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Ex-Im Bank: SMEs glad to have us back

A Petrobras oil platform floats in the Atlantic Ocean near Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro.
Getty Images
A Petrobras oil platform floats in the Atlantic Ocean near Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro.

The U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im Bank) is working hard with oil businesses to beat the sector's downturn, the bank's chief Fred Hochberg told CNBC on Tuesday.

As oil projects are put on hold or scaled back across the globe, it's hitting demand for smaller services providers, he said.

"It's very tough... Everybody's got to compete much harder and sharpen their pencils to get those orders. Where we step in is making sure they have the financial tools to compete effectively."

As the official U.S. export credit agency, Ex-Im Bank helps foreign buyers finance and insure purchases from U.S. small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), helping domestic companies build an international presence.

Ex-Im Bank calls the petroleum sector, including exploration, pipelines and refineries, a "major element" of its portfolio and annual financing commitments. From fiscal 2001 to the present, the bank has provided commitments totaling $14.8 billion for 78 transactions/projects in the sector, according to its website.

But the oil pain isn't just being felt by SMEs, it's reverberated across the oil sector with energy prices now down 70 percent since the summer of 2014.

A survey by oil and gas consultancy DNV GL on Monday showed that almost a third of senior executives in the industry expected to cut more jobs in 2016, having already squeezed cost savings from capital expenditure.

"In the peak of financial crisis, we did over $36 billion worth of loans and insurance. A year ago, we did $20 billion, because there was a lot of liquidity and excess capital in the market. If it tightens, that's where we come back into play to support businesses and even out those curves, ensuring exports are still flowing," said Hochberg.

The bank operated for only nine months in the 2015 fiscal year, which ended September 30th, due to a lengthy shutdown after congressional critics allowed the bank's authorization to lapse.

Despite that, Ex-Im Bank said it supported $17 billion in exports and helped create more than 100,000 jobs, generating surplus funds of at least $430 million, according to its 2015 annual fiscal report released earlier this month. But the value of its transactions dropped from $20.5 billion in 2014 to a combined $12.4 billion this past fiscal year.

"We run a fiscally modest operation...we're prudent about loan decisions, but at the end of the day, we're about supporting U.S. jobs," Hochberg noted.

Aside from oil, currency headwinds are also weighing on U.S businesses.

"Dollar strength is certainly a headwind. A lot of small businesses tell me they can still compete despite some profit erosion; they're working hard to get sales. They're also happy that we're back in business so they can compete on financial and credit terms even if pricing is higher," said Hochberg.

Despite the tough environment, he recommended businesses not to lose sight of their long-term goals.

"My best advice is to get out there and stay in the game. You have to slug it out and make sure you have good products and delivery."

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