Inaction Haunts Ex-Im Bank
By Gary Burrows
Halloween was still four weeks out when Capt. Bill Schubert came to Breakbulk Americas to tell his ghost story.
It’s a tale Schubert, a former maritime administrator, has woven many times before over the past few years. Some of the details get updated, but the scare leaves most of those familiar with the story as aghast as first-time listeners.
No, it’s not Michael Myers haunting Laurie Strode on another Halloween night. It’s about a Pennsylvania senator holding the Export-Import Bank of the United States captive.
Schubert, president of International Trade and Transportation Inc., joined a panel to speak about the changing trade landscape, but Ex-Im Bank’s plight is unchanged, caught in an ineffective limbo. His message has been delivered at Breakbulk and other leading industry events, as well as at organizations and within the pages of this magazine. It lands the appropriate outcry but any action eludes it.
Whether you’ve heard it or not, here it is in the nutshell: Ex-Im Bank is the U.S. export credit agency, or ECA. Roughly 50 percent to 60 percent of mega-projects require some form of export credit agency financing. There are dozens of ECAs throughout the world, which guarantee loans in exchange for buying goods and services from the ECA’s country. Ex-Im Bank authorized billions of dollars of projects in 1997–2015 — more than US$35 billion in 2012–13 alone.
But the bank was shelved in 2015 when it wasn’t reauthorized, and once it was finally reopened, it didn’t have enough board members appointed to form a quorum. That means that no transaction can be approved above US$10 million.
“There are US$745 billion of capital projects currently at various stages of development requiring ECA support,” Schubert said at Breakbulk Americas.
Ex-Im is not popular with some conservative legislators, who feel loaning billions to large energy, oil and gas, petrochemical, mining and other businesses amounts to corporate welfare, even if it moves U.S.-made goods and creates U.S. jobs.
President Trump did his part and not only nominated four board members, he did it bilateral fashion with two Democrats and two Republicans appointees, which were voted out of committee last December.
However, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., objected to the nominees — along with some 300 other ones — over his objections to the Ex-Im Bank. The nominees require cloture, which at 300-plus nominees is procedural paralysis.
Schubert said there are about US$25 billion in major projects that are awaiting Ex-Im Bank approval. If the bank is unable to act, those projects will go to China, U.K., France or some other country whose ECA will benefit its own industries.
In a brief survey, Schubert queried five U.S.-based engineering, procurement and construction contractors and asked for a snapshot of projects bid on in the last 12 months. The bids, which all required ECA financing, totaled US$68 billion.
“If we don’t have an export credit agency, we’re not going to participate in East Africa and other places around the world. The U.S. is losing influence. China is there building through the Belt and Road Initiative and sucking up all of these projects. We don’t have a chance,” Schubert said.
Ex-Im also has a potential role to play with strategic national interests, he added. This includes 16 nuclear projects in Saudi Arabia, with total value of about US$80 billion, as well as satellite projects worldwide (he further notes Ex-Im’s national security role on page 8).
The Breakbulk Americas session tried to make sense of the uncertainties of trade and tariffs and with so many nightmares around, Ex-Im could be the industry’s surest bet. If you agree, let someone know about it: U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. (phone +1 610 434 1444 or +1 202 224 4254, or email www.toomey.senate.gov/?p=contact.254 or www.toomey.senate.gov/?p=contact).
Photo credit: Shutterstock
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