Reauthorization of the U.S. Export-Import Bank is usually a rubber-stamped affair in Congress. Not this year.
Lawmakers, interested parties, and competing business interests are gearing up for a battle over funding of the obscure government agency, which provides loans to foreign companies and countries so they can buy the goods of American businesses like The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) and General Electric Company (NYSE:GE).
The Ex-Im Bank was envisioned to "create a level playing field" in "critical" industries. Supporters claim that it is needed to counterbalance subsidies offered by foreign governments such as that provided by European Union-member countries to the Airbus division of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. NV (NASDAQOTH:EADSY). Airbus and Boeing have been battling it out for supremacy for many years, flip-flopping back and forth at the No. 1 and No. 2 positions.
Ex-Im detractors say that what the bank does amounts to corporate welfare that bets on certain industries and companies, all while fleecing taxpayers. On top of that, some corporations, like Delta Airlines, (NYSE:DAL), suffer as the result of the practice.
Further complicating things are politics. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader and U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) are on opposite sides of most issues, but they are united in wanting funding for the bank stopped. This group of opponents recently received a big shot in the arm when Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Virginia), a prominent Ex-Im supporter, was ousted in the GOP primary in his district.
How will the fight affect business?
The case for renewed funding
Lobbyists for Boeing claim that it will be unfair to the company if the Ex-Im Bank doesn't provide loans to foreign airlines and leasing companies. The argument is that if the money was cut off, the carriers would simply go to Airbus to buy new passenger jets. Airbus can discount prices because of the subsidies received.
Boeing and GE suppliers and employees would suffer, too, according to the crowd that wants to stay the course. The two companies together employ nearly a half-million people.
The case against renewed funding
Domestic airlines such as Delta don't get the same treatment as foreign carriers. There is really no "import" component of the bank, and U.S.-based companies have to go on the open market and borrow huge amounts to finance new aircraft deals, which are typically for billions of dollars.
There has been a lot of consolidation and turmoil in the airline industry, and until just recently, profits have suffered. Maybe domestic airlines need some help.
U.S. taxpayers are the ones providing the Ex-Im Bank program funding. As the result, tax rates might be affected. Many tax-reform groups like the Tea Party would like to see the practice stopped.
If funding is eliminated
If Congress removes funding, there could be a big shakeup in how some businesses operate. However, the bottom line would not necessarily be affected.
Boeing and GE -- and other large companies -- would probably need to shift their efforts to the other side of the pond and convince customers to buy their products by discounting prices or offering special financing deals. The auto industry does this on a regular basis. The industrial companies could also partner with big banks to do some deals. Again, not completely unheard of in the business world.
GE is a big supporter and benefactor of the Ex-Im Bank's services. GE sells products such as jet engines, turbines used for power generation, and medical equipment to companies and governments overseas. Any disruption in funding would cause havoc, at least temporarily.
While in the short term, things could be affected, the net effect to business in the long run would likely be a wash once the dust settles. Investors who take a view that's longer than just a few quarters shouldn't have to worry.
If funding is renewed
If the Ex-Im is allowed to keep functioning as is, the U.S. airline industry might have to keep consolidating in order to more effectively compete with foreign carriers that receive U.S. taxpayer money. Delta could be left out in the cold again. Boeing and others would continue to be beneficiaries.
The bottom line is that the status quo, however measured, would benefit some and hurt others.
The U.S. Congress will have to make a decision regarding funding for the Export-Import Bank. Its actions could have consequences for many American businesses and investors. Some could be affected negatively. If the Ex-Im Bank is cut off, the impact will be minimal in the long term.
Let's see if the lawmakers do the right thing.