The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication is considering becoming a for-profit company now that the Internet is looming larger as a competitive threat.
Though Swift is undeniably the granddaddy of international payments messaging 6,800 banks in 189 countries use its network the consortiums directors say they realize that, like most businesses that dominate a field, it is vulnerable to losing business to Internet start-ups.
The issue will no doubt be one of the first to land in the lap of Swifts new chairman, who is to be named in June. The Brussels-based consortium said it hopes to announce at its annual Sibos conference in September a decision on whether it will switch to for-profit status.
Being a cooperative has its strengths but also its weaknesses, said Leonard H. Schrank, Swifts chief executive officer, in an interview. As a cooperative, we move at cooperative speed.
As a commercial entity, Swift would be free to raise capital and to merge with other companies that could complement its services. It could also hire the best talent more readily, said Richard Genin, executive vice president of the Bank of New York and a Swift director since 1996.
I think the competition is coming out of the woodwork, and Swift recognizes that if it doesnt initiate some significant changes, its franchise will be in danger, Mr. Genin said. Currently, he said, there are no options, there is no stock, and I wouldnt say that people are dying to live in Brussels.
Commercialization, however, would raise Swifts profile as a potential competitor with its own members. Unless members see us helping them win, they wont be interested, Mr. Schrank said.
Mr. Genin said, I assume there will be more heated discussions on the matter at the June board meeting.
In its own bureaucratic way, Swift began to embrace the Internet in 1996. For instance, it is replacing its proprietary communications technology with an Internet-based platform and has developed electronic commerce ventures such as Bolero.
Our strategy is to roll out the next generation, defend our franchise in payments, grow our business in securities, and most importantly establish ourselves in the domain of electronic commerce, Mr. Schrank said.
Other nonprofit payments organizations that have made commercial forays in recent years include the New York Clearing House, the largest and oldest U.S. payments clearing house.
George Thomas, senior vice president at NYCH, said its commercial offshoots including the bank-owned ChipCo large-value funds transfer system and SVPCo for smaller-value check and automated clearing house payments are successes.
The Electronic Payments Network, a subsidiary of SVPCo, is being marketed outside the clearing houses traditional market, the second Federal Reserve district. The network, which is being positioned as an alternative to the Federal Reserves automated clearing house service, has gotten commitments from 11 banks outside the second Fed district.
Swift faces a tougher task in going for-profit simply because its operations are so vast, Mr. Thomas said. Switching to an Internet platform will mean coordinating the systems far-flung members and could take years to accomplish, he said.
Whether you can do that faster as a commercial entity, I kind of doubt it, he said.
Swift may be better off developing for-profit electronic-commerce-related ventures from scratch than changing its current system, Mr. Thomas added.
If they start out with a new service offering that does not exist now, I think as a commercial entity they could work faster, he said. Whether the banks will let them or not is another story.
Swift says 240 financial institutions joined its network last year, when it had earnings of $5 million on revenues of $429 million. Swift messages which detail bank payments, trade payments, securities-related transfers, and foreign exchange payments comprise $5 trillion of value each day. Its message volume last year was 1.06 billion, up 13%.