Against the backdrop of a world recession growing in intensity, and the international banking system trembling from one shock after another, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are gearing up for this year's joint annual conference, which will begin next weekend in Toronto.
This will be the 37th joint meeting and the first ever in Canada. It will be chaired by Abdlatif Yousef Hamad, minister of finance and minister of planning for Kuwait. The sessions start about a month ahead of the usual time to avoid a conflict later with the Islamic feast of sacrifice, Eid Al-Adha.
The Toronto meetings not only coincide with enormous financial trauma, but also with the lowest point in many years in American-European relations, caused by President Reagan's personal decision to halt deliveries of equipment for the Soviet gas pipeline by American subsidiaries abroad and by European companies licensed to use American technology. Economic tensions in the Atlantic Alliance also have been exacerbated by imposition of penalties against European steel companies, charged with "dumping" here.
The chill is bound to make it even tougher to reach agreement in other areas where Europe and America are far apart, notably on the additional amounts of aid the IMF and the World Bank should have available for helping the Third World.
American financial officials, nonetheless, hope that the European anger over the recent blacklisting of two French companies over the pipeline problem will at be at least temporarily set aside in Toronto. Speaking of one main issue -- enlarged IMF quotas for financing loans to poor nations in the latter half of the 1980s -- Treasury Undersecretary Beryl Sprinkel said in an interview last week:
"We've got to work toward some agreement with these countries. Most of them are way above us on (proposals for higher) IMF quotas. There has to be some way to get these differences resolved."
At IMF headquarters in Washington, in the final shake-down period for Toronto, there was a growing confidence that -- except for the United States -- there has been a "convergence" of view among all others on the need to raise quotas from 61 billion special drawing rights (the equivalent of about $67 billion) to at least 100 billion SDRs (about $110 billion), and possibly as high as 125 billion SDRs ($137 billion).
Sentiment to strengthen the IMF, sources say, has been reinforced by the Mexican and related economic disasters. Both the IMF Interim Committee at Helsinki in May, and the major nations' Economic Summit at Versailles in June, it is pointed out, agreed that a strong IMF is needed for the decade of the '80s, and that the IMF's resources should be developed almost entirely from the members' own funds, which is to say quotas.
It is not unusual for these international financial conclaves to take place at the same time that world-wide crises arise. Three years ago, for example, while the IMF and bank were meeting in Belgrade, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul A. Volcker -- who along with Treasury Secretary Donald Regan will lead the American delegation to Toronto -- tore home as the dollar collapsed and gold set new daily records, to install dramatic new operating procedures at the American central bank.
Six years ago, the then-British chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, never even made it to Manila when the pound sterling collapsed: he stayed home to nurse along Britain's application for a major borrowing from the IMF.
This year, as the thousands of officials, guests, reporters, and hangers-on prepare to descend upon Canada's financial center, it is Mexico that needs to undergo major economic surgery to qualify for an IMF loan -- the centerpiece of a bigger international bailout.
But in the wings, it is feared, may lie Brazil and Argentina, as well as poverty-stricken standbys like Zaire. Sub-Saharan Africa is the true basket case. Every year since 1977, according to the World Bank's annual report, real per capita income in that part of the world has shown no gain, or has actually declined.
In addition, the fragile nature of the multinational banking system will test the blood-pressure readings in Toronto. The symbols of trouble have been crowding each other for attention: the Penn Square National Bank failure in the United States, which snared among participating victims the Chase Manhattan Bank of New York and Continental of Chicago; the Banco Ambrosiano scandal in Italy (which threatened the stability of an entire country, Luxembourg); and corporate bankruptcies such as AEG-Telefunken AG in West Germany. In the United States, where the business failure rate is the highest since the 1930s, some corporations with household names teeter on the edge.
International bankers have become so heavily committed in loans outstanding to the poor countries -- in Mexico, Brazil, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere -- that the threat of default hangs over the viability of the entire banking system.
Nonetheless, a high U.S. official says the situation is "manageable," and the view at the IMF is that while the whole system is under considerable "strain," we are not about to repeat the scenario of the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The scope of the problems has been defined in the agencies' annual reports, and will be elaborated in major addresses by World Bank President A. W. Clausen and IMF Managing Director Jacques de Larosiere: economic growth in the rich countries will stagnate in the years ahead, with rising unemployment and worsening protectionism.
This, they both have suggested, will lead to increasing social and political strains. Companies as well as countries that used to be able to cover up their mistakes in an inflating world find themselves exposed as inflation abates. Yet, the powers-that-be at the Helsinki and Versailles summits said that governments should "tough it out" -- that is, resist reflationary programs that might, in another era, have been wheeled into place so as to regenerate growth.
At a time when the aggregate balance of payments deficit among developing countries runs over $90 billion annually and high interest rates skyrocket the cost of servicing this debt, the borrowing nations must face a twin reality: the commercial banks of the rich nations are pulling in their horns, and the World Bank and IMF are both running short of funds that can be used for either subsidized aid or for emergencies.
The World Bank's main problem focuses on the International Development Association (IDA), which makes no-interest, 50-year loans to the poorest nations with a service charge of a mere 3/4 of one percent. Because of budgetary problems and the Reagan administration's bias in favor of the private sector, the United States cut its contributions by 40 percent for the present (fiscal 1981-'82-'83) IDA lending period.
Since other contributors' tie their donations to a pro-rata basis with the United States, IDA last year could lend only $2.6 billion instead of $4.1 billion as planned. In Toronto, a preliminary session will be held on how to structure the next phase of IDA lending, the so-called "IDA-7" program, beginning in fiscal 1984.
The IMF's problem for the short run is that the need to shell out nearly $5 billion to help in a larger international bail-out of Mexico, plus other probable lending commitments, will slice its available funds in half -- from the equivalent of about $23 billion (20.5 billion SDRs) to about $11.5 billion (10.5 billion SDRs).
Thus, IMF's de Larosiere knows he must try to borrow a big bundle of money by mid-1983 -- anywhere from $5 billion to $10 billion -- on top of about $5 billion (4 billion SDRs) already promised by the Saudis. And then, for the longer run, de Larosiere is looking for an agreement that will lead to a major quota increase.
Sprinkel told this reporter flatly that a doubling of IMF quotas is "unnecessary. We'd have to ask them (on the Hill) for a $14 billion appropriation" over the five-year term of the new quota, Sprinkel said, "and there's no way we can justify that." But other influential American delegation members are sympathetic to a major boost, perhaps short of doubling the present total.
Sprinkel himself admits that the pressures will be strong as a consequence of recent events in the international financial markets: "We can't hide our heads and say that there's no problem there. The question is whether the (existing) system is resilient enough to ride through some rough waters. And the answer is that it now looks pretty good. . . . I think the system will prevail one more time."
There are other issues that will preoccupy the delegates:
* What kind of an institution should the IMF be? The United States wants the IMF to hew closely to the originally defined line as a "monetary institution" focusing on short-term loans for balance of payments purposes exclusively. Although others, especially in the Third World, urge de Larosiere to play a bolder game, he seems to be content at this point to agree with the U.S. definition.
* The question of revised quota relationships will also be opened, but not concluded, in Toronto. The bottom line here is that so long as the United States doesn't lose its veto power, it's willing to let its quota slip a bit to accommodate the desire of some of the "NICs" -- the newly industrialized countries like Korea -- to get a larger relative share of quotas, in keeping with their growing economic strength. Eventually, there may be other adjustments as well, with Japan and some of the Arab countries going up, and the British going down.
* As an out-cropping of the Versailles summit agreement, the IMF for the first time will conduct a "surveillance" session among the five major powers -- the United States, Japan, West Germany, the United Kingdom, and France -- to review their macroeconomic policies. The idea is to see whether these leading forces can adopt a common approach to combatting inflation -- not in the short run, but for the medium term. Sprinkel stresses that the IMF is expected to exert influence, but that "the ultimate decisions" are of course up to sovereign governments.
* Just prior to the Interim Committee meeting next weekend, there will be a fourth and last session (since Versailles) of an intergovernment committee planning a study of government intervention in markets to stabilize exchange rates. A report will be presented to the Interim Committee, and subsequently will be a major conversational topic.
* There will be a routine discussion of a new issue of SDRs. The Group of 77 Nations, representing the Third World, will meet in Toronto Thursday and Friday, ahead of the main sessions, and press for more SDRs. But their plea is certain to be rejected by the Interim Committee.