Editorial | Keep the U.S. Export-Import Bank Lending

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If members of the U.S. Congress are as focused on job creation as they would have the American worker believe, then there is no excuse for not moving swiftly to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank of the United States and raise its lending authority.

Established in 1934 as the official export-credit agency of the United States, the Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im Bank) helps American companies sell their goods and services overseas by providing financing for transactions that otherwise might not happen because commercial lenders are unable or unwilling to accept the associated business or political risks.

The government-backed loans and credit guarantees the U.S. Export-Import Bank has provided American companies for nearly 80 years are playing an increasingly common role in the overseas sale of all manner of aerospace products, including satellites.

The Ex-Im’s charter isn’t slated to expire until May 31, but U.S. companies — Boeing and many other aerospace firms among them — are worried that the bank could exceed its $100 billion lending limit before then, jeopardizing deals already in the works.

Lawmakers were on the verge of reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank in March, renewing its charter for four years and increasing its lending capacity to $140 billion.

But in their haste to send President Barack Obama the House-passed Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act — legislation meant to make it easier for small and medium-sized businesses to access capital — Senate Republicans shot down the bipartisan Ex-Im provision, which was offered as an amendment by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) with the backing of the Senate Banking Committee’s Democratic chairman, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and ranking Republican, Richard Shelby of Alabama.

Lobbying efforts have shifted to the House of Representatives, where Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) are said to be close to a deal featuring a three-year extension and $130 billion lending limit. Unclear at this point is whether the two leaders will be able to find a legislative vehicle that can make it through a bitterly divided Congress before the Ex-Im Bank is forced to slam its lending window shut.

Time is now fast running out. Failure to act would deprive the U.S. aerospace industry of the primary tool it has to counter the increasingly aggressive financing support its competitors receive from their governments.

According to Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP — a New York law firm that frequently advises satellite companies — a third of all satellite project financings in the last three years have featured export-credit agency financing, either from the Ex-Im Bank or its counterparts around the world. In 2008, export-credit agency financing for satellite deals totaled less than $300 million; in 2009, that figure had jumped to $3 billion, with France’s Coface export-credit agency leading the way.

The U.S. aerospace industry consistently rings up the largest foreign trade balance of any U.S. manufacturing sector. Ex-Im financing helps make American goods and services more competitive abroad.

Last year, Ex-Im financing helped Space Systems/Loral in its successful bid for an order from Spanish satellite fleet operator Hispasat for the Amazonas 3 satellite. Similarly, London-based Inmarsat is financing three Boeing-built satellites with the help of a $700 million Ex-Im loan.

Opponents who have branded export credit as a form of corporate welfare either overlook or ignore the fact that the Ex-Im Bank does not cost U.S. taxpayers a dime. By charging fees for its financing, the bank actually generates revenue that exceeds its costs. Over the last 10 years the Export-Import Bank has returned $4.5 billion to the U.S. Treasury. The Congressional Budget Office, meanwhile, has calculated that the Cantwell-Graham-Johnson-Shelby amendment would generate nearly $900 million in positive cash flow over the four years of the reauthorization.

Others oppose Ex-Im financing as an unnecessary and unwelcome market intervention. They may have a point, but like it or not, this financing vehicle is now a fixture in the marketplace — U.S. companies need to be able to compete on a level playing field against highly capable satellite manufacturers not just in Europe but, increasingly, in Asia.

Some Wall Street analysts are worried about what could happen if an Ex-Im-backed project suddenly cannot meet its loan commitments. But such defaults are rare: Even during the financial crisis, less than 2 percent of Ex-Im loans went into default.

With the U.S. government pulling back on defense and civil space spending, export sales will play a critical role in maintaining the U.S. industrial base. Now is not the time for members of Congress to contemplate unilateral disarmament.