Countertrade constitutes an estimated 5 to 30 percent of total world trade. Countertrade greatly proliferated in the 1980s. Perhaps, the single most important contributing factor is Least Developed Countries (LDC’s) decreasing ability to finance their import needs through bank loans.
Countertrade, one of the oldest forms of trade, is a government mandate to pay for goods and services with something other than cash. It is a practice, which requires a seller as a condition of sale, to commit contractually to reciprocate and undertake certain business initiatives that compensate and benefit the buyer. In short, a goods-for-goods deal is countertrade. Unlike monetary trade, suppliers are required to take customers products for their use or for resale. In most cases, there are multiple deals that are separate yet related, and a contract links these separable transactions. Countertrade may involve several products, and such products may move at different points in time while involving several countries. Monetary payments may or may not be part of the deal.
There are three primary reasons for countertrade: (1) countertrade provides a trade financing alternative to those countries that have international debt and liquidity problems, (2) countertrade relationships may provide LDCs and MNCs with access to new markets, and (3) countertrade fits well conceptually with the resurgence of bilateral trade agreements between governments. The advantages of countertrade cluster around three subjects: market access, foreign exchange, and pricing. Countertrade offers several advantages. It moves inventory for both a buyer and a seller. The seller gains other benefits, too. Other than the tax advantage, the seller is able to sell the product at full price and can convert the inventory to an account receivable. The cash-tight buyer that lacks hard currency is able to use any cash received for other operating purposes.
Types of Countertrade
There are several types of countertrade, including barter, counter purchase, compensation trade, switch trading, offsets and clearing agreements.
- Barter- Barter, possibly the simplest of the many types of counter trade, is a onetime direct and simultaneous exchange of products of equal value (i.e., one product for another). By removing money as a medium of exchange barter makes it possible for cash-tight countries to buy and sell. Although price must be considered in any counter trade, price is only implicit at best in the case of barter. For example, Chinese coal was exchanged for the construction of a seaport by the Dutch, and Polish coal was exchanged for concerts given by a Swedish band in Poland. In these cases. the agreement dealt with how many tons of coal was to be given by China and Poland rather than the actual monetary value of the construction project or concerts. It is estimated that about half of the U.S. corporations engage in some form of barter primarily within the local markets of the United States.
- Counter purchase (Parallel Barter) – Counter purchase occurs when there are two contracts or a set of parallel cash sales agreements, each paid in cash. Unlike barter which is a single transaction with an exchange price only implied. A counter purchase involves two separate transactions-each with its own cash value. A supplier sells a facility or product at a set price and orders unrelated or non-resultant products to offset the cost to the initial buyer. Thus, the buyer pays with hard currency, whereas the supplier agrees to buy certain products within a specified period. Therefore money does not need to change hands. In effect, the practice allows the original buyer to earn back the currency. GE won a contract worth $300’million to build aircraft engines for Sweden’s JAS fighters for cash only after agreeing to buy Swedish industrial products over a period of time in the same amount through a counter purchase deal. Brazil exports vehicles, steel, and farm products to oil-producing countries from which it buys oil in return.
- Compensation Trade (Buyback) – A compensation trade requires a company to provide machinery, factories, or technology and to buy products made from this machinery over an agreed-on period. Unlike counter purchase, which involves two unrelated products, the two contracts in a compensation trade are highly related. Under a separate agreement to the sale of plant or equipment, a supplier agrees to buy part of the plant’s output for a number of years. For example, a Japanese company sold sewing machines to China and received payment in the form of 300,000 pairs of pajamas. Russia welcomes buyback.
- Switch Trading – Switch trading involves a triangular rather than bilateral trade agreement. When goods, all or part, from the buying country are not easily usable or salable; it may be necessary to bring in a third party to dispose of the merchandise. The third party pays hard currency for the unwanted merchandise at a considerable discount. A hypothetical example could involve Italy having a credit of $4 million for Austria’s hams, which Italy cannot use, A third-party company may decide to sell Italy some desired merchandise worth $3 million for a claim on the Austrian hams. The price differential or margin is accepted as being necessary to cover the costs of doing business this way. The company can ‘then sell the acquired hams to Switzerland for Swiss francs, which are freely convertible to dollars.
- Offset – In an offset, a foreign supplier is required to manufacture/assemble the product locally and/or purchase local components as an exchange for the right to sell its products locally. In effect, the supplier has to manufacture at a location that may not be optimal from an economic standpoint. Offsets are often found in purchases of aircraft and military equipment. One study found that more than half of the companies counter trading with the Middle East were in the defense industry and that the most common type of counter trade was offset. These companies felt that counter trade was a required element in order to enter these markets.
- Clearing Agreement – A clearing agreement is clearing account barter with no currency transaction required. With a line of credit being established in the central banks of the two countries, the trade in this case is continuous, and the exchange of products between two governments is designed to achieve an agreed-on value or volume of trade tabulated or calculated in nonconvertible “clearing account units.” For example, the former Soviet Union’s rationing of hard currency limited imports and payment of copiers. Rank Xerox decided to circumvent the problem by making copiers in India for sale to the Soviets under the country’s “clearing” agreement with India. The contract set forth goods, ratio of exchange, and time length for completion. Any imbalances after the end of the year were settled by credit into the next year, acceptance of unwanted goods, payment of penalty, or hard currency payment. Although nonconvertible in theory, clearing units in practice can be sold at a discount to trading specialists who use them to buy salable products.