Federal help eludes small firms; Many states explore ways to give exporters financial aid

Stimulated in part by wavering support for the US Export-Import Bank, many states across the country are exploring other means of providing financial aid to exporters.

About a third of the states are seriously considering setting up what might be described as ''mini export-import banks'' at the state level.

In part, this is because even when the US Eximbank is adequately funded, it is not set up to meet the needs of small to medium-size companies doing business abroad.

''Eximbank doesn't want to do business for less than $4 million to $5 million ,'' says Gordon Smith, the credit manager of Columbia Machines here in Vancouver. ''They make only so many loans, and by the time they get to us the well is pretty dry,'' he said.

Columbia Machines was one of six smaller companies in the United States that took part in a recent study on export financing prepared by George Washington University.

Its findings were: (1) a principal cause of loss of contracts for sales overseas was lack of competitive financing; (2) a majority of US companies could compete well if financing were available; and (3) the return to the US Treasury (and some state treasuries) in terms of personal and corporate income taxes and lower unemployment payments would justify offering export financing at rates even as low as 6 percent.

The study also noted that the return to state treasuries on export credit financing offered by states would not be as high as the return to the federal Treasury, since the federal government is the recipient of most income and corporate taxes.

Columbia Machines builds equipment designed to make concrete building blocks for use in construction. It sells in more than 70 countries in competition with the West Germans, French, and Italians.

Since the prices for Columbia's machines range up to $900,000, financing is an important part of the sale. Yet the company does not dwell in the Olympian reaches of international business with the Boeings and Westinghouses, which usually get the bulk of Eximbank loans.

In recent years, as foreign competition has become keener and the dollar has increased in value, Columbia has found it harder and harder to finance its sales , resulting in layoffs at its Vancouver plant.

The study concluded that the interest rates Columbia can obtain through its traditional sources are not competitive against the Germans, who are offering a subsidized rate of 9 percent in some dealings, and the French, who, on a project in Kenya, offered a rate of 6 percent in French francs.

It went on to say that Columbia's difficulties were twofold: ''First, its per-unit sales are too small and therefore Eximbank financing is not available. Second, the buyers are usually small and do not have established lines of credit.

Richard L. McElheny, director of commercial services in the US Department of Commerce, picked up on this refrain in a speech to the North Carolina World Trade Association recently. Smaller companies lost between $15 billion and $20 billion in sales during the past two years because of inadequate financing, Mr. McElheny said.

His office is actively working to get states to set up export financing authorities. In part, this is in line with the Reagan administration's philosophy of shifting some federal responsibilities to the states. It also reflects a feeling that state-level institutions relate better to smaller companies.

For one thing, state institutions are more accessible. To get a loan from Eximbank, you have to go to Washington, D.C., which in itself can be a deterrent to smaller companies, especially those on the West Coast.

To increase accessibility, the administration has placed several government-business relations officers in selected regional offices of the International Trade Administration. Their mission is to push (they prefer the term ''advise'') the states to adopt export financing measures.

The California Legislature, for example, is considering several bills to aid exporters. One by state Sen. Rose Ann Vuich (D) would set up a California export financing board, with possible regional subsidiaries.

The bill carries with it an appropriation of $10 million for loans or loan guarantees - at the moment it is not clear which, although sponsors seem to lean toward guarantees.

Assembly Speaker Willie L. Brown Jr. (D) is also said to be interested in giving the new California World Trade Commission a financial arm, possibly in the area of export insurance.

About 20 states are giving serious consideration to state export financing initiatives, according to the National Association of State Development Agencies (NASDA). Several plans have reached the legislatures:

* The New York Legislature is working on a state export development corporation with power to borrow, loan, insure, and guarantee loans.

* The Washington Legislature has approved formation of a state export assistance center. The center would be able to provide loans and loan guarantees to small businesses, provided it could get foundation grants or gifts, since no state money has been appropriated.

* A bill has been introduced in the Minnesota Legislature to set up a new international trade agency. One part would be a $2 million pre-export loan program.

* Legislation is pending in the New Jersey Legislature to create an export bank authority with power to issue bonds, receive private funds, and make grants and loans.

* A bill to set up a task force to study export financing and make recommendations to the governor has passed the Maryland General Assembly.

* The governor of Tennessee has signed a bill setting up an export financing commission.

Not everyone agrees with this approach, and there are many obstacles to overcome, such as state constitutional provisions against lending of state credit.

''Some look on the Commerce Department efforts as a way of foisting new programs onto the states without providing the means,'' said Martha Clark of the NASDA.

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