$600 million IMF loan to Philippines may relieve its debt plight

Like a knight in shining armor, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is riding to the rescue of another nation in financial distress, this time the Philippines. It agreed in principle last week to lend the island nation more than $600 million.

This could lead to a rescheduling of the country's $18.7 billion of foreign debt, much of it owed to some 350 foreign banks.

But it remains uncertain whether the IMF credit will come soon enough and be adequate to dispel the specter of massive layoffs and explosive labor unrest by early next year. In return for the loan ''facility, '' the government had to commit itself to an economic policy that implies zero economic growth in 1984.

Although the government tends to regard the new IMF facility as a seal of good housekeeping, commercial banks are looking at another angle of the Philippines' current crisis. Political uncertainty remains their overriding concern after the assassination in August of Philippine opposition leader Benigno Aquino.

President Marcos's future is persistently in doubt, and the absence of a definite succession procedure conjures up images of chaos in Manila. There has already been a huge flight of capital from the nation. Although Mr. Marcos has announced measures that appear to be initial steps toward power-sharing with democratic opposition, the banks are not impressed.

An official of a United States bank that is a major creditor said foreign lenders are now immune to Marcos's rhetoric. ''Nothing has been done and we're not interested in his words. We're looking for deeds,'' he said.

Because of this, it might take longer than the government expects for the banks to commit themselves to a new financing package for the country. Negotiations are to take place in New York this week, with the Philippines seeking some $2 billion.

The new IMF funding and the austerity measures will not necessarily restart the Philippine economic engine.

A Central Bank official said, ''The short-term outlook is very grim, but we keep our fingers tightly crossed that in the long term we'll weather the storm, '' he said. But he fears that unless the world market becomes more receptive to Philippine exports, the austerity measures and the new financing may just go down the drain.

Prime Minister Cesar Virata, who is also finance minister, has estimated that the country will need between $4 billion and $5 billion in new foreign loans for the rest of 1983 and '84 to survive this financial crisis. The amount includes the new IMF credit. More will need to come from official development assistance and new trade credit lines.

The IMF credit is not, however, an immediate source of much-needed dollars to resume the country's import financing, suspended since October when the Philippines asked its creditors for a moratorium on debts falling due between October and January. Local manufacturing industries have already started slowing down their operations, since they could not import their raw materials. By the first quarter of next year, workers by the hundreds of thousands are expected to be laid off.

The first major industry to be hit by the standstill in trade financing is the automotive industry, where all five carmakers say they may be forced to shut down their assembly plants early next year if they cannot import spare parts.

Anxious banks have refused to open letters of credit for Philippine importers.

Government sources said the letter of intent submitted by the Philippines to obtain the IMF credit committed a marginal growth in gross domestic product (GDP) in 1984. But since population growth next year is expected to grow by 2.5 percent, the net growth will either be zero or negative.

Besides requiring marginal economic growth, the IMF conditions for its loan demand a tight limit to credit expansion and a cut in the 1984 budget deficit from the planned $628 million to $464 million. These curbs, it is hoped, will keep the 1984 current-account deficit in the international payments of the nation limited to $1.5 billion.

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