Exports are an important growth engine in the United States. Not only do they support millions of jobs in the nation. They also are a vital source of sales for revitalizing the manufacturing sector.

Given the urgency of U.S. economic renewal, this Thursday the Brookings Metro Program will release compelling new research on the dynamics of metropolitan export growth at an event entitled Export Nation 2012. Further discussion will also call for policy and other supports that recognize the importance of harnessing the assets and strengths of the nation’s metro regions as key hubs of state and national exporting.

However, an important policy tool for growing our country’s exports currently hangs in limbo and requires special discussion:  the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.

Operating as the nation’s official export credit agency (ECA) under a renewable charter (the Export-Import Bank Act of 1945), the bank provides critical support to U.S. exporters through loans, guarantees, and insurance, especially during times of economic downturn when private capital is scarce.

Yet here is the problem. The bank is currently operating under a temporary extension which will expire on May 31, 2012 and which caps the bank’s commitments at $100 billion--with the bank already reaching a total credit exposure of $89.2 billion at the end of FY 2011. The $100 billion cap is in any case a modest funding amount relative to the magnitude of total U.S. exports, which passed the $2 trillion mark in 2011.

Given the bank’s outsized impact on U.S. exports, economic growth, and manufacturing jobs, reauthorization of Ex-Im Bank should be a fairly easy decision for the Congress. In case it is not, here are some useful reminders.

In FY 2011 alone, the bank provided $32.7 billion in financing which led to about $41 billion in U.S. exports of goods and services, and supported 300,000 export-related jobs and 3,600 companies. The bank estimates that since its inception it has supported more than $400 billion in U.S. exports.

The bank has done this without costing the U.S. taxpayers much. In fact, the bank makes money from the charges it levies on foreign buyers for using its services. In the last five years, the bank has returned $3.4 billion to the U.S. Treasury above the cost of its operations. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the latest version of the House reauthorization bill--which would increase the bank’s lending capacity to $140 billion--would result in net savings of $900 million over the 2012-2016 period.

Most important though, the Ex-Im Bank addresses a critical market failure. The bank operates as a “lender of last resort” responding to risks shunned by private sector finance. To that end, the bank focuses on exports by small- and medium-sized companies that otherwise would find it difficult to access private sector funding, including those with riskier but innovative technologies.

The United States faces a tough global market for exports. ECAs of other countries--especially ECAs in emerging economies that offer aggressive below-market loans to gain an edge in the global marketplace skirting Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) rules--provide several times more export assistance as a share of GDP than the United States does. 

Given these realities, reauthorizing and reforming the Ex-Im Bank’s financing operations for exports is a priority. Without it, meeting President Obama’s National Export Initiative goal to double exports by 2015 will be difficult.