Sometimes, the inability to get things done in Washington almost defies belief. In many instances, hard choices have to be made, with intense disagreement about how to allocate scarce resources. Other times, deeply seated philosophical differences about the appropriate role of government make compromise difficult. With regard to the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank of the United States, however, what should be a simple and obviously desirable extension of the charter for an 80-year-old agency has become a ridiculous (with all due respect) debate.
Most people have never heard of the Ex-Im Bank because they aren’t directly involved in exporting products to foreign countries, but the Bank plays a crucial role in helping U.S. companies selling into foreign markets. Basically, the Ex-Im Bank’s mission is to finance the exports of American goods and services, filling gaps by providing loans, guarantees, or insurance when the private sector is unwilling to do so. The Bank is a sort of lender of last resort, when transactions are too big, companies are too small, or countries being sold to are too risky for the private sector.
Specifically, the Ex-Im Bank provides credit insurance policies covering commercial risks (such as buyer default) and political risks (such as war) for particular sales to single buyers or all of a company’s sales. With insurance, exporters can sell on competitive "open account" terms (a virtual requirement for success) rather than requiring cash-in-advance or complex letters of credit. The Bank also guarantees working capital credit lines US companies can use to allow them to fulfill export orders, and foreign buyers can obtain competitive financing to use to buy US goods and services.
Since 2007, the Ex-Im Bank has worked with 7,338 US companies including 4,903 small businesses. Some $234 billion in exports were supported. Over the past five years (since 2009), the Bank has supported 1.2 million American jobs and financed exports with a value of more than $188 billion. In Texas, 1,342 exporters have been helped since 2007 (including 715 that are small businesses) and $21 billion in exports supported. The multiplier effects of supported export activity ripple through the economy, generating economic benefits in virtually every industry. Furthermore, this business activity in turn generates tax receipts at the federal, state, and local levels.
Such a positive economic outcome would be worth a sizable investment, but believe it or not, taxpayers spend $0 for the Ex-Im Bank. In exchange for its services, the Ex-Im Bank charges fees and/or interest just like any bank in the private sector. Over the past five years, the Bank actually generated more than $2 billion for U.S. taxpayers.
Another consideration is that in the competitive global marketplace, the playing field is anything but level. In many countries, government subsidies are a fact of life. All major exporting countries have export credit agencies which offer similar functions to the Ex-Im Bank, but typically with far fewer restrictions. While the Ex-Im Bank is allowed only to fill gaps left by the private sector and every transaction is required to have a positive effect on the US economy, other nations’ banks often have much more leeway. Last year, the Ex-Im Bank financed $37.4 billion in US goods and services exports, while China’s equivalent financed more than $100 billion. South Korea also financed $100 billion in exports, despite the fact that its economy is only about a tenth the size of America’s.
It’s difficult to see why we would even consider shutting down the Ex-Im Bank. One argument that is put forth against extending the Bank’s charter is that it is not needed because the private sector can handle export financing. This statement is simply wrong, however, in that the only transactions the Bank handles are those the private sector will not touch. Another argument is that the Bank mainly benefits large companies, but this line of reasoning breaks down in the face of the thousands of small businesses which have been helped. More dollar support may go to large companies, but that’s no surprise given that large companies are exporting far more dollars in goods and services.
Charged words and phrases like “corporate welfare” and “cronyism” have been used to describe why the Ex-Im Bank should go away, but they are way off base. No money is given to corporations; the Ex-Im Bank merely helps with some aspects of financing transactions (and charges for it), smoothing the way through often complex differences in financial structures, currencies, and more.
I encourage you to go to www.exim.gov to see for yourself what the Bank does. Also, look at the listing of companies which have been helped. In Texas, firms are located in communities across the state, not just the large population centers. I’ll bet there is one near you. In just the first 50 of the listings, you’ll see cities from Hereford in the Texas Panhandle to Edinburg in the Rio Grande Valley and from Houston to El Paso. Industries represented are diverse, and transaction sizes run the spectrum from just less than $4,000 in exports supported to $650 million.
The U.S. Export-Import Bank supports American jobs and helps American businesses. It helps level the playing field in international markets, improving competitiveness of U.S. goods and services. Moreover, it is not only free to taxpayers, but generates billions of dollars which can be used for other purposes. You would think Congress would be well suited to handle a “no-brainer,” but even that seems to be a problem.