Reauthorize the Export-Import Bank

It’s been almost a month since the Export-Import bank lapsed in authority. Congress has so far been unable to reauthorize it, mainly because of opposition from the conservative right who believe that the bank represents “nothing more than corporate welfare.” Last night, Bernie Sanders cast the lone non-Republican vote against the bank’s reauthorization in the Senate for the same reason. In contrast, a bipartisan coalition similar to the one emerging in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership believes the Ex-Im Bank levels the playing field for small businesses and provides an important role in promoting American interests around the world.

The bank is currently center stage in a showdown between Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell, with Cruz accusing the Senate Majority Leader of lying to him on the Senate floor over holding a vote on the bank’s reauthorization. A vote was initially held, but legislative maneuvering was taking place deep into last night. It is unclear if McConnell’s coalition will be able to clear the necessary legislative hurdles to reauthorize the bank, let alone pass a bill that can make it through the even more conservative House.

Neither the criticism nor the support for the Export-Import bank is entirely unfounded. There are serious issues with the bank, but they should be addressed and the bank should be reauthorized.

What is the Export-Import Bank?

The Export-Import Bank provides financing for US businesses who otherwise wouldn’t be able to secure it via private financial institutions. In theory, this allows businesses to expand in areas that they normally wouldn’t have access to because the investments are seen as too risky for traditional lending institutions. The Ex-Im Bank accepts this risk in order to promote U.S businesses in emerging markets.

On its face, it seems as though the Ex-Im bank has seen success in this regard. Last year, it returned over half a billion dollars to the US Treasury in surplus funds. But given the risk associated with the nature of the investments they’re making – at least the investments they should be making – this is too good to be true. As it turns out, the Ex-Im bank is so profitable because it often finances investments in countries that companies probably wouldn’t have a hard time expanding to through private channels, like the UAE, India and South Korea.

The Ex-Im Bank’s charter also states that 20% of its loans must support small businesses. The Bank has proudly proclaimed that they exceeded this metric by a wide margin, with over 90% of loans going to small businesses! Unfortunately, that statistic is misleading. When measuring the bank’s loans by the amount of money actually distributed, as opposed to the number of businesses it interacts with, over 64% of their loans go to 10 huge companies.

So the Ex-Im bank is not fully living up to its mandate of providing loans to companies that wouldn’t otherwise secure them in countries that wouldn’t otherwise support them. Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders aren’t wrong to say that, in its current form, the bank is in many respects an engine of superfluous corporate welfare.

Is it a good thing?

Still, for all its shortcomings, we need the Ex-Im bank. Our export competitiveness is declining, and declining fast. Chinese exports have more than doubled in East Asia since 2009, outpacing us in the region by almost three-to-one. The dollar is also strengthening, making it more expensive for other countries to buy our products due to their diminished purchasing power, which further reduces our exports. Curbing this slide into steeper trade deficits without the Ex-Im bank will be a lot harder. In fact, according to the Congressional Research Service, without the Bank we’d miss out on $27 billion in exports.

Exports, via Wikimedia Commons

Exports, via Wikimedia Commons

The U.S is not unique in having an Import-Export Bank. France, China, the UK and Germany all have one. In some cases, their Ex-Im Banks massively outspend ours. In 2013, our Ex-Im Bank extended $27 billion in loans, dwarfed by China’s $153 billion. So even if our version of the bank isn’t perfect, it’s useful simply for the sake of keeping up with the rest of the global economy.

This decline in U.S economic presence comes at an inconvenient time, as China has created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank due to Congress failing to approve simple IMF reforms for five years. Having already added 57 member nations, some of which are our close trading partners, China has created a counter to American trade influence. No longer will countries look solely to the U.S for economic leadership and financing, and no longer will international events unfold on our terms alone. All of this could have been easily prevented, if not for an obstinate and unproductive Congress.

Ideological concerns over free trade and market distortions fall flat in the face of expanding foreign Export-Import Banks and widening trade deficits. Unfortunately, the reality is that taking the moral high ground when it comes the Ex-Im Bank is impractical. Philosophical objections will not persuade our economic competitors who don’t share the same sentiment, and will not curb our increasing trade deficit.

There are serious problems with the Ex-Im Bank; however, to get rid of it entirely would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We should reform the institution, not abolish it. The Bank needs to embrace its true purpose, and commit to financing areas that while risky, benefit immensely from loans. There is also the possibility of expanding the type of customers it takes on, and allowing it to lend to certain types of larger manufacturing companies in order to boost our exports.

Members of Congress often gripe about the decline of American power and influence, pointing their fingers at dangerous developing economies across the sea. However, their time would be better spent using those fingers to cast some long overdue votes.

William Christou is a student at the university of Florida, majoring in Middle Eastern Studies and Economics, with a minor in Spanish and Arabic. He has a passion for promoting political literacy and empowering individuals through knowledge.

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5 Responses to “Reauthorize the Export-Import Bank”

  1. Me Who says:

    What do you think of risks to the US economy and, more specifically, US workers that are present in a ‘glibalized’ approach? Those can’t be ignored or reduced to ‘isolationism’.

  2. Me Who says:

    Wasn’t it confirmed during congressional hearings that the greater portion of ex-im loans were going to non-US owned or operated businesses? In effect, hurting US businesses both small and large is what this exim bank does under the false guise of helping small US businesses.

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  4. taxicolor says:

    Great article William. I learned a lot about something that I didn’t understand before. Thanks.

  5. Indigo says:

    It’s tempting to fall back on an ideological reflex and say, If Bernie Sanders is against it, I’m against it. Admittedly, the world economic scene is reorganizing itself and redistributing where the power lies. Meanwhile, our conservative representatives are hell-bent on proving that government is a destructive force that works against their lessez-faire capitalist values. The sum total of their intransigence is to disconnect contemporary American business from global practices. I think a piece-meal approach, such as advocating a profound reorganization of the import-export bank, is a minor issue in the much larger framework of the shifting global paradigm in the face of isolationist ignorance in our government. The voters have chosen their representatives and their representatives have chosen to retreat from the world or to control it. So far, controlling it hasn’t worked. As the Wall Street expression goes, we’re SOL.

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