Federal government programs often seem to run on autopilot. But that may be about to change for the Export-Import Bank, a long-entrenched Washington institution. Known as Ex-Im for short, the bank is an 80-year-old agency that subsidizes financing for U.S. exporters. Unlike most other agencies, Ex-Im will cease to exist unless Congress periodically reauthorizes it. The next deadline is on September 30, and some Republicans are pushing to shut it down.
Critics of the Ex-Im bank argue that it is as a huge corporate welfare program that puts tens of billions of taxpayer dollars at risk to subsidize large companies that don't need the help. They're right. And the case for Ex-Im gets flimsier by the day.
While Ex-Im made direct loans worth $6.9 billion in 2013, its bread-and-butter business is guaranteeing third-party loans — $14.9 billion last year alone. For example, a foreign airline will take out a loan from a bank so that it can buy jets. If the airline agrees to buy from American company Boeing instead of the French manufacturer Airbus, Ex-Im will guarantee that loan, netting the airline a much lower interest rate.
Ex-Im loan guarantees flow to a relatively small handful of firms. Boeing alone receives nearly half of the bank's assistance in most years. Unlike other beneficiaries of Ex-Im loan guarantees, such as Enron and Solyndra, Boeing is financially sound and can afford to pay market rates for loans. As for those who cannot access market financing — does anyone want more Enrons and Solyndras?
Ex-Im's defenders say it supports 205,000 American jobs by funneling business to American companies. But as economist Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University calculates, each of those jobs cost an average of $131,200 in taxpayer exposure to sustain in the last year alone. Surely there are cheaper ways to keep people gainfully employed.
Another serious problem with Ex-Im and programs like it is corruption, which has gotten so bad that the House has launched an investigation. When government has a lot of money and power, it is natural for people to curry its favor. It is just as natural for those wielding money and power to use it for personal gain. Ex-Im, with a portfolio of nearly $140 billion, provides numerous real-world examples of this human frailty. The Wall Street Journal reported on June 23 that four Ex-Im employees have been removed or suspended in recent months, "amid investigations into allegations of gifts and kickbacks."
Former Ex-Im employee Johnny Gutierrez allegedly accepted cash payments from an executive of a Florida-based construction equipment manufacturer that has received Ex-Im financing on multiple occasions. In a July 28 congressional hearing, Gutierrez chose to plead the Fifth Amendment rather than deny the allegations. The other cases involve two "allegations of improperly awarding contracts to help run the agency" and another employee who accepted gifts from an Ex-Im suitor.
These are not isolated incidents. Bloomberg reported that Exxon Mobil in 2009 paid for nearly $100,000 in travel expenses for Ex-Im employees to places such as London, the South Pacific, and Tokyo. While both parties said this was "standard industry practice," the conflict of interest is apparent. Exxon Mobil was seeking $3 billion in financing from Ex-Im at the time — and received it 11 months later. The Heritage Foundation's Diane Katz found that 74 investigations into potential cases of fraud have occurred at Ex-Im since April 2009. For an agency with only 400 employees, this is a very serious problem.
Ex-Im also imposes significant opportunity costs on the economy. Companies have only so many resources at their disposal. The more time and effort a business spends lobbying agencies like Ex-Im, the less it can spend innovating and creating value for consumers.
It is too early to tell which side will prevail. But if Ex-Im closes, it will be a major victory for taxpayers and clean government.
Ryan Young is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and author of the study "Ten Reasons to Abolish the Export-Import Bank."