Main Street Sign

U.S. Export-Import Bank: Banker to Corporate Titans or to Main Street?

Public debate over whether to continue to operate the U.S. Export-Import Bank, “EXIM” as it’s known, has less to do with how its run (that’s the usual gripe about government agencies) than who it’s run for. The companies using its services range from the titans of industry including Boeing, GE, and Caterpillar, to small firms across the United States that literally set up shop on Main Street (see graphic). Here are the arguments for and against keeping EXIM.

Argument: EXIM operates where private lenders do not

Supporters: EXIM Bank financing is the backup or “Plan B” for U.S. companies trying to grow through exports into markets where adequate financing is not available from commercial banks or the capital markets. Businesses rely on export credit agencies (ECAs) to support transactions where the commercial relationship is new and/or transactions where the buyer is located in a country with weaker contractual enforcement, less financial development, and higher political risk.

Opponents: While this may be true for some EXIM clients, the proposition doesn’t hold in the aggregate. Small businesses account for 98 percent of all exporting firms, and they are growing the value of their exports without EXIM financing, which is viewed as a taxpayer subsidy to a relatively small number of companies. Smaller firms seeking to do business in foreign markets have the option of working through a wholesaler or other buyer, rather than rely on EXIM financing.

Argument: Against competition from 85 foreign ECAs, only EXIM supports U.S. content and U.S. jobs

Supporters: 85 foreign government ECAs in 67 countries are focused on boosting their exports with their homegrown inputs. Only EXIM Bank supports U.S. production. In 2014, the last year when EXIM was fully operational, EXIM supported $27.4 billion of U.S. exports. The bank also supports exports to the United States if the transaction includes enough material from U.S. suppliers and assembly occurs in the United States. Over the past five years, EXIM supported 1.3 million American jobs. Nearly 90 percent of EXIM’s transactions directly supported American small businesses, helping them create more jobs at their companies.

Opponents: Large companies receive the lion’s share of EXIM financing. In 2013, ten companies received 75 percent of the bank’s authorizations. They included Boeing, General Electric, Bechtel, and Caterpillar. Boeing, GE, and Caterpillar operate their own financing divisions extending credit to its customers. Small businesses received about 20 percent of EXIM’s support; further, EXIM’s definition of small is overly broad as it includes firms with as many as 1,500 workers and companies with revenues of up to $21.5 million annually.

Argument: Only EXIM can go toe-to-toe with foreign ECAs to help American firms win bids

Supporters: EXIM helps American companies win major public and private procurements in foreign markets when bidding against companies backed by their governments. Other governments are ramping up their trade financing support. China Ex-Im Bank issued $153.8 billion in authorizations to support Chinese exports in 2013, compared with EXIM’s $37.4 billion in financing. And, other countries’ ECAs don’t always play by the global norms established by organizations such as the OECD, which created a framework of disciplines for export finance covering areas like term limits for loans. EXIM Bank helps neutralize this unfair advantage so U.S. companies can compete on the quality of their products.

Opponents: “Everyone else does it” doesn’t make for sound policy. While financing plays a role in competitiveness, there are many other features of American competitiveness including quality, availability, reliability, service, etc. that enable American firms to win contracts. Opponents equate EXIM with the kind of subsidies provided to China’s state-owned enterprises which they believe are uneconomic and unsustainable and argue that the U.S. can work in the multilateral system to promote fairness and change the way other ECAs do business, or try to put them out of business.

EXIM financing for firms located on Main Streets in America

Argument: EXIM promotes stability in the trade finance market

Supporters: In times of stress in the financial system, private lenders often contract trade finance as a way to quickly reduce their exposure. When credit markets tighten, small businesses are often the hardest hit because they have fewer borrowing options. ECAs like EXIM can mobilize quickly to help ensure the availability of trade finance, filling the gaps in private sector liquidity. EXIM Bank increased its lending to U.S. businesses 46 percent during the downturn in 2009, helping to stabilize trade finance markets and protect U.S. jobs.

Opponents: EXIM was created in 1934 and became an independent agency in 1945 after World War II when crippled foreign economies were not stable or strong enough to purchase American goods. Today, there is no significant shortage of private export financing, whereas the bank’s subsidies can distort credit markets.

Argument: EXIM provides value and doesn’t cost the American taxpayer

Supporters: The EXIM Bank’s charter requires reasonable assurance of repayment for the transactions it authorizes. It sets interest rates and offers guarantee and insurance premiums that are designed to cover claims and administrative expenses. Through prudent management, EXIM keeps its active default rate to about one-quarter of one percent. When EXIM borrows at a low Treasury rate, lends to customers and gets repaid at a higher rate over time, the bank earns a profit which it turns back to the Treasury. Over the past two decades, the EXIM Bank has generated nearly $7 billion more than the cost of its operations. In 2014 alone, EXIM transferred $675 million to the Treasury Department. This makes EXIM unique among government agencies – it pays for itself and even puts money into the treasury.

Opponents: EXIM programs are not subject to the fair value accounting methods required of private banks. If it were, it would operate at a deficit. Rather than saving taxpayers money, the Congressional Budget Office reported in 2014 the bank would require operational funding plus cost taxpayers around $2 billion over ten years.


Read more:

Congressional Research Service Report: Import-Export Bank Reauthorization Issues for Congress
Report to the U.S. Congress on Global Export Credit Competition
A series by the Mercatus Center