputation among some for tying businesses into lengthy contracts – another area which current services in the market have since addressed. Our service for example allows businesses the flexibility to access cash back on just a single invoice of their choosing – which could be the difference for struggling SMEs between dipping into loss or keeping the lights on.

One answer to the late payments problem?

Perhaps the most important area which services like invoice financing assist is overdue invoices – the bane of the British SME. Barclays claimed earlier this year that over a quarter of SMEs are finding late payments to be on the increase, and this was an already notorious issue for many business owners. Estimates show that SMEs on average have £6500 in unpaid invoices at any given time. Financing these invoices ensures that the cashflow of these strapped SMEs is healthier, gets the money back into the business without the concerns of lengthy payment terms or endless chasing, and certainly in our case, has no impact on the relationship with the other organisation. Our platform acts as a marketplace between SME and likely investors, with extensive insight provided to make sure that those investing in the invoice are matched to the right businesses. We take on the intermediate risk – removing any suggestion or potential concerns around unwanted debt collection, for additional business owner peace of mind.

While the pressures may be mounting on the SMEs around the country, one thing is clear. No business should rush into making long term financial decisions simply as the cashflow is drying up. Any savvy business would be well advised to make sure they understand the implications, short and long term, of any lending solution they look to employ. However, knowing that there are options and the business’ bottom line does not simply have to rely on traditional banking services, should provide business owners with a lot more options at their disposal to help them to face the coming months with greater cash liquidity confidence.

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Banking

BANKING FOR BETTER 

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By Alex Kwiatkowski, Director of Global Financial Services, SAS.

From shifting market dynamics and mounting geopolitical tensions, to skyrocketing cyber threats and a worsening climate crisis, the world faces risk and uncertainty on many fronts.
But how are these and other prevailing trends reshaping the financial services sector?
A volatile landscape  
Describing the past few years as ‘volatile’ could be seen as a slight understatement, akin to saying the Titanic had a minor mishap at sea or that Liz Truss’s economic policy was mildly unorthodox. From the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s despicable invasion of Ukraine and the increasingly intense impacts of climate change, the resilience of not only businesses but whole nations has been pushed to breaking point.
In many ways, the banking sector has proven remarkably resilient to such challenges and risks. In the face of prolonged disruption, profitability remained higher than many had anticipated. However, the deeper structural challenges, such as digitalisation, the emergence of fintech disruptors, the brouhaha over crypto, and the growing threats associated with cyber attacks, are continuing to gather force as we head into a new year.
A recent Economist Impact survey, sponsored by SAS, found that while banking leaders are conscious of the imminent risks and those on the horizon, many are generally optimistic about how their organisations could be reshaped over the next decade, and beyond. I believe this optimism is well-founded rather than misguided, although pragmatism is required.

Alex Kwiatkowski

Digital transformation

For some years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, banks had been wrestling with exactly when and how to digitally transform. Like so many other industries, the chief legacy of the pandemic was to force rapid and wholesale change on a sector not always eager to embrace new ways of operating.
Traditional banks are now on track to be digitally transformed by the end of this decade, with technologies such as cloud computing and AI becoming industry norms. When considering the next three to five years, 57% agreed that digital transformation is among their top strategic priority. Cybersecurity and data protection (55%) are not far behind.
This focus on digital transformation is understandable, given the opportunities it may bring. Respondents from the Asia-Pacific region were the most excited, with 64% selecting it as among the greatest opportunities for their organisation. This was much higher than their counterparts in North America (52%), Latin America (50%) and Europe (50%). In fact, the tech-savviness among Asian consumers has created an opportunity for banks to leap ahead in delivering innovations compared with other regions.
When asked about the role of advanced data analytics in a successful digital transformation, just under half (48%) of executives selected this as the most important digital capability that their organisation must harness. It was the clear overall favourite, followed by blockchain (35%), AI/machine learning (34%), IoT/5G (33%) and robotic process automation (29%).
However, the survey also revealed a number of hurdles that may prevent the full uptake of data analytics, such as the increased risk of cyber attacks and a reliance on legacy technology systems. In addition, functions and departments working in silos was viewed as a potentially significant barrier, with 48% noting this as a “significant barrier” to change.
Purpose-driven banking
Alongside this goal of digital transformation, a growing consensus has emerged among banking leaders that the wellbeing of customers, communities, employees and the environment ought to be at the forefront of strategy.
Termed ‘purpose-driven banking’, this shift often encompasses ESG-related activities as well as a broader commitment to customer relationships over profits.
Purpose-driven banking has broad support among the industry’s leaders, with 82% of executives agreeing that financial services organisations can pursue profit and a better society at the same time. That sentiment is even more common among C-level executives, with 91% in agreement.
Arguably one of the most interesting results of the survey is the fact that 76% of respondents believe that the banking sector has an obligation to engage with and address societal issues. An even larger portion (81%) said that their bank takes responsibility for the social impacts of its activities.
Interestingly, a clear majority felt that the financial services industry is behind other sectors in terms of progress on ESG commitments. About three-quarters (76%) of C-level respondents said this, compared with 61% of all other executives.
Establishing transparent and measurable ESG goals aligned with corporate strategy is one area where leaders feel behind, with just 38% feeling that their organisation had achieved this. Another important aspect of the purpose-driven mindset is recognising how banks are fundamentally linked to other stakeholders in society. When asked which were the “most important groups for financial services organisations to engage with in order to have the most positive impact”, the technology industry, investors and customers were the top three choices. They were followed by consumers and government or policymakers.
Growing pressure from customers, communities and other external stakeholders are likely to influence the extent to which the banking sector embraces ESG practices, however it’s clear that the banking sector looks set to transform over the next decade. And transform it must.

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