By David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Export-Import Bank plans "aggressive" measures to restore its standing in the business community and to bump up credit volumes running at roughly a quarter of their levels from 2014 before it was hobbled first by Congress and then a global pandemic, the bank's new president said.
In that span, EXIM faded in the minds of customers and foreign governments - and many simply never got to know it, Reta Jo Lewis told Reuters on Wednesday. She plans to fix that with an "EXIM 101" education program to introduce new industries and small businesses to the lender's services and rebuild its relationships with foreign governments and U.S. exporters.
Moreover, Lewis, the first person of color to head the 88-year-old export credit agency, said she aims to steadily build up EXIM's lending totals "on a deal-by-deal basis."
"The important thing that I've seen is that while we were out of the market, you know, others stepped in. So that means that we've got to be aggressive," Lewis said. "We've got to be out there meeting large, small and medium-sized companies to let them know that EXIM has this financing tool that they can use."
Republicans in Congress in July 2015 sought to permanently shutter EXIM, charging it was providing "corporate welfare" through cheap export financing for Boeing, General Electric, Caterpillar and other corporate giants.
Its charter was restored after four months, but Republicans blocked EXIM board nominees for four more years, limiting it to loans of $10 million or less and shutting it out of the market for aircraft and major infrastructure projects.
During the void, GE was among U.S. firms that turned elsewhere, agreeing in 2015 to move manufacturing https://www.reuters.com/article/usa-exim-ge-idCNL1N11Y0Z620150928 of oilfield gas generator engines to Canada from Waukesha, Wisconsin, in a deal to access Canadian export financing, costing 236 U.S. manufacturing jobs.
A spokesperson for Austrian-based Innio Group, which acquired those facilities when it bought GE's distributed power business in 2018, said the firm would not be seeking EXIM financing support.
After its full lending powers were restored in 2019, other setbacks came from the COVID-19 pandemic's hit to export demand, and halts in aircraft deliveries for Boeing, traditionally EXIM's largest customer, following the 737 MAX grounding and 787 production problems.
Meanwhile, China has continued to dwarf EXIM's efforts, providing $11 billion in official medium and long-term export credit in 2021, compared with $2.2 billion for the United States, according to EXIM's annual competitiveness report https://img.exim.gov/s3fs-public/oig/reports/EXIM_2021_Competitiveness_Report.pdf.
Including short-term deals for working capital finance and credit insurance, EXIM in fiscal 2021 authorized $5.8 billion total support - far below its $20.7 billion volume in 2014.
Lewis, who marks her 100th day on the job on Thursday, said she does not have a specific volume target for EXIM, but wants to see higher numbers each year - a sign that "American companies are winning."
She said a $600 billion private-sector-led infrastructure push from G7 countries announced last week to rival China's Belt and Road program, including $200 billion from the United States, represents a significant opportunity to win new customers.
The fomer State Department official and congressional affairs director for the German Marshall Fund said she plans a trip to Africa to meet with officials and businesses later this year.
EXIM has also launched a transformational exports program https://www.exim.gov/about/special-initiatives/ctep to compete with China in key emerging export areas such as biomedical technology, renewable energy and quantum computing.
But reaching into new industries and more small businesses requires EXIM to take a more proactive approach to marketing, she said.
"We can't just sit back and just wait for (business) to walk in the door. That's an old-school method," she said. "We've got to be talking to industries all over this country and all over this world about what it is that we do."
(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Dan Burns and Diane Craft)