In the best of times, Congress does not like to give away money to foreigners--or even to appear to do so. It is little wonder, then, that in today's grim economic climate, congressmen are unhappy about voting to increase the U.S. contribution to the International Monetary Fund.
An array of witnesses--from Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan to Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul A. Volcker to senior commercial bankers--has recently told the House Banking Committee that raising these contributions will neither add to federal spending nor swell the budget deficit further. The experts also tried to persuade Congress that a stronger world financial system, with a stronger IMF, would benefit ordinary Americans, as well as help bankers with large loans to developing nations and the indebted nations themselves.
At meetings in Washington today and tomorrow, representatives of the IMF member nations are expected to agree on a sizable increase in the quotas, or deposits, which members make with the IMF. This, together with an increase in funds contributed by the richer nations alone, would require the United States to boost its contributions by between $7 billion and $9 billion.
Congress, even if it does not like it, would do well to approve the extra money. Democrats usually most sympathetic to foreign aid are now understandably annoyed at being asked by President Reagan to approve more money for the IMF at the same time as further cuts for domestic programs. But turning down money for one program does not make available money for another.
If the IMF uses its extra resources to smooth the adjustment of debtor nations to less dependence on foreign borrowing, then the U.S. economy also will be helped, for this is not a zero sum game. One congressman this week told commercial bankers he was worried that if the United States loaned money to Brazil or Mexico, those nations would use the loan to develop their industries and become less dependent on U.S. goods.
He had it upside down. It is true that the IMF tells borrowing countries to reduce their balance of payments deficits; they can only do this by selling more or buying less from overseas suppliers, including from the United States. But without IMF money, nations in financial difficulties would be forced to cut back even more abruptly. An IMF loan increases cash available for buying from abroad in two ways: directly, through the addition of the loan itself to a nation's spending power; and indirectly, through encouraging (or arm-twisting) commercial banks to continue lending.
This additional liquidity does not take away from the United States. Third World countries, especially those in Latin America that are now in trouble, will spend some of whatever money they have on American-made goods. The more money they are lent, the more they will have to spend. Conversely, the more swiftly that these nations are forced to slow their economies and cut back on imports, the more of a drag they will exert on the world economy.
As economist William Cline of the Institute for International Economics pointed out in testimony to the House foreign affairs committee, "There are two debt problems." One involves the risks to banks that have lent a lot of money to nations that, in turn, now cannot meet all their payments. The other, Cline said, "is that debt-servicing difficulties can slow growth in developing countries, reduce the exports from industrial countries to developing countries and slow growth in industrial countries, contributing to worldwide recession."
Congress may be unsympathetic to banks that went after large profits in international lending in the 1970s and are now feeling nervous about those loans. There are good reasons to oppose a bank "bail-out" that leaves banks unscathed but public institutions carrying the risks, and to examine the need for new and better controls on bank lending. However, financial collapse and bank failures would hurt more than the shareholders of the individual banks involved. The ill effects would spread rapidly across the U.S. economy and all lending would be squeezed.
The second problem--that developing countries will grow more slowly because they find it harder to borrow--is much less dramatic. But, "though less traumatic, it is extremely painful" and worsens the international recession, Cline said. If more IMF resources can stave off or reduce this second problem, then the investment will be worth it for Americans.
There is a legitimate worry that if conditions on IMF loans are too severe they could lead more and more nations into austerity programs that would further dampen the world economy. Not everyone can restrain imports and increase exports at the same time.
However, the way to deal with that is not through resisting U.S. participation in extra IMF lending or lending capacity, but rather through encouraging the IMF to ease the conditions attached to its loans.