The need to transfer funds across borders has risen considerably over the last few decades. Scores of businesses pay suppliers and employees from other countries and several receive payments from international customers. Migrants require the services of the remittance industry on an ongoing basis, and their numbers continue to swell. Fortunately, advancements in technology have ensured that making international fund transfers is no longer expensive, time consuming, or bothersome.

The Evolution

The global remittance industry has come long way since the ninth century, when Chinese traders used ‘flying money’ in the form of paper vouchers as proofs of payment, which served as a means to safeguard themselves from thieves. It was only when the industrial age had set in that international money transfers took a completely new form. Wire transfers entered the picture in the late 19th century, and its popularity resulted in the birth of several private non-banking companies that offered this service. Some of the pioneers of this field, such as Western Union, remain in existence even today.

While wire transfers were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the use of mail remained the primary mode of communication even until the early 1990s. By this time, international money orders started finding an increasing number of takers, and they soon became one of the most commonly used way to transfer funds internationally. In the mid-1990s, money orders accounted for around 40% of remittances sent to Mexico. Low costs worked in the favor of international money orders, although the time taken for funds to reach recipients depended on multiple factors.

The biggest changes have taken place around the turn of the last century. The use of electronic transfers has increased manifold, and this medium now accounts for over 90% of all cross-border remittances. A recipient can receive cash from a physical location moments after a sender initiates a transfer. Alternatively, funds can move between bank accounts held in different countries with relatively ease, without actually dealing with a bank.

The future looks better still, where a society is embracing going cashless. With the advent of virtual crypto-currency platforms such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Litecoin, moving funds from one country to another may get easier than ever before.

Banks - International Telegraphic Transfers and Wire Transfers

The terms wire transfers and telegraphic transfers are often used interchangeably. However, a telegraphic transfer, historically, relies on a cable message being sent from one bank to another in order to facilitate a fund transfer.  A telegraphic transfer, or a telex transfer, usually involves a fee charged by the sending bank, and in some instances, by the receiving bank as well.

A wire transfer involves the transfer of funds electronically, and you may carry out a wire transfer through your bank. Financial institutions might depend on different transfer systems and offer multiple options when it comes to aspects such as costing and turnaround times. For example, centralized bank wire transfers in the U.S. typically rely on real time gross settlement (RTGS) systems that offer real-time and irrevocable settlements.

Banks have lost out on their share of the global remittance pie over the last couple of decades mainly because of cost-effectiveness, although the time they typically take to process transfers has also played a role. The competition they face from their non-banking counterparts, without doubt, is stiff.

Specialist Money Transfer Companies

Western Union launched its wire transfer service in 1872, by making use of its then existing telegraph network. Now, the company has storefronts in several countries, giving people easy means to send and receive money in different ways. Some of the other popular players with physical locations or agents include WorldRemit, MoneyGram, Azimo, and Ria. While the wire transfer services offered by such companies are largely similar to what you’ll find through banks, they tend to offer quicker turnaround times by charging extra fees.

The online space, owing to fewer overhead costs and rapidly evolving technology, has sprung a number of FinTech companies such as TransferWise and CurrencyFair. TransferWise, a UK-based FinTech unicorn, for instance, has successfully driven down industry costs by offering game changing services such as low-fee multi-currency accounts.

Low Tech Remittance Across Exotic Currencies Using Second Generation Mobile Phones

Residents of several countries in Asia, Africa, and South America continue using second generation mobile phones. This presents a unique opportunity not just for businesses that deal in remittance of funds, but also for mobile phone network providers. Digicel, owned by the Irish billionaire Denis O'Brien, currently operates in 31 markets across Central America, the Caribbean, and Oceania. With around 14 million customers, it is already making inroads in the mobile banking and micro insurance sectors.  O'Brien has, in the past, made clear that he hopes to leverage his mobile brand to facilitate cash transfers.

The Future – Crypto Currency Remittance

There has been a rise in the use of crypto currency as a medium for global remittance, and the upward trend is set to continue. Catherine Wood, CEO of ARK Investment Management in the US, opines that “The liquidity isn’t there, but as we gain liquidity in bitcoin, the costs will drop dramatically and be minimized. As a digital ledger, blockchain is fully transparent. There is an audit trail. We are eliminating a lot of middlemen here. FinTech will be more of an answer to the problem of fraud than a cause of it.”

However, not everybody is equally optimistic. Taavet Hinrikus, CEO of UK-based TransferWise, feels “There is a fundamental problem. It is lacking a purpose and is pure speculation. I cannot really see a problem that bitcoin is solving.” His view of the overall blockchain technology is more positive, about which he says, “I see things coming to life which are built around blockchain but not digital currencies.”

For now, it looks like depth of market may impact the ability of exchanges to convert in and out of local exchanges in different global regions. As a result, crypto currencies may not be appropriate for some of the more exotic currencies yet.

Conclusion

The developing FinTech sector will, without doubt, define the future course of the remittance industry. With consumers becoming increasingly aware of the options they have, the industry will need to keep evolving so it can provide services that match the needs of its customers. The way money is transferred across borders has witnessed a sea of change in the last two decades, and by the looks of things with new multi-currency accounts, better things are yet to come.

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