July 31, 2015 1 Comment
That’s all a result of the demise of the Export-Import Bank, which is forcing companies large and small to ponder potentially wrenching changes as Congress prepares to leave town without acting on efforts to resurrect it. The August recess means that any rescue is at least a month away, if not longer, leaving export-dependent businesses to get by without the array of assistance the New Deal-era agency offers.
“We’re really frustrated,” said Tyler Schroeder, a financial analyst at the 265-employee company Air Tractor, which makes firefighting and agricultural aircraft and is based in the 3,000-person town of Olney, Texas. “We’re at a loss how Congress can literally go on vacation and just say, ‘Good luck, guys.’”
Gary Mendell, president of trade financier Meridian Finance Group, said export credit agencies in other countries are already taking advantage of Ex-Im’s expiration to lure away business from U.S. companies. “They’re gleeful about it, and I don’t blame them,” Mendell said. “Those foreign competitors are going to customers in other countries and saying, ‘Hey, you don’t know if your U.S. supplier is even going to be able to ship to you and give you the payment terms they’re promising in their quote, because look what’s happening with Ex-Im Bank.’”
Ex-Im’s federal authorization expired July 1, to the cheers of conservative lawmakers who view it as a tool for crony capitalism. Already, credit insurance policies are starting to run out for a number of the roughly 3,000 small businesses that rely on them to be able to export.
Still, some U.S. companies are continuing to compete for overseas bids that will ultimately require Ex-Im backing, in the hopes that the agency will be renewed before the deals fall through, National Association of Manufacturers Vice President Linda Dempsey said in an interview.
That revival won’t happen anytime soon, though. Ex-Im backers had been hoping that Congress would resurrect the bank as part of this Friday’s drop-dead deadline for extending the life of the Highway Trust Fund. But the House left town Wednesday for the August recess after passing a three-month highway extension that includes no rescue for the bank.
The fight is far from over, but lawmakers won’t be able to act on Ex-Im until September at the earliest, or possibly as late as December.
Some big companies may choose not to wait. Boeing Chairman Jim McNerney said during an appearance Wednesday that the giant plane manufacturer and defense contractor is considering moving parts of its operations to other countries, where they could take advantage of those nations’ equivalents to Ex-Im to continue selling products overseas.
“We’re actively considering now moving key pieces of our company to other countries, and we would’ve never considered that before this craziness on Ex-Im,” McNerney said.
McNerney added that he might have “made the wrong decision” years ago in trying to keep production in the U.S., given the newly uncertain politics surrounding export financing in Washington. “People just playing politics — they’re not connected to the real world anymore,” he said.
The Exporters for Ex-Im Coalition put out yet another plea for renewal this week, noting that deals approved only on July 27 for the past five years amounted to $30.2 million for 34 businesses — deals that could no longer happen today.
The agency’s supporters in Congress expressed frustration too. “What we’re asking for is a vote,” Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.) said during a Rules Committee markup Tuesday where an attempt to attach Ex-Im language to the transportation bill failed in an unusually close 6-7 vote. “Bad things will happen if we don’t get to this. It will start first with small businesses.”
Heck also argued that “two major manufacturers in this country” will move production offshore without the agency, the other being an apparent reference to General Electric.
But Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a leading conservative critic of the bank, sees even a prolonged expiration for the bank as a victory.
“This is great news for families and taxpayers,” he told POLITICO in a statement. “Every day that goes by without the Ex-Im Bank being resurrected means it is more likely that it permanently ends. … This is the kind of example of good governance that I am excited to tell my constituents about during the August recess.”
Heritage Action Chief Executive Officer Michael Needham similarly hailed Ex-Im’s expiration as “the culmination of a three-year effort waged by conservatives against a vast, well-funded network of consultants, lobbyists and big-government interest groups.” In a statement, he also praised House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in particular for his efforts.
“If the Republican Party hopes to attract voters who gravitate to a message built around opportunity for all and favoritism to none, GOP leaders must follow his lead and preserve this historic policy victory,” Needham said.
The Export-Import Bank guarantees loans for foreign companies interested in buying U.S. exports, and also runs programs such as providing insurance and credit to help small businesses secure new customers and working capital.
Critics like Jordan argue that Ex-Im doesn’t create jobs, it merely shifts jobs to export-related sectors. They also emphasize that the private sector could step in to fill the void the bank’s death creates, pointing to statements by Boeing executives admitting as much.
But Rami Touma, president of Houston-based oil equipment exporter CECA Supply & Services, said Ex-Im’s services are critical to his business’s ability to sell products to Algeria, its major source of income.
The national Algerian oil company requires exporters to post a 10 percent performance bond, which is held until the job is done. And in the past year, Touma’s 30-employee company had its best year ever, with $60 million in sales.
“We do not have the ability to just not have $6 million accessible to us,” Touma said. “So Ex-Im, they put the money in for us, and we pay a fee.” He said Ex-Im can facilitate this because it has the expertise and access to State Department information to allow it to judge the reliability of a foreign buyer, something a traditional bank might not be able to do.
For smaller companies, “in any given year, our projects in North Africa represent 30 to 50 percent of their yearly sales,” he said. His policy with Ex-Im is locked in for roughly the next year, but if the agency stays dead, CECA would lose 30 to 40 percent of its sales “right off the bat.”
Similarly, Schroeder’s Texas crop-dusting manufacturer could lose up to one-fourth of its sales after losing the bank’s credit insurance, he said Wednesday.
“We’re scrambling now, trying to find a way to facilitate our sales throughout the rest of this year,” he said. “That’s going to take a lot of risk on our part of the company, and it’s going to take — it’s going to be a big expense for us.”
Schroeder added: “We can only do this for so long. … When it comes to next year’s export season, we don’t know. We don’t have an answer for how we’re going to fill the gap that’s been left by Congress’ blatant disrespect for business, in my opinion.”
BCH Trading, a lumber shipper from Arkansas whose working capital guarantee with Ex-Im expires in April, would have to find an investor to help it access money needed as collateral for business deals, President Randy Barsalou told POLITICO. Private banks won’t lend against the promise of money by a foreign buyer, which leaves small businesses with few options, such as putting up their own assets as collateral.
“It’s almost like going out on the street and finding someone [to invest in us],” he said. “I’ve been an Ex-Im user since 2002, and when we first started it was ’98. … We met with people to look at the possibilities of what would be available, and that issue was always there. ‘Oh, you’re an exporter.’”
Mendell said small companies looking to export don’t have other options for replacing many of Ex-Im’s services. That’s because the volume of their exports is too small or the market risk is too great for so meager a transaction.
“We don’t have any alternative in the private sector to bring them to,” said Mendell, whose company provides export credit insurance for around 1,000 companies, of which 550 have insurance policies through Ex-Im. “It doesn’t exist.”
For almost all of Mendell’s clients, he was able to ensure the renewal of Ex-Im-backed insurance policies that were expiring in July and August, but those whose policies are up in September are already facing problems. The insurance allows the U.S. exporter to give the foreign buyer payment terms, so it can take 30, 60 or 90 days to pay for the shipment. But if the exporter is selling something like medical equipment that will take 90 days to manufacture, Mendell said, then the insurance wouldn’t be available when it’s ready to ship.
“If you’ve got a customers for Christmas season, you’re shipping in September/October,” he said, so many of his clients are having to cut back sales.
Still, Heritage Action emphasizes in its publications that just 0.52 percent of small-business exporters, not even getting to small businesses overall, used the agency’s services in 2012.
Also in the balance are the jobs of roughly 430 Ex-Im employees, none of whom have yet been furloughed because the bank still has funding and work to do.
Ex-Im Chairman Fred Hochberg told POLITICO last week that his agency is keeping busy — including processing $25 billion in loans. “That’s almost a year’s worth of work,” he said, in response to a question about whether the agency would try to put off furloughs as long as possible.
“We’re trying to accelerate our work on [Freedom of Information Act] requests, which have doubled this year,” as well as reports for the inspector general, he said. “I actually have more people to work on that right now than I would otherwise, so I want to try to get that done.”
But if Congress ultimately doesn’t renew the bank, it’s clear that Ex-Im intends to stick around until the end of the longest loan guarantee, which could be as long as 18 years.
So, expired or not, the bank will likely be around for a while. But Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) warned that if the agency’s expiration continues into December or January, the bank could be hard to ever revive.
“That’s why this has got to happen now,” he said. “It should’ve already happened.”
Kathryn A. Wolfe contributed to this report.