SWIFT Thinking

In the financial sector, we refer to some everyday processes as “the plumbing:” Highly reliable systems used daily, with rarely a thought given to their operation. But there are two sides to the analogy, as plumbing blockages can be messy and damaging.

The piece of the plumbing of great interest today is the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT. SWIFT is the messaging platform that allows banks to exchange payment, fund transfer, and securities settlement instructions. Over 11,000 banks are members, transmitting over 10 billion messages on the network last year. SWIFT only communicates instructions; banks then work through the appropriate set of financial links to settle each transaction.

SWIFT is not the only interbank messaging system. Most nations have their own networks for domestic settlement like Fedwire in the U.S. and CHAPS in the U.K. Eurozone banks share the TARGET2 system for euro-denominated transfers.

Intermediaries like SWIFT are not the only means of cross-border transaction processing. Banks can use any communication medium to send payment instructions, but other channels require costly manual processing and are rife with potential for fraud; not many banks would be willing to take those risks to accommodate a sanctioned state. Losing access to SWIFT thus comes at a great cost.

Actions against Russia have precedent: in 2012, Iran was excluded from SWIFT in a pressure campaign to enforce nuclear sanctions, and North Korean banks were removed in 2017. When SWIFT suspension was threatened in 2014, Russia’s former finance minister estimated it would cause its economy to shrink by 5%.