By Howard Schneider and Krista Hughes
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Export-Import Bank has mischaracterized potentially hundreds of large companies and units of multinational conglomerates as small businesses, a flaw in its record keeping that could undermine the export lender's survival strategy.
A Reuters analysis showed companies owned by billionaires such as Warren Buffet and Mexico's Carlos Slim, as well by Japanese and European conglomerates, were listed as small businesses and Ex-Im acknowledged errors in its data in response to those findings.
Bank officials and supporters have used the Ex-Im's support for American small business as a first line of defense against a campaign by conservatives to shut it down as an exponent of "crony capitalism."
The bank won a nine-month extension of its mandate in September and faces a bruising battle over the next seven months to secure its future.
Critics reacted quickly.
“Rarely does Ex-Im miss a (public relations) opportunity to claim that it primarily helps small business, but Ex-Im is again playing fast and loose with the facts," said Representative Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Financial Services Committee. "The bulk of Ex-Im’s help indisputably goes to large corporations that can finance their own operations without putting it on the taxpayer balance sheet.”
A comparison of some 6,000 businesses characterized by Ex-Im as "small" with information supplied by corporate data collector Dun & Bradstreet, which Ex-Im also uses to vet applicants, and other sources turns up some 200 companies that appear to be mislabeled and many more whose classification is uncertain.
A division of Austria's Swarovski jewelers shows up, as does North Carolina's Global Nuclear Fuels, which is owned by General Electric and Japan's Toshiba and Hitachi.
The extent of the errors, which also mean some genuine small-business transactions are not labeled as such, is not clear. Separate Ex-Im databases do not even agree with each other.
Responding to a list of 10 examples provided by Reuters, Ex-Im acknowledged errors in most of them but said their impact was small and that the mislabeling of small companies as large ones may have a bigger effect on the total tally of small-business support. A spokesman said the bank aimed to be as transparent as possible.
"When it comes to our data, we strive for 100 percent accuracy, and anything less is unacceptable, which is why we are constantly improving our systems,” he said, pointing to Ex-Im's recent hiring of a chief information officer, an overhaul of databases and a review of paper documents.
In an emailed response to Reuters, the bank cited five examples from 2013 in which small companies were labeled as large ones by mistake.
The errors make it difficult to identify exactly how much Ex-Im support goes to big businesses such as Caterpillar and how much to small companies.
The problem is primarily political, as there are no legal implications of businesses being misclassified by Ex-Im. The bank does not set money aside specifically for companies that meet industry-specific revenue and employee limits set by the Small Business Administration. The SBA guidelines exclude companies that may be small but are owned by deep-pocketed conglomerates.
SLIM AND BUFFET
Reuters calculations show that as much as $3 billion in authorizations listed as those for small business may have been misclassified over eight years - roughly 8 percent of Ex-Im's $38 billion in small-business support over that period. Total authorizations came to $189 billion.
For example, among small-business beneficiaries is Texas-based Condumex Inc, the U.S. sales operation for Mexico's Grupo Condumex, a subsidiary of Slim's Grupo Carso.
Or take Brock Grain Systems, a division of CTB International Corp, which has been owned by Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway since 2002.
In its battle to survive, Ex-Im has presented its statistics with exacting precision.
Ex-Im says that in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, it engaged in 3,347 transactions supporting small businesses, accounting for almost a quarter of financial authorizations and nearly 40 percent of the exports the agency supported.
The lender authorized $20.5 billion during that fiscal year in low interest loans and other support for U.S. exporters and buyers of "Made in America" products.
The mislabeling of transactions, however, makes it difficult to tell exactly how the pie is divided. It extends to a website that allows lawmakers and others to check how Ex-Im supports businesses in each congressional district.
The list of small businesses in Texas, for example, includes engineering and construction company Bechtel, which has 53,000 employees.
(Editing by David Chance, Tomasz Janowski and Steve Orlofsky)