Serious About Trade Reform? End Subsidies to Foreign Competitors

COMMENTARY International Economies

Serious About Trade Reform? End Subsidies to Foreign Competitors

Jan 30th, 2017 3 min read
Diane Katz

Senior Research Fellow in Regulatory Policy

Diane Katz, who has analyzed and written on public policy issues for more than two decades, is a research fellow in regulatory policy.

President Donald Trump launched his overhaul of trade policy last week by withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. His next move ought to be elimination of the crony Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im).

Throughout the presidential campaign, and since taking office, Trump has emphasized the importance of refashioning trade policy to benefit American companies, American workers, and American consumers. How best to do so is a matter of debate, but eliminating Ex-Im would certainly help.

Among its worst effects: The bank lavishes subsidies on foreign firms and foreign governments—including China ($5 billion), Saudi Arabia ($6 billion), and Mexico ($8 billion)—which undercut American companies and workers that must compete without such government largesse—indeed, who are subject to punishing taxes and regulations instead.

The bank was incorporated in 1934 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to finance trade with the Soviet Union. Congress later constituted the bank as an independent agency under the Export-Import Bank Act of 1945.

Ex-Im provides loans and loan guarantees as well as capital and credit insurance to “facilitate” U.S. exports. The financing is backed by the “full faith and credit” of the U.S. government, which means taxpayers are on the hook for losses that bank reserves fail to cover.

Ex-Im Bank’s current exposure exceeds $87 billion.

Congress in 2015 reauthorized the bank charter until Sept. 30, 2019. However, the Ex-Im Board of Directors currently lacks a quorum, which means the bank is unable to approve any transaction totaling more than $10 million.

Bank advocates emphasize its importance to small businesses and economic growth. As they tell it, the taxpayer subsidies to foreign firms for the purchase of American exports grow Main Street businesses and create jobs.

But the reality is quite different. Very large corporations have long been the primary beneficiaries of Ex-Im financing, including Boeing (market cap of $104.6 billion), General Electric (valued at $265 billion), Bechtel (2015 revenues of $32.3 billion), and Caterpillar (with 2015 revenues of $47 billion).

Moreover, Ex-Im Bank’s top 10 overseas beneficiaries are also large corporations that primarily purchase exports from multinational conglomerates. Among the top 10 buyers, five are state-controlled and rake in millions of dollars from their own governments in addition to Ex-Im subsidies.

These multiple-subsidy streams offset operating costs, and provide a significant competitive advantage over unsubsidized U.S. firms engaged in similar ventures.

Nor do export subsidies “create” or “support” jobs, as bank officials claim. Instead, they redistribute employment from unsubsidized firms to subsidized ones.

And the job numbers touted by Ex-Im advocates are dubious at best and have been roundly criticized as misleading by the Government Accountability Office, among others.

Elimination of the bank would have no effect—none—on the financing currently in place. All the loans, guarantees, and insurance already approved would be unaffected. The bank would simply be unable to extend new financing.

Without new loans from Ex-Im, Boeing, General Electric, and the other primary beneficiaries of the bank (and their suppliers) are very well positioned to prosper.

They do not lack access to private capital—including their own finance subsidiaries. All have billions of dollars of backorders with which to keep workers occupied. (Boeing’s contractual backlog in 2015 exceeded $476 billion.)

As it is, Ex-Im supports a mere 2 percent of U.S. exports. Without it, the export picture would look virtually the same because the subsidies only rearrange the distribution of exports, rather than raising the net level of exports.

Failures in bank management and monitoring are evident in dozens of cases of fraud and other wrongdoing. Based on a review of Office of Inspector General data, The Heritage Foundation documented 124 investigations initiated between October 2007 and March 2014, as well as 792 separate claims involving more than a half billion dollars.

There also have been 74 administrative actions since April 2009, in which bank officials were forced to act internally on the basis of investigations by the Office of Inspector General.

Going forward, Trump should notify Congress that he supports elimination of the bank, and pursue repeal of its current authorization. He should also pledge to oppose any legislative attempt to lower the quorum threshold, as well as withhold any nominations for the board of directors.

Subsidized financing has long been an attractive government-provided perk for some large, well-financed American companies—particularly Boeing, which has been the largest beneficiary. But Ex-Im subsidies carry considerable costs—for taxpayers and for the American businesses that are left to compete against foreign firms and foreign governments that receive export subsidies from U.S. taxpayers.

Given the vast resources of Ex-Im’s beneficiaries and the abundant supply of private export financing, there is no need for the bank. Shut it down.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal