The U.S. Small Business Administration is counting on the Internet to change community bankers' views about international trade.
Recognizing that most small banks consider trade financing to be more trouble than it is worth, the agency has developed an on-line rating service that, in a few keystrokes, can help a bank determine the creditworthiness of foreign companies that trade with its small-business customers. SBA officials hope the quick-response system -- to be launched today in New England -- will ease bankers' fears and encourage them to finance more imports and exports.
"The beauty of this is that a bank is not going to have to create an international lending division just to do loans for these folks," said Jean Smith, deputy assistant administrator at the SBA's Office of International Trade.
Dubbed EXR Online, for Export Risk Analysis, the program is free and available to all small-business lenders through a password issued by the SBA. If it catches on in New England, it will be offered to West Coast lenders by early next year. Plans for further expansion have not been set.
Trade finance is not a new business for the SBA; it has offered loan guarantees on overseas transactions for about five years. But the program, which handles just a few hundred transactions each year, has not come close to meeting expectations, partly due to a lack of interest among small banks, Ms. Smith said.
"A lot of banks don't get into this business because it takes time and effort," she said.
The community banks doing well in this market have hired specialists in international lending. Most others either refer loan requests to their larger correspondent banks -- which typically have sophisticated international divisions -- or have chosen to stay out of the game entirely
"You can't really justify ramping up for it for the few occasions that business customers ask for this type of thing," said Robert Daigle, president of $582 million-asset Camden (Maine) National Bank.
EXR Online is designed mainly to analyze the risk of short-term working capital loans. The SBA will guarantee 90% of such loans, up to $750,000.
Ms. Smith said the on-line program has been in the works for about two years. Its partners include Dun & Bradstreet Corp., which provides the rating for foreign companies, and Thomson Bankwatch, an American Banker affiliate that rates foreign banks. (Foreign bank ratings are important because they often guarantee payment of the overseas companies through letters of credit.)
Leigh F. Weber, a Virginia consultant who helped create the software, predicted banks will embrace EXR Online, but not until more small businesses begin selling goods overseas.
"Right now, exporters just aren't beating down the doors to their community banks," said Mr. Weber, director at Issues Development and Management in Falls Church, Va.
Another potential drawback: Some banks might be hesitant to finance exports because there is no secondary market for SBA-working capital loans, he said.
Still, community bankers familiar with the service say it has potential.
Daniel F. Rich, senior vice president at $380 million-asset Danvers (Mass.) Savings Bank, is most impressed by its speed. EXR Online can provide bankers with credit ratings of foreign companies and banks within three minutes.
"If we had a customer that wanted one of these working capital loans, we would consider using it," said Mr. Rich. "It would certainly save us a lot of time and money."
And Michael Lum, vice president of commercial lending at $280 million-asset Washington First International Bank in Seattle, said the service might enhance his bank's existing trade financing business. For example, Washington First could use EXR Online to double-check credit ratings.
"It never hurts to have another source," said Mr. Lum.