Small companies trying to crank up exports face numerous hurdles, not the least of which is finding information and money. Many small businesses have turned to the Overseas Private Investment Corp. (OPIC, 800-424-OPIC), an income-producing U.S. government agency that helps U.S. businesses invest in foreign markets. It supports its mission in these ways:

* Direct loans and guarantees. OPIC can make loans to small companies investing in foreign projects and can guarantee loans by other lenders. Typically, the direct loans are medium-term to long-term and require no interest payments during the early years. During fiscal 1991 OPIC made direct loans totaling $40 million to 12 small businesses. Its lending criteria are broader than those of traditional lenders, says James Berg, OPIC's executive vice-president, taking into account "the development benefits to the host country and the effects here in the United States."

* Political-risk insurance. Foreign investments are subject to a variety of risks, among them war and currency restrictions. To bolster investor confidence, OPIC will insure projects -- everything from leases on capital equipment to contracts and licenses -- in 125 countries. One area of focus last year was Central and Eastern Europe, Berg says, where OPIC insured more than 20 deals, including one involving a New York bagel bakery setting up a facility in Poland.

* Information services and trade missions. OPIC helps small companies prepare for investing overseas by, among other things, assisting with business plans, finding joint-venture partners, and furnishing basic economic and business information on more than 120 countries. In addition, the agency organizes trade missions; since 1989 it has sponsored trips to more than 29 countries. -- Michael P. Cronin

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