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US Exim Bank’s First Black Leader Faces China, Climate Hurdles

Reta Jo Lewis said she views her appointment as a new start for the agency, which won a seven-year reauthorization in 2019 that restored its full lending powers

Reta Jo Lewis
Reta Jo Lewis said that despite China's higher spending on export finance, Exim Bank can compete on project quality, promoting democratic values, transparency and a market-driven focus. Photo: Exim Bank.


The US Export-Import Bank has started a new era as Reta Jo Lewis takes office as the first African-American to lead the agency, facing challenges on competing with China’s massive export financing, climate change and racial equity.

Lewis was sworn in by vice-president Kamala Harris a week after the former US State Department official, lawyer and foundation executive was confirmed by the Senate in a 56-40 vote.

Exim Bank has yet to fully recover from nearly eight years of turmoil in which conservative Republicans in Congress sought to kill the agency they labelled as a purveyor of “corporate welfare” for Boeing, General Electric, Caterpillar and other firms.

Its lending and credit guarantees halted for nearly six months in 2015 when Republican lawmakers blocked renewal of its charter.

But after the charter’s renewal, its loans were limited to $10 million for years as Congress blocked board members, excluding commercial aircraft and major infrastructure deals.


New Start for Agency

Lewis said in an interview that she views her appointment as a new start for the agency, which won a seven-year reauthorisation in 2019 that restored its full lending powers – just in time for the Covid-19 pandemic to sink global demand.

“Whether it’s competing with China, whether it’s growing our export support for clean and renewable energy, whether it’s investing in sustainable futures with Sub-Saharan Africa, advancing transformational export areas – to me, it’s a new day,” she said.

The agency has a long way to go to rebuild its previous capacity. During the fiscal year ended September 30, 2021, EXIM authorised $5.76 billion of direct loans and credit guarantees, down from $12.5 billion in fiscal 2014, the year before it was sidelined by Congress.

During 2020, China provided $18 billion worth of medium and long-term export financing, while France provided $12.1 billion, and Exim Bank just $1.8 billion, according to the bank’s annual competitiveness report.

Lewis said that despite China’s higher spending on export finance, EXIM can compete on project quality, promoting democratic values, transparency and a market-driven focus.


Export Credit Support

“People understand America’s values, and that we adhere to the rule of law. I believe we will become that agency of choice,” she added.

Lewis said she would work to promote the benefits of Exim Bank’s export credit support to small businesses in throughout the country, especially minority and women-owned businesses.

She said her work ethic comes from her upbringing in the small college town of Statesboro, Georgia, where her parents were “serial entrepreneurs”, building a moving and logistics company and a grocery store.

“I learned early on from the seventh grade about work and about working in a community where jobs were being created,” she said.

Lewis, 68, most recently was director of congressional affairs at the German Marshall Fund, after serving in the State Department during Barack Obama’s administration as special representative for global intergovernmental affairs.


  • Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard



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Jim Pollard

Jim Pollard is an Australian journalist based in Thailand since 1999. He worked for News Ltd papers in Sydney, Perth, London and Melbourne before travelling through SE Asia in the late 90s. He was a senior editor at The Nation for 17+ years and has a family in Bangkok.


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