Banks agree to give weary Poles a grace period to pay back huge debt

Poland has been given another period of grace in which to pay back its huge multibillion-dollar debts. In the largest private rescheduling of debts in history, hundreds of commercial banks have agreed to give the Poles more time to get their tattered economic system functioning again.

The agreement was reached in Zurich July 22 by a task force representing some 460 commercial banks confronting the possibility of incurring massive bad debts if Poland's economy collapses. It puts off the repayment of those Polish private bank debts falling due during 1981 -- a total of some $2.37 billion.

The agreement also symbolizes a major political decision to forestall Warsaw's official financial default at a crucial junction in the liberalization process under way in that communist regime. Instead, it gives Poland a breathing spell during which it is hoped the Poles will raise other short-term emergency loans to keep their factories running with imports of raw materials, components, and spare parts from the West.

The accord reached by this group representing many of the developed world's major banks follows a decision taken in Paris in April by 15 governments to reschedule some $2.5 billion in government-to-government debts also falling due this year.

It is also the culmination of a series of intense discussions among the 460 creditor banks about the terms of this rescheduling. A brief statement issued in Zurich gave no details of these terms, but indicated the agreement had been complete and unanimous. It was to be presented to a delegation of the Polish government, which must still agree to the terms of the banks' Zurich decision.

According to western sources, some of the banks, led by American institutions , were demanding that Poland supply detailed economic information to satisfy them it could eventually pay.

A semiannual report released July 22 by the Bank for International Settlements in Basel indicated that Poland owed Western banks a total of $16.2 billion at the end of 1980, of which $5.35 billion was due for repayment by the end of the year. This Polish bank debt was up from $10.7 billion at the end of 1979.

At present Poland owes the West some $25 to 27 billion, with about 40 percent owed to governments and 60 percent to commercial banks.

While some Western governments and banks are currently preparing new loans to Poland in response to its most recent pleas, some have wanted the Soviet Union and the country's other communist partners to do more to bail it out of its financial difficulties. The terms of the Paris April rescheduling by the 15 governments reportedly included an "exceptional circumstances" clause that would nullify the agreements in case of military invasion or violent Polish domestic disturbances.

Reports from Zurich indicate that the 19 banks from 11 countries that formed the task force for the other commercial banks will offer to defer repayments of principal on medium- and long-term debts due between March 26 and Dec. 10. This debt would be rescheduled over seven years, provided the Polish side could draw up an economic stabilization program and the requested information. Meetings will also begin in September to discuss similar proposal s for 1982 debt.

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