Just 12% of this country's gross national product is generated by international trade, and almost all of it is carried out by our largest corporations. The export dominance of big companies stems in part from the reluctance of smaller companies to invest the time and money necessary for success overseas.

In the future, though, firms might find the overseas markets a lot more accessible. Several large corporations, including General Electric Co. and Sears, Roebuck & Co., are launching export trading companies, which will share their overseas expertise and distribution networks with smaller businesses. A bill pending in Congress would spur further creation of such export subsidiaries by other large companies.

George J. Stathakis, who heads the new General Electric Trading Co., figures that there are at least 20,000 small- and medium-sized firms that produce high-quality technical products, including machine tools, welding equipment, and various kinds of instrumentation, but lack the capability to run an effective export operation. Initially, the new GE unit, which begins operations July 1, will help small exporters sell their technical products in rapidly growing developing countries in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. Ultimately, however, Stathakis anticipates his company will offer "one-stop export service" worldwide to small firms.

United Tool & Die Co. Inc., a Columbia, S.C., maker of dies for the metal stamping industry, is one small firm ready for just this kind of help. Wally Whitecotton, president of the $3-million company, says United Tool recently attempted to export through independent manufacturer's representatives without much success. "The problem with manufacturer's reps is they don't have the technical expertise," he says. "They can sell carpets and furnishings, but they don't know a thing about the products we make." Among these products is a patented process for making economical piercing and blanking dies. "GE not only has the structure," Whitecotton says, "they also have the technical knowledge to help us sell."

GE also expects to benefit from its new trading unit in at least two ways. Not only will it charge fees for its service, it also hopes its own products will sell better overseas when sold with the complementary products of smaller firms.