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How to Finance Export Transactions

Exporters naturally want to get paid as quickly as possible, and importers usually prefer delaying payment at least until they have received and resold the goods. Because of the intense competition for export markets, being able to offer good payment terms is often necessary to make a sale. Exporters should be aware of the many financing options open to them so that they may choose the one that is most favorable for both the buyer and the seller.

An exporter may need (1) pre-shipment financing to produce or purchase the product or to provide a service or (2) post-shipment financing of the resulting account or accounts receivable, or both. The following factors are important to consider in making decisions about financing:

The need for finance export to make the sale. In some cases, favorable payment terms make a product more competitive. If the competition offers better terms and has a similar product, a sale can be lost. In other cases, the exporter may need financing to produce the goods that have been ordered or to finance other aspects of a sale, such as promotion and selling expenses, engineering modifications, and shipping costs. Various financing sources are available to exporters, depending on the specifics of the transaction and the exporter's overall financing needs.

The cost of different methods of finance export. Interest rates and fees vary. The total costs and their effect on price and profit should be well understood before a pro forma invoice is submitted to the buyer.

The length of time financing is required. Costs increase with the length of terms. Different methods of financing are available for short, medium, and long terms. However, exporters also need to be fully aware of financing limitations so that they can obtain the financing required to complete the transaction.

The risks associated with financing the transaction. The greater the risks associated with the transaction - whether they actually exist or are only perceived by the lender - the greater the costs to the exporter as well as the more difficult financing will be to obtain. Financing will also be more costly.

The creditworthiness of the buyer directly affects the probability of payment to the exporter, but it is not the only factor of concern to a potential lender. The political and economic stability of the buyer's country also can be of concern. To provide financing for either accounts receivable or the production or purchase of the product for sale, the lender may require the most secure methods of payment, a letter of credit (possibly confirmed), or export credit insurance.

If a lender is uncertain about the exporter's ability to perform, or if additional credit capacity is needed, a government guarantee program may enable the lender to provide additional financing.

The availability of the exporter's own financial resources. The company may be able to extend credit without seeking outside financing, or the company may have sufficient financial strength to establish a commercial line of credit. If neither of these alternatives is possible or desirable, other options may exist, but the exporter should fully explore the available options before issuing the pro forma invoice.


Exporters need to weigh carefully the credit or financing they extend to foreign customers. Exporters should follow the same careful credit principles they follow for domestic customers. An important reason for controlling the credit period is the cost incurred, either through use of working capital or through interest and fees paid. If the buyer is not responsible for paying these costs, then the exporter should factor them into the selling price.

A useful guide for determining the appropriate credit period is the normal commercial terms in the exporter's industry for internationally traded products. Buyers generally expect to receive the benefits of such terms. With few exceptions, normal commercial terms range from 30 to 180 days for off-the-shelf items like consumer goods, chemicals, and other industrial raw materials, agricultural commodities, and spare parts and components. Custom-made or higher-value capital equipment, on the other hand, may warrant longer repayment periods. An allowance may have to be made for longer shipment times than are found in domestic trade, because foreign buyers are often unwilling to have the credit period start before receiving the goods.

Foreign buyers often press exporters for longer payment periods, and it is true that liberal financing is a means of enhancing export competitiveness. The exporter should recognize, however, that longer credit periods increase any risk of default for which the exporter may be liable.

Thus, the exporter must exercise judgment in balancing competitiveness against considerations of cost and safety. Also, credit terms once extended to a buyer tend to set the precedent for future sales, so the exporter should carefully consider any credit terms extended to first-time buyers.

Customers are frequently charged interest on credit periods of a year or longer but infrequently on short-term credit (up to 180 days). Most exporters absorb interest charges for short-term credit unless the customer pays after the due date.

Obtaining cash immediately is usually a high priority with exporters. One way they do so is by converting their export receivables to cash at a discount with a bank. Another way is to expand working capital resources. A third approach, suitable when the purchase involves capital goods and the repayment period extends a year or longer, is to arrange for project financing. In this case, a lender makes a loan directly to the buyer for the project and the exporter is paid immediately from the loan proceeds while the bank waits for payment and earns interest. A fourth method, when financing is difficult to obtain for a buyer or market, is to engage in counter-trade to afford the customer an opportunity to generate earnings with which to pay for the purchase.

The options that have been mentioned normally involve the payment of interest, fees, or other costs. Some options are more feasible when the amounts are in larger denominations. Exporters should also determine whether they incur financial liability should the buyer default.


The same type of commercial loans that finance domestic activities - including loans for working capital and revolving lines of credit - are often sought to finance export sales until payment is received. However, banks do not usually extend credit solely on the basis of an order.

A logical first step in obtaining financing is for an exporter to approach its local commercial bank. If the exporter already has a loan for domestic needs, then the lender already has experience with the exporter's ability to perform. Many exporters have very similar, if not identical, pre-shipment needs for both their international and their domestic transactions. Many lenders, therefore, would be willing to provide financing for export transactions if there were a reasonable certainty of repayment. By using letters of credit or export credit insurance, an exporter can reduce the lender's risk.

For a company that is new to exporting or is a small or medium-sized business, it is important to select a bank that is sincerely interested in serving businesses of similar type or size. If the exporter's bank lacks an international department, it will refer the exporter to a correspondent bank that has one. The exporter may want to visit the international department - of the exporter's own bank or a correspondent bank - to discuss its export plans, available banking facilities, and applicable fees.

When selecting a bank, the exporter should ask the following questions:

  • What are the charges for confirming a letter of credit, processing drafts, and collecting payment?
  • Does the bank have foreign branches or correspondent banks? Where are they located?
  • Can the bank provide buyer credit reports? At what cost?
  • What other services, such as trade leads, can it provide?

Banker's acceptances and discounting

A time draft under an irrevocable letter of credit confirmed by a prime bank presents relatively little risk of default. Also, some banks or other lenders may be willing to buy time drafts that a credit-worthy foreign buyer has accepted or agreed to pay at a specified future date. In some cases, banks agree to accept the obligations of paying a draft, usually of a customer, for a fee; this is called a banker's acceptance.

However, to convert these instruments to cash immediately, an exporter must obtain a loan using the draft as collateral or sell the draft to an investor or a bank for a fee. When the draft is sold to an investor or bank, it is sold at a discount. The exporter receives an amount less than the face value of the draft so that when the draft is paid at its face value at the specified future date, the investor or bank receives more than it paid to the exporter. The difference between the amount paid to the exporter and the face amount paid at maturity is called a discount and represents the fees or interest (or both) the investor or bank receives for holding the draft until maturity. Some drafts are discounted by the investor or bank without recourse to the exporter in case the party that is obligated to pay the draft defaults; others may be discounted with recourse to the exporter, in which case the exporter must reimburse the investor or bank if the party obligated to pay the draft defaults. The exporter should be certain of the terms and conditions of any financing arrangement of this nature.

Project finance

Some export sales, especially sales of capital equipment, may sometimes require financing terms tailored to the buyer's cash flow and may involve payments over several years. Often the buyer obtains a loan from its own bank or arranges for other financing to enable it to pay cash to the exporter. If other project financing is required, either the exporter or the foreign buyer can initiate the proposal.


Factoring, forfaiting, and confirming

Factoring, forfaiting, and confirming

Factoring is the discounting of a foreign account receivable that does not involve a draft. The exporter transfers title to its foreign accounts receivable to a factoring house (an organization that specializes in the financing of accounts receivable) for cash at a discount from the face value. Although factoring is often done without recourse to the exporter, the specific arrangements should be verified by the exporter. Factoring of foreign accounts receivable is less common than factoring of domestic receivables.

Forfaiting is the selling, at a discount, of longer term accounts receivable or promissory notes of the foreign buyer. These instruments may also carry the guarantee of the foreign government. Both U.S. and European forfaiting houses, which purchase the instruments at a discount from the exporter, are active in the market. Because forfaiting may be done either with or without recourse to the exporter, the specific arrangements should be verified by the exporter.

Confirming is a financial service in which an independent company confirms an export order in the seller's country and makes payment for the goods in the currency of that country. Among the items eligible for confirmation (and thereby eligible for credit terms) are the goods themselves; inland, air, and ocean transportation costs; forwarding fees; custom brokerage fees; and duties. For the exporter, confirming means that the entire export transaction from plant to end user can be fully coordinated and paid for over time.

Export intermediaries

In addition to acting as export representatives, many export intermediaries, can help finance export sales. Some of these companies may provide short-term financing or may simply purchase the goods to be exported directly from the manufacturer, thus eliminating any risks associated with the export transaction as well as the need for financing. Some of the larger companies may make counter-trade arrangements that substitute for financing in some cases.

Buyers and suppliers as sources of financing

Foreign buyers may make down payments that reduce the need for financing from other sources. In addition, buyers may make progress payments as the goods are completed, which also reduce other financing requirements. Letters of credit that allow for progress payments upon inspection by the buyer's agent or receipt of a statement of the exporter that a certain percentage of the product has been completed are not uncommon.

In addition, suppliers may be willing to offer terms to the exporter if they are comfortable that they will receive payment. Suppliers may be willing to accept assignment of a part of the proceeds of a letter of credit or a partial transfer of a transferable letter of credit. However, some banks allow only a single transfer or assignment of a letter of credit. Therefore, the exporter should investigate the policy of the bank that will be advising or confirming the letter of credit.

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