Theoretically, you can imagine an international business operating without a trade finance facility - no letters of credit, document negotiations, confirmations, etc. Your suppliers would be more than happy if you always pay in advance. On the other side of the equation, there are some desperate for product customers that you may be able to coerce into pre-payment plans, but, if you want to grow your volume, you will most likely end up extending them unsecured credit terms instead.
Let's pretend for a minute that we don't see the elephant in the room - the cost of working capital, which, under this stretched cycle of paying way before the product is received and collecting long after, turns into a painful burden on the profit margin. Let's ignore it and agree that yes, it is possible to conduct business in this way, especially if the company is cash-rich. It's possible, but dangerous and stupid for reasons too numerous to elaborate in one blog post. I'd say that the top 5 hazards of such modus operandi are as follows:
1. Risk that a foreign supplier will not deliver the product at all.
2. Risk that he doesn't comply with the terms of the purchase contract and delivers wrong goods of unacceptable quality and origin, in random quantities, too late or too early.
3. The danger of not receiving sufficient and correct set of documents that would allow you to claim the ownership.
4. Customer non-payment risk, which is always there when you give open terms, but especially if the payment is anxiously expected to come from abroad.
5. The overwhelming difficulties and costs of international litigation to recover your losses.
To mitigate these risks you need instruments that will protect you and an intermediary that will defend your trading fort. And that's when the trade finance divisions of various banks and financial institutions come into the picture with their Letters of Credits and related services. They can step in and be your guardian against the risks.
A Letter of Credit defines all conditions of purchase/sale, including documentary requirements; and only if these conditions are met, or when discrepancies are accepted, the money will exchange hands. So, the reality is that, you can have $100 million of free cash on your operating account, but if your business has an international exposure, you will end up engaging in Trade Finance relationships one way or another.
The trouble is that the banks know you need them and their benefits come with a price and many strings attached. Even if you only accept your customers' LC's, the cost of advising and processing services may be as high as 0.5% of the transactional value. If you buy product with LC's, then the costs could be as high as 2% (banks love this lucrative business). Yet, that's not the most strenuous part of the arrangement.
When a bank issues a Letter of Credit on your behalf, it takes an obligation to pay to the supplier even if your company goes bankrupt. Therefore, trade finance facility is essentially a credit line (most are utilized by LC's and advances alike). Obviously, to obtain any sizable credit line you must go through a grueling due diligence and you have to pay for it too: field exam, the bank's and your own attorneys' charges, closing fees - $10-12 million facility may end up costing around $150-$175K.
And even that is not the most painful part of the deal. The trade finance Credit Agreements are full of covenants and conditions that restrict your capital distribution, debt acquisition, treasury, operational management, and even dictate how the business is conducted. The banks demand collaterals and guarantees, including personal pledges from owners and their spouses. There are strict and voluminous reporting requirements.
And yet, we work very hard to get ourselves into the Trade Finance prison in order to facilitate our employers' commercial activities. The only thing we can do to ease the pain is to bitch and moan about the banks - a regular exercise of international-business CFO's around the world.