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Indexing the New Normal


''The new normal is that we are in transition, we are in transformation and we don't know where we're heading,'' according to Lazaro Campos, chief executive of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication.

Campos was chatting with David Brancaccio, senior correspondent for American Public Media's Marketplace. The backdrop was SWIFT's Operations Forum at the Marriott Marquis Hotel last Tuesday.

Brancaccio had asked what life was like for financial services firms, nearing the fourth anniversary of the shotgun marriage of JPMorgan Chase and Bear Stearns that presaged the credit crisis that nearly took the world's financial system down by the end of 2008.

For SWIFT, which operates the world's largest network for messages carrying details of financial transactions, that meant preparing for more scenarios of events that could affect banks, securities firms and fund families. It meant increasing efficiency by 30 percent, cutting costs by 20 percent and investing the difference in what comes next.

Campos said the past two years have been the "best two operational years ever at SWIFT."

But there remains turmoil in markets, most particularly in the Euro zone, growth is slow and likely to stay so, he said, for five years. Or more.

Meanwhile the next crisis lurks. By Brancaccio's measure, one comes every seven years. Out of left field, most often.

What would be good would be to find a way to forecast disruptions. And that may just be sitting inside SWIFT's messaging network.

Last year, SWIFT, in fact, introduced what it hopes will become a widely watched barometer of economic health: The SWIFT Index. This benchmark measures the size of money moved between banks using SWIFT's most widely used message type, MT 103.

The indicator will be published monthly, beginning this year. But, given the daily flows of traffic and the transaction information the messages contain, you could eventually see the indices change by the day, hour and minute.

Brancaccio suggested to Campos that SWIFT emblazon the index in lights in Times Square, just like the Nasdaq Market Site or the National Debt Clock.

Why not? After all, SWIFT's offices here are on the 45th floor of ... 7 Times Square. A pretty good perch for a digital sign of the financial times.