Big Stakes for Small Exporters in Ex-Im Standoff | Commentary

Posted July 28, 2015 at 12:30pm

In his impassioned push to save a trusted institution that has helped Americans do business overseas for generations, President Barack Obama met with a group of small-business exporters last week to highlight differences the Export-Import Bank of the United States has made in their global expansion plans.

Sadly, we know American small businesses would bear the brunt of the hardship and job loss occasioned if Congress fails to reauthorize Ex-Im after 81 years of helping American entrepreneurs go global.

Ex-Im provides insurance and export financing to give our small businesses the confidence and credit to do business with foreign customers halfway around the world. Nine out of 10 companies financed by Ex-Im are small, not big. Yes, it is true that some of Ex-Im’s transactions are with large companies such as Boeing (and it’s worth noting that more than half a million Americans are employed through Boeing’s supply chain).

Last month was the deadline for Congress to reauthorize the bank’s charter. The deadline passed; reauthorization did not. But it’s not too late for our leaders on Capitol Hill to do the right thing for our nation’s entrepreneurs and the millions of Americans they employ.

Letting the bank die would be especially self-defeating in the wake of recent bipartisan passage of Trade Promotion Authority. Months of negotiation and hard-earned victories could pave new roads for U.S. trade. Closing Ex-Im strips small businesses of the credit and insurance they need to use those roads.

Export credit agencies are standard in modern economies. There are 85 Ex-Im equivalents in countries around the world that help their small businesses compete for global sales and export-backed jobs. If we unilaterally disarm and close Ex-Im, countries such as China and India will gain a competitive edge.

As the voice for small business in Obama’s Cabinet, I talk to many entrepreneurs who dream to sell overseas; more than 95 percent of the world’s consumers live outside of our borders.

Over the next decade, more than a billion consumers in the emerging world are going to join the middle class. Our small businesses must sell to them if we want to remain competitive.

Take Ceilings Plus from my hometown of Los Angeles. Run by Nancy Mercolino, the small business installs quality roofs and walls. Back in 2007, Ceilings Plus already had domestic contracts with major venues such as the Kodak Theater in Hollywood and the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. But when the business found an opportunity to install a roof for an airport in Qatar, things got complicated. Where would Ceilings Plus find the capital? And how could Nancy confidently complete the transaction with clients on the other side of the world?

Ex-Im provided Nancy’s firm with a line of credit and a loan guarantee. Ex-Im equipped Nancy’s team to complete the job. That led to contracts in other Middle Eastern countries. As a result, Ceilings Plus has more than doubled its workforce and grown its revenue by $65 million.

Last year, Ex-Im supported 164,000 American jobs; research shows that workers in export-backed jobs earn 18 percent more on average. Unless we revive the bank, thousands of small businesses may find it harder to expand overseas. That means slower growth for our economy, since small firms create nearly two out of three net, new private-sector jobs.

I am a former banker. When you find a bank with a 0.21 percent default rate, you don’t eliminate it; you celebrate and replicate it. That’s why outside of the Beltway, where Ex-Im’s effect on small businesses is truly felt, reauthorization isn’t a controversial issue. It’s a bipartisan issue in which 36 of America’s governors — Republicans and Democrats — have sent letters urging Congress to reauthorize this institution.

Hardly a wasteful program, as critics argue, Ex-Im financing doesn’t cost American taxpayers a dime. The bank sends a check to the U.S. Treasury every year, because it earns profits on top of covering all of its own costs to run the bank. Last year, the bank generated $675 million in positive returns for taxpayers.

Ex-Im is an institution on which thousands of American small businesses depend. Failure to reauthorize Ex-Im would make exporting a non-starter for many. Leaders in Congress still have an opportunity to steer us away from the economic self-injury that the bank’s closure would represent. For the sake of America’s small business economy, I urge them to seize it.

Maria Contreras-Sweet is the administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration and a member of the president’s Cabinet.