Mexican bank nationalization only one sign of Latin fiscal crises

Mexico is not alone in Latin America in its economic trauma.

Although no other Latin nation has problems as critical as Mexico, which needs to pay $18 billion of its foreign debt this year, most hemisphere economies are short of cash.

Much of their debt, too, falls due this year. Credit is getting tighter. And debt servicing is pushing many nations to the brink of default.

Mexico was pulled back from the brink last month by a United States-orchestrated international bailout. Outgoing President Jose Lopez Portillo tried to halt speculation and further flight of capital out of the country Sept. 1 by announcing immediate nationalization of private banks and new foreign exchange controls. Mexico expects that a $1.85 billion loan from the Bank for International Settlement and a potentially sizable loan from the International Monetary Fund will also help.

The rest of the hemisphere is perilously perched on the precipice of default.

The basic problem is that many countries have simply overborrowed. This would not be so bad if it were not for lowering prices for their commodities, brutal interest rates, and a worldwide recession.

Besides Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Costa Rica, and Argentina are in deep trouble. Brazil, too, faces a whopping international debt of $70 billion - but, unlike Mexico, it seems to be coping, partly because less of its debt falls due this year.

It is estimated, banking sources say, that a third of the nearly $500 billion owed by the world's less-developed countries comes due this year alone. That is Mexico's, Argentina's, and the Dominican Republic's problem.

Whether private banks in the United States and Western Europe will rollover this debt - allowing countries breathing room to pay their loans - is unclear. These banks do not have as much cushion today as they did a few years ago to extend credit abroad.

''For every $5 needed by the less-developed world this year, we will do well to be able to supply a dollar,'' comments one New York banker with longtime experience in Latin America. ''Many of us are overextended with loans that are beginning to look questionable. So why would we overextend even more?''

Many Latin American nations can still find money - but at high interest rates that dangerously mortgage their economic futures.

High interest rates are one of the things that did Mexico in. As its oil revenues began to dwindle (due to the world oil glut), Mexico entered hasty negotiations for short-term, high-interest loans to fuel its economy.

This did not trouble Mexico, nor the bankers. Mexico's economy looked solid. After all, the economy grew at an average 8 percent a year from 1977 onward. But growth slackened late last year and fell disastrously this year.

Argentina also illustrates the dangers of short-term borrowing. Some 45 percent of its $25 billion bank debt and 55 percent of its $12 billion owed to international lending institutions matures this year. The high cost of its Falklands adventure - no less than $2 billion - makes it unlikely that it can pay these debts. It needs more money to stay afloat.

The Dominican Republic, needing $450 million this year, adopted an austerity program - scuttling development plans and slapping new taxes on consumers to pay interest and much of the principle due this year.

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