Ex-Im Bank helps power S.C. prosperity

Shipping containers line the Port of Long Beach in Long Beach, Calif. (AP Photo/Noaki Schwartz, File)

To grow our economy in South Carolina small businesses have had to think outside the box. For my Greenville-based company, Innovative Global Supply, that means thinking outside the country.

IGS started in 2008, just as the financial crises got underway, as an all-export business, selling nutritional products to emerging markets in Eastern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Now we're expanding to housing, and are set to move forward on a project to export pre-fabricated housing boards known as SIPS or Structured Insulated Panels to Ghana, which will create and retain up to 300 jobs in South Carolina.

But this project and many other exports across our state could be stopped in their tracks if Congress shuts down a little known but vital agency, the Export-Import Bank of the United States. Opponents and critics in Washington, D.C., are distorting the role and impact of the Ex-Im Bank, which provides export insurance, credit and loans to help American companies sell their goods abroad - nearly $40 billion worldwide last year, supporting more than 200,000 jobs. In South Carolina, Ex-Im has financed over a billion dollars in exports in the last five years.

In fact, much of our state's ability to recover from a still stagnant national economy is linked to exports. South Carolina businesses did a record $26 billion in foreign sales last year and exports support nearly a third of manufacturing jobs in our state.

Ex-Im is a critical link in the export chain - filling gaps in insurance and financing when dealing with potential foreign buyers of American-made goods. In my case, we used to require full payment in advance to protect ourselves, and we lost sales because of it. But with Ex-Im-backed purchase order insurance we can safely sell on credit, just as we would to American businesses. As a small business, Ex-Im's insurance gives us the ability to compete globally with Chinese companies that are vying for the very same overseas customers. It's a valuable tool that allows IGS to worry less about possible non-payments and focus more on expanding our company to create more jobs here in South Carolina.

It is important to remember that the Ex-Im Bank only backs financing for U.S. exports when commercial loans aren't available, so it is not distorting or displacing private enterprise. Some critics have charged that this activity could put the U.S. taxpayers at risk.

In reality, Ex-Im has strict loan standards and a default rate below 1 percent that rivals the stodgiest commercial lenders. Its loans are generally secured by valuable collateral like machinery, which makes them especially safe. Ex-Im is so successful, it returned over $1 billion dollars to the Treasury just last year after accounting for all costs. This is no crop subsidy or tax loophole that benefits the wealthy few at the public's expense - much less "corporate welfare."

Ex-Im is also a critical part of our global trade policy. It actually levels the playing field for U.S. companies - since foreign manufacturers have their own similar (but much more generous) government export credit agencies. Pulling out the equalizer of Ex-Im financing would force U.S. companies to enter increasingly fierce global competition with one hand tied behind their back. My company competes fiercely every day with Chinese and other foreign firms for business. But I have found that, given the choice, most customers would rather buy American, thanks to our better service, more advanced technology, and higher quality products. Made in America remains the gold standard for foreign buyers and the Ex-Im Bank makes sure they have that choice.

Finally, critics falsely claim the bank only helps a few big companies. While Ex-Im financing supports Boeing aircraft sales - a good thing for South Carolina since many of these planes are built in Charleston - 9 out of 10 Ex-Im loans go to small and medium sized firms that are part of the supply chain for companies like Boeing, BMW, Michelin Tire and others. These smaller firms are the ones who hire companies like mine, but more importantly our families, neighbors and friends.

In addition, the Ex-Im Bank offers other services that are uniquely valuable to small businesses - like help navigating foreign regulations, tariffs and bureaucracies, and purchase order insurance for smaller sales of retail goods.

Earlier this year Ex-Im announced a new partnership with the Charleston Chamber of Commerce to help South Carolina businesses find new opportunities overseas. Fortune 500 companies don't need this kind of support, but businesses like IGS surely do.

The right thing for Congress to do is to renew America's Ex-Im Bank without delay as the future of many South Carolina citizens depend on it.

By not acting and acting soon, Congress will endanger the economic opportunities of thousands of small businesses in our state and nation.

Cherod Webber is the president and CEO of Innovative Global Supply, LLC. He serves on an advisory committee of the Export-Import Bank.