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IMF plans nearly 50-percent boost in resources; First step in keeping world afloat

By David T. CookBusiness correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 14, 1983



Washington

Finance ministers from around the world met in snow-swept Washington last week and voted to boost by 47.4 percent the resources of the International Monetary Fund. The IMF lends money to nations that are having trouble paying their foreign debts.

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But with the cash-strapped developing countries owing an estimated $500 billion, the debt problems threatening the world financial system are far from solved, experts say.

'I don't think things are OK now,'' said US Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan, as he announced that finance ministers had agreed on a plan to bolster IMF lending resources. ''We still have a long way to go. We are not out of the woods. . . . It is still a worrisome situation.''

Keeping an ocean of debt from overwhelming financial markets will require, among other steps, boosting economic growth in industrialized nations, controlling spending by developing countries, and convincing commerical banks to keep their loan windows open to debtor nations, sources say.

None of this will be easy or quick, government officials and private economists caution.

Action to boost IMF resources, which faces tough opposition in the US Congress, is seen as an important first step.

''Without it we would be looking at a situation in which many countries are simply unable to pay the interest (on their debts),'' says Jeffrey Garten, vice-president of Lehman Brothers Kuhn Loeb Inc. The result of such a default would be a ''real possibility of financial and political chaos in some countries. Having said that, much more has to be done'' to cope with the debt problem. Other observers agree.

The international debt problem ''is not something that is going to go away with one decision to increase IMF lending,'' says Robert F. Wescott, an international economist with Wharton Econometric Forecasting Associates. ''It is a problem which has developed over many years and is going to be solved by a combination of events.''

Most observers say the world debt problem can be managed in such a way as to prevent major disruptions to financial markets and the resulting harm to national economies.

The probability of such disruption, for example a situation in which banks might have to write off a year's worth of repayments from several major borrowers, is about 15 percent, says William R. Cline, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics here.

Such a happening ''is not out of the question (but is) unlikely,'' Mr. Cline says.

The consequences of a major default would be felt well beyond the banks. Writing off one year's worth of loan repayments from Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, for example, would cost the nine largest US banks $14 billion, an amount equivalent to six years' profits, Mr. Cline estimates.

As a result, one-third of the major banks' capital base would be wiped out. And since banks can lend several dollars for each dollar's worth of reserves, lending would have to contract about $150 billion, choking off the ability of businesses to expand and put unemployed Americans back to work.

Critics of bank lending practices argue that while such large loan losses would be dangerous, banks should be forced to write off some bad foreign loans.

Preventing any deepening of the debt crisis will require a sustained recovery in the industrialized nations that are the developing nations' customers. Wharton Econometrics forecasts that the inflation-adjusted gross national product in the major industrialized nations will grow only 0.6 percent in 1983 and 3 percent in 1984.

''Anything below that will create nightmarish problems'' for developing nations, Mr. Garten says.

The slow pace of expected economic recovery in the industrialized nations crimps developing-country exports. The countries need export growth to finance their debts.

Economists say a nation's exports should grow at a rate equal to the interest rate paid on its debt. Otherwise, the country is like a homeowner whose income is steady or falling but whose mortgage payment is rising. Last year non-oil developing nations violated this rule. Their exports declined 4.7 percent while borrowing costs were a lofty 13.1 percent.

Until interest rates fall further and healthy economic growth resumes, developing countries will be under pressure to control spending to limit increases in their debt load. Such austerity can also hurt recovery elsewhere.

Keeping the financial system afloat will require commercial banks, which cut lending last year as problems arose, to resume dealings with developing nations in spite of their financial problems. ''Banks have got to come back and . . . quickly,'' says Ronald Napier, vice-president at Data Resources Inc.

Banks will have to make new loans ''time and time again,'' Mr. Garten notes. 'The problem is sustaining the effort.''