International Monetary Fund members have agreed on a new formula for helping have-not countries deal with their big debts. But it was a hard-won accomplishment with a touch of post-midnight drama.
In fact, Belgium's finance minister, Willy De Clerq, apologized for the lateness. It was 1:30 in the morning Monday. But his news was important. A group of financial leaders from 20 nations had agreed on provisions that will enable the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to deal with loan problems in developing countries for another three years.
The full-scale annual meeting of the IMF and World Bank begins today. But many key decisions are made beforehand in meetings of smaller groups such as the Interim Committee.
On Sunday, the finance ministers were deadlocked over the issue of borrowers' ''access'' to the IMF's pool of funds. When a nation has balance-of-payments difficulties - that is, when its spending on imports, services, tourism, and other outflows exceeds its income from exports, investments, services, and so on - it can borrow money from the fund to pay its bills. These loans are to be repaid in three to five years, or, in some cases, as long as 10 years.
During meetings all day Sunday the United States had been insisting that because of an anticipated increase of some 47 percent in the quotas (deposits by member nations) in the IMF, those countries seeking a loan should be limited to borrowing 102 percent of their quotas each year for three years. That percentage , when applied to every nation, would limit borrowing to the same amount as before the quota increase.
However, because the quotas are to be changed proportionately among the 146 members of the IMF, reflecting shifts in economic power since the last quota increase a few years ago, dozens of nations would have had less access to IMF funds in a financial pinch.
Thus the developing countries wanted access of 125 percent of quotas. Under that formula, each nation would lose nothing in the way of access.
The negotiating stretched into the night, an unusual event for the IMF, though not for some other international bodies. In the end, a compromise suggested by the British was accepted that, as one IMF official put it, ''should please everyone.''
Borrowings will be limited to 102 percent, except where a nation's balance-of-payments needs and the strength of its ''adjustment effort'' justify going up to 125 percent.
In effect, the problem was dumped in the lap of the IMF's executive board. ''We will now have to bear the slings and arrows,'' joked the IMF official.
The executive board will decide whether a country has done enough in the way of adjustment - that is, economic stringency or other measures - to deserve the extra funds. This should give the IMF considerable leverage in insisting that borrowers of IMF funds proceed with economic ''reforms.''
According to the communique of the Interim Committee - the IMF group that decided the access question - the executive board will set criteria regarding the seriousness of the payments problem and the adequacy of adjustment. This could be difficult, since the basic difference between the US and the developing countries remains.
The United States holds that if the poor countries' access to IMF money is made too easy, greater inflation will threaten. Moreover, the US does not want the IMF to expedite longer-term loans that it considers to be the function of the World Bank. The bank helps nations develop economically. The fund finances short-term international payments.
On the other side, the developing countries maintain that much money is needed and over longer terms to permit them to balance their international payments position without too-painful economic adjustments, adjustments that sometimes cause riots and other political unrest.
As at last year's annual meeting, the United States today is widely regarded by delegates from other nations as being both too tough and as behaving irresponsibly. For one thing, Congress has yet to approve the increase in quotas. These would boost the fund's money pool from $65 billion to $96 billion.
Both houses of Congress have approved administration-backed legislation that would increase the US quota by $8.4 billion over the current $14.6 billion. But the bills differ, and a compromise version has become tangled in both domestic politics and some efforts to limit the IMF's financial might.
One complication is a letter mailed to voters by the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. Rep. Phil Gramm of Texas, a Democrat turned Republican, accuses liberals of ''supporting communism'' in opposing one of his floor amendments requiring the US to vote against any proposed IMF loans to ''communist'' countries. The administration had asked Democrats to vote against the amendment, hoping to keep IMF lending somewhat free from political snags.
Last Friday, Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. served notice that the House won't consider taking up the IMF bill until the President meets a demand by Democrats that he apologize in writing for the Campaign Committee charges.
Meanwhile, the IMF has been left short of funds and threatening to restrict its lending until more money is available.