Time to dump the Ex-Im Bank?

Here’s a hot, exciting topic for your weekend reading pleasure. Is it time for us to get rid of the Export Import Bank of the United States? (Please, try not to let that get your heart racing too quickly.) What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of the Ex-Im bank? Well, you’re not alone. I never had either until a couple of weeks ago. If you want to get seriously deep in the weeds on this, (and you might) there is a 10 page .pdf file you can download for the full history and description.

But the short version is that this is a government entity, established back in the 1940s, which ostensibly exists to help American businesses compete more effectively overseas by promoting exports. Sounds pretty good, right? But the way it’s being used today is drawing criticism from both sides of the aisle. Tim Carney explains that the government’s use of Ex-Im has evolved into a sort of Venture Socialism.

Ex-Im exists to subsidize U.S. businesses, with most of the subsidy dollars facilitating Boeing sales. Other industrial titans like GE, Bechtel, and General Dynamics devour most of the rest of the Ex-Im subsidy pie. But manufacturers aren’t the only beneficiaries of this little-known federal agency — banks profit from it, too. For instance, when Ex-Im recently approved $1 billion in financing to subsidize Pemex, Mexico’s government-owned oil company, 3M and other U.S. exporters of oil-field equipment benefited, but so did some big banks. Bank of America and JP Morgan financed these sales, and so if Pemex defaults, it’s these megabanks the U.S. taxpayer will be bailing out.

Now Obama has created a new Ex-Im subsidy for banks. The name is a mouthful: “The Supply-Chain Finance Guarantee Program.”

Here’s how to understand what’s going on: Imagine I’m a shoe exporter. I ship shoes to stores in Europe, and then I wait a few weeks to get paid by the stores. But what if more orders come in, and I need to restock the shoes right away, before I get paid for my last shipment? I could just borrow from a bank. But another option is that I can just sell my invoices, in effect, to the bank. If the shoe stores owe me $1,000, I might sell Citibank, for $950, the right to be paid by those shoe stores. That’s called supply-chain finance, and it’s a quintessential capitalist arrangement.

But in the midst of this commerce among banks, exporters, and importers, Barack Obama has inserted the unwitting U.S. taxpayer. As part of his Export Initiative aimed at doubling U.S. exports in five years, Obama created the Supply-Chain Finance Guarantee Program to guarantees 90 percent of the banks’ exposure. In our hypothetical example, if the European shoe stores welched, the U.S. taxpayers would cover 90 percent of Citibank’s loss.

Carney does a better job of explaining what is obviously a very complex and wonky issue than I ever could, so read his entire analysis. Ex-Im has become known in congressional circles as the “Boeing slush fund” because of the large amount of taxpayer funds going to guarantee and insure loans which allow foreign airlines to purchase their planes. But it’s also worth noting that while activities supporting Boeing account for the largest share of actual dollars invested, a vastly larger number of smaller transactions cover exports by actual small businesses. (This is part of the original charter for Ex-Im.)

This is a tough call. On the one hand, as this Wall Street Journal article reports, there is a coalition of people working to keep Ex-Im in it’s current form, including Republican Gary Miller and Democrat Barney Frank. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I see a pairing like that, my first response is to reach for my back pocket and make sure I still have my wallet.

But on the other hand, parts of this just sound like an attack on Boeing and other job creators, bolstering our ability to compete in foreign markets. The real question is, does the Ex-Im do a good enough job protecting taxpayer dollars with these sorts of investments and is it an appropriate use of your money? As I mentioned to several people I contacted when researching this subject, it’s a very, very complicated issue.

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