Progress on loans eases international banking crisis

The world debt crisis is easing. ''There has been some real, substantial progress,'' notes Roger Brinner, a senior economist with Data Resources Inc., a Lexington, Mass.-based consulting firm.

Debtors (the developing countries) and creditors (governments and commercial banks in industrial nations), although still in the midst of tough negotiations in some cases, are stretching out the debts.

Mr. Brinner is confident that the remaining negotiations will be fruitful. He notes that ''visible'' problems, in which ''everyone'' has so much at stake, are usually dealt with successfully. ''It is the invisible things that tend to blow up.''

Certainly, the debt crisis has been visible. Last week 30 Latin American debtors met with the United States in Caracas. They managed to avoid either the creation of a debtors' cartel that would negotiate directly with the International Monetary Fund and commercial banks, or a moratorium on repayment of the loans. And there have been stories in the financial press about progress in dealing with the debts of such nations as Brazil, Argentina, Poland, Yugoslavia, and so on.

Basically, the talks deal with sharing the financial burdens arising from difficulties in servicing the massive debts. The developing countries ran into trouble when world recession, declining commodity prices, import restraints in the industrial nations, and other factors hit their import earnings and their capacity to service their loans. Most of the nations involved have done a creditable job in launching austerity programs to improve their international payments. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has practically lent out every penny it has to ease the liquidity crisis. The major commercial banks in the United States have been increasing their net loans by 4 to 6 percent. The smaller regional and correspondent banks have slowed their overseas lending. The West European banks, still suffering from recession, are also showing considerable loan restraint.

In balance, according to the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland, a central bankers' bank, the net lending of the commercial banks of the industrial countries fell to a $2 billion annual rate in the first quarter of 1983, compared with a $50 billion annual rate in 1981. So the banks are still increasing their loans, although modestly, to the developing countries. They are not ''bailing out,'' as some in Congress charge.

The banks are calculating that the recovery of the world economy, rising commodity prices, and stable if not falling real interest rates (after subtracting inflation) will restore the ability of the developing countries to service their loans. So, rather than writing off the loans, they are lengthening them. They don't regard this as pouring good money after bad.

Two other Data Resources economists, David Wyss and Ron Napier, also note in an article in their company's Review of the Economy: ''There is an old saying that when you owe a bank a thousand dollars it is your problem; when you owe the bank a million dollars it is the bank's problem. Perhaps a third line needs to be added: When you owe a bank $50 billion it is the banking system's problem.''

That's because a failure of Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina together could wipe out two-thirds of US bank capitalization.

But the two reckon that ''a default is not in the cards. Such a default would risk cutting off too much trade. Moreover, once the card was played, there would be no future lever with which to move the banking system.''

They figure that, much more likely, the debtor countries will take a relatively tough position in the negotiating process. This could lead to a breakdown in the talks and a suspension of payments until renegotiations of the loans are complete.

According to Mr. Napier, Brazil is the key country in these negotiations. Mexico is in good shape. Argentina will probably follow Brazil's example. But Brazil has borrowed too much money. It has debts of $90 billion, yet it exports only about $20 billion a year.

Right now Brazil has a trade surplus. This provides a month-by-month source of liquidity that can be used to finance imports. In theory, Brazil could stop servicing its debts and use the extra funds to finance more imports, thus permitting faster domestic growth. But, as Mr. Napier notes, the risks would be enormous. If the price of oil increased (oil accounts for about half of Brazil's imports), the Latin nation would be strapped for funds. Or if another world recession occurred later this decade and Brazil's commodity exports dropped in price, again the country might have to impose even greater economic stringency at home than today. Their ability to borrow abroad would be practically nil.

Brazil is expected to sign a deal with the IMF today which should meet some of its current financing needs. At the moment, it has won a specially sweet deal whereby it is not only not repaying the principal on its loans, but it's borrowing funds to pay some of the interest on its debts. Nonetheless, the economic constraint has caused considerable political turmoil in the nation. Mr. Napier suspects it could be that the Brazilian legislature will reject the IMF deal. Under the Brazilian Constitution, however, the IMF letter of intent could be approved by government fiat after two months.

But that won't end the hassle. Napier notes that negotiations with commercial bankers will follow. And there will likely be further negotiations in subsequent years. The deals will often seem like ''extreme patchwork.''

Whatever, the fact that there is a decided common interest in resolving the debt problems means that they will probably be handled, though in a messy way.

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