In February, the US Senate confirmed Reta Jo Lewis as president and chair of the Export-Import Bank of the United States (US Exim), approximately five months after she was nominated by the White House for the role. As the Joe Biden administration works to boost clean energy exports and help American manufacturers compete with counterparts globally, GTR speaks to Lewis about her priorities in the post, and US Exim’s role in shaping the government’s wider trade agenda.
GTR: Congratulations on receiving the Senate approval and taking the helm at US Exim. Could you walk through some of your main priorities in the new role?
Lewis: I am hugely excited about being here at Exim, and to be back in person following the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s great to be at an agency to which the Biden-Harris administration has given its full support. Since I started a little over 70 days ago, I’ve made deepening our partnerships and collaborations a top priority, working with local and state officials, cabinet ministers and secretaries from around the world, and of course, my fellow export credit agency (ECA) heads. I have just recently returned from a meeting of the Berne Union, which was my first international trip and also my first in-person meeting with the other ECA heads since taking on my new position.
In terms of priorities, Exim’s mandate to support small businesses, especially those run by women or minorities, is something that has been my passion. We have further mandates as part of our reauthorisation to deepen ties with Sub-Saharan Africa, and to really develop our China and Transformational Exports Program. Modernising our agency, as well as reforming export credit rules, will be another area to which we pay a lot of attention.
GTR: Which areas of the OECD Arrangement do you see as needing to be reformed?
Lewis: We’re committed to working with our colleagues at the OECD to modernise the OECD Arrangement and, in particular, we are looking to expand our support for climate-friendly technologies. We have to work with fellow ECAs and the private sector to make sure any changes adopted at the OECD are implemented in a very transparent way and without compromising what we believe is the integrity of the rules-based export credit framework. The US believes that to date the Arrangement has worked well, restricting subsidies and promoting a level playing field in the process.
Right now, all the OECD participants face competitive threats from non-participants, who often can offer more generous financing tools. As such, we’re very supportive of simplifying the Arrangement to make terms more competitive, especially vis-a-vis China.
GTR: The Biden-Harris Administration has directed a lot of focus on tackling the climate crisis. What role does US Exim have to play in supporting these efforts, and what steps has the agency taken?
Lewis: The entire Biden-Harris administration, including Exim, shares the principal goal of addressing climate change, and we’re focused on doing so in ways that support US jobs, while abiding by our charter, which makes clear that we can’t discriminate on any application or sector. But we certainly will make support available and promote American exports in the renewable and other clean energy sectors.
We have a new sub-committee at Exim, the Chair’s Council on Climate, which sits under our Advisory Committee and gives us advice and counsel from an external perspective on our activities as well as global developments so we can ensure that Exim’s policies and procedures are up to date. The sub-committee is comprised of top experts and thought leaders from across industry sectors as well as civil society representatives.
As part of plans to diversify our portfolio, in late May, we formally established the Office of Global Finance Development. This new business development and outreach division will manage international business opportunities and deal source, especially in support of Exim’s strategic priorities such as clean energy and environmentally beneficial products.
We are staffing this up quickly because we want to make sure that Exim places priority on all of these new sectors that are increasingly looking to us for support.
GTR: Is there room for introducing incentives for green projects within the OECD Arrangement? What is US Exim’s current stance on oil and gas?
Lewis: We are cooperating with our international colleagues and are discussing the adoption of measures that would promote environmentally beneficial technologies, while addressing competition from non-OECD countries.
Exim is also working with OECD partners to create green incentives and remains committed to quickening the pace of transition from fossil fuels to renewable resources. But we recognise there are cleaner sources of these fuels. LNG, for instance, is a sector Exim remains open to supporting.
As it relates to any industry or any sector, our charter totally mandates that we cannot discriminate against any industry, any sector or company size.
GTR: The China and Transformational Exports Program (CTEP) was a key area of interest for the previous administration, and it sounds like this is still the case. How is this progressing?
Lewis: It is progressing quite well. We are mandated to help US exporters facing People’s Republic of China (PRC)-backed competition and to advance the export of goods in transformational export areas. Our goal is primarily about supporting US jobs. We need to use all of our tools to level the financial playing field and to help our exporters compete based on price and quality. Thus far, the CTEP has successfully completed about US$140mn in authorisations in its first full year.
Under the programme, critical minerals is a key area of interest. Exim is evaluating a few transactions that would help diversify the US’ supply of certain critical minerals globally. Those deals are at various levels of review but involve allies and partners around the world. The programme also speaks to the work we’re doing around semiconductors as well as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, biotech and biomedical.
GTR: In recent months, US Exim launched a domestic financing programme. Why exactly did the Biden administration feel such an offering is necessary, and which types of projects will largely benefit?
Lewis: We’re really excited about the ‘Make More in America’ initiative, which should be a key financing tool, and aims to ensure goods and services – especially for critical industries such as semiconductors – are made in the United States and not in strategic competitor nations like China. The Covid-19 pandemic and other recent global events have shown America’s shortcomings in its production, especially for key sectors like manufacturing and energy technologies.
We know China is continuing to make massive and historic investments in producing these goods, and America is at risk of falling behind. As we work to shore up our supply chains, we know this will require a whole-of-government approach rather than the efforts of one agency.
Exim sees the programme as a tool that can complement other actions and investments of the US government, such as the CHIPS Act, which is making its way through Congress and would provide tens of billions of dollars for semiconductor manufacturing in the US.