This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Buried deep in the bowels of the Surface Transportation Act (H.R. 22), a five-year extension of the federal highway program, is a Freddy Krueger-like reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im). Like a nightmare-turned-reality, policymakers continue to insist that what is good for them politically is also good for America.
Established in 1934, Ex-Im's mission is to "[assume] credit and country risks that the private sector is unable or unwilling to accept." This means American taxpayers can be forced to co-sign risky business loans a reckless and irresponsible practice. Fortunately, Ex-Im's authority to provide credit lapsed in July. Resurrecting Ex-Im would be bad news here at home and in the global marketplace.
Ex-Im asserts that its purpose is to "help level the playing field… so [U.S.] companies and workers can compete on the basis of the prices and quality of their goods and services." Policy researchers from George Mason University, however, report that Ex-Im is a good deal only for a favored few. They find that Ex-Im does not substantially affect the balance of trade, finances less than 2 percent of U.S. exports, and primarily benefits three states Washington, Texas and California while putting taxpayers nationwide on the hook if Ex-Im needs a bailout.
Supporters assert that Ex-Im is a valuable institution because 90 percent of its beneficiaries are small businesses. That number doesn't tell the whole story. Small businesses, which already have access to export financing through the Small Business Administration, make up a majority of the recipients, but large businesses take a majority of the money. In 2013, for example, the top 10 beneficiaries received 97 percent (more than $11.5 billion) of Ex-Im's loan guarantees. Boeing, the top recipient, received 300 percent more financial assistance than the next largest recipient, General Electric. The rally cry of Ex-Im's supporters to "Support small business!" is deceptive because Ex-Im's primary role is to be a trough from which large corporations feed.
Ex-Im claims to be self-financing, which results in the mistaken impression that it is an asset, rather than a liability. Ex-Im provides financial assistance at government rates, which are lower than market rates. In so doing, Ex-Im diverts resources away from more productive, and less risky, uses. For example, economist Herbert Kaufman estimated that each $1 billion doled out in federal loan guarantees crowds out $736 to $1.32 billion of private investment. In the private market, the inability to obtain financing is a signal that resources can be used more productively elsewhere. If private creditors are unwilling to provide financing, the federal government should not step in and do so. Ninety-eight percent of U.S. exports occur without financial support from Ex-Im. The remaining 2 percent either aren't worthwhile or could be picked up by willing investors. It should be obvious that subsidizing some U.S. companies, but not others, hurts those that Ex-Im does not help. Some of the companies left out in the cold (and thus forced to borrow at higher interest rates) may be competitors of the favored few, thus making the playing field less level.
Despite Ex-Im's claims that it supports 164,000 American jobs, Ex-Im has no discernable impact on U.S. employment rates. Furthermore, Ex-Im's financing also indirectly harms American businesses. For example, Delta Air Lines claims that international rivals, such as Air India and Emirates, use Ex-Im loans to lower the costs of purchasing commercial aircraft. Those foreign competitors can undercut Delta by lowering ticket prices or purchasing more planes and therefore servicing more flights. U.S. miners likewise assert that Ex-Im has harmed them by helping finance an Australian mining company's purchases of Caterpillar equipment. Ex-Im's attempt to help American business is hindered by the damage it causes to American business.
For more than 80 years, Ex-Im has poked a figurative federal finger into the global economy, playing political favorites and pitting American companies against each other in international markets. Ex-Im is a government money tree for big corporations that should (and can) find funding through the private market, on market terms.
Reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank would be a serious mistake. If fiscally responsible politicians cannot kill it for good, what government program ever could be sent to a deserved grave?
Michael Jensen is a graduate student in economics at Utah State University. William Shughart, research director of the Independent Institute, is J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University's Huntsman School of Business. Both are affiliated with Strata, a public policy research center in Logan.