Denmark adrift on a sea of debt, but optimism -- and oil -- offer a buoy

The streets of Copenhagen are lined with shrines to disposable income. Every few doors along the narrow downtown side streets are small, pricey specialty shops selling antique furniture, ornate, continental china, and roll after roll of hand-woven Oriental rugs.

The devotees here pay homage less often these days. Disposable income in Denmark is in uncertain shape.

"Turnover dropped by 25 percent in the last year," begins Guy Basse in an abrupt outline of finances at Bjoern Wiinblad hus, a shop selling the high-priced decorative artistry of Bjoern Wiinblad.

"Nothing over 1,000 Danish Kroner [$167] is sold," he says. "Not to Danes."

Driving through the city, he points to one antique dealer after another going out of business. His wife, he says, with a doctoral degree in Orientology, has the largest collection of Oriental rugs in Scandinavia. "She's going broke as well."

The sales of expensive things are among the first to register the hard side of currency devaluations, 22 percent value-added taxes, adn shrinking real incomes.

In the face of financial uncertainty, the Danes retain their own distinctive brand of optimism. One shop manager, in a crystal arcade of fine Swedish and Finnish glassware, said he hadn't yet felt the pinch of shrinking consumption. "Let's hope it doesn't come," he smiled.

Some think his words echo Denmark's national mood itself during the past decade. Danes have been aware of their problems for years, they say, but can't get one another to take them seriously.

Foreign borrowing has snowballed into a debt worth over 25 percent of last year's gross domestic product. Made heavier every year by rising international interest rates, the national debt now sits center stage in the Danish economy.

But the Danes -- four-fifths of whose families make around $24,000 a year -- havent't wanted to give anything up, a longtime observer says. So Denmark drifts cheerfully on a sea of debt.

The attitude may be changing now, at least to some extent. After its members lost between 3 and 4 percent in real income last year, the central trade union confederation settled on wage guidelines a month ago that are expected to mean another 1 or 2 percent decline.

More important, unemployment is the highest in Scandinavia, 7.5 percent, and expected to climb to 8 percent by the end of this year.

The options are running thin. Danes say there has been a general sense in the country that there is nothing anyone --politicians especially -- can do about their problems.

"We all know that it is impossible to continue this way for long, but no one knows the alternatives," mourns Charles Schultz, director of the Gallup Institute, a conservative polling firm.

"No one knows what we can do. I don't know myself what we can do." He shrugs , throwing up his hands. "But we can't pass this burden on to our children; it's an impossible thing to consider."

There may yet be something of a reprieve on the Danish horizon -- oil and gas from the North Sea to the west of Jutland. Until now, Denmark has imported 100 percent of its energy. The cost is the biggest millstone around the country's economic neck.

The first significant production of Danish North Sea oil begins in April. For the year 1981 it should provide about 10 percent of Denmark's energy. By the middle of the decade, when gas comes on line, too, the nation will be one-third energy self-sufficient.

Producing Danish oil has been controversial. The government, faced with serious balance-of-payments problems, has felt that the Danish firm with exclusive drilling rights to the Danish North Sea, AP Moeller, has been producing too slowly.

After threatening to renege on the concession, the government struck a compromise this month.The result is that the company will return control of oil production to the state over the next five years.

"Some people are under the illusion that oil will solve all our tax problems." says F. Hammerum, chief of the secretariat of the independent Economic Council. "This simply isn't so."

Yet, even without the oil factor, there are some signs of improvement recently, according to National Bank (central bank) director Svend Andersen, that point up some of Denmark's underlying strengths:

* Danish shares of international markets have grown slightly in the past two years -- notably in furniture, electronics, and even textiles, an industry showing losses in Sweden and Norway.

* Inflation has been cut to a 6 percent annual rate in recent months, less than half its peak in mid-1980.

* The national international payments deficit improved in 1980, too, at about 10 percent less than in 1979.

Still, Denmark's fortunes in the coming year will largely be beyond Denmark's steering.

Sweden and West Germany, the Danes' biggest markets, are expecting downturns. Britain, third-ranked trading partner, is at the nadir of its recession now, Danes hope, and may begin looking up next fall.

"We play variations on the international melody," Mr. Andersen says, but the industrialized world sets the theme.

When world market conditions turn up, however, Danish industry is well positioned to expand. It is characterized by small firms, and considered healthy and quick on its feet.

Unemployment carries a backhanded benefit here. Sweden and Norway tend to support employment with government money and restrict layoffs. The Danes prefer to cushion workers with generous compensation to those who lose jobs.

The benefit is that when business can lay off workers as it needs to, it stays lean. And the worker is free to be hired by an expanding firm that needs him.

The surprising thing to some Danish observers is that in social terms unemployment has remained apparently harmless. The young, says a father whose son is one of this year's 20,000 leaving school with neither a job nor a university place, accept their free time with quiet resignation.

"They feel it's not their fault."

Even for older Danes, he says, being unemployed no longer carries the stigma it once may have. For most, it won't mean moving, selling a car, or a very serious trimming back on life styles as usual.

Meanwhile, the national debt grows heavier.

Pollster Asger Schultz states that 95 percent of all policy debate in Denmark is over incomes policy, that is, take-home pay. One of the wealthiest countries in the world, Mr. Schultz marvels, and the Danes are only "dancing around the goa t cart" -- absorbed in their own prosperity.

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