On not boiling oceans

Blog | 28 June 2017


"We don't want to boil the ocean" is an expression I had rarely come across until January. But it's practically a meme at trade finance events. The context varies. Practitioners don't want to boil the ocean in terms of trade finance regulation, digitisation and trade agreements, to name just a few.

The expression generally means not wasting time on large or grandiose schemes that will ultimately prove futile. Focussing on smaller, more practical projects are widely seen as more appealing.

It made me reflect on the origin of such an unusual expression. I haven't had much success from the usual (probably erroneous) suggestions online from Mark Twain to Will Rodgers, nor the dead tree of the Oxford University Press. I should be grateful for your thoughts (and spotting the meme at events).  

Even so, the metaphor brings food for thought for all of us in trade finance - for commentators, practitioners and government trade negotiators. Adam Smith shared his opinions on treaties of commerce as he called trade agreements in his Wealth of Nations in 1776. "Such treaties, though they may be advantageous to the merchants and manufacturers [of the treaty nation] but are necessarily disadvantageous to the favouring country," he wrote.  

Many years have passed since the philosophers of trade set out their stalls. The reality remains that trade happens when a buyer meets a seller. And the facilitators are the banks, insurers, and export credit agencies. Trade is based on trust and the facilitators are based on the same - it's credit and uberrima fides (the 'utmost good faith' that governs insurance contracts (see page 52)).  

The nature of trust in trade is always going to be tested. For sure, challenges of multiple single Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) versus wider agreements will be exercising the potential Brexit negotiators, among others, but wider agreements also run into the boiling the ocean debates. Whether the faith and trust that underlies the game theory that supports blockchain will win out is also to be debated. The temperature of the metaphorical ocean on all these subjects remains in question.  

Katharine Morton


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