Tag: export-import bank

Subsidies Make Businesses Weaker

The technical arguments against the Export-Import Bank are provided in this excellent summary by Veronique de Rugy. However, one argument against Ex-Im and other business subsidies is not stressed enough in policy debates: subsidies weaken the businesses that receive them.

Subsidies change the behavior of recipients. Just like individual welfare reduces work incentives, corporate welfare dulls business competitiveness. Subsidies give companies a crutch, an incentive not to improve efficiency or to innovate, as I noted here.

Yesterday, I looked at Chapter 1 of Burton and Anita Folsom’s new book, Uncle Sam Can’t Count, which examines federal fur trading boondoggles of 1795-1822. 

Now let’s look at Chapter 2, which focuses on the steamboat industry of the 19th century. The historical lesson is clear: subsidies make companies weak, inefficient, and resistant to innovation.

Here is a thumbnail sketch of the Folsoms’ steamboat story:

  • In 1806 New York gives Robert Fulton a legal monopoly on steamboat travel in the state. Breaking this misguided law, a young Cornelius Vanderbilt launches a competitive service in 1817.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the New York law in 1824. The effect is to usher in an era of steamboat innovation and falling prices for consumers.
  • Vanderbilt launches many new steamboat routes whenever he sees an opportunity to drive down prices.
  • With subsidies from the British government, Samuel Cunard launches a steamship service from England to North America in 1840. In response, Edward Collins successfully lobbies Congress to give him subsidies to challenge Cunard on the Atlantic route. With this unfortunate precedent, Congress proceeds to hand out subsidies to steamship firms on other routes.
  • By the 1850s, Congress is providing Collins a huge annual subsidy of $858,000. Irked by the subsidies and Collins’ inefficient service, Vanderbilt builds a better and faster ship and launches his own Atlantic service.
  • In 1856 two of Collins’ inferior ships sink, killing almost 500 people. Collins builds a new ship, but it is so shoddy that it is scrapped after only two trips.
  • Congress finally realizes that the aid to Collins is damaging, as it has spawned an inferior and mismanaged business. Congress cuts off the subsidies in 1858. Without subsidies, Collins’ steamship company collapses.
  • Vanderbilt also out-competes subsidized steamship companies on the East Coast-to-West Coast route through Central America.
  • In England, an unsubsidized competitor to Cunard—the Inman Line—is launched and begins out-competing and out-innovating the subsidized incumbent.
  • The subsidized Cunard and Collins aim their services at the high-end luxury market. The more efficient and unsubsidized Vanderbilt and Inman focus on driving down prices for people with more moderate incomes.
  • Government subsidies “actually retarded progress because Cunard and Collins both used their monopolies to stifle innovation and delay technological changes in steamship construction.”

Government subsidies have similar negative effects today, whether it is subsidies to energy companies, aid to farm businesses, or the Ex-Im program.

The difference is that in the 19th century Congress eventually cut off subsidies when the damage became clear, as it did with steamship subsidies in 1858 and fur trading subsidies in 1822. Maybe I’m overlooking something, but I can’t think of a business subsidy program terminated by Congress in recent years, or even in recent decades.  

Big Business Clashes with Libertarians and Tea Party over Ex-Im Bank

Two weeks ago I wrote about the efforts of big business to defeat libertarian-leaning legislators in states across the country. To confirm my point, on the same day the article appeared the Michigan Chamber of Commerce endorsed the opponent of Rep. Justin Amash, the one of whom I had written, “Most members of Congress vote for unconstitutional bills. Few of them make it an explicit campaign promise.”

Now a battle is brewing in Congress that pits libertarians and Tea Party supporters against the country’s biggest businesses. The Wall Street Journal headlines, “GOP’s Attack on Export-Import Bank Alarms Business Allies.” The “rise of tea-party-aligned lawmakers” is threatening this most visible example of corporate welfare, and David Brat’s attacks on “crony capitalism” in his surprise defeat of Eric Cantor have made some Republicans nervous. Amash told the Journal, “There are some large corporations that would like corporate welfare to continue.”

The biggest beneficiaries of Ex-Im’s billions are companies such as Boeing, General Electric and Caterpillar,  according to Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center. Cato scholars have made the same point, including Aaron Lukas and Ian Vasquez in 2002 and Sallie James in 2011.

Matthew Yglesias of Vox notes, “The Export-Import Bank is a great example of the kind of thing a libertarian populist might oppose. That’s because the bank is a pretty textbook example of the government stepping in to arbitrarily help certain business owners.” And he points out that supporters of the Bank include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the AFL-CIO, Haley Barbour, and Dick Gephardt. He could have added Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) said he worried about “a libertarian theology that’s really starting to creep in.” I hope he’s right.

PPI Considers Ex-Im Debate ‘Senseless’

What is the proper role of government in a free society? That is not an unreasonable question to debate in the public square – and to revisit with great frequency. Our era of $4 trillion federal budgets, debt-to-GDP ratios above 100 percent, and policymakers betting big on particular industries – even particular firms (check the WH visitor’s log) – renders that question all the more urgent.

Apparently, the Progressive Policy Institute disagrees. Last week, PPI’s managing director for policy and strategy condescendingly characterized the “protracted battle over the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank” as “senseless,” as though the serious questions raised about Ex-Im’s operations, raison d’etre, costs, and externalities were simply unworthy.  

But on what grounds is it senseless to ask Ex-Im apologists to explain why that boondoggle is not corporate welfare that puts taxpayers and “unchosen” businesses at risk? Why is it senseless to force a debate on the merits of earmarking $140 billion for the benefit of a select few companies, when in the “mother of all budget battles” that transpired last year, only $38 billion was cut? Why is it not appropriate to raise questions about the sustainability of a subsidy race that effectively outsources U.S. policy to Beijing or Brussels?

Debate is illuminating.  It can be reinforcing and it can raise fresh doubts.  And it is essential to the eternal vigilance we must exercise to protect our liberties.  Unfortunately, at least one scholar at PPI is so convinced that the questions raised in the debate over Ex-Im are so irrelevant that she recommends a much longer reauthorization period (5, 10, or 15 years) to avoid debate in the future.  

Progressives tend to have an abiding faith in the goodness of government, but this proposal would make a dictator blush. 

Ex-Im Reauthorization Vote Expected Tomorrow

House legislators have reached a “compromise” deal to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank of the United States until 2014 and at an increased funding level ($120 billion, with a possible increase to $140 billion). The compromise builds on a bill crafted by Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) I blogged about in March, but seems to largely be a win for the pro-bank folks judging by the increased funding levels, with the “compromise” part being not much more than pathetic sops to those concerned about the bank’s mission, if not its very existence.

Inside U.S. Trade [$] has more details:

House Republican and Democratic leaders late last week announced that they had a reached a compromise deal to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank through fiscal year 2014 and immediately raise its lending cap to $120 billion, with the possibility of further increases to $140 billion during that period if default rates are kept low and other conditions are met. The House expects to consider the bill on Wednesday (May 9) under suspension of rules, a House GOP aide said.

The bill contains a longer reauthorization, and a higher lending cap, than what was included in an initial draft bill floated by Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) in March. That draft bill would have renewed the bank’s charter only through June 2013, and would have raised the lending cap to $113 billion, up from the current level of $100 billion.

At the same time, the compromise bill reflects some of the demands of Cantor and other Republicans who are wary of reauthorizing the activities of a bank they say puts taxpayer money at risk and distorts the free market.

For instance, it conditions further increases in the lending cap, to $140 billion for fiscal year 2014, on the bank maintaining a default rate on outstanding loans that is below two percent and submitting other required reports. It also includes language from Cantor’s draft instructing the president to enter into negotiations with other countries to substantially reduce official export financing in general and for aircraft in particular, with the goal of ultimately eliminating such financing altogether.

Under suspension of rules, which is a procedure typically reserved for non-controversial legislation, debate is limited to 40 minutes and the bill must garner a two-thirds majority to pass.

The article goes on to describe all of the ostensible brakes that the Republican leadership have insisted placing on Ex-Im, but they really amount to the usual Washington ways of pretending they are implementing real reform: calls for the bank to issue business plans, address GAO concerns, be more transparent, etc. Nothing, unfortunately, about changing the accounting rules under which the bank operates let alone setting a path to winding down the bank altogether.

In short, the “compromise” is just fiddling while Washington is awash in red ink, and the federal government encroaches more and more into what should be private markets.

More on the Ex-Im Bank

Last week I blogged about Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) proposal to devote $20 billion of the Export-Import Bank’s funds to promoting manufacturing exports, and why that was a bad idea.

But I realize that my recent call to “X Out the Ex-Im Bank” will be facing some very entrenched interests in Washington, and some well-funded lobby groups. The Bank has historically attracted bipartisan support, and a renewal of its charter sailed through the House Committee on Financial Services earlier this year. The Washington establishment loves this program.

My friend and long-time Ex-Im Bank supporter Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute for International Economics published a critique a few weeks ago of my analysis, and calls for a doubling of Ex-Im’s authorization cap (from $100 billion to $200 billion). His piece is a fair characterization of my arguments, and at least Gary tries to counter them with actual facts and analysis (not always a given in an increasingly poisonous trade policy environment).  But it seems to me that Gary focuses his critique on my assessment of the effectiveness of the Bank. That’s fair enough, of course, but I tried in my paper to make the point that the efficiency or efficacy of the Ex-Im Bank’s activities is kind of irrelevant. The important point, which Gary did not address, is that it is simply not the proper role of the federal government to be in this business at all, even if they can operate “efficiently” (which I do not concede in any case). Where in the Constitution is the federal government authorized to be involved in the export credit business (a business, by the way, that benefits mainly large, profitable companies)?

My opposition to the Bank, in other words, is at a more fundamental level.  On an empirical level—and this is where Gary’s critique is focused—can markets work well enough in trade finance, and if not, can government intervention work better? Gary points to the Bank’s low default rate as evidence that private markets are missing good opportunities:

These figures suggest that the Ex-Im Bank plays a large role in facilitating exports to countries that encounter reluctance from private banks but nonetheless are not ‘bad risks.” Judging by its low default rate, the Ex-Im Bank’s risk assessment seems more correct than the private market.

But I would argue that its low default rate suggests the Ex-Im Bank’s backing is unnecessary. We don’t know that private credit wasn’t available to finance those exports. And even if it wasn’t, private credit not always being available on terms that the trading partners would like does not necessarily signify market failure. So a finance company missed an opportunity that may have paid out. So what? Maybe they had even better opportunities available to them that we (and bureaucratic Washington) don’t know about, or they simply wanted to hold on to their capital for future investment or to meet new reserve standards. The would-be exporter might miss out, but government intervention to direct that private capital (either through mandates, or siphoning it through the Ex-Im Bank) would come at another producer’s or bank shareholders’ expense.

Gary argues that:

Ex-Im’s capability should be strengthened so that the United States can respond when official finance offered by other countries violates the principles of fair competition…Successful multilateral negotiations…are certainly a superior option to tit-for-tat retaliation…[but]…without sufficient leverage…it is difficult to see what will bring China and India to the negotiating table.

But will China and India (and others) see higher Ex-Im funding as “leverage” to bring them to the table, or will it be seen as just the next step in the escalating arms race of subsidized export credit? I suspect, and fear, the latter.

Gary rejects my call to dismantle the Ex-Im Bank, and in fact suggests the government increase the scope of Ex-Im financing to cover 5 percent (rather than the current 2 percent) of total U.S.exports. That seems pretty arbitrary to me. Why stop at 5 percent? Heck, with the Ex-Im Bank being “self-financing” and all, why not go for 100 percent?

Lastly, Gary repudiates my “orthodox free-market reasoning” and the suggestion, attributed to me, that “… the dollar exchange rate alone determines the volume of U.S. exports or the size of the U.S. trade deficit.”  Exchange rates do not equilibrate to keep trade balances at zero, but to keep them in line with the savings and investment balance. The United States has been running persistent deficits because savings has fallen short of investment for many years.

Similarly, Gary takes issue with my analysis on the net effect of Ex-Im financing on jobs:

 …nor do we agree that free markets are sufficiently self- regulating to ensure a constant and low rate of unemployment…If [that proposition] described the American economy, the United States [unemployment would not be stuck at 9 percent-plus.

Here Gary seems to ignore the many interventions in labor markets that can keep unemployment high, no matter what the exchange rate. I’m certainly not under any illusions that the U.S. economy would be totally free market were it not for the existence of the Ex-Im Bank, and I don’t think my paper implied that, either.

Gary and I, not to mention others who study the Ex-Im Bank, will no doubt continue to debate these issues as the Ex-Im Bank’s charter expiry date comes closer.

Polls Show Voters Don’t Support Corporate Welfare

Two polls of likely voters released by Rasmussen Reports today indicate that the federal government’s corporate welfare programs should be prime targets for spending cuts.

The first poll found little support for the Small Business Administration’s lending programs:

  • A majority (58 percent) of likely voters said that the federal government shouldn’t guarantee loans issued by private lenders to small businesses. 23 percent said the government should back small business loans and 19 percent were unsure.
  • A majority (59 percent) of likely voters said that reducing government regulations and taxes would be more helpful to small businesses than the government providing loans to small businesses that can’t obtain financing on their own. 22 percent said the government loans were better and 18 percent were unsure.
  • Entrepreneurs particularly believed that reducing government regulations and taxes is preferable to government lending programs. 76 percent of entrepreneurs felt that way and 61 percent opposed government loans to small businesses that couldn’t obtain financing.

(See this new Cato essay on why the Small Business Administration should be terminated.)

Similarly, the second poll found little support for various federal corporate welfare programs:

  • Only 15 percent of likely voters said the federal government should continue to provide funding for foreign countries to buy military weapons from U.S. companies. 70 percent were opposed and the rest were undecided.
  • Only 29 percent of likely voters said the government should continue to provide loans and loan guarantees to help finance export sales for large corporations. 46 percent were opposed and the rest were undecided. (See Sallie James’ new Cato paper on why the Export-Import Bank should be terminated.)
  • Only 37 percent of likely voters said the federal government should continue providing farm subsidies. A plurality (46 percent) said farm subsidies should be abolished and 17 percent weren’t sure. (See this Cato essay for more on farm subsidies.)

Should There Be ‘Shared Sacrifice’?

At the Encyclopedia Britannica blog, I take on the argument made, for instance, by President Obama in his Friday news conference:

We should not be asking sacrifices from middle-class folks who are working hard every day, from the most vulnerable in our society – we should not be asking them to make sacrifices if we’re not asking the most fortunate in our society to make some sacrifices as well.

I call that a fundamentally flawed argument:

The main thing our government does these days, despite the lack of any constitutional authority for it, is tax some people and transfer money to other people. …But there is no moral equivalence in the two sides of the transfer system. On the one hand, the government takes money by force from people who have earned it. On the other hand, it gives some of that money to people who have not earned it. Taking yet more money that people have earned is simply not equivalent to reducing the size of a government transfer.

There is, however, one way that we could ask businesses and the rich to join in the deficit-reduction effort:

But here’s a way to satisfy both those who see spending as the problem and those who want the highest-taxed Americans to pay yet more: Start cutting subsidies to businesses and the rich. Let’s cut out the big-business subsidy machine, the Export-Import Bank. Let’s get rid of farm subsidies. Let’s tell affluent people who build houses in coastal flood areas to pay for their own flood insurance at market prices.

Read the whole thing.