Largely out of the media spotlight, the federal government operates a network of financial subsidy programs that benefit big banks by putting taxpayer money at risk. And President Obama, that self-styled populist scourge of Wall Street, is increasing this racket of private profit and public risk that Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) aptly dubbed "venture socialism."
In its latest act of venture socialism, the Obama administration has offered a novel taxpayer backstop to General Electric, the multinational industrial conglomerate that is famously close to this administration, and that spends more on federal lobbying than any other company. The government accessory in this instance is the Export-Import Bank of the United States, a federal agency that finances U.S. exports at taxpayer risk.
Ex-Im exists to subsidize U.S. businesses, with most of the subsidy dollars facilitating Boeing sales. Other industrial titans like GE, Bechtel, and General Dynamics devour most of the rest of the Ex-Im subsidy pie. But manufacturers aren't the only beneficiaries of this little-known federal agency -- banks profit from it, too. For instance, when Ex-Im recently approved $1 billion in financing to subsidize Pemex, Mexico's government-owned oil company, 3M and other U.S. exporters of oil-field equipment benefited, but so did some big banks. Bank of America and JP Morgan financed these sales, and so if Pemex defaults, it's these megabanks the U.S. taxpayer will be bailing out.
Now Obama has created a new Ex-Im subsidy for banks. The name is a mouthful: "The Supply-Chain Finance Guarantee Program."
Here's how to understand what's going on: Imagine I'm a shoe exporter. I ship shoes to stores in Europe, and then I wait a few weeks to get paid by the stores. But what if more orders come in, and I need to restock the shoes right away, before I get paid for my last shipment? I could just borrow from a bank. But another option is that I can just sell my invoices, in effect, to the bank. If the shoe stores owe me $1,000, I might sell Citibank, for $950, the right to be paid by those shoe stores. That's called supply-chain finance, and it's a quintessential capitalist arrangement.
But in the midst of this commerce among banks, exporters, and importers, Barack Obama has inserted the unwitting U.S. taxpayer. As part of his Export Initiative aimed at doubling U.S. exports in five years, Obama created the Supply-Chain Finance Guarantee Program to guarantees 90 percent of the banks' exposure. In our hypothetical example, if the European shoe stores welched, the U.S. taxpayers would cover 90 percent of Citibank's loss.
Citi and JP Morgan were the first two banks admitted to this new subsidy program, and earlier this month, Ex-Im welcomed GE Finance. So GE, which already rakes in tens of billions of Ex-Im subsidies as an exporter (in September, for instance, Ex-Im approved a $425 million subsidy to help GE sell locomotive equipment to Kazakhstan), will now also pocket Ex-Im subsidies as a financier, too.
Many aspects of the Obama-Bush industrial policy works this way. The green-energy loan guarantee programs that benefitted Solyndra are also bank subsidies. For instance, the Energy Department this fall guaranteed $1.4 billion loan for solar companies NRG Energy and Prologis to install solar panels. But it wasn't the solar companies applying for the subsidy -- it was Bank of America, through the Financial Institutions Partnership Program created by the stimulus bill, which asked -- and received -- this taxpayer-funded gift from the Obama administration. Taxpayers will repay B of A if this $1.4 billion solar investment doesn't pan out. But what are the odds of a stimulus-subsidized solar venture flopping, right?
Failed and bailed-out housing finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have a similar arrangement. Like Obama's Export Initiative, and the green-energy subsidies, politicians always have some grand justification. It saves the environment! It helps small business! It creates jobs! It makes the American Dream come true!
But whenever politicians are moving around large chunks of money, you can bet the whole thing is being subtly guided by the businesses with the best lobbyists and the most access to power. Foremost among those businesses are the banks, and GE is always a guest at the proverbial table.
If you ask the Wall Street Occupiers, it's capitalism and the free markets that drive banks' booming profits. If you look more closely, it's venture socialism.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.