Hawaii needs the Ex-Im Bank more than ever

The current debate in Congress about whether to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank is troubling.

The Ex-Im Bank is an essential tool for U.S. businesses that sell products abroad. And if lawmakers in Washington fail to reauthorize the bank by the end of September, this crucial institution will go out of business, dealing a blow to Hawaii’s export economy in the process. At this moment of economic uncertainty for our state, the last thing Hawaii needs is for the Ex-Im Bank to disappear.

The federal government created the Ex-Im bank 80 years ago to help American businesses compete internationally. Today, the credit agency offers loans, guarantees and insurance policies that make it easier for U.S. businesses to sell to foreign customers.

As an example, the Ex-Im Bank helps foreign buyers of American goods finance their purchases in cases where private loans aren’t available.

Since 2009, the Ex-Im Bank has supported roughly 1.2 million American jobs and more than $188 billion worth of exports. Last year alone, the bank provided assistance for $4 million in exports from Hawaii businesses.

To understand the enormous impact the bank can have on a business, just look at organic honey producer Big Island Bees.

For years, the Kealakekua-based company required most first-time foreign buyers to pay for shipments upfront to avoid the risk of non-payment. This precaution was not only time-consuming, it drove away customers who were unable — or unwilling — to pay ahead of time.

That all changed in 2009 when the company purchased insurance from the Ex-Im Bank covering up to 95 percent of their non-payment risk. The policy has helped Big Island Bees to expand their exports and hire more workers. In the last five years, the bank has supported roughly $100,000 worth of exports for the business.

Unfortunately, the Ex-Im Bank’s future is far from certain. Without reauthorization from Congress, it will cease to exist after September 30. And while the bank has historically garnered near-unanimous support from lawmakers, in recent years it has faced serious opposition.

Some opponents, for instance, see the Ex-Im Bank as a form of “crony capitalism” that benefits large, well-connected companies.

While it’s true that the Ex-Im Bank helps some big corporations, the vast majority of its products and services are directed at small firms. Indeed, nearly 90 percent of the bank’s transactions in 2013 supported small businesses.

And far from costing the federal government money, the bank is actually helping to shrink the federal deficit. In the last five years, profits from the Ex-Im Bank totaled $2 billion.

Others have argued that the bank distorts the international market by giving an unfair advantage to certain companies and industries. In fact, the Ex-Im Bank merely levels the playing field by offering American firms the kind of government support their foreign competitors enjoy.

Indeed, while the U.S. has provided $14.5 billion in medium- and long-term export credit since 2007, Germany offered $22.6 billion. Export credit from China during that period, meanwhile, reached $45.5 billion.

Letting the bank’s charter expire would put American businesses at an enormous global disadvantage. And since the bank only provides financing when private alternatives aren’t available, businesses and buyers who lose their Ex-Im Bank support won’t be able to find help elsewhere.

Given what’s at stake for workers here in Hawaii and around the country, lawmakers have already waited too long to decide the bank’s future. When Congress returns from its August recess, reauthorization should be its first order of business.

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Sherry Menor-McNamara is president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii.

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