The world's financial leaders are on edge. Debt crisis in Poland, Mexico, Argentina, and elsewhere have led to visions of economic collapse.
''We don't know what catastrophes lie ahead,'' US Treasury Secretary Donald Regan told a press conference Monday. ''We are in a situation where things are extremely bothersome.''
So far, however, governors of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, gathered here for their joint annual meeting, are not yet agreed on how to ward off any chain reaction of financial trouble.
The United States believes the fund, which operates a pool of money contributed by its 146 members, currently has adequate resources to deal with any likely crisis. It's commonly said the IMF could handle two more ''Mexico's, '' meaning two other major developing countries with international payments problems of the magnitude of Mexico's. The IMF, together with the Bank for International Settlement in Basle, Switzerland, has been putting together a $5 billion package for Mexico.
But because of the possible need for what Secretary Regan called ''another shock absorber,'' the US is backing a ''modest'' increase in the quotas - the contributions - of IMF member nations. Also, it has proposed the creation of a special fund which could be called upon in the event of an emergency.
Other industrial nations such as Britain, West Germany, France, and Japan have been suggesting quota increases of between 50 to 100 percent. The poorer developing countries call for a ''a hike of at least 100 percent.''
It is a typical tug-of-war between the world's rich and poor countries. The poor nations want as much financial help as they can get. They need credit to develop their industry and agriculture as fast as possible to improve their citizens' often dismal standards of living.
The well-to-do industrial countries are trying to hold back the supply of new credit. They fear that making too much money available could boost world inflation, enlarge the transfer of real resources - machinery and food, for example - to the developing countries, and enable some nations to continue bad economic policies.
But there is a difference this year. The US is to a degree isolated from its allies by its tough attitude toward quota increases.
More than 8,000 central bankers, finance ministers, lesser officials, commercial bankers, and others are gathered at the Sheraton Centre here to discuss world economic issues. Some 800 members of the press, including even the Ladies Home Journal, are following the procedures.
In the background is what World Bank President A. W. Clausen described as ''an unacceptable situation.''
The average growth rate in the industrial nations this year, he said in his opening address Monday, would likely be below 1 percent in real terms (after removing the effects of inflation). ''Recovery from the present recession is seriously delayed.''
As for developing countries, those in the middle-income bracket grew at only a 1.7 percent rate in 1981, compared to 3.5 percent in the previous year. The lower-income nations grew at 3.9 percent, compared to 5.9 percent in 1980, and the high-income exporters saw a decline of 11.3 percent because of lower petroleum prices.
And, said former Bank of America president Clausen, ''1982 promises only a modest improvement - at best.''
Jacque de Larosiere, managing director of the IMF, was slightly more gloomy, forecasting no real growth for the industrial countries this year. He pointed out that the average growth rates for the non-oil developing countries in 1981 and 1982 were the lowest in several decades.
''For the first time in the post-war period, real per capita income for many of these countries has fallen,'' he added.
Low growth has been combined with dramatic changes in the international payments situation.
The oil exporting countries saw their petro-dollar surplus jump from $3 billion in 1978, before the oil price hikes of 1979, to $116 billion in 1980. Now, in 1982, the surplus has plunged to an estimated $15 billion because of the large drop in demand for oil due to conservation and reccession, Mr. de Larosiere noted.
Further, the non-oil developing countries increased their outstanding medium-and long-term debts over the three years to the end of 1981 by about 60 percent, to some $440 billion. To this can be added short-term commercial indebtedness, usually for finance and trade, of about $100 billion. About three-fifths of all this debt, the IMF managing director went on, is owed to private financial institutions.
That debt is why the world's commercial bankers and other financiers are nervous. Smaller regional American banks, for instance, are reportedly already withdrawing from participation in loans to such major debtors as Brazil.