Tucked into an industrial park in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood is a small company that makes smart dummies.
The high-tech manikins, a customized version of which sells for as much as $500,000, simulate the human body’s response to heat, cold, moisture and other conditions. They can test temperature ratings for sleeping bags or mimic passengers sweating in automobile seats.
Honda, Nike, Airbus and the U.S. Army are all customers.
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But if Measurement Technology Northwest were to land an order from, say, Nigeria or Brazil, it wouldn’t make a sale without the Export-Import Bank.
That’s because the Export-Import Bank, an export credit agency owned by the U.S. government, sells insurance against deadbeat customers overseas. If Measurement Technology doesn’t get paid within 180 days, the bank covers 90 percent of the amount owed.
“It’s a lot more intimidating for foreign customers to not pay the U.S. Export-Import Bank than it is for them to not pay us,” said Tim O’Neill, president and founder of Measurement Technology. Without the assurance that comes with the clout of a federal agency, selling in some countries “is incredibly risky.”
So it is with much worry that O’Neill has watched the bank, called Ex-Im for short, teeter on the brink of extinction. Congressional critics for weeks have been fighting against renewing the Depression-era agency’s charter, which expires at the end of this month. Opponents regard the bank as corporate welfare that displaces private-sector lenders.
Last Thursday — after a temporary capitulation by a faction of House Republicans — the chamber was set to vote on reauthorizing the bank for nine more months as part of a larger bill to keep the federal government funded until mid-December. But the vote was pushed back until this week, in part to consider President Obama’s request to include in the bill authority to train rebels against the extremist group Islamic State.
That further postponed the reckoning over what conservatives and free-market disciples deride as “Boeing’s bank.” The aerospace giant accounted for $8.3 billion, or 30 percent, of the $27.3 billion in financial commitments underwritten by the Ex-Im Bank in 2013, making it the biggest corporate beneficiary by far.
But thousands of small businesses are also caught in the debate. The vast majority of the 100 or so companies in Washington state that use the bank each year are small enterprises whose employees number in the hundreds, if not dozens.
Among them are Woodinville’s Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which insures its shipments against payment defaults; Seattle’s Nucor steel company; and Bellevue’s Concordia Beverage Systems, which makes commercial espresso machines.
The benefit to local companies is a major reason members of the state’s congressional delegation — with the exception of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane — fully support the bank.
They include all three of McMorris Rodgers’ fellow Republicans. One of them, Rep. Dave Reichert of Auburn, twice wrote House Speaker John Boehner and then Majority Leader-Elect Kevin McCarthy urging reauthorization, saying it’s “good for businesses of Washington and it is good for businesses in every part of America.”
McMorris Rodgers, the House GOP’s No. 4 leader, has said she recognizes the value of the Ex-Im Bank to her district. Still, she has not given unequivocal support, saying any reauthorization should be conditional on reforms to make the bank more transparent and accountable.
The issue has become a gauge for tea-party and conservative bona fides. The conservative advocacy groups Heritage Action and the Club for Growth are whipping opposition to renewing the bank’s charter.
Jim McDonald, chief executive of SCAFCO Grain Systems in Spokane, said customer financing offered by Ex-Im Bank can mean the difference between sale and no sale. His company sells bins, silos and conveyors against cheaper competitors from China, India, Turkey and elsewhere.
The bank makes direct loans to SCAFCO’s customers at favorable rates with money borrowed from the U.S. Treasury. Foreign buyers otherwise may not be able to make the purchase, McDonald said, because their banks and governments are geared to finance exports, not imports.
In contrast, the bulk of the bank’s dealings with Boeing involves loan guarantees for American banks. Such was the case in 2013 when the Ex-Im Bank helped Boeing close a deal to sell a fleet of Renton-produced 737-900ER jetliners to Indonesia’s Lion Air.
New York’s Apple Bank for Savings financed the contract. But Ex-Im Bank provided $1.1 billion in loan guarantees, protecting Apple Bank for every penny if the Indonesian carrier defaults.
Nearly one of five Boeing jetliner sales hinges on Export-Import Bank financing. Ray Conner, chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, recently told a Seattle business group, “We cannot lose Ex-Im Bank, period.”
For SCAFCO, international sales make up 60 percent of revenue. If Congress does away with the bank, McDonald said, “We would most likely lose sales and we would also probably lose employees.”
This summer, McDonald made a video testimonial as part of a lobbying effort for the bank by the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce group. McDonald also has spoken to McMorris Rodgers, his congresswoman. He said he believes McMorris Rodgers supports the bank, but she did not promise her vote.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, said a vocal minority of House Republicans has hijacked the Ex-Im Bank for partisan means. She contends their objections make no economic sense.
“You’d be giving away a very competitive advantage,” Cantwell said. “Basically you are shipping jobs overseas.”
In July, Cantwell co-sponsored a bipartisan Senate bill to renew the bank’s charter for five years. Opponents, including House Majority Leader McCarthy and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, favor getting rid of the Ex-Im Bank and ending “crony capitalism.”
The bank has generated excess revenues — from fees, premiums and interest — in recent years that are returned to the Treasury. Excess collections fluctuate greatly, but in 2013, it had $1.057 billion left after covering its administrative costs and setting aside reserves for losses.
O’Neill, the Magnolia businessman, said the Ex-Im Bank makes it possible for his two companies to do deals in countries where they couldn’t recover unpaid debt on their own. Thermal manikins are O’Neill’s flagship product. But his companies also produce a range of other specialized equipment, including industrial and marine control and monitoring systems and equipment for large composting facilities.
Though the combined companies had more than $11 million in revenue last year, O’Neill said one big missed or late payment from a customer could seriously jeopardize their cash flow. Ex-Im Bank helps by vetting foreign customers and stepping in if O’Neill’s companies get stiffed.
“We’re not that sophisticated, and we don’t have a lawyer in the building,” O’Neill, 57, said.
Half of the combined sales of Measurement Technology and the second company, Engineered Compost Systems, came from overseas. Of that, about $2 million, or 40 percent, were deals insured by Ex-Im Bank — protection that allowed O’Neill’s companies to gamble on new customers in such countries as Poland, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.
Had it not been for the export insurance, O’Neill said, “We would have walked away from most of this business.”