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WASHINGTON, July 1 (Reuters) - Private sector trade finance has not fully recovered from its financial-crisis collapse, and it is not clear it could fill the gap if the U.S. state-run export lender closes.
Conservative U.S. lawmakers are clamoring to shutter the Export-Import Bank, an 80-year old institution that provides support to U.S. exports, partly because they see it as usurping the role of the private sector in providing credit.
Ex-Im's lending jumped 70 percent between 2008 and 2010 as the bank joined other public sector export credit agencies around the globe in an effort to make up for commercial banks pulling back their loan portfolios.
While many big companies could likely organize financing elsewhere, albeit on less favorable terms, small firms with fewer options worry they might not be so lucky.
Although global exports and overall trade finance have bounced back to record highs, data from export insurance association Berne Union suggests public agencies, like the Ex-Im Bank, are still providing much of the support.
About one-tenth of world trade is protected by policies provided by Berne Union members, both public and private. The private sector share of Berne Union-insured exports and investments shrank from about two-thirds in 2008 to just under half in 2013.
Banks, which are estimated to finance about one-third of global trade, are crimped by tighter financial regulation.
"In the wake of the crisis, banks are wary of longer-term commitments," said Peterson Institute for International Economics senior fellow Gary Hufbauer. "Those loans are hard to get outside of the official export credit agencies, like Ex-Im."
A survey by the International Chamber of Commerce of 298 banks in 127 countries found 30 percent were lending less than before the financial crisis and 45 percent saw a shortfall of trade finance globally. Even so, 68 percent reported activity had picked up in 2013.
"This 'trade finance gap', remains a major challenge," ICC Banking Commission Chairman Vincent O'Brien wrote in the survey report, adding the problem was most acute for small-to-medium enterprises.
Trade can be risky: claims paid by Berne Union members to exporters to compensate them for default on export transactions eased slightly to $4.4 billion in 2013, but were still close to the peak of $5.4 billion recorded in 2009. Total insured exports were worth $1.8 trillion in 2013.
Francis Creighton, head of government affairs for the Financial Services Roundtable, which represents many of the largest U.S. financial firms, said high lending risk meant many banks shied away from countries with poor governance.
"The Export-Import Bank makes that loan because if it loses money, it has (a) long term to get back money over time and fees it charges are way more than any losses that it's ever taken," he said.
Bill Cummins, director of the Alabama Small Business Development Center Network and a former JPMorgan Chase & Co trade finance banker, said banks would not provide some kinds of finance, like loans using foreign accounts receivable as collateral, to small businesses unless they received loan guarantees or credit insurance from Ex-Im.
Export insurance allows an exporter to extend credit to a foreign purchaser without taking the entire risk that the buyer will not pay for the goods when they arrive, often months later.
Ex-Im credit insurance is "probably the most valuable tool they've provided over the decades - you can't get anything like it in the private sector," Cummins said.
Dan Bates, the chief executive officer of green energy firm WindStream Technologies, said he had trouble convincing big U.S. banks to advance him credit, even with a $4 million export insurance policy from Ex-Im.
But having that policy helped the company, which sells hybrid wind turbine and solar panels to Europe, Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Caribbean, secure a $2 million credit line from trade lender GBC International Bank.
Bates said it would be a "crime" to close Ex-Im, which is often criticized for supporting the exports of big firms like Boeing and General Electric.
"Maybe if you're a General Electric or Boeing, you don't need it because they have access to lines of credit ... but for a small company that needs support to offer credit terms to international buyers, Ex-Im is important," he said. (Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson in Washington and Peter Rudegeair in New York; Editing by Paul Simao)