What sort of World Bank president would Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul A. Volcker make? That is the question being asked in international financial circles now that his name has been floated by a White House official as a possible successor to A. W. Clausen.
Volcker has figured in the speculation relating to the prestigious World Bank job ever since it became evident more than a year ago that the White House wanted a more dynamic manager of the bank, which is the largest development aid agency for Third World countries. Clausen's five-year term expires in mid-1986.
Even within the bank, a claque of high, middle-management officials has been lobbying for Volcker, convinced that the tall, cigar-chomping central banker -- perhaps the most famous American financial figure of his generation -- could restore the clout that the World Bank used to have under former president Robert S. McNamara.
In the 1982 debt crisis, Volcker, along with the International Monetary Fund's Jacques de Larosiere and the Treasury's Tim McNamar, played leading roles in figuring out a solution for Mexico. The World Bank was hardly in the picture.
Currently, Volcker is in the thick of negotiations led by Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III for a more positive role for the bank in what the Fed chairman himself calls Phase Two of the debt crisis. Clausen has been conspicuously absent from these discussions.
Earlier this year, Volcker, along with Clausen and de Larosiere, attended a private session of a new Bretton Woods Committee -- an association of businessmen and elder statesmen created to drum up support for the two institutions, which generally are regarded with suspicion on Capitol Hill.
Says a high World Bank official who attended the session: "Volcker made much the best speech of the day. He was saying, in effect, that the bank must play a bigger role. In fact, he sketched out the role the bank must play in such specific terms that many of us came away with the impression that he would be quite willing to be named to the job."
Earlier, as reported in this newspaper, Volcker had pointedly criticized the bank's lackluster performance at a closed-door seminar of top officials. Rhetorically, he had asked: "Where's the bank?"
Volcker consistently has refused to indicate any interest in the bank job in on-, or off-the-record comments. Nonetheless, his views on what the World Bank should be doing have been carefully spelled out in a series of speeches that clearly reflect an impatience with the policies of the World Bank and IMF. For example, on May 13 in Boca Raton, Fla., before the Bankers' Association for Foreign Trade, Volcker warned that borrowing countries and lenders had entered the newer, second phase of the debt crisis, yet both seemed tempted to return to business as usual.
"One can legitimately ask whether we in the developed world are doing all we can to minimize the risks and to encourage sustained growth with stability," he said, adding that the World Bank and IMF should "adapt and refine their approaches and methods of operation further in ways that are sensitive and responsive to the needs of particular countries working through Phase Two." He urged that "the bank's role should be larger as borrowing countries turn to dealing with their longer-term structural problems."
A few days later in Seattle, before the Focus International Conference on the World Economy, Volcker turned to the need to "more fully recognize the problems and potential of the developing countries if trade is truly to promote our common prosperity and contribute to political stability."
He recalled that the IMF was at the center stage of the rescue operation in Phase One, when the debt crisis first exploded, and forced austerity measures on Third World countries -- especially in Latin America.
But the challenge now, according to Volcker, is for these countries to make their economies more efficient and "more attractive for investment by their own citizens as well as by firms from abroad." Perhaps not so coincidentally, this is the precise analysis Baker will outline in his speech to the annual meeting of the IMF and World Bank in Seoul this coming Tuesday.
Said Volcker in Seattle: "It's hard to visualize an effective trading system -- a system in which all can participate and grow -- without organizations like the IMF and the multilateral development banks to help protect the financial structure and support development. . . . And they will not be able to operate effectively without the support and encouragement of their leading stockholder, the United States."
In summary, Volcker's general view is that the bank plays a critical role that must be enhanced to help stimulate a liberal world trading order. His view seems to be a close fit with the maturing philosophy of Baker's Treasury, with Deputy Secretary Richard Darman heavily involved in shaping international economic policy. The Baker-Darman approach differs markedly from the narrower perspective of the Treasury when Beryl Sprinkel was the chief adviser to Donald T. Regan on World Bank and IMF affairs.
Would Volcker supply the spark of personal leadership that almost all observers believe is needed at the bank? For one thing, his personal reputation is so high that he not only would be likely to raise morale at the bank, but he would add credibility to the ultimate need for a general capital increase that the administration privately acknowledges is necessary, but shies away from until a decision is made on how the bank will operate over the next several years.
There is also a hesitation to ask for new appropriations for the bank (although in actual paid-in capital, the funds would be small) when there also will be a need to request new funds for the International Development Agency's new grant program (IDA-8).
Although Volcker, as chairman of the Fed, has not been a Reagan favorite, a high administration official told this reporter that Volcker commands the kind of support domestically and internationally that Clausen does not. Volcker, he added, is just the kind of dominant financial figure who could build the necessary political support in Congress for a general capital increase, when, in the end, the administration will ask for it.
"When we make a choice for the World Bank presidency , it's going to be one which, by its character, is a signal that we've chosen a world-class figure," this official said. Volcker certainly fits that test, he agreed.
The hang-up over a Volcker appointment to the bank at this juncture may be the chairman's concern that he would be moving out of the Fed at a time of upcoming changes -- appointments of two governors are due -- that would give Reagan the opportunity to drastically reshape the Fed. One appears to be going to Treasury Assistant Secretary Manuel Johnson, a supply-side economist.
Some Fed watchers speculate that Volcker might be able to trade off his willingness to step out of the Fed and into the bank for some reassurance that the Johnson appointment would be balanced by another appointment of a person with more traditional views. Another possibility might be to delay his shift to the bank for another year or two, which would provide a more graceful exit for Clausen, who wants to stay that long, until he hits 65.
But one way or another, the World Bank is about to undergo a major transformation. Even if Clausen stays on a bit, the World Bank will be getting into the long-term-development business. As Darman said in an interview published this week in the magazine, Institutional Investor:
"Some of the problems involved are problems that a reasonable person might think should take 20, 30, 40, or 50 years to address. And it strikes me as preposterously ambitious to imagine that these can be fully addressed in the context of a one-, two- or three-year program of the type the IMF alone might impose."