We’re all familiar with car loans and home mortgages. They make it possible for consumers to make major purchases without paying cash upfront. Responsibly done, everyone benefits — the purchasers, car dealers, autoworkers, realtors, construction crews and suppliers.
Uncle Sam does the same thing on an international scale with the Export-Import Bank of the United States. Since 1935, the bank has provided financing to foreign companies seeking to purchase American goods. Everyone benefits. The purchasers buy needed products and American companies export billions of dollars’ worth of goods each year – $37 billion last year alone.
A federal agency, the bank borrows money from the Treasury Department and pays interest on the funds to the Treasury. It then lends that money to foreign companies at higher interest rates. The bank is self-supporting through interest payments and fees. No tax money is used and, in fact, the bank generated a $1 billion surplus for the U.S. Treasury last year. Congress provides funding for the bank’s Office of Inspector General and sets the bank’s lending limit.
But the bank is clouded in controversy this year, as some politicians question whether the federal government should be involved in providing loans and loan guarantees to foreign customers of U.S. companies. Some opponents call it “corporate welfare” for well-connected U.S. companies while others complain the loans allow foreign competitors to undercut American firms.
The U.S. airline industry, led by Delta Air Lines Inc., is suing the Export-Import Bank over its long-standing support for Boeing’s sales to foreign airlines. Delta and other airlines say the loans allow foreign carriers to purchase planes at below-market prices, giving them an unfair advantage against U.S. carriers on international routes.
The questions are jeopardizing a September vote in Congress to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. If the vote fails, Washington state will be the biggest loser.
That’s not surprising, considering that 40 percent of the jobs in our state are linked to international trade. According to the Puget Sound Business Journal, Washington is the largest single beneficiary of export-import financing, largely due to Boeing, which sold $64 billion in Export-Import Bank-financed exports from 2007 to 2012.
Not just Boeing
But it’s not just Boeing, says Kris Johnson, president of the Association of Washington Business. “Of the 183 exporters in the state of Washington that use the Ex-Im bank, 133 are small- and medium-sized businesses.”
While some critics claim that Export-Import Bank loans give foreign competitors an unfair advantage, eliminating the bank will actually put U.S. firms at a disadvantage.
Many foreign countries subsidize their major industries. For example, Airbus, Boeing’s major competitor, is heavily subsidized by the European Union. A total of 59 countries have some type of export credit programs. America’s Export-Impact Bank is a counterbalance to those programs, creating a more level playing field.
Congress had an opportunity in 2012 to pass a long-term reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank; instead, it approved only a two-year extension, which expires September 30 — just weeks before the November election. But this program should not become a political football.
As the U.S. economy continues to struggle, America’s trade-related businesses need the certainty and stability that would result from a long-term extension of the Export-Import Bank. In 2012, Washington’s congressional delegation voted unanimously to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank because they understand its importance to the economy of our state and our nation. Congress should follow their lead.
Don Brunell, retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, is a business analyst, writer, and columnist.