Belgium has long played an important role as a place of business for international market infrastructures (FMIs) such as SWIFT and Euroclear, which act as critical nodes in the smooth functioning of Belgian and international financial markets and payment services. These FMIs continue to grow in importance: for Euroclear Bank and SWIFT, for example, the number of transactions has more than doubled since the financial crisis year of 2008. One of the priorities for the National Bank's supervisory activities is therefore the safe and efficient handling of these money flows.
In addition to these established players, we note that Belgium is also an important location for a new category of institutions that provide payment services, the so-called payment institutions. In 2019, the National Bank granted authorisations to two electronic money institutions, seven payment institutions and one institution providing account information services under PSD2. The PSD2 introduces a regulatory framework for activities that were previously largely unregulated. The 'open banking' concept of PSD2 introduces new types of institutions which require authorisation: payment initiation service providers and account information service providers. If given permission by the customer, these new institutions can access the customer's payment accounts with other institutions. Naturally, this access is subject to strict safety requirements. In addition to these new types of institutions, there are also the British institutions that have established companies in Belgium in response to Brexit.
Also in 2019, the National Bank granted CSDR authorisations, which have replaced the former national authorisations, to two central securities depositories (CSDs).
The publication of the annual report (Financial Market Infrastructures and Payment Services Report) was postponed for a few months to include a first view of the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on financial market infrastructures, payment institutions and critical service providers.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on these institutions depended on the type of activity. Critical players had business continuity plans which took into account extreme scenarios like a pandemic, and were therefore well-prepared and switched to work from home. Due to market volatility, institutions involved in clearing and securities settlement and custody received more transactions to process. In contrast, the volume of card payments in physical stores fell sharply during lockdown, while card payments in online trade soared.
We have also been able to draw some first lessons on the best approach for financial market infrastructures - and, by extension, other organisations - to deal with a pandemic. As a pandemic is not the same as a one-off local incident, but can affect a large area for an extended period of time, specific approaches are necessary for the different phases of the pandemic. This is discussed more fully in a thematic article of the report.