Category Archives: Export-Import Bank

Boeing Pushes 100 Percent Tariffs on Airbus

Boeing, fresh off a victory in restoring the Export-Import Bank’s full lending authority, is floating the idea of a 100 percent tariff on Airbus aircraft and parts. Airbus is Boeing’s largest competitor. There are four factors in play here. The first three are public relations, the opportunity costs of cronyism, and how best to pursue a level playing field in the global economy. The fourth is the likely retaliation such a move would spark.

From a PR standpoint, Boeing wants to move public attention away from its safety issues with the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. Most of the press Boeing gets for Ex-Im and Airbus tariffs will be negative, and the company knows this. It would still likely prefer that people be upset about those than about its safety problems, which are an existential threat to more than just airline passengers.

To that point, Boeing arguing for an Airbus tariff right now is almost perfect news cycle timing. The China trade dispute and NAFTA/USMCA are hot stories. Just today, President Trump announced a six-month delay on a possible European auto tariff, which will both keep that story alive for a while and give Boeing time to fold an Airbus tariff into a possible action.

Boeing also has a Baptists-and-bootleggers story at the ready. The World Trade Organization ruled, correctly, that Airbus received unfair government subsidies when it launched its A350 and A380 aircraft. Under WTO rules, the U.S. is entitled to retaliate. But just because it can, doesn’t mean it should. An Airbus tariff is highly unlikely to spur needed reform.

This ties into the opportunity costs of cronyism. Boeing puts significant resources into lobbying for Export-Import Bank support, Airbus tariffs, and other preferential policies. All of those resources are not being used to address the 737 MAX safety issues. This might improve a decimal point somewhere in a quarterly earnings report in the short term. But Boeing’s misplaced priorities could cause long-term harm to both aviation safety and Boeing’s own competitiveness. Competing in Washington is not the same thing as competing in the marketplace. Boeing’s investors should be upset at the company’s behavior.

Companies that engage in heavy rent-seeking are less profitable than more market-oriented companies. Even in Boeing’s case, the most profitable years in company history happened when Ex-Im was unable to offer its usual financing.

Which brings up the third point: It is not enough to have a level playing field. That level must be raised, not lowered. Boeing is right that Airbus’ massive government subsidies are unfair. But the way to address the problem is not to copy Europe’s policy mistakes. Don’t sink down to their level, raise them up to ours—though, admittedly, our own level of cronyism has much room for improvement. But reformers must start somewhere.

If anything, Boeing might have an interest in further tying up Airbus in webs of subsidies and favorable regulations—though I would strongly disagree with this strategy. Government protection tends to cause sclerosis in its beneficiaries, and Boeing should be pleased at the long-term implications of Airbus’ comfort. I am not a fan of this zero-sum thinking, but Boeing might be. Even from their self-interested perspective, an Airbus tariff is a bad idea.

Finally, as I pointed out yesterday, tariffs are nearly always met with retaliation, not cooperation. The European Union almost certainly will not change its tune on Airbus subsidies in response to a U.S. tariff—especially in a global market with many non-U.S. customers. Europe will harden its stance, likely at Boeing’s expense.

Given how tense global trade relations currently are, even if Boeing is just blowing PR smoke, this is a bad time to do it. Better for the company to refocus on making safe, innovative products than spending its resources on a political game with no winners.

See also relevant CEI scholarship on trade, the Ex-Im Bank, and the ethics of rent-seeking.

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Export-Import Bank Politics

Politico’s Zachary Warmbrodt has an excellent–and thorough–writeup on the current state of Export-Import Bank politics, covering all sides. He also quotes me at the end:

Conservative opponents of the bank are making clear they’ll resist entreaties by McHenry and others to bring them along for reauthorization.

“He’s not going to succeed with us — that’s for sure,” Competitive Enterprise Institute senior fellow Ryan Young said. “We’re standing by our principles.”

I’m a (classical) liberal, not a conservative, but the statement is still true. The more company, the merrier on that front, regardless of party.

Ex-Im Bank Revival?

Next week the Senate is expected to vote on new board members for the Export-Import Bank, which gives favorable financing terms to foreign governments and businesses when they buy U.S. products. This is a bigger deal than it sounds. Ex-Im’s charter requires a quorum of three members to authorize any transactions larger than $10 million. It has lacked that quorum since 2015 due to expiring board member terms. As a result, Ex-Im has been doing just a fraction of the business it used to do. Its financing projects declined from $21 billion in 2014 to $3.6 billion in 2018.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and other members have been blocking board member confirmation votes in order to keep Ex-Im to returning to its former “Bank of Boeing” status—when Boeing alone accounted for nearly half of its business in most years. A literal top 10 list of large businesses captured as much as 80 percent of Ex-Im largesse before the big 2014-2015 reauthorization and board quorum battle.

The current board quorum fight is the first act in a larger fight. Ex-Im’s charter expires on September 30. If Congress does not reauthorize it, Ex-Im would close its doors to new projects, wind down its portfolio, and then disappear entirely. This nearly happened in the 2014-2015 reauthorization cycle, when Ex-Im’s authorization lapsed for more than six months. It has lacked board quorum for much of the period since.

CEI has signed on to a coalition letter opposing Ex-Im’s reauthorization. We also hope the Senate declines to give the Ex-Im board a quorum. As the Mercatus Center’s Veronique De Rugy and Justin Leventhal point out in a recent study, Boeing and other major Ex-Im beneficiaries are doing just fine without Ex-Im. They have had no trouble finding private financing, and Boeing even set new profitability records.

Total U.S. exports have increased by $266 billion since 2014. The most recent GDP growth and employment rates are both stellar, despite four years of limited Ex-Im activity. Estimated GDP growth was 3.2 percent in fourth quarter 2018, and Friday’s employment report estimated an employment increase of 263,000 jobs and a 3.6 percent unemployment rate.

Given that the prelapsarian was Ex-Im operating at a loss of $2 billion per decade under conventional accounting standards (the Bank uses unconventional methods to show a $14 billion profit instead), it is time to close Ex-Im. Congress can do that simply by doing nothing. It can also limit Ex-Im’s cronyism by doing nothing to vote on new quorum-restoring board members.

For more on the case for closing Ex-Im, see my paper “Ten Reasons to Abolish the Export-Import Bank.”

Republican Study Committee Releases 2020 Budget Proposal

Congress is supposed to pass an annual spending budget, though it rarely gets around to it. Instead, the government is usually funded through a mashup of individual appropriations bills, omnibus appropriations bills, and continuing resolutions. This makes government spending less transparent and less accountable. It also leaves the federal government vulnerable to shutdowns during political fights, which happened in January of this year.

Fortunately, the Republican Study Committee (RSC) has just issued a proposed budget. It is likely the only budget that will be introduced in Congress this year, though unlikely to pass a Democratic House. As with any issue-spanning document, one can quibble with its contents regardless of political persuasion. Still, the RSC deserves a great deal of credit for at least putting something out there.

Other parts of the GOP should also issue their own proposed budgets; unlike The Highlander, there can be more than one. Across the aisle, a Democratic budget(s) would face similar obstacles in a Republican Senate and White House. They still should release their own budgets to make their policy priorities more concrete.

The whole RSC FY 2020 Budget is here. The document cites CEI sources on a variety of issues:

  • Regulatory Reform. The budget gives an entire chapter to regulatory reform, beginning on page 17, and cites Wayne Crews’s Ten Thousand Commandments annual report—the 2019 edition of which will be released soon.
  • Energy and Environment. The budget’s recommendations for increasing North American energy production draw on the energy and environment chapter in CEI’s Agenda for the 116th Congress.
  • Export-Import Bank. On page 25, the budget would abolish the Export-Import Bank, citing my paper “Ten Reasons to Abolish the Export-Import Bank.” Ex-Im’s charter expires this September 30, and will close if Congress declines to reauthorize it.

Kudos to the RSC for putting out a tangible document that should serve as a starting point for debating federal priorities for the next fiscal year—and for attempting to fix a broken budget process. They also have excellent taste in finding sources for many of their ideas; interested readers can find more in CEI’s Free to Prosper: A Pro-Growth Agenda for the 116th Congress.

Export-Import Bank Drama Continues

The Senate’s main business right now is the annual Defense Appropriations bill. The Export-Import Bank, or Ex-Im for short, might become part of that bill. Ex-Im caused one of the most contentious political fights in recent years. While the fight seemed over when Ex-Im re-opened last December after a five-month shutdown, there is still one more bit of drama to be resolved. That might happen this week.

Ex-Im is currently unable to make transactions larger than $10 million—essentially neutering an agency that does nearly 80 percent of its business in big deals with a literal top-ten of big businesses such as Boeing, General Electric, Caterpillar, and a handful of others. But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who counts Boeing as a constituent, is trying to restore cronyism as usual at Ex-Im.

A bit of background: Ex-Im offers loans and loan guarantees to foreign buyers of U.S. products. For example, Ex-Im will guarantee loans that a foreign airline takes out—if the airline buys its jets from Boeing instead of Airbus.

For a number of reasons, free-market activists want to permanently close Ex-Im. These range from numerous corruption scandals to the harm Ex-Im does to other U.S. businesses, such as domestic airlines that compete with Ex-Im-subsidized foreign airlines.

Last year Congress refused to renew Ex-Im’s charter, which expires every few years. Ex-Im actually closed for five months, able to do nothing more than maintain its existing portfolio. It reopened when Ex-Im’s supporters succeeded in placing its reauthorization in a must-pass spending bill.

But their victory was a partial one. Ex-Im has a five-member board of directors that must approve any transaction larger than $10 million. As directors’ terms expired during the shutdown, the board was down to two members.

Here’s where the fun begins: Any vote on a $10 million-plus transaction has a quorum requirement of three members—meaning Ex-Im, though open for business, can only perform relatively small transactions until it gets more board members. These require Senate confirmation, and the Senate has shown no interest in considering any nominees.

Enter Sen. Graham, and the current controversy. He is threatening to create a loophole large enough to drive a truck through. If the president decides a $10 million-plus Ex-Im project has national security implications, Sen. Graham proposes giving the president the power to override Ex-Im’s quorum rule, allowing Ex-Im’s current diminished board to approve it.

We all know how creative politicians can be when it comes to tying anything and everything to national security. No doubt Boeing, which typically receives about half of Ex-Im’s business, will work very hard to push as many of its potential loan guarantees as possible through that loophole.

The worst part is that Sen. Graham isn’t pushing this idea as a stand-alone bill that could succeed or fail on its own merits. He is trying to fold it into the must-pass Defense Appropriations bill, which even Ex-Im’s fiercest opponents have to vote for.

What to do about it? Sen. Graham’s proposal is in an amendment he is offering to the defense bill, which is still in the Committee phase. So either the amendment must fail, or another senator must offer a counter-amendment to nullify the Graham amendment. The defense bill is in markup this week, so we could find out soon if Ex-Im’s cronyism will return to its previous vast scale.

Ex-Im Revival Passes the House

The House has passed Rep. Stephen Fincher’s Ex-Im revival bill, by the margin of 313-118. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has publicly said the Senate will not act on the bill, so last night’s vote was more of a public statement than anything else. While the statement might be unpleasant, the public now has a much better idea of which Congressmen are pro-business, as opposed to pro-market—an important distinction. So at the very least, voters now have a better idea of who to hold accountable, and who they might support in primary elections.

With no stand-alone vote, Ex-Im reauthorization will instead be folded into an upcoming must-pass transportation bill. A Senate vote on that could happen as soon as next week.

Both parties share blame for Ex-Im’s possible revival. Nearly all Democrats voted in favor of reviving Ex-Im—a curious reversal of decades-long opposition. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) is the only one to stay consistent. Progressives have been Ex-Im’s traditional opponents, not just on corporate welfare grounds, but on human rights grounds—Ex-Im subsidizes many governments with checkered human rights records, and helps to keep them in power. See for example, this Mother Jones article from 1981, this one from 1992, and another from as recently as 2011, which is based on environmental grounds.

The GOP’s small pro-market wing began actively opposing Ex-Im in 2012, so Mother Jones therefore changed its stance around that time; see here and here. See also a thoughtful piece at Salon on this curious role reversal.

So Democrats deserve criticism for abandoning principle, seemingly for no reason other than to take the opposite stance from Republicans. “If you say X, therefore I saynot X” is hardly a sign of intellectual rigor, but such is the nature of partisan politics.

But the goal here isn’t to pile shame on just one party. Both parties deserve it. The traditional pro-business Rockefeller Republican mindset—recall the famous slogan “what’s good for GM is good for America,” as well as a certain bailout from a few years ago—is the party’s traditional stance, and one for which it is often rightly criticized. Republicans are a major reason why Ex-Im was able to survive for more than 80 years, and Republicans are why it is on the brink of revival.

By the time Ex-Im’s 2012 reauthorization came up, a small GOP minority rejected pro-business thinking in favor of pro-market thinking. Rather than making sure to help GM or Boeing or some other specific business, their priority is to maintain an open competitive process under which any entrepreneur with a good idea and a good product can succeed.

These free-marketers raised a bit of a stink about Ex-Im, catching a sleepy Washington by surprise. Then the alarm went off, leading to a pitched intra-party fight that has been raging ever since, with major Ex-Im beneficiaries and traditional pro-business groups adding to the decibel level.

This culminated in the most recent Ex-Im vote. As mentioned above, Democrats deserve criticism for abandoning long-held principles on corporate welfare, international human rights, and clean government (Ex-Im is a well-known hotbed of corruption), seemingly for no reason other than to oppose the other party.

Republicans deserve criticism for their long-standing milquetoast pro-business mindset. Their pro-market minority deserves praise on the Ex-Im issue, but pro-market thinking sadly remains a minority stance in both parties. Hopefully Boeing’saggressive lobbying push doesn’t have too much to do with it.

In fact, corporate welfare issues like the Export-Import Bank provide a wonderful opportunity for progressives and free-market-oriented conservatives to work together. So why aren’t they?

In politics, the minority party’s job is to deny the majority party any possible political victories, even when they agree. At least that’s my theory for Democrats’ sudden, and nearly uniform Ex-Im reversal.

But if members of both parties could put principle ahead of politics, then progressives and the GOP’s free-market wing, and hopefully some others, could very likely cobble together a majority on several issues on which they agree. They can change the country for the better, even as they continue to disagree on other issues. Ex-Im andOPIC could serve as starter issues. There are many more.

I conclude with a small public service: a list of all 127 Republicans who made a public statement by voting in favor of reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank:

Aderholt
Amodei
Barletta
Barton
Benishek
Bost
Boustany
Brady (TX)
Bridenstine
Brooks (AL)
Brooks (IN)
Buchanan
Bucshon
Byrne
Calvert
Carter (GA)
Cole
Collins (NY)
Comstock
Cook
Costello (PA)
Cramer
Crenshaw
Curbelo (FL)
Davis, Rodney
Denham
Dent
Diaz-Balart
Dold
Donovan
Ellmers (NC)
Fincher
Fitzpatrick
Fortenberry
Frelinghuysen
Gibbs
Gibson
Granger
Graves (LA)
Graves (MO)
Griffith
Grothman
Guinta
Hanna
Hardy
Harper
Hartzler
Herrera
Beutler
Hultgren
Hunter
Hurd (TX)
Issa
Jenkins (WV)
Johnson (OH)
Jolly
Joyce
Katko
Kelly (MS)
Kelly (PA)
King (NY)
Kinzinger (IL)
Kline
Knight
LaHood
LoBiondo
Long
Lucas
Luetkemeyer
MacArthur
Marino
McMorris Rodgers
McSally
Meehan
Mica
Miller (MI)
Moolenaar
Mullin
Murphy (PA)
Newhouse
Nunes
Palazzo
Paulsen
Pearce
Pitts
Poe (TX)
Poliquin
Reed
Reichert
Renacci
Ribble
Rice (SC)
Rigell
Roby
Rogers (AL)
Rogers (KY)
Rooney (FL)
Ros-Lehtinen
Russell
Salmon
Sanford
Sessions
Shimkus
Shuster
Simpson
Smith (MO)
Smith (NJ)
Stefanik
tivers
Thompson (PA)
Thornberry
Tiberi
Trott
Turner
Upton
Valadao
Wagner
Walden
Walorski
Walters, Mimi
Weber (TX)
Wilson (SC)
Womack
Woodall
Yoder
Young (AK)
Zeldin
Zinke

Signs of Life for Ex-Im?

Last night the House of Representatives voted on a rare discharge petition, under which a controversial bill can skip the usual committee process and go straight to a floor vote. In this case, the discharged bill is Rep. Stephen Fincher’s Export-Import Bank revival bill. It passed, 246-177, with 62 Republicans joining nearly all Democrats. It was the first successful discharge petition since the McCain-Feingold campaign finance regulation bill. For more on discharge petitions, see my earlier post.

So what happens now? On Tuesday, the House will hold further procedural votes on the Ex-Im bill, which will almost certainly pass. Then it’s off to the Senate, which is unlikely to act on the bill.

So crisis averted? Not quite. Because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is unlikely to allow a vote on the Fincher bill, reauthorization will instead likely be folded into a must-pass transportation bill. So while Fincher’s discharge petition will likely amount to nothing, it does give Ex-Im beneficiaries a backup plan if they have trouble getting Ex-Im reauthorization into the transportation bill.

For more on why Ex-Im is bad policy, bad politics, and bad economics, see my paper.

Finally, for all the sky-is-falling hyperbole coming from Ex-Im beneficiaries, regular readers will remember that Boeing alone receives nearly half of Ex-Im’s business. Despite Ex-Im’s closure, they recently announced that their earnings were up 25 percent in the third quarter. More than 98 percent of U.S. exports happen without Ex-Im assistance. As with many other companies, Boeing will be just fine without Ex-Im and corruption it enables.