DESPITE the national call for stronger competitiveness, United
States policymakers are offering ambivalent support for American
firms that need money and guidance to reach overseas markets.
Overshadowed by Europe's historical ties and proximity to
Central and East Europe, American businesses are shrinking from
promising trade and financial opportunities there.
Witness Uncle Sam's help in making Polish bagels and Hungarian
cellular phones while Germany offers Prague a crucial chance to
reduce its dependence on Russian energy with a Czechoslovak
pipeline to German oil terminals.
A host of US government agencies help finance US projects and
exports to the former communist countries. But the pace is slow,
reflecting conflicting US government priorities, inadequate
investment capital, and persistent US uncertainties about these new
One government organization, the Overseas Private Investment
Corporation (OPIC), issues political-risk insurance and financing
for US companies investing in the developing world. In 1989,
Secretary of State James Baker III waived the prohibition against
allowing the federal agency to insure investments in "countries
subject to the international communist conspiracy."
Today a vast new market is open for OPIC President Fred Zeder,
who was at the White House on March 9 promoting OPIC's Eastern
European work. Its accomplishments include a bagel bakery in
Poland, as well as scores of other regional investments, such as
food-processing plants, banks, a hotel, and Burger King
restaurants. But the funds fall short of what is needed.
"For our worldwide operations, Congress authorizes $350 million
per annum, but we have requests from US firms with projects for
Eastern Europe three times that amount," Mr. Zeder told the Monitor.
The Bush administration recommends a higher ceiling for OPIC's
annual budget, with an eye toward Eastern Europe and the former
Soviet Union. But the lack of commitment from Congress has
prevented OPIC from authorizing any additional capital, says Zeder.
Corporate giants silent
Small and medium-sized businesses, not America's ailing
corporate giants, have been the important contributors to economic
growth in the past year. And some 30 percent of the companies
filing for OPIC assistance are small firms, first-timers in
international finance and trade. In 1991, OPIC financed deals that
produced $2 billion in exports and created 40,000 jobs, Zeder says.
But, Bush administration officials lament privately, there is no
concerted government policy that accompanies the rhetoric about
"creating American jobs" and the constant reminders that US exports
are essential to spur the nation's economic recovery. …