``It's high noon.'' That's how West German Economics Minister Martin Bangemann described the challenge that faced his fellow ministers at this past week's meeting of the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development.
When the ministers arrived, recession clouds were hanging over them. When they left, they at least managed to smile. The question remains whether what they accomplished will be enough to satisfy nervous financial markets and produce a successful economic summit of the seven major industrial nations next month in Venice.
In preperation for the meeting, senior OECD officials published a report revising downward their estimate of economic growth in the industrial world. After December's forecast of 3 percent annual growth for 1987 and 1988, the OECD experts predicted growth nearer 2.5 percent. Even that target remains unsure, the OECD experts warned, unless the ``Big Three'' - the United States, Japan, and West Germany - cooperate more to steady foreign exchange markets and trade imbalances.
At the meeting, the Big Three made commitments, which - if followed - should help. US Treasury Secretary James Baker promised to fight off protectionism and reduce the US budget deficit. West German minister Bangemann pledged to bring forward planned tax cuts if his country's growth faltered. Japanese Foreign Minister Tadashi Kuranari said his country would press ahead with a $35 billion supplementary budget.
One area where the ministers did make progress was in agriculture. For the first time at a major international meeting, they agreed to discuss the contentious issue. Not only that, all sides appeared willing to grasp the problem of surplus farm production and farm subsidies.
A confidential report prepared by the OECD for the meeting said the world's food system was in ``deep crisis.'' Over the last five years, it said, subsidies had risen by 70 percent in the US, 36 percent in the Common Market, 38 percent in Australia, and 18 percent in Canada.