There was just a touch of frustration in David Rockefeller's voice, perhaps a reflection of having to fend off the same query before. Standing on the lawn patio of a fabulous private estate just outside of Toronto, where the big wheels at the recent World Bank and IMF meeting had been gathered for a reception, he said:
"No, I don't think [Chase Manhattan Bank] is over-exposed [in loans to Mexico]. You ought to remember that just a few years ago, everybody was talking about Zaire, Peru and Turkey. And what happened? Nobody lost hardly any money."
The Freudian implications of the double negative may have eluded him for the moment, but Rockefeller's intended point -- that any losses were easily absorbed by the system -- illustrates the way in which many of the biggest bankers choose to interpret the present international financial crisis.
They tend to agree that, yes, there is a huge debt burden in the developing countries. And some of them will admit that, yes, the banks' own eagerness to turn a profit helped build up the debt. But, they say, we will muddle through.
A central banker who says he's not relaxed "only because I'm paid to worry," argues that the situation today is much less pressing than the crisis created by American bankers who got over-committed in 1973-75 with REITs -- the real estate investment trusts.
Walter Seipp, chairman of the West German Commerzbank and a participant in the Toronto sessions, puffs easily on a cigar, and rejects the notion that a new version of the 1930s is on the horizon. "There's a better international understanding than we had in the 1930s," Seipp said. "We're all aware that we're sitting in one boat, and if we play it cool, we have the means to avoid a crisis like the 1930s."
How come the big German banks stuck their necks out in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe? "It's a good question," he answers. "The Soviet Union was never in default, so we used the 'umbrella theory.' "
Walter Wriston, Citicorp chairman, is another who takes a relatively optimistic view. Wriston recycled for the New York Times a speech he made to the American Bankers Association in May, 1981, at Lausanne: Quit worrying about the debt, he said, so long as governments pay the interest that's due. Sovereign governments, in the Wriston view, are not expected to pay off the principal, only to "roll over" the debt. When the U.S. Treasury sells bills every Monday morning, Wriston asks, why is that any different from debt "rescheduling" by poor countries?
Not everybody agrees with this benign view: there are, after all, several degrees of difference between Uncle Sam's creditworthiness and that of Mexico, Bolivia, Argentina, and Poland, to cite a few examples. Just last week, a consortium of banks agreed to a rescheduling of this year's Polish debt that postpones half of the interest due in 1982, adding it to the rest of the debt as a three-year "trade credit."
Banker Robert V. Roosa, senior partner of Brown Bros. Harriman, thinks that the Wriston view "does a disservice two ways: it gives the public the feeling there is no problem, and gives the borrowing countries the idea that there is no discipline in the system, that they can go on this way forever." Roosa's assessment is that "the system may not be out of control, but a lot needs to be done to prevent it from getting out of control."
Both Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan and Undersecretary Beryl Sprinkel have said flatly that some American banks will lose money because of their lending policies in Mexico. As to the past record in Zaire and other countries that have rescheduled (Zaire is in its third rescheduling), Roosa says that "no one will ever know what the bill was. Even if they the lending banks got some interest payments, it certainly wasn't at market rates."
One New York investment banker, shaking his head at the way the big banks here and in Europe have risked their capital in the developing world, told this reporter:
"In any economic activity, there can be a need for money to develop it. But if you have over-lending, the good loans become bad loans. And the perfect examples are real estate and foreign lending. The first bank that made a loan on a condominium in Florida probably made a very good loan because there was a real market need. And the first guy who made a loan to Brazil many years ago made a very good loan.
"The problem arises when an area of lending becomes fashionable: the borrowers take advantage of lending availability and you get overlending, which then makes good loans bad loans. The second condominium or the second loan to Brazil may have been good, and the third and fourth and so on. By the time the 85th condominium or Brazilian project was being financed, you had a bunch of bum loans, right?"
Roosa faults his fellow bankers for failing to apply "enough of a hairshirt. They should be lending only for valid projects, and where there is a workable use for borrowed money."
Mexico is a good example where bankers failed to follow that Roosa principle. Instead, they stumbled over each other trying to spoon-feed loans into Mexico, once Mexico's big oil finds were confirmed. They were "waiting on the doorstep," begging to be included in Mexico's borrowing plans, says a Mexican official.
But then came the oil glut, and the price of oil plummeted. Thus, the international bankers were trapped in the same situation as a number of large American banks in the Penn Square embroglio: what looked like sure-fire good loans for energy development suddenly were lousy loans.
What is the precise dimension of the present-day debt problem of the developing nations? No one really knows. IMF Managing Director Jacques de Larosiere added it up to a minimum of $540 billion as of the end of 1981, of which 60 percent is owed to the banks. As much as 30 to 35 percent of the total may be in a half dozen Latin American countries, led by Brazil's $87 billion and Mexico's $80 billion.
A high-level World Bank official said that if everything were known about the super-secret world of banking, the real global total would probably add up to something closer to $750 billion.
South Korea and the Phillipines are high up on the major debtors' list, with totals of $35 billion and $18 billion, respectively, but the prosperous Far East, as a region, has not been a problem like Latin America or Eastern Europe. Yet a banker warns: "You are now just beginning to see a pattern of over-lending to the Far East, and it will create the same problems as we've had elsewhere because of overlending . . . Not every bank is doing it, but the Far East has become the place to go."
"How did we get to this point?" Wall Street economist Henry Kaufman asked rhetorically. "I strongly believe what is happening in these sporadic things in the banking system -- not only commercial banks but financial institutions in general -- is reflective of a build-up of a massive debt structure both in the United States and internationally," he answers.
"That structure, I think, has been amassed not just in a short period of time but over a period of years. And it has financed . . . not a large amount of economic efficiency, but for a long while a large amount of inflation. But now we have it, it's there, it's got a maturity schedule and it's got an interest payment."
A unique view of the same problem, expressed by a financial market expert, is that there may be social disorders if deficit countries can't finance their needs for imported food or oil, but that the banking system itself is in no danger of collapse. "The money in the world doesn't disappear," he said. "If one bank doesn't have it, another bank does. They'll borrow from each other, or go to the Fed, or the Bundesbank, or to the Bank of Japan -- and neither you nor I will ever know it."
At the other extreme of the Rockefeller-Wriston take-it-in-stride assessment, there was the appraisal by world figures such as British Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey and Brazilian Finance Minister Ernane Galveas that the international economic system is on the very edge of disaster, perhaps on the order of the Great Depression.
Healey was quoted this way: "The risk of a major default triggering a chain reaction is growing every day."
Galveas, whose country has a foreign debt of some $87 billion, of which $67 billion is owed to the commercial banks, delivered one of the more emotional speeches to the joint session in Toronto. As rumors mounted that Brazil might have to join Mexico is appealing for a rescheduling of its debt, Galveas told his peers:
"In the face of this dismal picture, the industrial countries -- who determine the economic fate of the world -- sit as if paralyzed. How long can the social fabric resist?"
Galveas fears that the commercial banks will now turn super-cautious, practically cutting off the developing world, and that the IMF -- pressured by the United States -- will be limited to a "last resort" lending function. This possibility was very much on the minds of the delegates to the annual meeting, and both de Larosiere and World Bank President A. W. Clausen warned bankers to judge each debtor on its own merits, and not to pull the plug on neighboring countries that may be creditworthy.
Nonetheless, a high official confided to this reporter that the "search for quality" that motivates investors to shift their bank deposits in the United States into Treasury bills is also motivating large banks that have been in the forefront of the lending process to the developing countries. Thus, a $250 million World Bank borrowing in Switzerland last week was oversubscribed by large private lenders looking for a safe place for their money. Willingly, they ignored the several-point spread between the World Bank issue and interest rates available in Latin America.
Between the extremes of optimism and pessimism, there is a large middle ground of concern, but not panic. According to this middle view, the chain reaction seen by Healey can be averted, provided the world's central banks step in fast enough with enough resources where a bail-out is necessary, and provided that the IMF is allowed to play the key role in persuading the debtor nations that some degree of "adjustment" to reality is critical to survival of the system.
"I think the situation is still manageable," said a key figure in one of the important central banks after extracting a promise that he would not be quoted. "What else do you expect me to say?"
Kaufman, more directly, said: "It's a crisis of confidence in the system," and Otmar Emminger, former president of the German central bank, and a veteran of international crises for nearly four decades, used precisely the same words.
To a considerable extent, the "system" has already made major moves to shore up its weakest points. Importantly, the Federal Reserve Board has dramatically lowered interest rates -- a step that will significantly ease the debt-servicing burden of the group of nations that owes money. And the Fed joined other central banks in making an emergency commitment to Mexico -- the first segment of which has already been drawn -- on the assumption that Mexico will agree to an economic reform program that will enable the IMF to lend it nearly $5 billion.
Unhappily, Mexico is still being ruled by the lame-duck government of President Lopez Portillo, and a new government, able to sign a deal with the IMF, won't take over until Dec. 1.
Meanwhile, a lot of work needs to be done -- that wasn't done in Toronto -- to patch up the creaky international financial system. De Larosiere desperately wants to increase the IMF quotas -- which represent its basic lending power -- from $67 billion to a minimum of $110 billion. Against virtually the entire membership of 145 member-nations of the IMF, the United States is resisting this effort, fearing that a large permanent increase in IMF resources will tempt it to hand out loans too freely.
The United States would prefer a "crisis" fund (much less than a leaked $25 billion number) to supplement a small increase in quotas. De Larosiere, an increasingly shrewd politician after four years in office, understands that there will have to be some compromise with the U.S. position to get any increase in IMF funds.
In an interview after meeting with a number of central and commercial bankers, as well as officials of the Bank for International Settlements and the IMF in Toronto, Emminger said he had reached the conclusion that bankers had made loan decisions "without understanding the completely new situation that the world's economy is in."
After the second oil shock created by OPEC, Emminger said, most of the bankers had assumed the developing countries could absorb the higher costs in a way comparable to the period following the first oil shock. So when the Third World countries proposed more borrowings, the bankers continued to lend, anticipating a continued expansion of trade, and an economic recovery, as happened from 1974-78. But -- as one can see now -- the second oil shock came before a complete adjustment had been made to the first.
"They were counting on a continuance of inflation, and on relatively low rates of interest," he said. During the 1970s, the real rate of interest for the borrowing countries was zero. But all these assumptions have proved to be wrong: the world economy has stagnated for three years, which has witnessed a dramatic fall in inflation, but record high real rates of interest.
As de Larosiere pointed out, "the world is now in a process of disinflation, the scope and effects of which are profound." The growth in the volume of world trade started to slip, and now has come to a halt. Because of the world recession, the prices for commodities--on which the poor countries largely depend for their export earnings -- plummeted.
For primary commodities other than oil, prices are now at a 30-year low -- as much as 20 percent below the level prevailing in the recession year of 1975.
But the deficit countries were also caught by high interest rates, precipitated by the American concentration on a monetarist policy, beginning late in 1979. This has proved to be the undoing of the deficit countries.
Thus, compared with 1978, when the poor countries had to set aside only 17 cents of every dollar earned from exports for interest on their debt, 23 cents of every dollar they earn from exports on the average this year goes to pay interest; and for the Mexicans, Brazilians and Argentinians, the interest bite takes between 50 cents and 75 cents of every dollar earned.
Why didn't the bankers and the borrowers discover this "new" situation in time to do something about it? Emminger asks. "They committed one classical error," Emminger concludes, "by going on lending and borrowing as long as they could, to avoid the discipline of going to the International Monetary Fund."
The unwinding of this process, it appears, will be painful, even if a general world-wide depression is averted. The over-eager ambitions of some of the deficit countries will have to be scaled back, economic growth will suffer, far-reaching goals will have to be postponed. The haunting question remains the one put by Galveas: while the "adjustment" process goes on, what happens to the social fabric where expectations, once so high, have been dashed?