These are pivotal times for the U.S. Export-Import Bank. So says James Harmon, the bank's departing chairman.. And that's no hyperbole. An important conjuncture is at hand. A new administration is taking office and on Sept, 30 the bank's charter expires. It's a relatively rare opportunity to take a fresh look at the bank and make what many say are much-needed changes in policies and procedures.

The bank has come under wide criticism, some of it not its fault.. It's the victim of underfunding and myriad restrictions imposed by Congress and others, all the while faced with increasing competition from foreign export credit agencies.Basically, the bank acts as a 'lender of last resort, 'financing deals where commercial banks are loath to tread and doing its best to counter the concessional financing foreign export agencies offer their nationals.

Last fiscal year, it authorized $12.6 billion in financing, covering $15.5 billion in sales, largely to buyers in Latin America and Asia. It has been deliberately expanding its role in Africa and the Soviet republics.

Still, its financing pales in comparison with the activities of export credit agencies in Japan, France and elsewhere. Even the Netherlands export agency extends more help for its nationals.

Two Washington-based business groups - the Coalition for Employment through Exports and the National Foreign Trade Council - have jointly sent to the Bush administration a long list of recommendations on ways to help nurture a more effective Ex-Im Bank.

Their message pulls no punches. For starters, they say, 'the U.S. government is far behind many other developed countries in facilitating the competitiveness of its own exporters.'

Their suggestions range from improving Ex-Im Bank's personnel -- they cite 'a critical loss of experienced professional staff' in recent years -- to a more aggressive effort to counter the questionable financing practices of foreign export credit agencies - Ex-Im's competitors.

Ex-Im Bank, they assert, is saddled with constraints like no other export credit agency. Congress alone has imposed as many as two dozen kinds of restrictions on its operations, bank officials calculate.

A sample: Any Ex-Im financed sale of $10 million or more must be shipped on a U.S.-flag vessel, unless the exporter wins a waiver from the Maritime Administration. While Marad has granted some waivers, the U.S.-flag rule remains a significant sales impediment, exporters complain.

But not all restrictions are imposed by others. A self-imposed Ex-Im Bank guideline strictly limits the amount of foreign content in any U.S. product it finances. Foreign export credit agency rules - in particular Japan's - are more flexible, leaving U.S. exporters all the more frustrated. (In January, Ex-Im did ease its content rules, but only partly.)

What's more, Ex-Im is the world's lone export credit agency that finances sales only to those foreign projects that meet certain prescribed environmental standards. And only Ex-Im Bank regularly partakes in unilateral economic sanctions for 'foreign policy' reasons, which tars the bank as an 'unreliable' supplier. The onus for this, however, falls on the administration, not the bank.

Still, the bank has been taking steps to improve its services. Besides its new, easier foreign content guidelines, it now makes more liberal local cost allowances, which should help clear the way for the co-financing of U.S. exports with foreign export credit agencies, a move long sought by businessmen.

What's more, in what it calls an 'unprecedented public-private partnership' effort, it is working with commercial banks and insurers to create new risk-sharing facilities, giving Ex-Im Bank more bang for its appropriated buck.

It also is developing a Web-based 'trade finance marketplace,' facilitating export financing over the Internet. Linked to other U.S. government trade-related agencies, this new electronic facility will offer exporters 'a one-stop shop.'

Yet another encouraging signal: European, Canadian and Japanese export agencies may agree this year to common environmental guidelines for the projects they finance, thereby putting U.S. exporters on a more level playing field..

Which raises the ever more crucial issue of how to improve international rules aimed at preventing export credit wars, rules negotiated in recent decades at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Extending those rules to 'market windows' and 'untied aid' must be a top U.S. priority, say former Ex-Im Bank director Rita Rodriguez and Edmund Rice, president of the Coalition for Employment through Exports.

Japan reportedly still circumvents those OECD rules by claiming it is providing untied aid when its aid is de facto conditioned on purchases from Japan.

But perhaps more of a threat, Germany and Canada have begun operating so-called market windows, which, they argue, are not covered by the OECD rules. Through these 'windows,' the German and Canadian export credit agencies offer financing cheaper than traditional commercial banks. They are exempt from profit taxes, don't have to pay dividends and enjoy easy access to government funding. The Canadians and Germans are 'eating our lunch,' laments E. Martin Duggan, president of the Small Business Exporters Association.

Now the multi-billion dollar question is how, or perhaps even whether, the Bush administration will tackle these problems, both internal and external, to help boost U.S. exports through Ex-Im Bank.

The outlook seems less than promising, given the Bush administration's fiscal year 2002 budget proposal. It would pare Ex-Im Bank's appropriation by about one-quarter and at the worst possible time, when the U.S. economy, and domestic demand, is faltering and foreign agencies are increasing their credits, warns Rice.

Not helping matters, Bush's top budget official is calling Ex-Im Bank a dispenser of 'corporate subsidies,' which Rice strongly disputes. Ex-Im Bank's appropriation is for the agency's loan loss reserve, not credit subsidies, he counters.

Meanwhile, President Bush has nominated Melvin Sembler, a Florida real estate developer and Republican fund-raiser, to head Ex-Im Bank. That sort of background may come in handy at Ex-Im. As a real estate developer, Sembler presumably is versed in protecting one's turf. And, more than ever, Ex-Im Bank obviously could use a proven fund-raiser.