Steering out of recession

The search for a clear and steady way out of global recession goes slowly, amid wide differences of view and little prospect of quick solutions. But some new and positive signs emerged as foreign, trade, and finance ministers from the 24 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) grappled with the search May 9 and 10 in advance of the seven-nation economic summit in Williamsburg, Va., May 28 to 30.

These signs include:

* Early indications of economic recovery.

* More optimistic OECD predictions that growth will continue (2 percent across member states this year, 3 percent next year).

* A sharp fall in the inflation rate in the United States, Britain, and other countries.

* A softer public US attitude toward West European purchases of Soviet natural gas.

Also, the US lobbied hard at the OECD meeting that it was time to start tackling the global recession in new ways. Instead of dividing issues among different world forums, the US said that countries should realize that finance, trade, debt, development assistance, and overall economic policies were linked.

Simply relying on economic growth alone is not enough. Countries owing money could not repay unless they had both financial help and access to rich-country markets.

Set against all this, however, are some formidable problems yet to be solved, and a number of lingering disputes between the US and some West European allies.

Among the problems:

* Demand has fallen so fast in some countries that industry is still suffering and unemployment rising. The OECD forecasts that 35 million people will be out of work in its 24 member states next year.

* Economic recovery has only just begun and needs to be carefully nurtured. As British Trade Minister Peter Rees put it May 9, the danger is that as economies pick up steam, they will buy more heavily abroad, and pressures to protect their own industries will rise.

* The Paris meetings resounded with warnings about the dangers of new global protectionism: ''We have to keep our nerve and our markets open,'' Mr. Rees said.

* The US remained at odds with Western Europe over how much and what should be sold to the Soviet Union and the East bloc.

Washington softened its position on natural-gas imports in the interests of reaching an agreement inside the 21-national International Energy Agency (IEA) May 9. It settled for a generalized warning against monopoly suppliers rather than demanding a specific limit on West European purchases of Soviet natural gas.

However, US Secretary of State George Shultz, direct from peacemaking efforts in the Middle East, emphasized May 9 that the West should avoid government subsidies in deals with the East. Western sellers should use ''prudent commercial and financial criteria that we would apply to any other business venture.''

Using careful but unmistakable language, Mr. Shultz added: ''We all know the ancient maxim 'caveat emptor.' Let the buyer beware. Some sellers should beware also.''

Mr. Shultz suggested that OECD countries should exchange information on major projects, and ''monitor'' patterns and trends in the West's economic relations with the East.

West Europeans, led by the British, object to the US Export Control Act by which the US seeks to limit sales to Moscow through US subsidiaries abroad.

* The West Europeans, and particularly the French, are deeply concerned that the US budget deficit remains large and is projected to increase after 1985.

US government borrowing, they insist, keeps US interest rates high, weakens West European currencies, and pushes up the price West Europe must pay for oil and other essential items sold only in dollars. European ministers bombarded US Treasury Secretary Donald Regan at the OECD meetings with requests that he take effective action to lower the budget deficit and interest rates.

Mr. Regan replied that some US Treasury rates had started downward, that it was better to cut government spending than to raise taxes, and that the next round of US tax cuts starting July 1 would stimulate the US economy. Many Europeans said they had heard it all before, and that the US should be taking faster and more decisive action.

Back on the positive side:

OECD secretary-general Emile Van Lennep's 2 percent growth-rate forecast for this year is up from 11/2 percent forecast in December.

Consumer prices were up only 2 percent across the OECD in the six months ending in February, the lowest figure since the 1960s. The rise in the US was only 0.1 percent, according to OECD figures just released here.

While OECD sessions continued, much interest was focused on the edges where Treasury Secretary Regan pressed ahead with controversial plans to gather the trade and finance ministers of seven major countries at an informal dinner May 10 and a followup meeting May 11. Such meetings are long overdue, he told reporters, and trade and finance policies urgently need to be coordinated.

However, the seven nations happen to be the same ones that will meet at Williamsburg. Regan insisted May 9 that he would have held the dinner regardless , but the French saw it as a planning session for the summit.

French President Francois Mitterrand reportedly opposes such presummit meetings. Besides, the French were upset at not being consulted in advance about a dinner to be held in their own capital. At this writing, the French had refused to attend.

The prospect of a well-attended dinner looked dim. By Monday Secretary Regan had heard nothing from the Italians. West Germany and Japan said their ministers would send deputies. Britain's chancellor of the exchequer, Sir Geoffrey Howe, and Foreign Secretary Francis Pym would both be in London because Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher suddenly called for British elections for June 9. But Britain still planned to send Trade Minister Rees to the dinner and the meetings the next morning.

Inside the OECD, the general belief was that neither its sessions nor the Williamsburg summit can produce quick economic growth or a fall in unemployment. Ministers lacked both the time and the common ideas necessary for major decisions in Paris. Many expected that the summit would air problems that have been argued many times before.

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