The Export-Import Bank "doesn’t cost taxpayers anything."

Vicky Hartzler on Tuesday, June 24th, 2014 in a "Roll Call" interview

Rep. Hartzler says Export-Import Bank is free for taxpayers

One of the tea party’s newest pet peeves is the Export-Import Bank -- a little-known government agency that the party is hoping to abolish.

What’s the Export-Import Bank? It’s a government agency that gives low-interest loans and guarantees to foreign buyers in hopes of promoting American exports. The tea party calls it crony capitalism.

We decided to tackle a striking claim that the bank’s supporters, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, frequently tout -- but one critics say is misleading.

We heard it most recently from Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., in a June 24 Roll Call interview.

She said the Export-Import Bank "doesn't cost taxpayers anything."

A government agency? That doesn't cost taxpayers anything? How can that be?

In contrast, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, who has been leading the current effort against the bank, told the House Committee on Financial Services on June 26, 2014, "We should examine where the money comes from to finance Ex-Im. Whose money is it? Obviously, it’s taxpayers’ money."

What is the Export-Import Bank?

The Export-Import Bank is a federal agency founded in 1934 that finances foreign buyers with loans, guarantees and other products -- at lower interest rates than they would get from a private bank -- to help them purchase American products. About 60 other countries have similar agencies.

Overall, the bank finances less than 5 percent exports annually. In 2013, the bank supported about $37.4 billion in exports. Its biggest, and thus most controversial, beneficiary is Boeing.

Those who support it say the bank makes American companies more competitive globally by incentivizing foreign buyers. Those who are against it say it is corporate welfare that helps hand-picked companies while disadvantaging businesses that don’t use the bank.

It's a hot topic because the agency's charter is up for congressional reauthorization in September. Its current three-year term ends in 2015.

How much does it cost?

Every year Congress sets a limit on the bank’s financial activities. The bank then borrows money from the Treasury to give out direct loans, which it pays back with interest.

Since 2008, the bank has not relied on taxpayer dollars to cover its operational costs and loan loss reserves. Instead, the bank charges customers fees and interest that it uses to cover those costs in full. Often, the fees generate a surplus, which the bank gives back to the Treasury. In the past five years, the bank has given back $2 billion.

Additionally, the bank’s default rates have historically been lower than private financial institutions -- the current default rate is less than 0.25 percent.

The bank hasn’t been completely without losses, though. In 1987, several straight years of losses of more than $250 million to $300 million forced the bank to ask Congress for a $3 billion bailout.  

The most recent losses were in the 1990s, following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, said Export-Import Bank Advisory Board member Gary Hufbauer, also a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a nonpartisan think tank.  

Still, the bank has generated an overall profit of more than $5 billion for the Treasury since 1990. But just looking at cash flow doesn’t give us a full picture.

Long-term costs

The bank’s overall revenue isn’t as high as it could be because the interest rates are lower than market rate, said Charles Calomiris, a finance professor at Columbia University. This means there is a cost to taxpayers in terms of lost opportunity, and it will eventually become a loss in cash flow. Some economists believe that the incoming revenue will not be able to keep up with defaults adding up over the long term.

It may take 100 years to see the costs in terms of cash flow, but they are always there, Calomiris said.

"Loan subsidies don't come from thin air. They are paid for by the taxpayers. So, saying that the Export-Import bank is free is wrong," he said.

He noted that federal mortgage loan providers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac rarely reported cash flow losses until 2008, when their monumental losses contributed to the Great Recession.

Adding to the debate is a Congressional Budget Office report from May that gives a 10-year projection for the Export-Import Bank using two different accounting methods -- yielding two disparate outcomes.

One shows the program operating at a $14 billion surplus, the other shows it with a $2 billion loss. The positive results from the method the government has traditionally used to assess the program. The loss results from a fair-value method of examining the program the way a private financial institution would, taking more risk into account.

The bank's proponents say it’s wrong to treat government lenders like private lenders because the conditions are so different. The bank’s accepted accounting method better reflects factors like the Export-Import Bank's high credibility, lower tax burden and lower interest rates.

"Comparable private market interest rates and guarantee fees seldom exist as benchmarks for Ex-Im Bank financing," Hufbauer said in a Peterson Institute blog.

Our ruling

Hartzler said the Export-Import Bank "doesn’t cost taxpayers anything."

It’s true that in recent years, the bank has actually made a net profit on its loans and turned in money to the U.S. Treasury. But in the past, the bank has had years of losses and actually cost taxpayers money. Some economists think that could easily happen again, even if it doesn’t seem like an immediate danger.

We rate this claim Half True.