Celebrating 90 years of Berne Union – 1934-2024

By Paul Heaney, Secretary General, Berne Union.
Paul Heaney
Paul Heaney
Secretary General, Berne Union

“Science finds, industry applies, man export credit adapts”

This is a clumsy but apt reworking of the slogan for the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, for which the theme was ‘technological innovation’.

Ninety years ago, also just five years beyond a global economic crisis, we looked to technology, manufacturing, and international trade to deliver recovery and progress. And so it has. World trade volumes today are more than 45 times larger than those of 1950, global GDP more than 70 times larger, and both technology and globalisation mean that commodities, products, people, information and ideas move faster, further and for lower costs than ever before.

This is not to suggest we live in some halcyon epoch of frictionless trade and prosperity for all. Our interconnected global economy has suffered greatly through the years of the pandemic and is increasingly vulnerable to both natural and human risks, from climate to conflict. The point is rather, to state the obvious, trade is a powerful force of progress.

Today, with similar ambition, we look to technology to transform the global economy: to decarbonise and re-industrialise, to address climate change and support economic development at the same time. No surprise that ‘sustainability’ was a key theme for the 2020 Dubai Expo.

There is no shortage of technological innovation. But the discovery of science and application of industry is incomplete without the scale and reach of trade.

Export credit adapts

Berne Union (BU) members provide over $3 trillion new commitments annually in support of trade – more than 10% of the total value of global exports.

While the scale of support has grown immensely since our establishment in 1934, the fundamental role of export credit insurance remains unchanged 90 years later. That is, enabling a smooth-functioning system of international trade, unlocking finance, mitigating risk, and increasing the confidence of businesses, banks and investors.

Nonetheless, the industry is certainly very different today from 1934, having evolved in response to new and changing technology, supply chains, policy frameworks and risks.

As a countercyclical risk mitigator, our industry thrives in challenging circumstances and through a series of economic crises, not least in the past decade and a half, has learned, adapted and emerged arguably more important, impactful and visible than ever.

Export Credit Agencies (ECAs) today are drivers of change, helping to transform (and transition) their national economies, providing proactive and targeted support for exporters, buyers and developers. ECAs not only create jobs at home, but also deliver economic and social impact abroad.

The private market for credit and political risk insurance has changed just as much. Most notably with a momentous increase in capacity for long tenor risk over the past couple of decades. This is the result of a wider and deeper market with a growing number of participants, line size and reinsurance appetite.

In an environment full of finance gaps, from climate to infrastructure to SMEs, a flexible, heterogeneous, and cooperative ecosystem is essential. This is one of the greatest strengths of both the BU and our industry.

Human innovation, ideas, and dialogue

From our origins as a small assembly of private insurers from Europe and the world’s first ECA (UK Export Finance as it is now), the BU has evolved over time, expanding globally and today representing 84 members from 67 countries across the world, including all major ECAs, private credit and political risk (CPRI) underwriters and multilateral investment insurers.

Our original role as a de facto standard setter has given way to a softer, but no less important function based around information-sharing, education, cooperation and community.

In these goals, diversity is truly our greatest strength.

Through their engagement in the BU our members are able to source inspiration and support from their peers and partners. Collectively, we can benchmark progress and help develop a vision for the future, drawing upon a vast array of shared experience.

Along with the wide network of external stakeholders we interact with, our members have a unique and important role to play in helping to solve some of the most pressing challenges currently facing the world, working together to achieve sustainable development which supports economic growth along with environmental and social integrity.

These are not fleeting challenges and tackling them will require sustained effort and cooperation over time. While technological innovation is as much a theme for 2024 as it was in 1934, to achieve our goals we will also need human innovation, in the form of ideas and dialogue, and this is where the BU finds its role.

With 90 years, 84 members, and countless individual contributions, the collective experience of this community is immense.

There is a huge amount to celebrate in the achievements of the past 90 years, but, perhaps even more so, to be excited about everything we could achieve in the next 90. Happy birthday BU!

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