Subsidized exporters began to lobby in earnest this week to save their subsidizer, the Export-Import Bank of the United States. Officials from Ex-Im — a federal agency that finances exports with taxpayer-backed loans and guarantees — also ramped up their lobbying.
In this charm offensive, Ex-Im and its beneficiaries highlight the agency's most attractive sides: the small-business subsidies, the jobs supposedly created and saved, the pickle subsidies. But it doesn't take much digging to see the less savory parts of Ex-Im. In fact, perusing the agency's 2014 annual report, issued a few weeks ago, some deals jump out that make it hard to justify Ex-Im's continued existence.
Some highlights from Fiscal Year 2014: 70 percent of the money committed by Ex-Im’s largest program went to subsidize one exporter. Caterpillar got a taxpayer-backed loan guarantee to sell equipment to its own foreign subsidiary. At least one deal subsidized a foreign manufacturer that competes with U.S. manufacturers. And one deal subsidized China's own export-import bank.
Ex-Im authorized $20.5 billion in taxpayer-backed financing last year. A majority of that — $10.8 billion — was in the form of long-term guarantees, which the agency itemizes in its annual report.
Boeing jets accounted for $7.4 billion of those guarantees — more than 70 percent. This sum for Boeing guarantees is larger than the $5.1 billion Ex-Im provided for all small businesses combined.
Boeing also exports satellites, and Ex-Im provided $710 million in direct loans to British customers buying those satellites — or 37 percent of all of Ex-Im’s direct lending.
All Ex-Im authorizations combined — including loans, guarantees, credit insurance, and thousands smaller subsidies — equaled $20.5 billion. Boeing exports accounted for $8.1 billion of those, or more than 40 percent.
How to justify a government agency that exists mostly to benefit one very profitable company? “It should come as no surprise that Boeing airline and satellite customers account for a large share of the total value of Ex-Im loan guarantees and, to a far lesser extent, direct loans,” Boeing officials explain to me. “Boeing is the largest U.S. exporter of manufactured products, and large commercial airplanes and satellites are high value products that typically require a significant level of financing.”
Ex-Im’s annual report has other fun items. In June, Ex-Im approved a $16.7 million guarantee to finance Caterpillar’s export of “equipment for electric-power generation,” the annual report states. The buyer, according to the annual report: Energyst Group Services, which is also known as “Energyst Cat Rental Power.” The only thing this company does is deal in Caterpillar power-generation equipment. They describe themselves this way: “Energyst Cat Rental Power is a pan-european company formed by Caterpillar and 10 of its Cat dealers to be the exclusive Cat dealer in Europe.”
Ex-Im defenders always say that without taxpayer subsidies, foreign buyers would buy from foreign manufacturers. But who else is an exclusive Caterpillar dealer going to buy from?
Caterpillar, in defending a taxpayer-backed guarantee to sell its equipment to a company it created and that only buys Caterpillar, points out that “Caterpillar has less than 10 percent ownership in Energyst, and does not participate in the day-to-day management of the company.”
Many subsidized foreign buyers are actually owned by foreign governments. State-owned companies that took Ex-Im subsidies for their 2014 purchases include the airline Emirates, Air China, and Mexico’s state-owned oil company, Pemex.
Officials at Ex-Im, under fire from conservatives who want to let its charter expire this year, claim that American businesses need the agency in order to combat foreign governments that subsidizetheir exporters. China's government is the villain most often named. But Ex-Im actually gives subsidies to the Chinese government, including an $18.4 million guarantee in April to the Export-Import Bank of China. Some competitor.
Another Chinese state-owned entity to receive Ex-Im financing: the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, which happens to be the largest bank in the world, according to Forbes. ICBC’s aircraft leasing arm got a $300 million Ex-Im guarantee to buy Boeing aircraft.
Ex-Im’s annual report cites for every deal a reason that the taxpayer subsidy was needed. For the ICBC-Boeing deal, it was “to assume commercial or political risk that exporter or private financial institutions are unwilling or unable to undertake.” That’s saying something, when the deal is between America’s largest exporter (which has its own finance arm) and the largest bank in the world, which happens to be owned by the Chinese government.
Ex-Im also extended a $68.5 million guarantee to Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation, better known as SMIC, to build a manufacturing facility. A handful of U.S. companies still manufacture semiconductors in the U.S. Do you suppose their workers know that their tax dollars are subsidizing a Chinese competitor?
None of these deals are extraordinary. Ex-Im has given ICBC direct loans before. Enron and windmill makers have gotten Ex-Im financing for selling things to themselves. What's amazing is that Ex-Im made these deals while under intense scrutiny, as their charter was winding down.
This is Ex-Im behaving well.
If Republicans give Ex-Im the five-year extension they are currently planning, we can count on the annual reports becoming even better reading.