Mexico wards off wolf at its door: wins $4.5 billion loan, cuts budget

The economic wolf is still at the door. But top officials of the Mexican government are optimistic that they have bolted the door, at least for the moment, with a program of economic austerity and new foreign loans.

International bankers, encouraged by the de la Madrid effort so far, say a promising start at bringing Mexico back from the brink of major default has begun.

''He gets high marks for his first month in office,'' says a top official of a New York City bank. ''He and his treasury secretary, Jesus Silva Herzog, have bitten the proverbial bullet and are on the right course. Pray they stay on that course.''

The austerity program, already under way, includes:

* Deep slashes in government spending, which will probably amount to more than 15 percent in 1983.

* Massive cuts in public subsidies for essential foodstuffs and gasoline, with gas prices alone doubling.

* The end of government subsidizing of the peso. In December the peso was devalued by 53 percent, the third such devaluation in 1982.

New foreign loans are beginning to flow into the country. Mexican Treasury officials this week secured $4.5 billion of the $5 billion they seek in 1983. The financial package is said to be the largest syndication in the history of international finance. International Monetary Fund credits of $3.9 billion also have been tentatively approved.

All this gives Mexico's new President, Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado, some breathing room. But not much. Mexico is still perilously close to insolvency.

The consequences of Mexico's austerity course are producing their own problems. Unemployment, already high, has begun to climb still more. It hovers at 22 percent and could soar to 30 percent by year's end.

Labor has tightened its belt by agreeing to a mere 25 percent pay boost Jan. 1 - less than half what unions wanted. But President de la Madrid has apparently convinced labor chieftains, including Fidel Velazquez, the octogenarian head of Mexico's most powerful union, that ''sacrifice'' is necessary.

President de la Madrid uses the word ''sacrifice'' regularly. In his inaugural address Dec. 1, he set the tone. Mexico is faced with a ''grave crisis ,'' he emphasized, that can only be met with ''great sacrifices.''

So far, he has made both symbolic and real efforts to show that he, too, is sacrificing and to set an example.

His presidential inauguration was low key, far from the lavish style of the past when incoming Mexican presidents invited 5,000 or more foreign guests and paid their way. This time only 200 such guests were invited, and all had to pay their own way. But that was only the beginning.

Mr. de la Madrid is keeping his official staff small. He has directed all his ministers, most of whom are professional people and not politicians, to likewise keep their staffs on the slim side. This runs counter to tradition in Mexico where presidential and Cabinet staffs like those in United States tend to grow larger with successive presidencies.

There is more: Income and sales taxes have been imposed, interest rates have increased markedly, and so-called ''bearer'' shares have been eliminated to reduce tax evasion. Moreover, exchange controls, imposed by outgoing President Jose Lopez Portillo, have been relaxed and gradually market forces are being allowed to govern foreign exchange.

But the key to the whole austerity program is the reduction of the public sector's budget deficit - from 16 1/2 percent to 8 1/2 percent of the gross national product this year, to 5 1/2 percent in 1984, and to 3 1/2 percent in 1985.

''This means,'' says Mr. Silva Herzog, ''that we have to earn more and spend less.''

That, in essence, is the goal of the de la Madrid administration.

The removal of subsidies on everything from gasoline and telephone service to beans and tortillas is clearly part of this effort. So are the new taxes - one of which requires civil servants to pay income taxes for the first time in Mexican history. Major construction projects have been canceled or suspended.

Equally important has been an attack on Mexico's endemic corruption. The new President, who made much of the issue in his campaign for office, this week swore in Francisco Rojas as comptroller general, a newly created Cabinet post charged with probing corruption.

To foreign bankers, these steps show that Mexico means business and is determined to heal its economic malaise. It helps explain why they are so willing to make new loans to help Mexico bridge over its current dollar shortfall. The bankers are putting together the desired $5 billion loan, and although there are still obstacles and conditions to be met, the planning is well under way.

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