While going about one’s day to day business, one often stumbles upon the truth. But one then picks oneself up, pretends that nothing has happened, and moves on. For some, ignorance is bliss, and knowledge is not for sharing. If to no one else, these laments of mine could surely apply to some of the banks in India. I was a banker once, and am still one at heart – if you dig seep enough.

Was I to believe that everyone who was someone at the helm of affairs at these banks – especially those dealing with international banking or staff training – was unaware of a document called the UCP (Uniform Customs and Practice for Documentary Credits, International Chamber of Commerce Publication No.600)? Were they similarly unaware of its companion publication, the ISBP (International Standard Banking Practice for the Examination of Documents under UCP 600)? I am sure some of them must have stumbled upon these ICC publications somewhere, some day. Strangely, it seems that the information was never passed on, necessary training not given. the knowledge not shared.

Well, at least that’s the impression I came away with after I met a group of bankers in early January 2016 in Gurgaon (Haryana, India). These bankers had come from branches across India to participate in a training programme. During my sessions, they admitted that even though they were dealing with export bills and LCs for years, they knew next to nothing about the UCP. I couldn’t help but ask if they had come across LCs stating that these were subject to ICC UCP 600. Indeed they had. And their response? I wanted to know. Absolutely nothing, they admitted. What about using their smart phones or the internet to find out what the words signified? They had not bothered to try.

I introduced the UCP to them, and showed them a copy of the original publication. It was pointless to ask if they had ever read the ICC publication. Yet, I did. One admitted having read UCP 500 (no typo here) but had given up mid-way. The others had no idea what the UCP was about, or how important it was for documentary credit operations. The group included bankers who had served their respective banks for between three to thirty years, with direct ‘working knowledge’ between six months to twenty years in their respective foreign exchange departments.

For good measure, I checked with them the status of Incoterms 2010 and marine cargo insurance. Alien concepts, all….. I gave up.

The tragic part of all this was that every bank in India had its own training centres spread all over India. Some of these were called training ‘colleges’, often headed by very senior bankers. Every year these training establishments drew up elaborate annual training plans for courses (including foreign exchange). The Foreign Exchange Dealers’ Association of India (FEDAI), too, did something similar. Their programmes too made only a passing reference to the ICC rules including those on documentary credits. Nothing was handled in-depth.

The real problem lay elsewhere – with their ostrich-like attitude. The banks believed that their in-house faculty, made up of officers of the banks themselves, were good enough. The banks firmly believed that no external faculty could add further value, could bring to the table any knowledge they themselves did not already possess. A cursory glance at their curriculum would show that, even when they take up the ICC rules for training, the course curriculum barely scratches the surface. The depth is invariably missing. Not enough time is given for the participants to get a proper grip on the subject. May be, these training centres are in a perennial state of denial. Or, may be, they simply do not know how much they need to know of what they do not know. For many of the faculty members, their posting as faculty is not perceived as a great opportunity to do something good, but as a punishment transfer (if you can’t fit him anywhere, dump him at a training centre), or a long vacation from the stress and strain of day-to-day banking.

Most of the new generation banks in India have centralised their key operations, including that of the examination of documents, issue of documentary credits and so on. This approach has its benefits, but also limits the knowledge base to a small group.
My session with the participants I was referring to earlier, began slowly. I used the Q&A mode to highlight key issues, and later explained the solutions in detail. Using the questions as starting points, I dwelt on some of the more important UCP articles, demonstrated their applications in practice, showed how these UCP articles could help them avoid the land mines. They grew in confidence as our interaction progressed. They admitted that not knowing anything better, they had all along accepted without protest every (so-called) discrepancy claim the foreign banks had thrown at them. The best part perhaps came when I introduced the ISBP, pointed out its utility and relevance, pulled out a copy and gave them a bit of time to glance through its pages. The look on their faces told me that all my efforts had been amply rewarded. Fortunately for me, there was no other speaker to follow. I used this opportunity to continue for more than two hours beyond the scheduled close.

The flood of enquiries continued through the next morning, so much so that I had great difficulty in bringing my session to a close. The muted comments that had started the previous day swelled in intensity the next morning. They said in one voice, “All these days we had no idea that we were making so many mistakes every day. God knows what errors we must have committed in the past. Why didn’t anyone tell us!” Being able to open a few doors for my fellow bankers made my day.

The key takeaways from this encounter may be summed up as follows:

a)     The UCP was neither a popular nor an essential study. The staff did things by rote – it got the job done. Their banks were not pro-active in facilitating the learning process. Rarely was a copy provided to the operating staff, nor were they adequately trained in its proper application. For no apparent reason, the decision makers at these banks had not shown the required interest in creating awareness among its operating staff.

b)  As always, the very existence of the ISBP came as a total surprise to everyone present. (No surprises; I had seen this happen many times earlier.) Who would dare introduce the ICC BC Opinions or the many case studies on the UCP to them?

c)     External faculty or guest speakers are rarely, if ever, invited to speak at these banks’ training centres or to their export-import customers.

d)  The ICC appears to be equally accountable for not creating the necessary awareness. If the importance of some of the ICC publications had been impressed upon the front-line staff, surely some interest could have been created, some benefit could have percolated down to the base of the pyramid.

e)   Had the banks identified or addressed the training needs seriously enough, it would surely have avoiding additional costs, helped in the smooth handling of documents related to international trade and further improved their image abroad.

Having worked as a banker in India and overseas for more than 25 years, followed by about two decade as a trainer, author and faculty on international trade, I may be allowed to stick my neck out and say that several banks in India, including the biggest of them all, are partners in the same crime. The unfortunate fact is that these banks simply do not seem to be seriously interested in skill development. They refuse to look beyond their internal resources, refuse to admit that relying on their in-house faculty may not be enough, that there is a desperate need for external help in terms of faculty. They needed to broaden their horizons, look beyond their home grown resources for fresh inputs, but they rarely did anything about it.

This frog-in-the-well attitude of some of the banks that I have come across puzzles me no end, for it defies logic. It’s no wonder the quality of their documentary credit operations continue to a source of frustration for the trading and the international banking community.

The saying goes that you can bring a horse to the water, but cannot make it drink. For decades I have been trying to bring the horse to the water, but must admit to having failed miserably. What CAN you do for such ‘horses’ if they refuse even to come to the water?

2 thoughts on “If you have heard about the ISBP, raise your hand

  1. Dear fellow bankers I my self equally feel your pain. Almost 45 years of career that started in Pakistan as management trainee and working overseas for past 40 years thought me that the problem is not limited to four walls of Pakistan. Practically I have seen people who fail infield are transferred to faculty or internal audit dept. only because central bank mandates both international audit as well as training. LESSON LEARNED “BANKING IN THEORY AND PRACTICE “ are entirely two different animals. No matter how many discrepancies are in documents as long as they get paid and banks collected income all is well. A good friend of mine Tara Mcgayee (late) told me once Arshad I agree with you 100% but some times as an operations person out arms are twisted by RM and you have to give in. It did not end there modern day banking is even worst, it’s no longer an international banking instead it more of s policing the financial system of the world. Government around the world are shifting their responsibilities of policing the financial system on to commercial banks who are in business of making a buck. Hence banking itself is a dying business. So many big names faded away from horizon. On and on Ok my train stop approaching. Was interesting train commute tonight going home.

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