“For nearly 90 years, the Export-Import Bank of the United States has subsidized foreign purchases of goods produced by politically connected American businesses. Now it will start loaning money to U.S. companies that do little or no business overseas.
In April, the Ex-Im Bank’s board of directors voted unanimously to launch a new “Make More in America” initiative aimed at subsidizing American manufacturers instead of their foreign customers. Rather than unwinding and abolishing the Ex-Im Bank, as some fiscal conservatives have been trying to do for years, this new program is likely to further entrench the bank’s role in federal industrial policy.
“This is worse than mission creep,” says Sen. Pat Toomey (R–Pa.), the top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee and a longtime skeptic of the Ex-Im Bank. “There is no reason that taxpayers should have to back domestic financing when we live in a highly developed market economy in which promising businesses have access to capital on competitive terms.”
Toomey submitted a series of questions to Ex-Im Bank President Reta Jo Lewis about the new program. The answers he received are telling.
In response to Toomey’s request for evidence that a new domestic loan program is needed, Lewis wrote that “it is difficult” to identify a financing shortage, noting that “U.S. capital markets are deep and liquid.” Where there are “gaps,” she said, they exist among “non-investment grade or unrated borrowers.”
Applicants for the new loans, Lewis said, “will need to demonstrate that the required financing is not otherwise available from the private sector.” In other words, these loans will go to projects that private capital markets have deemed too risky to finance.
The Ex-Im Bank’s low-interest loans to overseas buyers of American goods have long benefited companies like Boeing, which can undercut foreign competition with the U.S. government’s help. But there is little evidence that the Ex-Im Bank has actually boosted American exports.
From 2014 to 2018, the bank was effectively shut down when conservatives in Congress temporarily suspended its lending authority. American exports nevertheless grew from $2.3 trillion to a then-record $2.5 trillion during that period.
Former President Donald Trump signed a bill reauthorizing the bank in 2018. President Joe Biden now plans to expand its mandate. Having failed to prove its worth in the global marketplace, the Ex-Im Bank will waste taxpayer money here at home.”
“Dating back to its founding in 1934, the Export-Import Bank of the United States has had a pretty specific mission: subsidize the export of American-made products by extending cheap credit to foreign companies looking to buy our stuff.
Whether the bank serves any legitimate purpose is another matter entirely. These days, the Export-Import Bank mostly acts as a slush fund for politically connected American corporations like Boeing and General Electric that would have no trouble doing business abroad but are more than happy to benefit from its largesse, doled out in the form of low-interest loans to potential buyers. Sometimes it also blows American taxpayer money on propping up government-run monopolies in foreign countries.
Still, the mission has always been clear. It’s right there in Executive Order 6581, which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed in 1934 to authorize “a banking corporation…with power to aid in financing and to facilitate exports and imports and the exchange of commodities between the United States and other Nations.” The bank’s current mission statement, too, clearly spells out a goal of “supporting American jobs by facilitating the export of U.S. goods and services.”
Now, quietly, the Ex-Im Bank is taking on a new—and entirely domestic—project.
At a meeting last week, the Ex-Im Bank’s board of directors voted unanimously to approve a so-called “Make More in America” initiative. The press release announcing the new program is a gobbledygook of crony capitalist doublespeak virtually devoid of specifics about how the program will operate or what it will cost. The new program “will create new financing opportunities that spur manufacturing in the United States, support American jobs and boost America’s ability to compete with countries like China,” Reta Jo Reyes, the bank’s president and board chair, says in the statement.
This latest development at the Ex-Im Bank is another aspect of the sprawling federal effort that began under President Donald Trump and continues under President Joe Biden to subsidize American manufacturing. The creation of a “domestic financing program” at the Ex-Im Bank was part of a series of supply chain recommendations made by the White House in June. A few days before Christmas, the Ex-Im Bank filed a vague notice in the Federal Register outlining plans to implement the program.
But there has been little clarity about what the program will aim to do, which businesses might stand to benefit from it, or how its results will be judged. In the announcement last week, the Ex-Im Bank only said that the new program will “immediately make available the agency’s existing medium- and long-term loans and loan guarantees for export-oriented domestic manufacturing projects.””
“the government will throw taxpayer dollars at investments that private capital markets have deemed too risky.
But how will the government decide which projects to fund? Toomey also asked the bank to explain what steps will be taken to “ensure that domestic transactions will not be influenced by political pressures.”
The Ex-Im Bank’s response to that query is even more worrying. There don’t appear to be any safeguards in place. “Financing is available to all qualifying applicants based on criteria established by law and agency practice,” Lewis wrote in reply.
Translation: Any company with the resources to hire the attorneys, accountants, and lawyers necessary to decipher the bank’s policies and sufficiently schmooze decision-makers can get paid.
“There is no reason that taxpayers should have to back domestic financing when we live in a highly developed market economy in which promising businesses have access to capital on competitive terms,” says Toomey.”
“Reauthorized by Congress in December 2019 with the promise that it would suddenly change its ways and focus its firepower on fighting China, this export credit agency quickly returned to its tired routine of propping up its old and favorite customers, including—very prominently—Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex.”
“Ex-Im Bank approved $400 million in financing to this Mexican government-owned oil company.”
“Pemex is in serious financial trouble. It could very well collapse, despite its privileged position in Mexico. A pandemic-induced drop in oil prices combined with years of mismanagement have left Pemex technically insolvent. It’s already the world’s most-indebted oil company and one of the largest issuers of debt in Latin America.”
“Pemex has been corrupt for years. In July 2020, its former chief executive was arrested in Spain (where he had been hiding to evade a Mexican arrest warrant) and extradited. He’s now a protected witness in an expansive bribery scandal involving three of Mexico’s former presidents, four former finance ministers, two presidential challengers, two state governors and a number of legislators.”
“Now Ex-Im is justifying its financing to Pemex with the go-to excuse that it “would help counter financing competition from foreign export credit agencies, including from China.” This claim is dubious. In the bill to reauthorize Ex-Im last December, Congress did include what it calls the Program on China and Transformational Exports. It specified 10 sectors for the program, such as artificial intelligence, renewable energy, water treatment and sanitation. However, the list doesn’t include oil and gas. Nearly a quarter of Ex-Im’s overall exposure is in that sector, so Ex-Im’s long-standing connections to the industry—rather than a desire to counter China—are probably why the bank continues to deepen ties with Pemex.
This brings us to another question: How can some members of Congress reconcile subsidizing so many foreign oil and gas companies in light of their stated concerns about climate-related issues? Pemex’s record on that front should particularly disturb those who so loudly proclaim their environmental interests.”
“The overarching lesson from this mess is that Congress was unrealistic to expect Ex-Im to change its ways. The bank can assert that things will be different, or that it will now focus on fighting China, but at the end of the day, its relationship with Pemex stretches back more than 70 years—a fact about which the agency boasts in its press release.
As long as Ex-Im holds tight to its favored companies, nobody should expect major results in any so-called transformational sectors. Old dogs won’t learn new tricks.”
“Vast research shows that, while subsidies might prop up the direct recipients, governments that subsidize harm their economies overall. That said, in the name of national security or geopolitical concerns, these principles may sometimes be traded off against other concerns.
But this doesn’t mean that all subsidies should get a free pass. There must be a concrete strategy behind the effort to use subsidies in this way. For instance, China mostly operates in lower-income nations. If Ex-Im is serious about competing with China, that’s where its loans should be going, rather than continuing to finance foreign borrowers in rich countries such as Italy, France, or the United Arab Emirates, where they’re served well by a commercial banking market.
Ex-Im’s recent annual conference was full of bold statements about fighting China as mandated by Congress during the agency’s reauthorization process back in December 2019. Unfortunately, despite much bluster from its leadership, there’s been no fundamental change in the way Ex-Im operates or in which companies Ex-Im extends financing to with taxpayer backing.”
“the Export-Import Bank’s failure ultimately lies with the policymakers who believe an agency that has been devoted to serving well-connected companies for so long would actually change.”