Historically, U.S. companies that export products and services to buyers resident outside of the United States comprise a small percentage of the U.S. GDP when compared with other G-7 developed countries. For the period 1990 – 2004, the U.S. percentage of GDP representing exports of goods and services stayed relatively flat, at 10%, while the percentage from all the other G-7 countries rose, ranging from the United Kingdom (15%) to Germany, rising sharply 2002-2004 to 44%.
Despite the expansion and improvement in global communications with the advent of the Internet and global telephony, coupled with the availability of rapid express delivery worldwide and falling tariff and non-tariff barriers, the number of U.S. companies exporting grew only by 8.5% for the period 1997-2004, from 213,664 to 231,664. About 97% of the 231,736 exporting companies are considered ‘small' business.
Small business is vital to the U.S. economy. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are approximately 5.8 million businesses in the U.S. of which 99% are considered ‘small.' ‘Small' Business is defined in general by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) as any business with fewer than 500 employees. Consider the following tiers indicating the numbers of businesses based on employment
<20 Employees 5,150,316
20 – 49 Employees 392,284
50 – 99 Employees 122,772
100 – 499 Employees 84,829
To be fair, a large percentage of the < 20 Employee category are ‘retail' store fronts that are defined as ‘non-trading' enterprises. The small businesses most likely to export are a) manufacturers, b) wholesalers and c) engineering and other consulting firms that provide services. The last category includes environmental engineering and biomedical enterprises that are enjoying great demand from foreign buyers.
Despite the many trade finance and risk mitigation tools and assistance programs available to U.S. small businesses to help them participate in the export markets successfully, only 4% of these companies actually sell products and services to international buyers. Why aren't more U.S. ‘small' businesses entering the export markets, especially when trade finance and risk mitigation tools and assistance programs are available? How can more U.S. small businesses - especially the ‘very small' segment of 100 or fewer employees – become involved in profitable exporting using available tools and assistance programs?
Where We Stand
The low and relatively flat level of participation by U.S. small businesses in export trade is of great concern to government leaders at the local, state and national levels. Firms that export pay higher wages and benefits, thereby improving the welfare of their employees and their communities. For every $1 billion in exports, on average, 14,000 domestic jobs are created. Exporters also are more resistant to an economic downturn in the local/national U.S. economy since they serve additional foreign markets whose economies might not be in the same economic cycle experienced by the United States. Since 95% of the world's population resides outside of the United States, it would seem to be a strategic goal to access the largest number of prospective buyers within reasonable cost, time and other constraints. Finally, if more U.S. small businesses exported their products and services, the U.S. Current Trade Account Deficit would likely be significantly reduced, strengthening the U.S. Dollar along with other positive economic consequences. The last U.S. Trade Surplus occurred in 1975.
A number of studies have addressed the issues of what motivates and/or obstructs a small company from entry to export markets. Most focus on the obstacles facing U.S. small business based on surveys and other observations. The Export-Import Bank of the United States (Ex-Im Bank), the official U.S. export credit support agency, conducts annual competitiveness surveys. The number one concern of company respondents was ‘getting paid.' Forester Research found that 85% of small - and medium size companies with an online presence cannot fulfill orders internationally, citing ‘shipping' as the number one hurdle. Other reasons cited by participants include
- Lack of information on export markets
- Lack of information on prospective foreign customers
- Unfamiliarity of export procedures, shipping paperwork
- International markets are too risky (risk of loss due to non-payment)
- Not sure of financing and risk mitigation options, if any
- Costs to enter export markets are too high
Such obstacles or limitations can be separated into two categories:
Self-Imposed Limitations (Within the Control of Prospective Exporter)
- Too Expensive (Additional Costs Involved with Exporting Compared with Marketing and Selling Within the United States )
- Too Risky (Foreign Culture/Language Barriers, Higher Financing Costs, Plain Old Complacency and Comfort with Selling to U.S. Buyers)
Extraneous Obstacles (Beyond the Control of the Prospective Exporter)
- Foreign Tariff Barriers
- Non-Tariff Barriers
- Perceived Lack of Financing and Risk Mitigation Support Offered by U.S. Banks
Studies also show that U.S. small businesses are reactive rather than proactive in their export sales expansion, accepting purchase orders from international buyers resulting solely and sometimes only from unsolicited foreign inquiries. The greatest ‘cost' to small business appears to be psychological, a fear by small business owners of the unknown time and expense necessary to enter a foreign market successfully – sometimes of just where to begin the process. Only those very entrepreneurial small firms that develop new products and services based on both domestic and international want and need integrate international marketing and sales into their business growth plans at the outset. This is often the case with new products launched by high technology (computer, medical, environmental) firms. The rest of those U.S. small businesses that manufacture products and provide wholesale distribution services appear to be limited in both their desire to open new markets as well as their education of how to do and finance business internationally (all self-imposed).
Brave New World
Despite all of the rhetoric and complaints by U.S. small business owners that they cannot compete internationally, it is by and large their own failure for not expanding sales into international markets. For every obstacle or limitation cited by U.S. companies, there are one or more solutions available in the form of private and public sector support and resource programs. Simply taking the time and effort to learn, understand and then use the tools that are available to successfully market, sell and service their products and services to foreign buyers will yield incremental profits and value to their companies, employees and their communities, not to mention the country as a whole.
How to Determine International Want and Need
The advent of the Internet has greatly improved communication between global suppliers and prospective buyers. Inquiries and Requests for Quote now arrive instantly by email. In addition, a company's products and services are attractively displayed, described and explained via company websites, now in multiple languages. In 2005, the U.S. had over 205 million Internet users, and the rest of the world is catching up. Therefore, not only are trade inquiries increasing, but U.S. companies are now becoming proactive by designing and posting websites effective in marketing their products and services, a positive marketing outreach. Especially with the weak U.S. Dollar, many international companies want and need products and services provided by U.S. small businesses.
Marketing – U.S. Government Support
Many U.S. small businesses may not be aware of, or choose to ignore the substantial assistance available from the U.S. Government. A wide array of programs, tools and resource are available to small business from federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Commerce (USDOC), Small Business Administration (SBA), Ex-Im Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). The combined export trade services of these federal agencies can be accessed through the 107 United States Export Assistance Centers (USEAC) situated throughout the United States. USEAC's 1,500 skilled employees help small business accelerate up the learning curve to overcome obstacles to exporting. The US Commercial Service, an arm of the USDOC also offers reasonably priced international marketing services and resources that help a new-to-export or small exporter market their products, find creditworthy buyers and avoid fraud and other risks of loss. Their Gold and Platinum Key Matching Service Programs assist any company with initial export marketing efforts by qualifying interested foreign prospects in advance prior to trips abroad to meet face-to-face, which the US Commercial Service facilitates. U.S. small businesses can also advertise their products and services in USDOC publications like Commercial News USA for a modest cost. Commercial News USA 's website receives 18,000 unique visitors monthly, which adds visibility over and above a company's own website and other marketing materials.
Marketing/Assistance – State and Local Support
A number of states, cities and universities provide export assistance for small businesses. A combination of 45 states and cities are working with the Ex-Im Bank City/State Partnership Program, where these local governments provide skilled, experienced staff to help local small businesses use available export programs, including the Ex-Im Bank and SBA export financing and insurance financing and loss protection programs. Some states also maintain Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) to help their state's small business sector with exporting. There are over 1,000 SBDCs operating across the country. Other local, non-profit outreach available is at the university level. One example is Duquesne University's Small Business Development Center in Pittsburgh, PA. Duquesne's SBDC is dedicated to helping small businesses grow export sales by providing proper export planning tools and other guidance from experienced personnel who are foreign born and can bridge the communication and culture gaps highlighted by small business as obstacles to increased trade.
Financing – Working Capital (Pre-Shipment Period and Post Shipment Periods)
Another obstacle cited by small business is the perceived lack of export financing support. The need to finance the purchase of inventory, labor and other costs associated with an export order, i.e. working capital financing, is an important issue. After all, U.S. small businesses are generally thinly capitalized, relying heavily on working capital financing provided by commercial banks to finance their cash cycle. Regrettably, U.S. commercial banks do not include an ‘export' Account Receivable in a U.S. small business' working capital borrowing base. Why? U.S. commercial banks of almost all sizes are foreign risk averse, maintaining credit policies that prohibit the reliance on a foreign obligor - the foreign customer - to pay for an invoice within terms.
There are several solutions to this financing obstacle. Ex-Im Bank and the SBA each carry the full faith and credit of the United States, the highest quality credit rating in the world. Ex-Im Bank and the SBA offer joint Export Working Capital Loan Programs that provide guarantees (generally up to 90%) to a private commercial bank to induce the bank to provide working capital financing to U.S. businesses to fulfill export orders. The Ex-Im Bank or SBA guarantee of both principal and interest covers not only the Pre-Export period (purchase of inventory, raw materials, labor and other eligible costs) but also the Post-Shipment period (carrying the export Account Receivable up to 180/360 days). The SBA guarantees smaller export working capital loans and lines of credit ( up to $1,500,000) , while Ex-Im Bank provides the guarantee for loans/credit lines above $1,500,000. Both use the same credit application. While not all U.S. banks will be experienced in these working capital finance guarantee programs, the list of participating banks can be found at www.exim.gov
There are some limitations to these programs which are not unduly restrictive. The guarantee solely covers the U.S. lender from default (up to 90% and in some cases 100%) of the bank's loan to the U.S. exporter, whether or not the foreign buyer pays for the export shipment. Another caveat: Ex-Im Bank's program requires that the products or service exported have at least 50% U.S. content (labor and materials exclusive of profit markup).
More recently, privately owned merchant finance companies have begun to finance trade by providing Purchase Order financing. They essentially become a party to the trade transaction to protect their financing interest until the self-liquidating export trade transaction is complete with satisfactory payment. In general, these financing options are more expensive and involve greater control of the trade process by the merchant lender.
Risk Mitigation – Protecting International Accounts Receivable from Loss
The subsequent need is to reduce the risk of loss to the small business exporter if and when their foreign customer does not pay the exporter's sales invoice. Again, there are solutions to mitigate these risks of loss, which result from two sets of risk of loss event perils:
Foreign ‘ Commercial ' Risk of Loss Events
Foreign Client's Inability or Failure to Pay Invoices Due to
- Slow-Pay Behavior (Protracted Default)
- Devaluation of Foreign Currency
Foreign ‘ Political ' Risk of Loss Events
Foreign Country's Regulations and Statutes that allow
- Confiscation of Goods
- Suspension of Import Licenses
- War, Civil Strife, Rebellion
- Currency Inconvertibility
Sales made under Irrevocable Letters of Credit (LCs) are a traditional tool used to mitigate risk of loss. An LC places the U.S. exporter's bank and their foreign customer's bank inside the trade transaction, reducing the risk of loss to both parties for failure of either one to live up to the export sales/purchase contract. The exporter's commercial bank will assist with the LCs if the bank provides International Banking Services, or if the bank uses another correspondent bank that maintains an International Banking Department. There are some drawbacks to LCs. Not all foreign buyers can pay under a LC because of the high fees, often 2-3% of shipment value. An LC requires a credit relationship between the foreign importer and its bank, which might divert precious working capital from the foreign buyer's other local credit needs.
Export Credit Insurance has also been an effective risk mitigation, financing and sales expansion tool used by exporting companies for over 100 years. This casualty insurance is provided both by the public sector (Ex-Im Bank, OPIC) as well as the private sector insurance companies such as Euler Hermes ACI, Atradius Trade Credit, AIG Global Trade and Political Insurance, and several other insurers that have strong claims paying and financial strength ratings. Export Credit Insurance is usually less expensive than L/Cs but has different risk sharing and indemnity parameters in its insurance contracts, including a small U.S. exporter retention of risk loss through loss deductibles and co-pays. This tool is actively used in Europe but is just becoming known and used by U.S. companies, large and small. The use of a professional Export Credit Insurance Broker is recommended for the small business exporter since the broker's commission for its services is paid by the insurance company providing the insuring agreement and protection, not by the exporter.
These examples of available financing and risk of loss mitigation overcome the perceived absence of financing support cited by small business.
Export Support Services - Logistics
U.S. small businesses cited the lack of knowledge of shipping and insurance as a limitation to their involvement in exporting. The selection of a qualified Freight Forwarder will usually address the business owner's concerns about these duties. The Freight Forwarder (FF) will assist in arranging for both inland and marine passage to their foreign destination. These logistics professionals will advise on what shipping and other documentation are required to pass through foreign customs. FFs actually prepare some or all of the shipping documents for the U.S. exporter.
They work closely with commercial banks when letters of credit and documentary collections are used as the vehicles for shipment and payment. There are other trade consultants that can assist with customs (tariff and non-tariff barriers and customs issues) like FedEx Trade Networks and UPS Global Advisors.
Each business product and service will have unique channels of international distribution and supply chain that is dictated by industry, sector, foreign country and/or culture and custom. The USDOC offers a solution to many small business owners. Through the U.S. Commercial Service which maintains commercial attaches in U.S. Embassies and Consulates around the world, small businesses can be guided as to the proper distribution channels to use that are proven effective for their products and services in penetrating the chosen markets.
Reduction in Tariff and Non-Tariff Barriers
Tariffs: Foreign-imposed Tariffs and other costs to import U.S. products and services into other countries act as taxes, raising the price of products and services, which could make them more costly than local products. Since 1947, trade tariffs for industrialized countries have fallen from 38.5% to 4% resulting from 8 rounds of multilateral trade negotiations. Tariffs in developing nations have also fallen rapidly. Most recently, China lowered tariffs to 7% for U.S. products from 25% in 1997. India 's import tariffs for most industrial goods have declined from 35.6% in 1997 to 12.5% this year.
Non-Tariff Barriers: When the World Trade Organization (WTO) was established in 1995 as the successor to General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), a new focus was made to encourage reduction of barriers that dealt with the export of ‘services.' The most egregious of barriers was and still is the lack of protection of Intellectual Property Rights, which are administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization. Other Non-Tariff Trade Barriers that have kept U.S. small businesses from entering the export market include bureaucratic licensing, registration and other delaying, costly tactics used by foreign governments to restrict trade. For example, export sales into China sometimes requires making arrangements to comply with the China Compulsory Certification (CCC) marking requirements depending on the type of products offered by the U.S. small business exporter. The International Trade Administration offers advice and guidance on how to comply with foreign government licensing and other requirements on their website at www.trade.gov.
Bilateral and Regional Free Trade Agreements: Small business owners are living in times where such extraneous barriers to trade are at their lows when compared with prior generations. Another series of developments that have been and will continue to induce U.S. small businesses to export are the recent series of Bilateral and Regional Free Trade Agreements made between the United States and other countries, which have significantly expanded access to many foreign markets and lowered Tariff and Non-Tariff barriers. All in all, the United States has negotiated 270 trade agreements to assist all U.S. businesses in penetrating foreign markets.
NAFTA, CAFTA, and FTA – what does this all mean to U.S. small businesses? Since the early 1990s, the U.S. Government has taken a leading role in reducing trade barriers by negotiating ‘Free Trade Agreements' (FTAs) with individual countries and groups of countries that likewise desire a reduction in trade barriers. NAFTA was implemented in 1994, lowering tariffs for trade between the U.S. , Mexico and Canada . CAFTA-DR, the Central American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and five Central American countries and the Dominican Republic was just approved by Congress in 2005. Equally impressive are the multiple FTAs approved and/or in the process of being negotiated with Morocco, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Colombia, Panama, Peru, Korea, Malaysia and Thailand. Such FTAs serve to lower the cost of U.S. products and services in the above countries, making them more cost competitive.
Progress Made, Things Yet to Come
The outreach to U.S. small businesses from the U.S. Government is growing. For FYE September, 2005, Ex-Im Bank assisted in 2,617 small business export transactions, but it still acknowledges more room for improvement. Congress, which charters Ex-Im Bank every five years, requires that a minimum 20% of the bank's credit approved each year (export loan guarantees, export credit insurance, direct loans) be directed to U.S. small businesses. The bank fell short last year, reaching only 19.1% or $2.6 billion in approved export credit for small businesses. Ex-Im Bank relies on its Registered Insurance Broker and Bank Lender Networks to provide the majority of export support outreach nationally. Ex-Im Bank has issued approximately 1,200 Small Business Export Credit Insurance Policies nationally, with only about 30 private sector insurance brokers actively involved with this asset protection tool. To address the need for greater successful outreach, Ex-Im Bank has created the Small Business Division to focus more resources to meet the needs of the U.S. small business sector.
Examples of improvements and inducements being made to help U.S. small business export more include a 25% discount on Ex-Im Bank provided export credit insurance premium cost if used in conjunction with an Ex-Im Bank Export Working Capital Guarantee obtained by the small business bank lender. Another inducement is more favorable terms offered to U.S. businesses that supply environmental and medical goods and services, two sectors where the U.S. has strong competitive advantages and leading technology. A third incentive to encourage small businesses to export is Ex-Im Bank's Small Business Export Credit Insurance Policy. This policy significantly lowers the initial risk sharing required of the exporter, through a combination of a -0- First Loss Deductible (for loss claims) and a higher indemnity of loss coverage, being 95% for commercial risks of loss and 100% for political risks of loss.
Another improvement is the creation of EximOnline, a secured website designed to expedite the applications for multi buyer and single buyer export credit insurance. Launched in June, 2006,EximOnline has significantly reduced the time it takes a U.S. business, with the help of qualified Ex-Im Bank Registered Insurance Brokers, to apply for and receive approval of any of the Ex-Im Bank Export Credit Insurance policies. Applications require less documentation, and Ex-Im Bank staffs are approving foreign buyer limit endorsements more rapidly than before EximOnline was available.
OPIC established its Small Business Center (SBC) in 2002 to offer lower cost loan guarantees and political risk insurance to small and medium size (SME) U.S. business. They have followed in 2003 with the creation of their Department of Small and Medium Enterprise Finance to administer their direct loans to U.S. businesses with annual revenues less than $250 million.
Current Private Sector Outreach Programs
Despite the above outreach improvements, the Federal Government has realized that they were not meeting with expected success. Consequently, it decided to recruit key ‘private' sector companies – banks, express delivery, and other privately owned marketing companies with the willingness and resources to support exporting - to become ‘partners' with the Federal Government to encourage small businesses to export. These companies offer the tools and services that enable small business to export in a safe, sound and competitive manner. Owing to both community social responsibility and profit purposes, they willingly partner with the Federal Government to co-brand the combined public-private resources available to support export sales.
For example, The Department of Commerce has partnered with FedEx, a program initiated in 2004. FedEx international sales representatives are trained in the tools, programs and resources made available by the U.S. Commercial Service to better educate and guide small businesses. The DOC has also partnered with PNC Bank to design and deliver information about the programs of the DOC, Ex-Im Bank and OPIC through seminars held in their regional markets as well as webinars for small business clients and prospects.
eBay, with its highly successful global internet marketing, sales and PayPal payment platforms, established a partner program with the DOC in 2005. With 193 million members in more than 150 different countries, EBay provides a channel to the 70% of all U.S. exporters that have 20 or fewer employees.
For years, efforts have been made by Ex-Im Bank, the SBA and the U.S. Department of Commerce to determine the ‘tipping point' that will accelerate the number of small business entering the export or global market. The writer's observations from 36 years of experience is that there are only two conditions or environments which evoke an urgency – a call to action – for a small business to enter the export markets: 1) Competition from other U.S. and foreign companies, and 2) a slowdown in the U.S. economy that impacts their profitability, sometimes even their survival. Usually, a lot of shoe leather is required to educate and assist small businesses to grow sales through exporting. This demands dealing with them one-on-one, face-to-face to resolve their fears of the unknown. Such hand-to-hand combat is time consuming and expensive for both the public and private sector service providers of solutions to make exporting easier, faster and less costly. The current slowdown in the U.S. economy may be the catalyst to increasing small business involvement in export marketing and sales.
Notwithstanding the above, the writer's own experience working with small business exporters validates both the obstacles to success as well as the effectiveness of solutions to overcome such limitations. A Tennessee hardwood lumber exporter quadrupled export sales over 3 years using export credit insurance to expand sales, finance working capital and reduce risk of loss for open account shipments. The export sales of a Tennessee small business supplier of plastic resin have also tripled over a similar period using some of the resources cited above. Export sales to Mexico, Brazil, China and several European markets have grown substantially. There is reason to believe that these programs work if a commitment is made by the small business exporter to embrace, understand, then actually use the available tools to grow international sales in a safe, sound and cost effective manner.
Ex-Im Bank continues to herald its successful support of small businesses that win export orders in the environmental, healthcare and energy sectors. An example is the Ex-Im Bank approval of a $350 million long-term loan guarantee that supports the export of goods and services from 191 U.S. companies (of which 91 are small businesses) for upstream oil field development for Mexico's PEMEX. Other examples of Ex-Im Bank support for small business are located on the Ex-Im Bank website at www.exim.gov.
Certainly, if a small business is located in the southern or northern U.S. border states adjacent to our NAFTA trading partners, there is a greater propensity to export driven by foreign demand more than anything else. Consider that in 2004, some 79,000 Small and Medium Size (SME) companies exported to Canada. Approximately 42,500 U.S. companies export to Mexico. In fact, 60% of SME exporting companies export to just one foreign market, while 40% export to just four foreign markets, being Canada, Mexico, Japan and the United Kingdom. Simply by encouraging and assisting these current small business exporters to add sales to just one additional market, it is estimated that our U.S. Trade Deficit of $700 billion could be cut in half.
The tools and solutions for U.S. small business to enter new export markets are abundantly available. There has never been a better time to consider growth through exporting given the weak U.S. dollar, lower tariff and non-tariff barriers in many foreign markets, and the support programs of both the U.S. public and private sectors. Certainly the Internet, global communications and faster shipment services have improved the infrastructure by which international commerce can expand. While there is no easy, quick, painless and inexpensive ‘button' that small business owners can push to obtain assistance with exporting, the tools and time are ripe. Greater domestic competition and concerns for survival might accelerate the movement of U.S. small business to engage more fully in the global marketplace.
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