No need for another world debt crisis
In voting an $8.4 billion increase in the United States contribution to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last week, the Senate took a necessary and overdue step to help thwart a new international banking crisis. The increase - which boosts the overall US quota to the IMF - provides much-needed loan funds for indebted third-world nations. The House of Representatives should quickly follow the Senate's lead in approving the measure. Given the magnitude of existing third-world debt, it would be inexcusable for the United States and other major industrial nations not to meet the legitimate credit needs of financially strapped nations.
With developing countries now owing as much as $600 billion, is a new banking crisis in fact likely to develop? Articles warning of such a crisis have appeared in a number of publications in recent weeks, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. They note that the first debt crisis occurred last year when such nations as Mexico and Brazil were not able to meet all or part of their current interest payments. That crisis was averted as commerical lenders, national governments, and international agencies like the IMF scrambled to restructure debt payments. The concern now is that a ''second wave'' of defaults may be coming as the various restructuring agreements worked out last year begin to unravel.
While vigilance to avoid possible defaults is necessary, officials would be wise not to overreact to the various default scenarios being heard in some quarters. Indeed, a policy based on fear of defaults could lead to a cutting off of the additional credit now required by developing nations - funds that are vital to help stimulate economic recovery and to service existing debt until worldwide recovery is under way.
What then is to be done?
* Foremost, of course, both developing and industrial nations must ensure that their economies grow substantially during the next year. Many experts believe such growth is likely - in fact, in the range of 4 percent for the industrial nations. As third-world exports increase to industrial nations, the revenues from such transactions would go far in meeting current annual interest payments that are cumulatively around $40 billion for all non-OPEC developing nations (up from $15 billion just five years ago in 1978).
Growth, however, is contingent on two factors. The industrial nations must strengthen the multilateral trading system. As World Bank president A.W. Clausen put it last week, opening up world trade - and avoiding protectionism - is ''central to worldwide recovery.'' Foreign assistance and commercial and multilateral capital flows must be maintained and expanded to third-world nations.
* The Federal Reserve Board, to ensure that worldwide liquidity requirements can be met, should refrain from making severe credit constrictions. Any sharp curtailment of US money supply growth could drive up real interest rates and reduce the availability of commercial credit for developing nations.
* Government and banking officials must continue to cooperate with nations such as Nigeria, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and others to upgrade and restructure existing debt arrangements.
* Political and banking officials must be more aggressive in countering fear-mongering about a possible collapse of the international banking system. That is not to say that regulatory officials should be indifferent to defaults. But it should be remembered that the Fed could - and likely would - step in to rescue a troubled bank, even several banks, in event of any default. Such a rescue could take many forms, such as an infusion of capital by the Fed into the problem bank, or allowing the bank to write off the loans over a period of time.
Given the right mix of vigilance and vigorous action by world banking and political leaders, there is no reason why any ''second wave '' debt challenge cannot be resolved as speedily and satisfactorily as was the case in the ''first wave'' last year.