The Case against Export Credit Agencies

Export credit agencies are quasi-government agencies. These agencies are usually backed by government institutions. This means that they are under the purview of government authorities and also have access to taxpayer funds. All developed countries in the world have created their own export credit agencies. Collectively these agencies wield a tremendous amount of influence on world trade. It is estimated that the ECA backed exports amount to more than $200 billion each year.

Economic textbooks often portray export credit rating agencies as a positive force which helps improve international trade. However, there are also many criticisms which are leveled against these agencies. In this article, we will have a closer look at the reasons which make ECA’s dangerous and harmful for the economy.

Government Debt

The credit provided by Export Credit Agencies (ECA’s) can be thought off as a store credit card. Just like a store credit card provides loans to consumers at high-interest rates, export credit agencies also provide finance to importers from poor countries at high-interest rates.

Export credit agencies sometimes offer direct finance to foreign governments. In other cases, they provide indirect finance. This means that finance is actually provided by a private party. However, it is guaranteed by export credit agencies meaning that the loan becomes risk-free for the borrowers. Many times transactions between private parties end up becoming transactions between public institutions. For instance, if exporter A and importer A use export credit finance, then their transactions may be insured by the ECAs of both countries!

The problem is that importers only take credit from export credit agencies after they have exhausted all other options. This means that the projects funded by ECA’s are inherently risky. A lot of times this means that the project fails and the importer is unable to pay back the loans. It is surprising to find out that ECA’s are amongst the leading creditors for many third world countries. For instance, export credits amount to about 64% of all the external debt which is owed by Nigeria! Similarly, this number stands at 42% for the Republic of Congo.

This is the reason why export credit agencies are often called debt traps by analysts in these third world countries. They are the Trojan horse which seems friendly at first but end up being more harmful than the bigwigs like World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Taxpayers Exposed to Bad Loans

As mentioned above, export credit is generally opted for by buyers who are unable to obtain any other source of finance. As a result, they lead to a higher percentage of bad loans than normal. The ECA’s charge a higher interest rate to make up for the loss. However, a significant percentage of the loans lent out by the ECAs are never repaid.

This is a big problem since it is a hidden transfer of wealth from the taxpayers to the exporters. The exporters end up being the beneficiary of these loans. On the other hand, taxpayers who have no idea about the underlying situation end up paying for these loans.

Priority Sectors

It is a known fact that export credit agencies have hidden interests. Although, the ECA’s themselves are supposed to be non-profit institutions, the employees at these institutions are often patronized by corporations. As a result, a lot of the policies created by ECAs are biased and have hidden agendas.

A lot of times these policies take the shape of priority sectors. Under the guise of providing financing to important sectors, the taxpayer money is redirected to a particular industry or even a particular company. Many analysts have also noted that sometimes the ECAs are keener on guaranteeing the loans and liabilities of some particular financial institutions.

ECA’s Lead to Trade Wars

In the more recent past, ECA’s have been blamed for the trade wars that have now become a part of global economics. This is because, in some cases, the ECAs often provide subsidized finance to importers. As such, the ECA’s make an exported product more attractive for the importer as compared to goods produced locally.

In many cases, this does not go down well with governments. As such, they end up increasing the import duty to offset the financing advantage. This increased duty is seen as a sign of aggression and the other country also ends up levying countervailing duties on the other country. Therefore, ECAs are a way of covertly capturing market share in another country. Many countries have now become aware of this strategy and hence these agencies are at the root of several trade wars.

Lack of Transparency

Lastly, critics argue that for the amount of power and influence these credit rating agencies have, they have very little accountability. In many countries, they are not even audited! Even if they are audited, their records are not made public. Hence, there is an opaqueness to these transactions which makes them appear inherently shady. Leaving apart the financial aspects, there is no control over the social and environmental effects of the projects which are funded by these agencies.

The bottom line is that the export credit agencies are also a government agency. Just like other government agencies, they are also prone to bureaucracy, red tape and corruption.


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