As I watch some members of Congress attack the U.S. Export-Import Bank, I wonder why they ignore the high price we all would pay for its loss — especially small American businesses. What’s the next target, the Small Business Administration?
The Ex-Im Bank provides financing support to lenders to encourage them to extend credit to overseas buyers of U.S. goods and services, as well as to encourage them to support domestic small-business exporters. Even though the agency is often criticized for being Boeing’s bank, understandably because Boeing is the largest U.S. exporter, almost 90 percent of its transactions directly support small-business exports. Ex-Im Bank support is limited to transactions stamped Made in USA, hence it really supports and creates high-paying jobs in the export sector.
The bank has always drawn some criticism during the reauthorization process. Suggestions of crony capitalism, subsidies to large corporations and the default risk on billions of dollars of guaranteed loans are common (if overblown) complaints. The difference this time is that critics are louder, and that while they have gained some public attention, the bank has lost the strong advocacy of the former House majority leader, Eric Cantor.
Most Americans don’t even know that Ex-Im Bank exists, so they’re not rushing to its defense. Imagine if, instead of Ex-Im, the goal was to dismantle the Small Business Administration: The public and the small-business community would be outraged. We all know that the SBA is dedicated to supporting small companies doing business here; a large part of Ex-Im’s work is to help small U.S. businesses sell overseas. Why would Congress seek to damage small exporters by threatening to close Ex-Im?
Reports are already surfacing of large U.S. manufacturers losing sales to foreign competitors because of the uncertainty caused by the reauthorization debate. The impact it is having on smaller exporters is equally great but unreported. They already faced challenges: Financing was hard to obtain even before Ex-Im came under a cloud. For example, in response to recent criticism from Congress, Ex-Im pricing on smaller loans (amounts under $10 million) to overseas customers has doubled, and in some cases tripled, in the last month. It’s true that American goods are generally viewed as offering higher quality and being worth some extra expense, but the increased cost of financing means they will inevitably lose out to their Asian and European competitors.
Critics wrongly argue that Ex-Im Bank is not needed because commercial banks can replace it. To some extent the critics are correct: Large corporations can and will find ways to adjust, oftentimes moving production offshore to places where they may obtain this type of government support. GE, Boeing and Caterpillar all have significant manufacturing capacity in other industrialized markets where the governments are more than happy to support their labor forces. But a banking environment that effectively penalizes lenders who make export financing available without government support inhibits small U.S. exporters.
I spent more than 30 years in banking, much of it international; since then, first as a senior executive at Ex-Im and now as the CEO of a small-business lending firm focused on this underserved market, I have been in constant touch with bankers. They tell me this consistently: Large banks cannot afford to underwrite smaller export transactions, and community banks cannot generate sufficient transaction numbers to justify the expense of gaining the expertise needed in this type of financing. Consequently, small exporters find it difficult, if not impossible, to attract the necessary funding without government support.
Can and should Ex-Im be a better friend to small business? Yes. The bank needs to ensure attractive pricing for its risk mitigation to small businesses and their foreign customers. Charging higher fees for smaller export transactions penalizes small business and strengthens the perception that Ex-Im exists for large multinationals. Given the persistent U.S. trade imbalance, Ex-Im Bank should take more risk in supporting small businesses, where most of America’s jobs are created.
Instead of trying to dismantle the bank, Congress should be focusing on how to make it more supportive for small business and better able to compete with the aggressive tactics of China, Korea and Europe. Much of the reasoning used to criticize Ex-Im could also be leveled at the loan programs of the SBA. That being the case, will the SBA be next on Congress’ chopping block? In either case, the argument for a smaller government role would result instead in a smaller economy.
John McAdams is chief executive of ExWorks Capital, a specialty lender to small U.S. exporters and their buyers, and director of the Coalition for Employment Through Exports. He is a former chief operating officer and board member of the Ex-Im Bank, appointed by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.