The Credendo mobile application provides a solution to mastering the export risks and information associated with the various world markets...
The importance of exports for the economic strength of companies, especially SMEs, is no longer in doubt. Nevertheless, the uncertainties associated with going international can keep some companies from taking the leap. To turn uncertainties into opportunities: Credendo!
Exporting: opportunities to be taken
In an increasingly globalised world and with an explosion of digital tools, most companies sooner (sometimes much sooner) or later dream of conquering foreign markets. And with reason. Whatever the size of your company – even if big companies are more active on this issue – exporting represents an opportunity to leave the limitations of the Belgian market behind in order to energise your turnover, make economies of scale, explore new outlets for your products or even benefit from advantages in terms of employment and innovation.
Given their increasing confidence, companies will be even more attracted to going international in the future. In any event, this is what the Credendo and Trends-Tendances export barometer reports, indicating that four out of five Belgian companies are expecting a growth in exports during the next few years. An optimism that is only slightly dampened by the fear of protectionist barriers being raised in different regions of the world... One more fear to add to the classic obstacles in exporting, such as different legal systems, increased risk of non-payment, political-economic uncertainty in the destination country and the burden of administrative formalities.
Credendo: a new tool for exporters
Zero risk is a myth and even more so when dealing with business overseas. This is why the European credit insurance group Credendo has developed an application promising to "turn uncertainties into opportunities". How? You download the application to your smartphone and choose to export (long term) from Belgium to Portugal, for example. You immediately receive an up-to-date assessment, practically in real time, of the risks for any country or continent. In the blink of an eye, you can access various important risk parameters and also set up alerts for countries or sectors, benefit from risk analyses and in-depth thematic studies on the economy of emerging countries, for instance. The main advantage of this solution is that it provides information from the point of view of the exporter and directs you to customised solutions. Final detail: the application is free!
For more information for SMEs on going international, the Economy FPS has produced an interesting pamphlet on "International expansion of SMEs: clear findings and operational measures for SMEs" (available in French and in Dutch).
Export plans? Make sure you talk to our experts first
To prepare your international adventure properly, ask yourself the right questions and talk to people who have done it all before: partners, customers, fellow exporters and experts.
BNP Paribas Fortis listens to the questions asked by international entrepreneurs and offers reliable advice. "A lot of exporting companies ask for our help when it's too late", Frank Haak, Head of Sales Global Trade Solutions, says.
Entrepreneurs with little export experience are often unaware of the bigger financial picture. So what do they need to take into account when they set up a budget for their export plans?
Frank Haak: "Budgeting and pricing are affected by a lot of crucial factors: working capital, currency exchange risks and currency interest, prefinancing, profit margins, insurance, import duties and other local taxes, competitor pricing and so on. We always advise customers or prospects to start from a worst-case scenario. Quite a few companies are insufficiently prepared for their first international adventure: they see an opportunity and they grab it, but quite often disappointment and a financial hangover are not far away.
Our experts have years of export experience and the BNP Paribas Group has teams around the world. This means that we can give both general and country-specific tips. Let's say a machine builder wants to design and manufacture a custom-made machine. We recommend including the machine's reuse value in the budget: can this machine still be sold if the foreign customer suddenly no longer wishes to purchase it or if export to that country becomes impossible due to a trade embargo or emergency situation?"
What type of companies can contact BNP Paribas Fortis for advice?
Frank Haak: "All types! Entrepreneurs are often hesitant to ask for advice. Sometimes they are afraid that it will cost them money. However, the right advice can save them a lot of money in the long run. For example, we recommend a letter of credit or documentary credit to anyone exporting goods to a foreign buyer for the first time. This product is combined with a confirmation by BNP Paribas Fortis to offer the exporter the certainty that it will receive payment when it presents the right documents and to assure the buyer that its goods or services will be delivered correctly."
The consequences of not seeking advice: what can an exporter do in case of non-payment without documentary credit?
Frank Haak: "If you are not receiving payment for your invoices, the counterparty's bank can be contacted in the hope that it advances the payment on the customer's behalf. However, we shouldn't be too optimistic in that respect: the chances of resolving the issue without financial losses are very slim. Once you have left your goods with customs, you usually lose all control over them. Hence the importance of good preparation: listen to and follow the advice of your bank and organisations such as Flanders Investment and Trade (FIT). It will protect you against a whole host of export risks."
BNP Paribas Fortis
- is the number one bank for imports (approx. 40% market share) and exports (approx. 25% market share) in Belgium (according to the statistics of the National Bank of Belgium): it offers advice/financing and can help you to discover new export markets through trade development;
- is proud that Belgium is one of the world's 15 largest export regions and is pleased to give exporters a leg up, for example by sponsoring the Flemish initiative ‘Leeuw van de Export’.
Source: Wereldwijs Magazine
Coping as a business with geopolitical risk
William De Vijlder, Group Chief Economist, BNP Paribas zooms in on increasing geopolitical uncertainties.
The slowdown of the global economy which became increasingly visible in the second half of last year has many causes, but there is broad agreement that rising trade tensions, import tariff hikes and concern about the pace of US monetary tightening acted as clear headwinds. In Europe, Brexit-related uncertainty played a role, as well as sector-specific issues, like new emission standards for the automobile sector. Clearly, uncertainty, in various guises, was a big issue: uncertainty about the economy (the international consequences of China’s slowdown), about economic policy (the Federal Reserve’s monetary stance), about political decisions (soft or hard Brexit, Italy’s budget) and about geopolitics (considering that the build-up of commercial tensions between China and the US is about more than the bilateral trade deficit).
Geopolitical uncertainties on the rise
Whereas economic, economic policy and political uncertainty tend to come and go, depending where we are in the economic and political cycle, research based on media coverage of geopolitical tensions shows that geopolitical uncertainty has on average been higher since the turn of the century compared to the 1990s. This higher average is associated with an increased frequency of uncertainty spikes, triggered by events like 9/11, the Iraq war, the Arab spring, the Crimea, Syria, terrorist attacks, etc. These events illustrate that geopolitics now covers a broad range of issues, well beyond the older concept of how nations project their power internationally and react to the behaviour in this respect from other nations.
Empirical research shows that an increase in geopolitical risk weighs on industrial production, employment, international trade, consumer confidence. Moreover, whereas certain events can have a short-lived economic impact, because after a spike, uncertainty drops quite quickly, geopolitical threats (without an event necessarily occurring) can cause a sustained increase in uncertainty and hence have a longer lasting impact. This issue of resolution of uncertainty (“how much longer do we need to wait until we know the outcome?”) has been clearly visible in the reaction to the postponements of Brexit day.
A top priority?
Newspaper articles about geopolitical risks may be numerous but, judging from the mapping in the Global Risks Report 2019 of the World Economic Forum, companies are, in recent years, more concerned about climate change and cyberattacks. In the assessment of their likelihood and impact, they score above average, whereas issues related to geopolitics score around average. This is still sufficient for companies to pay particular attention to it, given the macroeconomic headwind coming from protracted uncertainty or the possible non-linear consequences of risk events. The list of questions to be tackled is long but, as usual when dealing with uncertainty, it is about how can uncertainty be monitored, what is my exposure and how can I manage it. The monitoring is the easier task of the three, considering that there is no lack of research on geopolitical topics. High quality, media-based uncertainty indicators are even available for free on the internet.
“The tensions between the US and Turkey in the summer last year turned out to be short-lived, but they remind us of the necessity to define in advance how to cope with short-lived versus sustained increases in geopolitical risk. “ William De Vijlder, Group Chief Economist, BNP Paribas
Direct and indirect exposure
Assessing the exposure is already more complex, in particular when dealing with indirect exposure. Moreover, one should not only assess where geopolitical threats or events can impact your business, but also, and this is the more difficult question, to which extent.
Direct exposure is about: does geopolitical uncertainty influence how and where I produce (which commodities, which intermediate inputs, how complex a global value chain); does it influence the markets into which I sell; does it influence my financing costs, my access to financing, the use of my cash-flow, the repatriation of foreign profits?
When analysing indirect exposure, the questions ultimately are the same, but the channels are different, more complex and hence challenging to assess. Globalisation has enabled companies to broaden their customer base and lower their cost base, but, with a slight exaggeration, it implies that anything can hit them anywhere. When the US and China are negotiating on trade, it can end up impacting third party countries when it leads to trade diversion (the innocent bystander syndrome). There can be political contagion with unrest in one country spreading to other countries which suffer from similar problems. Financial markets can act as an accelerator or a channel of transmission. The increasingly harsh tone between the US and Turkey in the summer of last year unnerved international investors and contributed to the significant weakening of the Turkish lira. It also raised concerns about financial contagion to other emerging market currencies. Eventually, the tensions turned out to be short-lived, but they remind us of the necessity to define in advance how to cope with short-lived versus sustained increases in geopolitical risk.
Accepting or avoiding the exposure
“Coping with” can mean to just accept it as a fact of life, to build a robust strategy which takes uncertainty explicitly into account or to simply avoid the exposure. Accepting the exposure could make sense if, all in all, the financial impact of risk events would be rather limited. The cost of protracted uncertainty can be taken into account by using a sufficiently high return on investment target before committing money.
Avoiding the exposure could be justified if the trade-off between return and (tail) risk is unattractive, if it would trigger a disproportionate attention by shareholders or creditors, if attractive alternatives to grow the business are available, etc. ‘Avoiding’ could also mean ‘waiting to decide on an investment’ but this raises the question of the opportunity cost of waiting. If a company was contemplating to build a factory in the UK before the Brexit referendum, is there an opportunity cost to waiting for the type of Brexit when alternative locations, outside the UK, are available? When time is money, waiting ends up being expensive.
The question of building a robust strategy is the more interesting and challenging one. It starts from the observation that we are (or need to become) active in a country (e.g. because it is a huge market or because it is key to remain competitive) but that this could increase the exposure to geopolitical risk. In designing a robust strategy, different scenarios are analysed and eventually, the chosen approach should do well under a multitude of environments, without being optimal in any specific one, simply because, in deciding under uncertainty, we are (by construction) not in a position to anticipate which one will materialise. Ongoing geopolitical risk monitoring will allow to plan for corrective action if need be as time goes by.
Challenges when recruiting internationally
Recruiting a member of staff for relocation to a foreign subsidiary requires some careful thinking. We have compiled the questions that are most frequently asked when people are faced with this human-resources quandary.
International recruitment involves recruiting people in their company's country of origin and relocating them abroad to work in a foreign subsidiary. In a globalised world, this has become common practice. However, when setting up a Belgian company abroad you will face a series of legal obstacles, as soon as your employees cross the border out of Belgium. These include employment laws, residence permits, taxation and social security. These questions will make things clearer up for you:
Should I recruit before developing my strategy?
No. Before starting the recruitment process, the first thing that a company must do is clearly define what it wants to achieve in the country where the subsidiary will be set up. It must take cultural differences between the countries into account. If the company usually recruits locally to be on the same wavelength as its target customer, when recruiting internally candidates should be adaptable and self-reliant, but above all they should be fluent in the country's language (in English, at the very least).
Can my employee work in this country?
If the free movement of workers applies within the EEA (European Economic Area) and in Switzerland, you do not need any special permit apart from your Belgian identity card. You must have a work permit as soon as you cross the border out of this area. The paperwork to apply for this can be extensive and even complicated (particularly in the United States). It is essential you have a lawyer who specialises in immigration.
Do I need a centre of operations in the country?
If you want to employ staff in a different country, you should have a local entity. Depending on the country in question, a small entity (sometimes no more than a letterbox) can be enough.
Where should social-security contributions be paid?
In the EEA and countries that have a bilateral social security treaty with Belgium, the social security system in the country of work will apply. In situations involving simultaneous employment, the social security system in the country of residence applies. As a rule, an employee cannot be subjected to different systems. Outside the EEA, you should operate on a case-by-case basis (legal and tax advice is essential in these situations).
What about salary and working conditions?
Employees can only work in an export market if they have an employment contract adapted to the salary and working conditions of the country in question. As a general rule: the mandatory legal provisions in the country of work will take precedence over the ones that appear in your Belgian employment contract.
Where should taxes be paid?
Double taxation is not a very appealing option for employees who are being relocated to work abroad. To avoid this, Belgium has signed treaties with a large number of countries specifying the country responsible for taxing the salaries that you pay. As a general rule, workers are taxed in their country of work, except in cumulative cases (the 183-day rule), where the national law of the country responsible for taxing the salary will apply.
Can I recruit internationally from Belgium?
Yes, you can. For example, in the Brussels-Capital Region, Actiris has an International department, which selects candidates with an interest in working abroad. This body is a member of EURES, a network of more than 1,000 employment counsellors (EEA and Switzerland). If your employees do not want to be relocated abroad, its counsellors can also place your job offers on the EURES portal.
Should I go it alone?
Certainly not. The steps that you need to take before relocating one of your workers abroad or recruiting internationally are too complex for you to tackle without any advice; only a specialist firm will be able to help you take these different steps (residence permits, work permits, social-security payments, taxation).
Cover yourself before embarking on a quest for global markets
Any company that begins to trade abroad is buying into the idea that it can conquer brand new markets, but also that new risks are an inevitability. And although the risks are often worth taking, informed directors will evaluate the danger in order to be better prepared.
In love, as in business, distance makes things more complicated. However, in an increasingly globalised world, expanding your business activity into other countries remains essential – especially in an export-oriented country like Belgium. This strategic challenge demands an appropriate approach that will allow the company to move into new territory successfully. Whether internationalisation takes a physical or virtual form, a number of risks of a new type will join those you are already managing at local level, including hazards associated with transportation, exchange rate risks, poor knowledge of regional regulations, cultural or ethical "gaps", and difficulties arising from unpaid sums and recovering these abroad, etc. To minimise the impact on your business, take precautions and correctly signpost the pathway separating you from your international customers.
Where should you venture to?
If you have identified a particular continent or country of interest, you have presumably spotted obvious commercial benefits. You know your business and are convinced that this move can work well. But before you take the plunge, a step back is necessary so that you can analyse the country-related risks: from the geopolitical context (an embargo would be disastrous for your plans) to the political and socio-economic situation on the ground. It is not uncommon, for example, for elections to have a destabilising effect on the climate of a nation.
Do you have sufficient local knowledge?
This question may appear trivial at first, but culture and traditions have a major influence on the way trade is conducted – even in a globalised world. Beyond market expectations and the chances your product has of success, it is imperative to grasp the cultural differences that could have an impact on your business. A Japanese company does not take the same approach as its equivalent in Chile. Do not hesitate to recruit a trustworthy consultant who fully understands the region.
Have you planned for the worst?
This piece of advice is highly pertinent when the country in question uses a currency other than the euro because foreign exchange rates fluctuate continuously, with the result that you could be obliged to convert money according to less favourable terms than those initially expected. Adopt an effective foreign exchange policy (stabilise your profit margins, control your cash flow, mitigate potential adverse effects, etc.) and employ hedging techniques that best suit your situation.
How do you evaluate your international customers?
Once you have analysed the context, drop down a level to gauge the reliability of your customer in terms of their financial situation and history (e.g. of making payments), their degree of solvency, etc. While such research may not be simple, it is decisive in order to prevent payment defaults that can do enormous harm. If in doubt, take out an appropriate insurance policy to protect yourself. Paying for this could prevent you from becoming embroiled in perilous (not to mention costly) recovery action abroad. Should you end up in a crisis situation, you should ideally obtain local support in the country. Finally, be aware that in the EU, debt recovery is simplified by the European Payment Order procedure.
Have you adequately adapted the tools you use?
One of the greatest risks of international trade is transportation (loss, theft, accidents, seizures, contamination, etc.) in addition to customs formalities. Once dispatched, the goods are no longer within your control, and so you must ensure your carriers accept adequate liability. This means, for example, having suitable insurance cover, but also anticipating the multitude of procedures to be launched in any dispute. More generally, you will need to review and adapt the contracts you have with transport companies, as well as your international customers. Ensure you clearly set out the terms and conditions that apply (payment deadlines, exchange rates, compensation, etc.) and include realistic clauses that safeguard your own interests.