How Poland paid its bill to West

In two world trouble spots -- Poland and Iran -- the chill winds of politics threaten the multibillion-dollar financial investments of Western banks around the world.

For the moment, at least, Poland appears to have staved off default on its massive $26 billion debt to the West, by arranging to pay $500 million in interest due at the end of 1981.

Warsaw has not officially announced the interest repayment, but American and European banking sources confirm that some banks have been getting their debt installments.

Experts believe that the Soviet Union, anxious to prevent a Polish default that could jeopardize future Western credits to the entire Communist bloc, is helping the Poles with money.

It is known, for example, that Moscow quietly has been selling gold to earn hard currency -- enough gold, says an expert, to depress the metal's price on world markets.

Normally in times of world stress -- and today's Polish situation, plus unease in the Middle East, would qualify -- the price of gold climbs.

Instead, the price has been sinking and now stands at about $400 an ounce - more than $200 below its price a year ago.

''Moscow,'' says an expert, ''may have unloaded as much as 200 tons of gold, primarily through London and Hong Kong, avoiding the Swiss market, where the spotlight of publicity is brightest.''

Either Moscow could channel some of the hard currency it earns through gold sales directly to Poland or it could use the money to buy foreign wheat and other emergency relief for the Poles.

Western bankers and Soviet leaders share an interest in keeping Poland afloat -- the former to get their money back, the latter to maintain access to Western loans.

Poland's fundamental financial problem -- repayment of $26 billion worth of debts to Western institutions and governments -- remains unsolved. Only an expansion of Polish exports, analysts agree, will suffice to repay those debts through hard currency earnings.

Of the total, $16 billion is owed to 460 Western banks and $10 billion to Western governments. American banks hold roughly $1.3 billion of the Polish debt.

The case of Iran, arising from the hostage crisis that caused the US government to freeze $8 billion worth of Iranian assets, involves American banks and firms owed money by Iran.

In January 1981, following release of the 52 American hostages, the US unfroze those assets in accord with the Algiers Declarations, negotiated by Iran and the US, with the Algerian government acting as intermediary.

Recurrent reports in Europe, quoting dissident Iranian sources, claim that cash-short Iran may not be able to meet its financial obligations under the Algiers accord.

Iran is short of cash, because it exports only about 1 million barrels of oil daily, compared with 5 million barrels a day before the Shah was overthrown. In addition, Iran is drained by its festering border war with Iraq.

US officials deny, however, that there is any early danger of Iran failing to meet its obligations, because the necessary money already is in escrow, outside Iranian control. The system works like this:

Of the $8 billion total, $5.5 billion was in bank loans -- debts held by American banks. The bulk of this amount -- $4.1 billion -- was held by syndicated banks, or consortia. They were paid off immediately, according to a State Department official.

That left $1.4 billion owed to nonsyndicated banks. This amount was placed in an escrow account with the Bank of England, controlled by the central Bank of Algeria.

These loans now are being negotiated, according to the US official, mostly bank by bank with the Iranians, and the money will be released case by case. The

Separately, a $1 billion ''special security account'' was set up in the Settlement Bank of the Netherlands, also controlled by the Algerian central bank.

This money can be released only by the Algerian bank, acting on direction of the US-Iran Claims Tribunal, which is scheduled to begin work Jan. 20. Claimants on this money are not banks, but US firms and individuals.

The $1 billion security account is not enough to satisfy all nonbank claims. Under the Algiers Declarations, the Iranian central bank is required to replenish this account, whenever it falls below $500,000.

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