The lighthouse keepers - how far will the remit of ECA be pushed?

Feature | 5 May 2017
Lighthouse_Keepers_ECAs

As global economic uncertainty has risen, so too has the relevance and attractiveness of export credit agencies.
Have they now reached the peak of their activity, or is
there more to come? Binyamin Ali reports

 

 

Export credit agencies (ECAs) have experienced a massive surge in demand for their services over the last decade. From becoming involved in (or extending their reach in) short-term credit financing, capital markets, and in some cases covering risks associated with domestic operations, the remit and competitiveness of ECAs has been pushed further and further to completely new levels.

The 2008 financial crisis was an unquestionable catalyst in creating the new role ECAs now play in global trade. As some banks tumbled and others were bailed out by their governments, lenders and private insurers pulled out from one industry after another, as consolidation and risk reduction became the only viable strategy for the road ahead.

As providers of counter-cyclical support, ECAs began to step into the areas the private sector vacated to support their national exporters. For export-driven countries such as Finland where exports of goods and services accounted for almost 45% of GDP in 20081, this meant changing their approach and finding new ways to support their exporters.

"I have been with Finnvera for 18 years and when I joined we were mainly covering bank risk and sovereign risk. The biggest changes I have seen came after the financial crisis in 2008. We very quickly put up this temporary financing scheme for export credit," says Topi Vesteri, deputy CEO and group chief credit officer for Finnvera, Finland's ECA.

"But as we know, there's nothing as permanent as a temporary state scheme. So it is now permanent and it is important for those exporters who are competing with competitors from those countries who also offer funded export credits."

Figure 1: Top ECA Structures

Source: TXF Data

And with that, Finnvera's remit was extended to include direct lending. But in order to establish their export credit financing scheme, Finnvera had to obtain a waiver from the EU as ECAs in EU states were prohibited from covering "marketable" risks in 1999. The EU defines marketable risks as "risks for which in principle a market exists, i.e. there is a private insurance capacity available to cover these risks."2 The definition adds, "Which risks are marketable may evolve over time."

"In the beginning it went very well," says Vesteri of the EU's attempt to remove distortions in the market created by private and public credit insurers competing with each other.

"The private market was doing their job and covering the short term risk in industrial countries for up to two years. But then when the financial crisis hit, you could just see the private credit insurance market closing their limits country by country and industry by industry. There was a bit of both. There was a time when the private market was not covering anything to do with the automobile industry or not covering anything to do with the Baltic states."

As well as struggling to secure insurance cover from the private market, businesses also experienced difficulty in accessing liquidity. Quantitative easing programmes were put in place in the US, the UK, Japan, the EU, and more recently Sweden, as they sought to encourage lending and stimulate growth. In the case of exporters, governments looked to their ECAs to innovate and come up with solutions as what was considered "marketable" by the private market pre-2008 had changed, and with that change in classification, risk appetites noticeably dropped too.

Defining flexibility

Owing to the flexibility ECAs must demonstrate in times of uncertainty (as in 2008), it has become harder and harder to define them. The diversity to be found in ECAs across the world hasn't helped the pursuit of a simple definition. They differ in terms of what they do and don't do, right the way through to who owns them and how they're authorised.

UK Export Finance (UKEF) started out life in 1919 as a department of government (Export Credits Guarantee Department (ECGD)), and continues to be wholly state owned, does not have a limited tenure, and provides some of the most diverse financing and insurance structures of
any ECA.

Meanwhile Germany's Euler Hermes is completely privatised (Allianz is the majority stakeholder) and exclusively manages the country's export credit guarantee scheme. Export Development Canada (EDC) defines itself as "a self-financing, Crown corporation that operates at arm's length from the government." EDC also has one of the most comprehensive ECA mandates (see interview with Diana Smallridge on page 17) and has previously had stints where it was tasked with supporting domestic trade.

The Export-Import Bank of the United States (US Exim) on the other hand, has the capacity to provide credit insurance, direct loans, loan guarantees and capital finance. But it needs to be reauthorised every few years, depending on the length of its previous reauthorisation. This last occurred on 4 December 2015 when President Barack Obama authorised the bank until 30 September 2019. A delay in the nomination of key positions to the bank's board (owing to a political manoeuvre by Republicans) has meant US Exim is unable to exercise its full remit and can only issue a maximum of US$10m in financing.

As a result, US Exim has effectively been unable to act in any meaningful way since June 2015, but given the scale of the US domestic market, private banks and insurers have been able (in places) to step in. In comparison, it is hard to see how a similar situation would be sustainable for an export driven economy such as Finland's, for example.

Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all structure or mandate for an ECA as individual countries have always pursed their own interests, and their national credit agency has a role to play in that strategy. Turkey's ECA, Turk Eximbank (which is 30 years old this year), aspires to be an all encompassing one-stop shop with credit, guarantee and insurance facilities, and has a key role to play as the country attempts realign itself from being an exporter of consumer goods to an exporter of capital goods.

Figure 2: Source of funding by institution type

Source: TXF Data

"Now we support 7,700 companies in terms of loan and insurance support. We provide 6,400 companies with loan facilities and 2,200 with insurance. We would like to reach out to as many as 100,000 companies of which 65,000 are exporters. That is our long-term goal," says Adnan Yıldırım, CEO of Turk Eximbank (see page 34 for the full interview). "However, now, we are ready for more complicated and sophisticated, mostly, capital goods. Turkey's potential to transform our export portfolio into capital goods production has been increasing."

Turk Eximbank now covers approximately 23% (US$30.3bn) of Turkey's total export volume, and in providing almost three times as many exporters with loan facilities than it does insurance, reflects the global activity of ECAs. In 2016, ECA-backed loans accounted for 56.9% of ECA structures (see Figure 1) while direct loans accounted for 33.4%. The fact that loan-related structures account for so much (93.9%) of what they are doing is a reflection of what ECAs currently are - providers of liquidity and
liquidity insurers.

Storm clouds ahead?

With only the OECD's generous Arrangement on Guidelines for Officially Supported Export Credits (backed as it is by a non-binding 'gentleman's agreement' and not by law) simultaneously acting as the only check (for non-EU states) on the fulfilment of certain minimum requirements and working to bring some degree of a level playing field to the ECA landscape (participation in the Arrangement is voluntary, with China's Sinosure being a notable absentee), the mandate of the ECA is set to remain flexible and the facilities at its disposal diverse.

Gordon Welsh, head of business group at UKEF, thinks this flexibility will become even more crucial over the coming years as regulation on banks grows more stringent, and the need for ECAs to innovate grows with it.

"I think Basel III will be a development to watch as it will make ECA-backed financing even more attractive for banks. Whatever the outcome, UKEF is well equipped to help bridge funding gaps should they arise with products like direct lending, export refinancing and our capital markets offering," says Welsh.

"From June, we'll be partnering with banks to deliver government-backed trade finance support directly to exporters for transactions under £2m, which should significantly increase the scale of support we're able to offer. We'll also be making this trade finance support available to companies in exporters' supply chains."

UKEF's perception that a functional ECA needs to innovate and remain proactive in order to give its exporters a competitive edge shows no signs of softening, and the same is true of credit agencies across the world. Last year, direct loans from ECAs accounted for US$28.9bn of global export finance (23% of all export finance volumes, see Figure 2), but financial institutions retained the lion's share, accounting for 51.8% (US$64.2bn).
As the combined effects of regulation and desriking, as well as the rise in anti-globalisation sentiment, populism and protectionism all come together to stifle trade and strangle its sources of finance, Welsh remains confident of what this means for ECAs.

"The main point I'd like to make is that I think the fast-changing global and political landscape is making ECAs more relevant than ever. Our role is to provide certainty of support in an uncertain market."

Binyamin Ali is editor of TFR

References: 

1. Data from World Integrated Trade Solution: http://bit.ly/2p8ZtwJ

2. EUR-Lex, Access to European Union Law: http://bit.ly/2nkLs2I

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