If the Trump administration is serious about keeping jobs in America, it needs a strong and energized EXIM Bank.
- By Fred P. HochbergFred P. Hochberg is the longest-serving chairman and president of the Export-Import Bank of the United States and one of the highest-ranking business leaders in the Obama administration.
Jobs are at the root of many of the hotly debated issues that defined this election. President-elect Donald Trump and his team have already indicated a robust approach to job preservation and creation, acknowledging how competitive the world is today.
This is also an area where Democrats and Republicans can find common ground. Preserving and creating jobs — particularly in an era of automation and globalization — is critical for the success of our country. On the heels of the global financial crisis, between 2009 and 2011, exports and consumption were the only contributors to growth in the U.S. gross domestic product. Looking forward, therefore, exports must continue to be front and center in our nation’s jobs strategy.
Today, American industry and our economy are poised for job gains and enjoy a degree of resilience that we did not have eight years ago. In a speech at the University of Baltimore on Dec. 19, the chair of the Federal Reserve Bank, Janet Yellen said the United States was “in the vicinity of maximum employment” and argued that while our economy will not be without its challenges, it will continue to present more opportunities than ever before. At the same time, the Gallup Organization has found that millennials are starting companies at a far lower rate than previous generations. That picture illustrates the importance of continuing our support for all four drivers of economic growth: public investment, business investment, consumer spending, and, yes, exports. Americans stand a better chance of success when our economy is firing on all four of those cylinders. In terms of exports, our country will continue to face ruthless competition from other countries — but we can meet this challenge.
While we have largely recovered from the world financial crisis, global growth rates, which had been around 5 percent in 2010, have slowed to about 3 percent. Oil and commodities prices are in decline. Trade, which was once growing at a multiple of GDP growth, is now running at about half.
At the same time, commercial banks are continuing to pull back from long-term, cross-border finance — especially in emerging markets (this is largely due to a unique set of risks: reductions in correspondent banking and concern over implementing Know Your Customer laws, to name two). Asked recently about term length by Trade Finance, Peter Luketa, global head of export finance at HSBC, said, “Commercial banks are constrained by balance-sheet reduction and are much less inclined to lend beyond eight years.” Regarding cross-border finance, George Mathewson, formerly of the Royal Bank of Scotland, told the Wall Street Journal: “I don’t believe in universal banking. The cultural risks are just too great.” And a 2013 McKinsey study confirms that “cross-border capital flows remain 60 percent below” what they were before the 2008 financial crisis.
Simultaneously, we are witnessing a fraying of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Arrangement on Officially Supported Export Credits. Affectionately known as “The Arrangement,” this 40-year-old gentlemen’s agreement once controlled all government export credit, setting terms, fees, and consensus on transparency when governments provide financing for exports. While the Export-Import Bank of the United States’ (EXIM) medium and long-term financing always falls within the scope of The Arrangement, other export credit agencies (ECAs) — including those for OECD members — are beginning to offer financing that is outside the scope of the agreement.
Two political factors drive this situation. First, a global perception that there is too much government debt makes fiscal expenditures — such as the stimulus package that helped right the U.S. economy in 2009 — hard to replicate in other parts of the world. Second, given that almost every country already has central bank interest rates set at near or below zero, the world may have reached the limits of monetary policy as a tool to boost growth. In fairness, the fiscal and monetary toolkits that countries have traditionally relied upon have become less effective in the face of the current global economic environment. In addition, withdrawing subsidies generally does not make for an enduring political career.
We have seen these challenges grip voters in England, Italy, and even here in the United States. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, and the resignation of Matteo Renzi as prime minister of Italy must be seen in light of these economic and political forces. Countries are turning toward export promotion and even mercantilist statism as a way to boost economies and create jobs. These examples are but three — more will come. We must understand global competition for jobs and exports in order to fully understand these political developments.
In June, EXIM released its annual report to Congress on global export competition. This survey, dating back to 1972, initially looked at how EXIM stacked up to OECD members. The report has expanded as official export credit has moved beyond the OECD framework. The 2015 survey highlights that U.S. exporters and their workers lost ground, largely due to EXIM’s lapse in authority late last year. Today, American businesses and foreign buyers wonder about our government’s commitment to supporting job-creating exports — EXIM’s singular mission. In 2016, EXIM financing supported roughly 52,000 American jobs due to the lack of a quorum on our board of directors. That’s compared with the more than 164,000 jobs EXIM supported in 2014, the bank’s last fully functional year.
As the OECD rules-dominated world falls away, export credit agencies are starting to compete in an environment not unlike the Wild West. As recently as 1999, 100 percent of official export credit was governed by the OECD Arrangement. In 2015, nearly 70 percent was unregulated — less than a third was compliant with the Arrangement. Further, of the 85 ECAs globally, only 38 even exist in OECD member states — the majority operate outside the framework.
Around the beginning of the 21st century, we saw another phenomenon — national interest export financing — take hold. In short, the national interest strategy has been led by China and Canada, as the two have gone all-out, choosing winners and backing companies because it is in the national interest to do so. They called upon their ECAs as part of their toolkit to achieve that end. This approach is a departure from what the United States has traditionally done since World War II, maintaining limited government involvement in trade, and ECAs as lenders of last resort.
This new national interest commitment to exports is fundamentally at odds with the U.S. model for official export support — a model that emerged in the mid-1970s out of the post-World War II Bretton Woods system. Governments are creating proactive and responsible risk-taking institutions that work with exporters and banks to bring business to the home country. There is diminished or zero interest in maintaining ECAs as “lenders of last resort” or demand-driven institutions that wait to be asked before getting involved in a transaction. Because ECAs are increasingly seen as tools to boost the overall economy, they are using expanded toolkits. EXIM’s Canadian counterpart, Export Development Canada, utilizes “pull loans”: loans made in advance to foreign buyers and attached to a multiyear plan to buy goods and services from the lending country. The loan is renewed based on performance, so it comes with some accountability, but it reaches beyond the financing ECAs have traditionally offered. Other gateway products include: general loans not tied to specific exports; equity investments made into projects in foreign countries; and off-take agreements that may someday impact or boost exports.
Indeed, this arises as jobs become the primary item on the report card for governments in the 21st century. I have observed this new paradigm in my travels promoting U.S. exports. Recently, a senior banking executive in pre-Brexit London remarked to me that in the 18th and 19th centuries, hunger and famine toppled governments; in the 21st century, it will be jobs. More and more governments are looking to aggressively boost economic growth and jobs at the same time through exports, with the support of their ECA.
In addition, under the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO), ECAs must be self-sustaining — economic drivers that are no-cost at worst and money-makers at best. This unicorn of economic policy, economic boost at no cost, is extraordinarily appealing to legislatures and voters around the world.
Hence, governments from France to the United Kingdom to Italy are making substantial long-run commitments to revitalize or enhance their ECAs. Japan, too, has expanded its mandate. And the Nordic countries — as a bloc — have added funding sources to buttress their export finance competitiveness. Still other countries are choosing to open their first ECAs.
China operates on an entirely different level. In July 2015, Reuters reported that China had added more than $100 billion of capital to its export lenders: the Export-Import Bank of China (China EXIM), the Agricultural Development Bank of China, and the China Development Bank. All three, along with Sinosure, the China Export and Credit Insurance Corp., have different roles when it comes to exports, development, and the provision of export finance. During a visit to China this past summer, I met with my counterparts at China EXIM and Sinosure, the two “official” Chinese ECAs. Together, in 2015, their financing totaled approximately $500 billion — about the same amount that EXIM has provided over our 82 years of existence.
So what can be done to equip U.S. exporters and workers to compete and win in global markets and create jobs here at home?
We need to play to our strengths — balancing limited government with a realistic understanding of the global competitive environment. We need not copy the approaches of other countries. Washington must innovate, fine-tune, and respond to the needs of U.S. workers as the engines of export. EXIM continues to be one of the broadest-based, largest-capacity ECAs in the world. Unlike the other 85 and counting ECAs, EXIM needs its charter to be reauthorized in order to be fully operational. Recent challenges add to the uncertainty both American workers and business owners face. We need an EXIM with a quorum on its board of directors so we can maintain our international weight in the short term and plan for the opportunities of the future.
These decisions have long-term implications. When companies export, they continue to generate business by supplying parts, maintenance, and ongoing service after making the initial sale — generating additional jobs for years to come. Economics may not trickle down, but exports certainly do.
In my family’s business, I made long-term plans for the financial success of the company, our shareholders, and our employees. Throughout my government service, I have met thousands of business owners and entrepreneurs who run their businesses the same way. Companies can’t make six-month plans to succeed; they must make five-year plans. They need to know they can count on their leaders and institutions to be reliable over long periods. A start-and-stop export credit agency won’t do the trick. We need to make sure our export credit agency is a reliable source of financing when needed.
We must maintain a strong negotiating stance toward establishing widely accepted and respected rules for official export credit. At the same time, we must show the world that we can go toe-to-toe with any foreign competitor.
Exporters like ISCO Industries, a pipe supplier in Louisville, Kentucky, rely on EXIM for its international sales. ISCO has a bid in for an $80 million project involving nearly 20 African villages in need of new water distribution systems. Private sector banks indicated they will not provide financing without an EXIM guarantee — financing that is necessary for ISCO to participate in the project.
Similarly, Boyle Energy Services & Technology (BEST), a small business in New Hampshire, exports goods and services for power plant modernization, maintenance, and certification. BEST does 90 percent of its business overseas and relies on EXIM working-capital guarantees and export-credit insurance to make those sales. BEST CEO Michael Boyle, a veteran, told me painfully that without EXIM, he would have to reluctantly consider offshoring production if he wanted to continue to grow his company. “We’re not supposed to remain static in small business,” he told me. “We want to leave the ‘S’ and move to the ‘M’ in ‘SME’ (small- and medium-sized enterprise).” Both ISCO and BEST have suppliers that depend on their business for their very existence.
There are many things the incoming Trump administration can do to help boost the economy and jobs. A long-term, multipronged, realistic approach on trade, sanctions, infrastructure, STEM education, tax policy — all are needed to equip U.S. businesses and their workers to compete in the global economy. EXIM needs to be part of that package.
That requires an understanding of the jobs that are at stake. We’ve learned that once jobs leave our shores, it’s extremely difficult to bring them back. Their supply chain often follows them. Companies locate in markets for a variety of reasons: one, to sell to a particular market; two, to export from a supportive market. Part of the calculation of a good export platform is support from the home country’s export credit agency.
The past seven years have been a challenging time, and a time when U.S. exports rose to record levels. I expect that to continue. The incoming Trump administration will also face challenges: Other nations are throttling ahead; China’s goods are moving up the value chain; countries are competing more intensely than ever on behalf of their exporters; many Americans are restless and not feeling the benefits of trade in the way they had hoped. Not surprisingly, our elected officials are unsure how to respond. Full-throated support for export-dependent jobs is one sure way.
Photo credit: MARK WALLHEISER/Getty Images