The U.S. Export-Import Bank may be back in business, but it's not what it used to be.
After a five-month hiatus--one that cost businesses billions of dollars worth of credit guarantees and insurance for overseas business opportunities--the 81-year-old agency regained authorization to once again begin supporting the export operations of thousands of its business customers. The bank had been forced to suspend operations following a long campaign by Republican lawmakers, who want to close the financing agency because they see it as an example of "crony capitalism" that assists only the nation's biggest businesses.
Late last week, the bank was rechartered for four years, as part of a federal highway spending bill, following a strong push by President Obama and business organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But even with the lender back on task, many question how quickly it can help the nation's businesses again.
It still has a lot of hurdles to jump through as it gets restarted. It has a backlog of some 200 transactions, worth $9 billion to work through. It also has three vacant board seats, for which it must get Senate confirmation, before it can provide credit support for any transactions over $10 million.
That shouldn't directly affect small businesses, as they tend have financing needs under that $10 million limit. However, it could indirectly cause damage, as many smaller companies act as subcontractors to bigger firms that rely on the bank for export financing, or they're part of a bigger company's supply chain.
"We're doing the underwriting and the due diligence [for the larger guarantees] now, so when the board is confirmed we don't lose a moment," says Fred Hochberg, the bank's chairman, who sat down with Inc. on Wednesday.
Still, that's little comfort for business owners like John Pfeifer, the president, chief executive and co-founder of Apollo Solar, a 10-year-old company. During the five months that the Ex-Im Bank wasn't operating, the Bethel, Connecticut-based company lost out on a $10 million deal. Apollo--which creates off-the-grid solar infrastructure for developing markets, including batteries for storing power--was in the middle of applying for credit support from the bank this summer, for a multi-million dollar credit line that would have allowed it to offer more flexible payment terms to the potential customer.
"If we don't have [Ex-Im's support] there is a pretty good chance customers will go elsewhere," Pfeifer says. "China is working very hard in Africa to provide equipment for no money down."
In many ways, the need for the Ex-Im bank should not be that controversial. U.S. exports have been one of the really big growth success stories since the recession, driving roughly one third of economic growth since 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. And by its own reckoning, Ex-Im Bank has returned $7 billion to the U.S. Treasury in the last two decades through interest on guaranteed loans and credit insurance.
Yet the financial institution is a sunset agency, which means its charter must be renewed periodically, which it has been 16 times over its lifetime, without much fuss. This last go-around, it has been a political football, held hostage by conservative interests who would like to see the bank go away permanently.
"A lot of people have been hurt by all the political rhetoric, coming from people who don't understand business," says Lisa J. Howlett, president of Auburn Leather Company, in Auburn, Kentucky.
Howlett is the fifth generation family owner and president of the 152-year-old company, whose main product is a line of leather laces, which are used in baseball mitts, among other things. In the past three years, the Ex-Im bank has provided Auburn with accounts receivable insurance for her overseas orders in Asia, as well as guarantees for a $1 million credit line that enables her to float the difference between the time the orders are placed overseas, and the time her clients pay up, which can take 90 days or more. The bulk of the company's sales are to Asia. And Howlett actually competes with Chinese companies for the U.S. animal hides she uses to make her own products. The irony is she's likely to lose out to such competitors, who do have credit support from equivalent banks in their home countries, without the credit support of Ex-Im Bank.
"I get to compete with the Chinese to purchase my raw materials, and I compete with them to sell my finished goods," Howlett says.
The bank's support has been a pretty big deal for the company, allowing Howlett to double Auburn's revenues for each of the last three years that she's been eligible for guarantees, she says, which in turn supports the 100 workers that she employs. Without the money, she's been stuck in a holding pattern, and she says the absence of financing is likely to shave 10 percent from revenue growth in 2015.
What's more, new challenges the Ex-Im Bank faces going forward could pose additional problems for Howlett and others. When the bank won renewal of its charter, it came with strings--namely, 12 revisions that in some cases restrict its operations.
Among the new charter provisions is reducing the size of its maximum loan portfolio to $135 billion from $140 billion, says Hochberg. Additionally its loan loss reserve could increase, from its current rate of around 5 percent, although the final rate has yet to be determined. (On the plus side, the charter raises the bank's minimum credit support of small businesses to 25 percent from its current level of 20 percent annually.)
"There are 85 or so other export credit agencies around the world, and to my knowledge 84 of them do not have these challenges," Hochberg says. Nevertheless, he's resolute. "I am focused on...restarting our work, reaching out to small businesses and letting them know we are here, we have four years, and we are a reliable source of financing," Hochberg adds.