US talks loud but carries a small stick on IMF funding

Reversing the advice of Teddy Roosevelt, the United States is talking loud and carrying a small stick at the combined annual meeting here of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

In other words, there is some suspicion that Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan is playing the ''tough guy'' role to some extent to please a congressional audience.

Here's the evidence seen by some insiders here:

* The United States has made a political commitment for eventual expansion of World Bank activities. But it apparently did not want to make a ''big deal'' of the decision, which was obfuscated in a press communique of the Development Committee Monday.

This joint ministerial committee of the bank and the fund, which deals with the transfer of real resources, such as foreign aid, from the rich countries to the poor countries, instructed the executive directors of the bank to work out the specifics of a selective capital increase of about $8 billion for that development institution. The directors are to report to the bank's board of governors by the end of this year, and presumably the board could go ahead with its approval of the new money for the bank.

What this means is that the World Bank would have adequate capital to back up its bond issues in world capital markets. This money is then lent to developing nations for various projects, such as bridges, highways, dams, birth-control programs, and so on.

Moreover, the Development Committee approved having the bank's management look into the need for a general capital increase. It is to report back to the committee at its meeting next September. (Selective capital increases result from changes in the relative economic importance of the nearly 150 members of the bank. A general capital increase involves all members, not just a select number.)

Asked if the United States had approved of the $8 billion figure for a selective capital increase, since at first it had been insisting on only $3 billion, the chairman of the Development Committee, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, refused to reply.

Apparently the US delegation, too, does not want to talk about anything that could eventually mean asking Congress for more money for these international institutions. The administration is already having a difficult time winning passage of a bill to provide for an $8.4 billion US contribution to a general increase in the financial resources of the fund. The IMF makes short-term loans to nations with international-payments problems.

* In an agreement reached by another key committee, the Interim Committee, in the early hours Monday, the US went along with a compromise on ''access'' to the fund's resources by member nations. The agreement set up a two-tier system limiting each member nation to borrowing a maximum of 102 percent of its quota for each of three years, or, if the financing needs are great and the nation involved has made substantial economic adjustments already, up to 125 percent of its quota for three years.

But the terms are so vague and flexible that it can be interpreted as either tough or soft on borrowing countries. It will basically be left up to the executive directors of the fund to decide on individual applications for money.

At a press briefing, Treasury Secretary Regan emphasized the limitation and the fact that most countries would not be eligible to borrow any more next year than now and that 102 percent would be the ''norm'' for a ceiling on what is termed ''enlarged access'' loans. He said he would be ''shocked'' if as many as 20 countries qualified for the 125 percent allowance.

In contrast, Interim Committee chairman Willy De Clercq said the deal would provide ''more resources'' for each nation. ''There are no losers, but the international community is the winner,'' he said. The IMF has been given ''a stronger role'' in the balance-of-payments process, he added.

In fact, loan decisions will probably be made as in the past on the basis of individual circumstances, with even 125 percent being exceeded if a nation has enough political backing and the financial emergency is severe enough.

The grandstanding of the American delegation to the IMF and World Bank has its penalty, however. With the US always backing the most stringent of lending terms for the IMF or the least new money for the bank, it becomes the ''villain'' of this multinational drama. It usually happens that the industrial nations put on the brakes and the poor developing countries try to press the accelerator on foreign aid and balance-of-payments financing. This time, though, even some of the industrial countries find the US position difficult to take. There is some questioning as to whether the US as a nation ''has got its act together'' in this vital area of international economics.

One former high Treasury official said he had not seen such incompetence in decades.

Whatever, the delegates got some reassurance Tuesday when President Reagan told them of his commitment to the IMF and attacked ''partisan wrangling and political posturing'' on Capitol Hill over the $8.4 billion bill to increase the quota.

The President warned of a global ''economic nightmare'' if Congress failed to pass the bill. He said the administration is committed to doing ''what is legitimately needed to help ensure that the IMF continues as the cornerstone of the international financial system.''

Jacques de Larosiere, managing director of the IMF, also attempted to put pressure on Congress. ''Given the weight of the United States in the fund's quotas,'' he said, ''it is essential that the US Congress act decisively and urgently on this matter.''

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