THE enormous ships steaming into and out of the world’s ports do not only carry cargo. They also represent paperwork: bills of lading (BOLs), packing lists, letters of credit, insurance policies, orders, invoices, sanitary certificates, certificates of origin. Maersk, the world’s biggest container-shipping line, found that a shipment of avocados from Mombasa to Rotterdam in 2014 entailed more than 200 communications involving 30 parties.
A giant container vessel may be associated with hundreds of thousands of documents. “A Venetian merchant…would recognise some of our documentation,” says John Laurens, head of global transaction services at DBS, a Singaporean bank.
According to the World Economic Forum, the costs of processing trade documents are as much as a fifth of those of shifting goods. Removing administrative blockages in supply chains could do more to boost international trade than eliminating tariffs.