Tag: export-import bank

Free Market Ideologues at the Ex-Im Gate

Media have framed the debate over Export-Import Bank reauthorization as yet another battle in the war being waged by free market extremists to wrest control of the Republican Party from what they see as the infidels of the business establishment. That simplistic narrative, perpetuated by an irrepressible disdain for anything that whiffs of Tea Party ideology, has brought editorial boards and journalists from the Left to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the multinational corporations they normally demonize in an effort to beat back a common foe.

But the compelling case against Ex-Im is less an ideological than a moral one.  It is not merely that Ex-Im puts taxpayer resources at risk or that the Bank’s operation encourages too close a relationship between big business and government or that resources are being used inefficiently.  Anyone concerned about economic fairness should see the virtue in terminating a program that benefits some companies at great expense to many, many others.  But the window to that view has been shuttered by a media that finds it more important to portray the reformers as childish idealists throwing tantrums.

Ex-Im is a government-run export credit agency that arranges special financing to facilitate sales between U.S. companies and foreign customers.  Barring congressional reauthorization, its charter will expire on September 30. Supporters claim that since exports are good for growth and job creation and since the Bank “creates” exports, failure to reauthorize will hurt the economy.  But that conclusion rests on the illusion of single-entry accounting.  It fails to consider the substantial, but more difficult to observe costs.

There are opportunity costs, representing the growth that would have occurred had Ex-Im’s resources been deployed more efficiently in the private sector. There are intra-industry costs – those incurred by the unsubsidized competitors of firms receiving Ex-Im subsidies.  And there are “downstream” industry costs borne by producers whose domestic suppliers receive export subsidies.  These downstream firms are hurt because crucial inputs become more expensive, while their foreign competition gets subsidies from U.S. taxpayers.

Washington Post Half-Heartedly Seeks Clarity About Export-Import Bank Jobs Claims

It was good of the Washington Post Editorial Board to raise questions yesterday about the veracity of the “jobs-created-by-Export-Import-Bank-policies” claims proffered by the Bank’s supporters. I just wonder whether the editorial pulled its punches where a reporter on assignment or a more inquisitive journalist would have delivered an unabashed blow to the credibility of the Bank’s primary reauthorization argument: that its termination will lead to a reduction in U.S. exports and jobs.

Kudos to the Post for raising an eyebrow at the Bank’s claims of “jobs created” or “jobs supported” by Ex-Im financing:  

[W]hen it comes to jobs, well, just how rigorous are [Ex-Im’s] estimates, really? Congress ordered a study of that very question when it last reauthorized Ex-Im in 2012. In May 2013, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) produced its verdict: Meh.”

“GAO noted that Ex-Im must speak vaguely of “jobs supported,” rather than concretely of jobs created, since its methodology cannot really distinguish between new employment and retained employment. To get a number for “jobs supported,” which includes both a given firm and that firm’s suppliers, Ex-Im multiplies the dollar amount of exports it finances in each industry by a “jobs ratio” (calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Using that approach, Ex-Im estimates an average of 6,390 jobs are “supported” by every billion dollars of exports financed. The Post is right to note the GAO’s conclusion:

These figures do not differentiate between full-time and part-time work and, crucially, provide no information about what might have happened to employment at the firms in question, or others, if the resources marshaled by Ex-Im had flowed elsewhere in the economy.

Most U.S. Manufacturers Victimized by Ex-Im’s Hidden Costs

In an earlier post today, I described a reasonable methodology for estimating the hidden costs imposed on companies whose suppliers receive export subsidies from the Export-Import Bank. Ex-Im officials like to talk about how they “grow the economy” and create jobs by enticing foreign customers with low-rate financing to buy U.S. exports. As I described in that earlier post, when the cost to business of exporting is mitigated by subsidies, companies will likely export more. That may be good for them, but it’s not so good for their U.S. customers, whose foreign competition is now enjoying lower costs (courtesy of U.S. taxpayers). Delta Airlines’ complaint about subsidized Boeing sales to Air India having an adverse impact on Delta, who competes for passengers with Air India, is a fairly clear example of the problem.

As an approximation of the cost imposed on Downstream Industy A, (let’s call it the Delta Effect), I used the subsidies received by every industry whose output is used in Downstream Industy A’s production process, adjusted those subsidies by the importance of the input relative to the total of all intermediate goods inputs, and summed up the values.  I did this for every 6-digit NAICS manfuacturing code and presented tables of results in descending order from biggest victim to biggest beneficiary.  There were 236 industries – perhaps too much information, particularly for a blog post.

So for greater clarity, this table compiles the data at the broader, 3-digit NAIC industry level.  

As you can see, most aggregated 3-digit industries are victims of Ex-Im subsidies.  And most of the 6-digit industries within each broader 3-digit industry are victims, too. U.S. manufacturers of electrical equipment, appliances, furniture, food products, non-metallic metals, chemicals, computers, plastics, rubber, paper, primary metals, and many other goods should give Delta a call and get really busy during Congress’s August recess.

The Export-Import Bank and Its Victims: Which Industries Bear the Brunt

The Export-Import Bank of the United States is a government-run export credit agency, which provides access to favorable financing for the foreign customers of some U.S. companies.  For several months, Washington has been embroiled in a debate over whether to reauthorize the Bank’s charter, which will otherwise expire on September 30.  While Republican House leadership remains publicly committed to shutting down the Bank, a bipartisan group of eight senators introduced reauthorization legislation last night, setting the stage for a post-August recess showdown.

Reauthorization buffs contend that Ex-Im fills a void left by private sector lenders unwilling to provide financing for certain transactions and, by doing so, contributes importantly to U.S. export and job growth.  Rather than burdening taxpayers, the Bank generates profits for the U.S. Treasury, helps small businesses succeed abroad, encourages exports of green goods, contributes to development in sub-Saharan Africa, and helps “level the playing field” for U.S. companies competing in export markets with foreign companies benefitting from their own governments’ generous export financing programs.  Accordingly, failure to reauthorize the Bank’s charter would be akin to unilateral disarmament.

But those justifications – two rationalizations, really, and a few token appeals to liberal sensibilities intended to create the illusion of a bipartisan imperative for reauthorization – are unpersuasive or non-responsive to Ex-Im’s critics.  By effectively superseding the risk-based decision-making processes of legions of private-sector, profit-maximizing financial firms with the choices of a handful of bureaucrats using non-market benchmarks and pursuing often opaque, political objectives, Ex-Im risks taxpayer dollars.  That Ex-Im is currently self-sustaining and generating revenues is entirely beside the point and is no more reassuring than a drunk driver rationalizing that he made it home safely last night so there’s no danger in drunk driving tonight.

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.