Bankers in quandary with Congress on foreign loans

Bankers these days are lamenting the expedient shortness of some politicians' memories. What causes such concern is the move within Congress to restrict their international lending.

It was only a few years back, they note, that numerous congressmen and certainly many high government officials were praising the banks for their ability to recycle petrodollars of the OPEC oil cartel.

Today, however, the House Banking Committee will be reporting out to the full House a bill that American Bankers Association spokesman Fritz Elmendorf expects to include ''unbearable conditions'' connected with foreign loans.

''Congress always has to blame someone else than itself,'' said Richard D. Hill, chairman of the executive committee of the Bank of Boston. ''They want to divert attention to someone else.''

Whatever, the basic purpose of the bill under consideration is to enlarge the resources of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This is much sought by the bankers. With the slump in the world economy, many developing countries have not been able to keep up with repayments on their debts - debts that worldwide exceed $600 billion.

If the IMF has enough money, the bankers argue, it will have greater leverage to insist that countries needing balance-of-payments loans adopt economic stringency and reforms. Moreover, these IMF loans will help provide the extra funds needed until a nation's balance of payments is brought into surplus.

Some critics call the enlargement of IMF quotas a ''bailout'' for commercial banks. Mr. Hill disputes that, noting that in most rescue packages so far, the commercial bank lenders have been required ''to put up additional money equal to or greater than that put up by the IMF.''

Another charge is that by being greedy in their lending, the banks risked the safety of the international financial system.

Reacting to these charges, the House committee bill will require banks to set aside special reserves on outstanding loans to countries not making payments on them and not cooperating with the IMF. These reserves would not count as part of a bank's capital. That would shrink the its ability to make loans. The reserve would amount to 10 percent of the delinquent loans the first year, and an incremental 15 percent each subsequent year.

''This is a punishment,'' Mr. Hill noted in an interview. ''It is saying the banks were too careless and lent too much money.''

After looking at the history of international bank lending, Mark Hulbert, in a study for the CATO Institute, concludes that ''the government's policy for several decades has been to encourage and promote such lending, and the responsibility for the failures of that policy in large part must rest squarely with the government itself.''

When the government has attempted to discourage excessive foreign lending in the past, the commercial banks have on the whole acted prudently, he notes. ''Given the 'cheerleader' attitude the government took toward foreign lending, the banks acted rationally.''

The members of the House Banking Committee are further implying with their legislation that they do not trust Washington's trio of bank regulators. That trio suggested a nonlegislative program to improve the supervision and regulation of international lending. The Senate version of the IMF quota bill accepts the regulators' plan.

Mr. Hill does not object to the five-point regulators' plan, but says that ''for Congress to freeze this into law for all time is a big mistake. It will discourage the regional banks from participating in these international loans, and that would be harmful.''

Executives of major international banks, such as Mr. Hill, are eager to stop banks from such centers as Atlanta, Miami, Seattle, and other medium-sized cities from withdrawing from overseas loan syndicates. If such banks jumped ship , it would mean either that more of the loan burden would fall on the big banks or that the developing nations faced serious cutbacks in the availability of funds. This would in turn force these nations to suspend servicing their loans or to slash imports further, hitting US products.

Thus the problem today is to get the developing countries into good enough shape that bank lending can be moderated without upsetting the international economy. There is still a chance of some nation's being unable to make payments on its debts. Anthony Solomon, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York , warned a bunch of Boston economists about this danger last week, according to one of those at the so-called ''off-the-record'' session.

Mr. Hulbert suggests that the government launch an official policy of discouraging lending to the developing countries at past rates of growth, including some requirement that banks share in any costs to the US of bailing out insolvent governments. Mr. Hill thinks the banks have learned any necessary lesson and, moreover, that economic recovery and lower interest rates in the US economy will make the debt problem ''far less acute'' by this time next year.

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