Economics at the summit: high on visibility, low on results

When the Reagan administration first came into office, there was some high-level staff discussion of whether the President should abandon the annual economic summits. The thought was dropped, so Mr. Reagan will be attending his fourth summit in London next week.

Those aides, like many of the 3,000 journalists expected to observe the June 7-9 diplomatic circus, were skeptical about the value of the meeting of heads of states of the United States, the United Kingdom, West Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and Canada.

But, says Murray Weidenbaum, who was President Reagan's first chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, the summits have turned out to be useful. The 1981 meeting, he notes, enabled freshmen Reagan and France's Francois Mitterrand to meet formally and informally with colleagues from the other nations.

''The socialization function is important,'' Dr. Weidenbaum commented.

Moreover, he added, the summits permit these leaders ''to strut on the world stage and appear like statesmen. There are no losers. They are all winners.''

With an election in the fall in the US, this function could be especially helpful to President Reagan.

But do the summits actually result in nations altering their economic policies?

Most observers regard summit-induced policy changes as rare. Recalling the meeting last year at Williamsburg, Va., Dr. Weidenbaum said of the summiteers: ''They said all the nice things, but it is hard to say that much came out of it.''

In other words, the heads of state explain their economic or political positions and problems, and wind up pledging the virtues of what might be called ''economic motherhood'' - reduce protectionism and inflation, maintain economic growth, and so on.

At the forthcoming London meeting, the US is expected to hear a lot about its massive budget deficits, high interest rates, and strong dollar. ''I can't see any harm in the others letting the US know these concerns,'' said Weidenbaum. ''The United States will respond with its boilerplate.'' Economist Roger Brinner of Data Resources Inc., Lexington, Mass., jokes that the only result of such criticism of the US would be ''an extra set of anecdotes from our President.''

Robert D. Hormats, who was much involved with preparing summits from the first one nine years ago until the one at Versailles two years ago, says economic conditions have so changed for the worse in the last six weeks that this summit should make some actual decisions.

He would like to see the leaders:

* Come to grips with the impact of rising interest rates on the developing countries and their debts. They should agree to provide these nations more export credits from such institutions as the Export-Import Bank. Also, they could encourage the multinational institutions, including the World Bank, to expand their lending rapidly. And they could urge the commercial banks to stretch out their loans.

* Commit themselves to another round of trade talks, starting next year. Rather than more tariff cutting, the talks should deal with the rules and functioning of the trade system, says Mr. Hormats, who is now with Goldman, Sachs & Co., an investment banking firm. The issues that should be discussed at those talks include prenotification of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade of protectionist measures; means for mitigating the harm done other nations by such trade impediments; and schedules for adjusting an industry so that protective measures are no longer needed.

To emphasize the trade issue, the President should take US Trade Representative William E. Brock to the summit, he suggests.

* Instruct the International Energy Agency in Paris to dust off contingency plans in the event the troubles in the Persian Gulf cause a world oil shortage. ''We have been too complacent,'' Mr. Hormats says.

The former State Department official calls his suggestions ''doable and relatively noncontroversial.'' But he admitted, ''I wouldn't hold my breath we will get them.''

A Carter administration summit ''Sherpa,'' C.Fred Bergsten, has a seven-point plan for the summiteers that includes the new trade round and measures to deal with the debt problem. The former Treasury economist would like the International Monetary Fund to create an extra $30 billion in Special Drawing Rights in 1985 and another $10 billion in 1986 which would help the developing countries service their debts. And he suggests that the lending ceiling of the World Bank be boosted by 50 to 100 percent.

Mr. Bergsten, now director of the Institute for International Economics, also calls for the US to slash its budget deficit by $100 billion or more per year after the fall election; for West Europe to tackle its structural economic problems, such as excessive real wages, wage rigidity, excessive intrusion of the public sector into the economy, and an inadequate return on capital investment; for Japan to boost the value of its yen (and so trim its trade surplus) by selling abroad some $10 billion in so-called ''Nakasone bonds'' and limiting capital outflows; and for a joint effort to reduce the volatility of foreign-exchange rates, possibly by creating ''target zones'' for currency values in relation to the US dollar.

Such measures would put the world economy in much better shape, Bergsten figures. But he does not expect the seven leaders in London to take much action of any sort. ''A dereliction of duty,'' he says. They might make some vague statement on the need for a trade round.

Looking at the record of past summits, Mr. Bergsten calls their record of achievements ''extremely uneven,'' and terms the last three or four ''soporific.''

Even so, when the seven most powerful leaders in the noncommunist world meet, there could be surprises. That's why the news media will be there en masse. Even if nothing concrete happens, that, too, will be reported.

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