Poland -- lint in its pockets and a debt coming due

Poland, moths flitting from its empty pocketbook, is once again sitting down to negotiate with a troop of nervous Western bankers. The subject: rescheduling Poland's 1982 bank loan payments.

The parties aren't yet near agreement. The deadline is Sept. 10. If a 1982 Polish debt pact isn't signed by then, any of the 500-odd banks involved can write off Poland's loan, pushing it into default -- a scenario that is possible, but not likely, according to government officials and bankers.

''Sept. 10? That's a pressure point for the (banks) to apply in the negotiating process,'' says a banker involved in the talks.

Poland owes Western governments and banks about $25 billion, according to the Bank for International Settlements. Of that sum, $3.4 billion -- $2.5 billion in principal and $900 million in interest -- is bank debt that comes due this year. Another $10 billion owed to governments is also due in 1982.

But in 1981 Poland's battered economy was further sapped by martial law. Gross national output fell by 13 percent last year. Debt service now chomps up more than 90 percent of the country's hard currency exports.

''Everybody knows Poland cannot pay up what they owe,'' says Jan Vanous, a senior economist for Wharton Econometric Forecasting.

For Western bankers and Polish officials meeting in Warsaw the week of Aug. 9 -14, the question thus becomes: Under what terms will rescheduling of Poland's commercial debt take place?

In 1981 Western bankers postponed payment on 95 percent of the principal falling due that year. Interest was paid in full.

For 1982 Poland wants all of the $2.5 billion in due principal rescheduled. And Warsaw says it will pay the $900 million of '82 interest -- but it wants up to 80 percent of the money sent back, as short-term credit for purchase of badly needed raw materials and spare parts.

Western bankers have agreed among themselves to offer fresh credit equal to 50 percent of interest due. But the new loans may be targeted, good only for factories that show potential for increased export earnings, says a knowledgeable source.

The haggling over short-term credits will be spurred by the looming threat of a Sept. 10 deadline -- ''cross-default day,'' in banker's language. If no agreement has been reached by then, any Western bank involved can throw in the towel, declare Poland in default, and go bounding off in search of Polish assets to seize. Other banks' automatic default provisions would snap shut, and all accords on Poland's Western commercial debt would quickly collapse.

Some experts on Poland fear that a small, regional bank with relatively little to lose might set off this chain of events. But others say that peer pressure from big banks will keep the smaller banks in line.

''Quite probably, if several small banks are intransigent about this, the big banks will buy them out,'' says Dr. Vanous. ''There were two such cases last year. Nobody mentions any names.''

But any buy-out would add more uncertainty to an already shaky situation.

''There might be a ripple effect towards default that the big banks couldn't move to stop,'' muses a congressional source.

Overall, banks find default a distasteful alternative. The trickle of repayment now reaching the West would dry up. Loans to Poland would have to be written off as bad debts, cutting heavily into profits. The value of seizable airplanes, ships, and bank deposits is negligible compared with the total debt.

''If you've ever seen a (Polish national airline) aircraft, you certainly wouldn't want one,'' says John Hardt, a senior specialist at the Library of Congress.

Theoretically, US banks that lent money to Poland could be forced by federal regulators into declaring a default. But the administration has so far stopped short of such a drastic move. The arrival of Secretary of State George Shultz, with his business background, will reinforce this relatively moderate approach, says a State Department official.

Poland could gain relief from its crushing foreign debt by simply throwing up its hands and walking away. But the long run consequences of a self-instigated default would be severe, say Western analysts. Poland -- with an economy that badly needs infusions of capital -- would be shut off from all sources of Western cash. Its application for membership in the International Monetary Fund would be dealt a further setback. Western banks and governments would likely refuse to renew all short-term loans made to other Eastern bloc countries.

''So far, the Poles have taken a fairly rigid line. We don't know how much flexibility they're willing to demonstrate,'' says a banker involved in the discussions. ''If it looks as if the Poles are willing to make concessions, the chances are reasonably good we'll reach an agreement before Sept. 10.''

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