A Letter of Credit is a standard tool for international transactions.

A letter of credit (LOC) is issued by a foreign bank (representing the buyer) and confirmed by a corresponding bank usually in the country of the seller. The LOC is the buyer’s bank’s commitment to pay for goods sold.

A Letter of Credit is literally a ‘letter’ that describes a sales transaction between a buyer and seller. The ‘letter’ is offered by the buyer to the seller. This mechanism allows the buyer to establish his ability to pay for goods purchased and the seller to have assurance that his bill for goods will be paid. Letters of credit are handled through banking institutions.

Revocable vs. Irrevocable Letters of Credit

A Letter of Credit may be revocable or irrevocable. In a revocable Letter of Credit, the buyer’s bank has the right to cancel or alter its obligation at any time before payment even if goods were shipped in reliance on the LOC. This circumstance can occur if there is a change in the buyer’s stability which could impact the buyer’s ability to pay on the terms of the letter of credit. An irrevocable Letter of Credit cannot be altered or cancelled without the consent of the seller. Any change to an irrevocable Letter of Credit requires the consent of all parties.

Confirmed vs. Unconfirmed

Only an irrevocable Letter of Credit can be confirmed or unconfirmed. A confirmed Letter of Credit requires that the buyer’s bank independently agrees to pay the seller the agreed-upon amount of money, as long as all the requirements of the Letter of Credit are fulfilled.

Letter of Credit Contents

The usual conditions included in a Letter of Credit include:

  • delivery dates
  • product specifications
  • receipt by the bank of specific documents (such as bills of lading, inspection certificates, commercial invoices and packing lists).
  • time period for production of documents

You should agree on all Letter of Credit terms and conditions and all required documents in advance of opening a Letter of Credit. Letter of Credit issuance instructions should then conform to the terms of such an agreement.

Discrepancies

If the shipping and documentation requirements listed in the sale contract and those in a Letter of Credit do not agree, the bank may not pay the seller; banks interpret conditions very strictly. Approximately 60% of document presentations on Letters of Credit are presented with discrepancies, on a worldwide basis. Banks charge for each discrepancy. Therefore, it is extremely important to ensure document presentations are accurate and complete to avoid additional costs and delays in payment processing.

Payment on a Letter of Credit

When the seller presents the buyer’s bank with the documents required by the LOC, which typically include invoice, bill of exchange (or draft), any necessary certificates such as certificate of origin and so on, the bank provides payment in accordance with the terms of the letter of credit.

The Bill of Exchange or draft is the demand for payment. Drafts are classified as either sight or time. A sight draft requires the buyer’s bank to pay the amount shown in full upon proper presentation of documentation. A time draft stipulates payment by a date later than the date of presentation of documents (which may be identified as 30 days after sight or could be a specific date).

How to obtain a Letter of Credit

As a buyer, you may obtain a letter of credit through a bank in your country, by funding an account with the bank or by applying for a loan against assets or future sale of goods.

The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) had developed a standard Documentary Credit Application Form. The ICC has also published a guide to Documentary Credit Operations. Banks throughout the world adhere to the rules developed by the ICC.

You can find more information about international payment through a letter of credit at the ICC site: www.iccwbo.org

The LOC mechanism protects the seller by creating bank channels and assurances that payment will be made. However, given the very specific nature of LOC terms, the seller must be very certain that the terms of the LOC are met precisely or that an amendment to the LOC has been made, or the bank will refuse to honor the LOC and will not make payment. Careful sellers will find the LOC a very effective way of doing business.

Buyers are less inclined to LOC transactions because banks charge a one to eight percent of costs fee for administering the LOC, and LOC payments can take up to 4 weeks to complete, thus delaying receipt of an order. As a result, the LOC is an expensive way to guarantee payment. As sellers become more confident in a buyer, it is in the buyer’s best interest to negotiate away from transacations by LOC to less expensive payment mechanisms such as documentary drafts.

OTHER PAYMENT METHODS

Our series of articles on international payment methods has discussed the major payment approaches in use today including letters of credit, documentary drafts, escrow and cash in advance.

Our final article in this series discusses several less common methods of payment that may have value in your business.

Open Account

An open account is very much like a credit account in your own country. When a buyer and seller use an open account, the seller sends goods to the buyer along with a bill which the buyer is expected to pay under the agreed upon terms, e.g., within 30 or 60 days. This is a simple and convenient system but an arrangement that requires a good deal of faith in the buyer to make payment. The open account option is usually reserved for buyers who are well-established with the seller, have long and favorable payment records or have been thoroughly checked for creditworthiness.

There are a number of risks to the seller in an open account arrangement. In the absence of documentation or bank involvement, it may be difficult for the seller to pursue payment through the courts. The seller may also be forced to pursue payment in a foreign country, which is more difficult and expensive. Finally, the seller may not be able to finance receivables in the absence of written agreements such as a trade acceptance (See article on documentary drafts) or letter of credit (See article on letters of credit).

Consignment sales

Consignment means that goods are provided from the seller to the ‘buyer’ (who acts more like a seller representative) but the seller continues to own the goods. If the ‘buyer’ sells the goods, the title to the goods transfers and the seller is paid for the merchandise. If the goods are not sold, they may be returned to the seller after a specified period of time. Consignment can be a great value to the buyer/representative who has access to merchandise without upfront payment and little risk if the goods don’t sell (except, perhaps, transport costs). Consignment places significant risk on the seller who loses physical control of the merchandise and has limited or no control over when payment will be made.

Sellers who plan to use consignment sales should consider risk insurance to cover possible losses.

Countertrade

International countertrade is a trade practice in which one party accepts goods, services, or other instruments of trade in partial or whole payment for its products.

Countertrading is most prevalent when there are issues around foreign currency exchange or there are no better mechanisms for establishing trading situations. Smaller sellers and buyers can use countertrading tactics if they can agree on the relative cost of the goods and services they are trading.

Businesses that counter purchase agree to purchase each other’s goods or services in a sort of swap for equal or near monetary value.

An alternative form of counter trade is bartering, i.e. trading goods or services of equal value. For example, an IT consulting firm trades IT software support for assistance in web design or business plan development. Bartering can be an excellent way for two parties to take advantage of the assets they have in excess or can provide less expensively to get services or materials that another business is in a position to offer at a benefit to themselves.

For more information on countertrade in the UK, go to http://www.londoncountertrade.org/links.htm. If you are located in the United States, you can contact the Financial Services and Countertrade Division/Office of Finance, International Trade Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington, D.C. 20230; 202-482-4471.

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