As Philippines descends deeper into recession, Reagan's leverage increases

President Reagan's political leverage over Ferdinand Marcos has increased with the Philippines' sudden plunge into deeper economic recession. The United States' most immediately threatening lever is the possibility that the International Monetary Fund -- with US approval -- will block the some $580 million in new loans to the Marcos regime due this spring.

Without this IMF money and the related private bank credits, ``economic hardships will drive people to desperation,'' says a top Central Bank official in Manila. ``We would have a major insurgency within one year.

``The United States holds the key to everything, even the IMF.''

A sign of Mr. Marcos's concern came Monday, one day after presidential opponent Corazon Aquino -- defeated in the official tally of the Feb. 7 election -- launched a seven-point civil disobedience program that includes boycotts of Marcos-connected banks and businesses.

The Central Bank announced it would rachet up the interest rates on government securities by a sharp 50 percent (from 20 to 30 percent).

``The fact that they bit the bullet, and did it quickly, means they are worried about the IMF,'' said one foreign economic analyst.

The Central Bank's higher interest rates are designed to prevent inflation by sopping up some 8.3 billion pesos ($430 million) borrowed by the government from the Central Bank during the two-month campaign period. Marcos opponents claim that most of the money was spent to buy votes.

The government faces a March 31 deadline in fulfilling the third part of an IMF agreement on keeping the nation's money supply and budget deficit under certain limits. The money supply now exceeds the IMF limit by 24 percent. An IMF team due here this week to assess the government's performance postponed its visit, because of the political uncertainty.

Another IMF deadline, set for May, is for the last credit release of an IMF-sponsored debt rescheduling package. The IMF, in which the US holds a large share, was called in to help the Philippines cope with a staggering $26 billion foreign debt, following massive capital flight after the Aug. 21, 1983, slaying of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr.

The high interest rates will help ensure a third year of economic decline, forcing many more businesses to close and putting more people out of work.

``We already went through a ringer in 1984 and 1985. This time it will be worse,'' said the Central Bank official.

In three years, unemployment has tripled to where an estimated 60 percent of workers are employed less than half the time or not at all.

Following the election, the Philippine currency took a nosedive because of uncertainty over whether Marcos's proclaimed victory would stick. By Feb. 19, the peso fell from a pre-election 19 pesos to the dollar to 23 to the dollar -- the lowest point in two years.

Particularly worrisome was the fact that the peso fall negates any benefit from the recent drop in world oil prices. If the IMF finds the government has not met the financial criteria, it could easily pull the economic mat out from under Marcos's weakened regime, say top foreign analysts here.

Both city dwellers and farmers would see prices of such imports as gasoline and fertilizer soar -- without IMF help in obtaining foreign exchange.

``Marcos cannot be defeated politically and militarily,'' says local businessman and Aquino supporter Victorino Nepomuceno. ``But he can be bankrupted into submission.''

At the same time, the IMF and the US risk the possibility of weakening the military's fight against a growing communist insurgency by reducing financial assistance.

Equally important to Marcos's future is what happens after the current IMF agreement runs outs in June.

Negotiating a new pact could be doubly difficult for the Philippines now that the IMF has some experience with the country, say foreign bankers.

The IMF has particularly noticed the government's inability to meet the present ``qualitative'' requirements to restructure the banking, coconut, rice, corn, and sugar industries.

Reforms in those areas, says the Central Bank official, ``would mean ruin for the people who helped Marcos win the election.'' So, he says, any attempts at reform have been ``cosmetic.''

Such reforms were also sought by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and nations giving aid to the Philippines. A meeting of that group of donors, which was scheduled for this past January, was postponed because of the election. That group's advice to the IMF, plus any US pressure, will greatly influence how tough IMF negotiators will be with the Marcos government.

``If no agreement is reached by December, the economy will be in very bad shape,'' comments a foreign banker. ``Right now,'' he adds, ``the IMF doesn't trust this government.''

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