US companies are finding that beating foreign competition is a little like trying to sell a house. The ability to offer low-cost financing can be as important as tempting the buyer with a low price.
The Budd Company of Troy, Mich., was the latest to learn this lesson. This week it sued in federal court to block New York City's purchase of subway cars made in Canada. Budd had offered New York a better price than its Canadian competitor, Bombardier Inc. Budd's price for the cars was $28 million lower than Bombardier's $663 million price. But the Canadian government gave Bombardier a financing package that would save New York $230 million compared to the Budd deal.
''Our irritation comes from the fact that there is no mechanism apparently available from the US government (for low-cost financing), the way there is to foreign companies through their government,'' a Budd spokesman said. Budd is a wholly owned subsidiary of Thyssen, the West German steelmaker.
Budd is not the only company upset about cheap foreign export financing. A host of other US-based exporters -- Boeing, General Electric, Westinghouse, and Caterpillar Tractor -- say they are being hurt, too, as other nations offer low-rate financing. This financing push came as the Export-Import Bank of the United States had its budget slashed by the Reagan administration. The bank makes low-cost loans to buyers of goods sold by US companies and guarantees loans that other US banks make to buyers.
''We consider export subsidies to be an unwarranted and extravagant interference with the operation of the private market, and we are determined to work for their elimination,'' William H. Draper III, the Eximbank chairman, told a Bankers Association for Foreign Trade meeting earlier this year.
Under the administration budget, Exim lending authority would drop to $3.8 billion in fiscal 1983, starting next October, from $4.4 billion in 1982 and $5. 4 billion in '81.
The United States has traditionally spent less than its trading partners in providing low-cost loans or loan guarantees. In 1980, the latest period for which data are available, 8.2 percent of US exports got government assistance, as against 43 percent of Japanese exports. And recent cutbacks in the Exim budget come as international competition has picked up because of the worldwide recession.
''You have a situation where most of the world is depressed,'' says Paul Pratt, international staff director of the Machinery and Allied Products Institute in Washington. ''There is a lot of excess capacity, and the competition for orders is fierce. In capital goods, when you lose a major order you lose the future spare-parts business as well.''
The consequences of uncompetitive financing go beyond the loss of sales. One that particularly concerns labor unions is order shifting. That occurs when US companies shift production of goods from local plants to an overseas subsidiary to obtain more attractive financing.
In 1981 the Machinery Institute conducted a survey at 39 of its member companies. Fourteen responded, reporting a shift of $386.7 million worth of orders to their overseas subsidiaries last year. ''It is a small sample and understates the problem,'' Mr. Pratt claims.
The export financing issue is getting an extensive airing in various forums. The Senate Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on foreign operations heard from exporters Thursday at a hearing on Eximbank. New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority also held hearings Thursday on the Budd contract. And major European trading nations plan to meet Monday to decide whether to raise the interest rate on export financing they provide.
Support for greater export assistance is far from universal. The US Office of Management and Budget argues that subsidized loans ''transfer resources from domestic taxpayers to exporters or the foreign borrower.'' And the bulk of the aid has gone to a relative handful of companies. In the past, 50 percent of the direct loan aid went to the aircraft and nuclear reactor industries, Exim officials say.
''If Canada chooses to subsidize New York subway riders, I am very happy with it,'' says Ian H. Giddy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business. ''It would be absurd'' for the US to try to match every subsidy or other cost advantage a competitor has, Mr. Giddy says.
Other economists argue that the US would be in a better position to push for the elimination of export financing subsidies if it had a stronger program. ''By cutting back (on export financing) the US encourages other nations to go ahead with more subsidies,'' argues C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Institute for International Economics.
''You lose the option of negotiating lower (loan subsidy) levels, which can be done only with a strong show of US competition,'' Mr. Bergsten says.
Both the Democratic and Republican budget proposals in the House contain more loan authority for the Eximbank than the administration has requested. The Republican proposal contains $4.4 billion in Exim loan authority and the Democratic plan, $4.7 billion. But before the budget process is completed, these targets could be reduced.
''There is increasing pressure on members . . . to reduce Exim'' as part of budget cuts in the foreign economic category, says Raymond Garcia, executive director of the Coalition for Employment Through Exports, a lobbying group composed of exporters and labor unions. ''It is an uphill struggle.'