The Export-Import Bank provides credit assistance to thousands of exporting small businesses in the U.S. each year. The problem is the 82-year-old federal trade finance agency is actually kept afloat by the large financing amounts it provides to really big businesses.
And that cuts to the heart of the problem it’s had with Tea Party members of Congress who want to permanently shutter the bank because it represents, to them, crony capitalism—support of big business over smaller businesses, at the taxpayers’ expense.
“All the small businesses are essentially at break–even, and the largest transactions provide the income that provides all the infrastructure and everything else [for the bank],” Fred Hochberg, the bank’s president and chairman said on Wednesday at a roundtable discussion hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Hochberg’s comments served as a curtain raiser for an exporting competitiveness report the Ex-Im Bank, as it is known, will deliver to Congress on Thursday as part of an annual mandate to describe the job it’s doing.
The report is timely because, a year ago this week, Congress temporarily shuttered the Ex-Im Bank following a sustained effort led by House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas). Hensarling argued that the bank favored a handful of big players such as General Electric and Boeing and unfairly shielded them from risk — if sales were good, those companies pocketed the profits, but if not, U.S. taxpayers absorbed the loss.
The shutdown was the first time such a thing happened in the bank’s history. The bank was out of business for five months until Congress reauthorized its charter through 2019 as part of a federal highway-spending bill in December. By Ex-Im’s estimate, the closure cost hundreds of business owners billions of dollars in both exporting opportunities and exporting credit support.
Essentially the bank provides two main types of export services. One is accounts receivable insurance, which lets small exporters extend sales terms to their buyers for up to six months. The other is taxpayer-backed trade financing to foreign buyers who, for example, may want to purchase planes from Boeing, but might be unable to do so, given the long turnaround time for such expensive orders.
As the report points out, Ex-Im’s shuttering last year caused significant damage to trade opportunities for both large and small businesses, slashing its financial support of export transactions in half to $6 billion in 2015. As a result, the number of jobs Ex-Im says that its financing helped support fell by a third to 109,000 over the same time period.
Similarly, the bank, which returns an annual surplus to the Department of Treasury each year, saw that surplus shrink 36 percent to $430 million in 2015.
The shuttering also came at time when the value of total U.S. exports fell 5% to $2.2 trillion in 2015, the first decline since 2009, according to the Department of Commerce. Worse, says Hochberg, it occurred when the rest of the world has ramped up its interest in exporting.
Sixty-seven countries around the world have export trade agencies similar to Ex-Im Bank, Hochberg notes, and not having one would put the U.S. at a disadvantage.
Nevertheless, while Ex-Im Bank says 90% of its customers are small, only 41% of the value of its export deals are for small businesses in 2015. The remainder is for larger deals.
As part of its reauthorization charter, the Ex-Im Bank is supposed to devote 25% of its financing to small businesses, up from 20%. That’s a mandate Hochberg supports. But Congress has stymied the bank from making the really big loans it relies on, by refusing to appoint its full five–person board. Without a quorum of the board, the bank is unable to make loans of more than $10 million.
And that’s likely to hurt exporting prospects for both small and big businesses alike.
“There is a huge cost,” Hochberg says, “These other export credit agencies don’t have an existential fight for their lives every three to five years.”