‘Reform that you may preserve. SWIFT’s directed change towards platformisation of global payments’

Crucial for international trade, cross-border payments are conducted via the correspondent banking (CB) system. This CB system is a decentralised network of bilateral agreements between more than 11,000 banks in different jurisdictions nested in a range of monetary spaces, and supported by a centralised messaging network (SWIFT). This global twin infrastructure consists of complex socio-technical and socio-spatial arrangements resistant to change. The global payment infrastructure is constituted by and for key members in cross-border payments, in which transaction banking is a key service. Analytical frameworks of innovation and change fail to grasp the essence of financial infrastructures that feature simultaneous cooperation and competition between and among challengers and incumbents, and lack overall central governance organised across scales. The new wave of digital technologies that are challenging business models roughly denoted by the rise of FinTech, however, makes change inevitable. Beset by inefficiencies, from which the gatekeeper incumbent banks profit, the international payments system lacked alternatives until the recent tech threat of disintermediation and reorganisation of legacy serial messaging chains to big data arrangements and centralising platformization. We show that the CB/SWIFT nexus is an integral part of the financial and advanced services providers (FABS) complex and as such also a specific part of obligatory passage points (OPPs) argued to create (and defend the creation of) difference to arbitrate and extract monopoly rents. Challenged by new technology, it makes understanding and conceptualising change in and of OPPs vital. Methodologically, the article draws on insights from an explorative research design, including 30 semi-structured expert interviews. Capturing the complex relationships between the intermediaries of the FABS complex in order to gain a better analytical understanding of change at system level, we argue that shifting rent extraction to new, forward-looking sources of profit is necessary to preserve incumbency.

Sabine Dörry is a Senior Research Fellow at the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER) and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Luxembourg. Her work focuses on the financial sector and financial centre development, including dynamics of sustainability, technology, and urban development.

Gary Robinson is a doctoral researcher at Ghent University and the University of Luxembourg, and a research fellow at the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER). He is working on the FINWEBS project (INTER/FWO/16/11312037/FinWebs) which explores the role of agency in interconnecting international financial centres. Within this project, Gary's PhD research focuses on financial infrastructure, specifically for international payments.

Ben Derudder is a Professor of Urban Studies and Director of KU Leuven’s Urban Studies Institute, an Associate Director of the Globalization and World Cities (GaWC) research network, and one of the editors of Regional Studies. Most of his research adopts an explicitly spatial approach to studying a broad range of urban and regional questions, with a focus on (1) the conceptualization, analysis, and governance of global city networks, and (2) the (putative) emergence of polycentric urban regions.