Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III has made his plea, but so far there is no wave of new money from the world's commercial banks rolling toward Latin America to help solve the three-year-old debt crisis.
But neither is there total cynicism among bankers over the latest U.S. prescription, unveiled here last week amid carefully generated suspense during the annual conference of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
The U.S. prescription does include new government money for the region, it is pointed out. And it does include new language, which has prompted speculation that the United States is shifting gears in its long-term strategy toward the region and its debt.
"Private lenders are being told they're not in this thing on their own," said one banker from an American institution with major commitments in the region.
Latin America today might seem to present the classic dilemma of banking gone bad: Whether to take a loss with a problem debtor and pull the plug; or gamble on pumping in still more money in the hope of getting everything out in the end.
But in practice, debtor countries, especially ones owing as much as Brazil and Mexico (the region's two largest debtors), are never foreclosed because their banks could come crashing down behind them. From the start, many bankers have assumed that sooner or later more money would have to be found, and the Mexican earthquake does not seem to have changed that. Some say the Baker plan could speed up that process.
It calls, in part, for the World Bank, the affiliated Inter-American Development Bank and other multilateral lenders to increase new loans to the principal debtor countries by about $3 billion per year. About two thirds would come from the World Bank.
With the United States behind it, that much seems a certainty. The trick is in the rest of the plan. Debtor countries are meant to put their financial houses in order, and private bankers, rendered newly confident by all of this, are to come forward with $20 billion in additional loans over three years.
That would mark a radical change from today's stalemate. Commercial banks, which hold about $220 billion of Latin America's total $360 billion debt, have all but cut off new lending this year to the region.
Many of the region's leaders are now in revolt against the economic "readjustment" policies imposed by the IMF -- with the blessing of commercial creditors -- in return for short-term balance-of-payments aid. The IMF policies usually involve austerity measures, such as reduced government spending and imports.
Brazil and Mexico are now in non-compliance with IMF programs to which they agreed earlier, and, consequently, IMF credits have stopped. Peru has no program, but has made a radical statement that it will limit total debt service payments to 10 percent of import proceeds.
What is needed to generate foreign exchange for debt service, the countries say, is growth -- not the painful contraction that they say is always the result of IMF policies. They also cite the danger of social unrest as unemployment and anger mount. A case in point was a rally against austerity measures by thousands of banner-waving workers in Argentina in August.
The new multilateral lending, which will not for the time being mean a general capital increase for the World Bank, is meant to prime the pump for private banks, which alone can provide money in the volumes that the region is said to require.
Baker briefed U.S. banking leaders on the plan's basics before coming to Seoul, and U.S. officials reported that the banks seemed receptive. World Bank President A. W. Clausen gave a similar upbeat assessment, saying his meetings in Seoul had convinced him that bankers believe that new loans -- if the other conditions are met -- are in "their long-term self-interest."
But in private conversations with bankers in Seoul last week, there were no shortage of skeptics.
A Scandinavian suggested that the World Bank initiative would make private creditors rest easier over old loans. But not many would feel safe enough to wade in deeper. "Each one is praying someone else will do it," said a French banker.
Assaad S. Assaad, president of Abu Dhabi International Bank, said he found it inequitable that the United States wanted commercial banks to get in deeper but was not willing to come up itself with more capital for the World Bank.
Bankers also pointed to the disappearance during the haggling that went on during the conference of another step that might have prompted new bank loans. That was the provision of World Bank guarantees for such loans. Such a provision would have marked a major policy departure for the bank, which has issued only four such guarantees in its 40-year history.
What private lenders probably will want more than new World Bank money, however, is reform of the debtor economies. But that has been promised so many times that governments will have to move mountains to convince people that this time is different.
Baker said that confidence must be restored at home first. "If a country's own citizens have no confidence in its economic system, how can others?" he said in an address to delegates here.
In his description of what debtor countries should do with their economies, his repeated use of the word "growth" intrigued bankers and debtors alike. Did it mean he was reconsidering the IMF's austerity route? Did it mean Washington was beginning, at least in part, to buy the arguments heard in Latin American capitals?
Brazilian Finance Minister Dilman Funaro jumped on the word as the most significant element of the whole package. In an interview about the plan, he said: "I think its a good answer for what Latin American countries have been asking . . . For sure, I'm not going to take my country into recession again."
U.S. Assistant Treasury Secretary David Mulford has said the United States now looks to a group of 100 to 150 of the world's largest banks leading the way back into the region. But it is unclear whether any formal discussions for such a move are taking place.
Japanese banks, which recently have been a bit more willing to lend in the region than American ones, are on the team, according to Finance Minister Noboru Takeshita. "When consensus, including the United States, is found, I think the cooperation of Japanese banks can be counted on," he told a press conference.
Funaro said that before Baker made his speech, the committee made a pitch to Brazil urging the nation's officials to conclude an agreement with the IMF, which Brazil has said it will not do if the agreement chokes off growth.
But Funaro said that he later met with the presidents of three major U.S. banks and one British bank and found a positive attitude. "They are optimistic," he said. "They think it will be good for them to start again, to make loans."
In the multilateral agencies, too, there are people who speak positively on the longer-term view of Brazil and Mexico. Giovanni Vacchelli, director of corporate promotion and syndications at the International Finance Corp. said that, from a larger perspective, both countries have fundamentally strong economies, because of well developed industrial bases, natural resources, able entrepreneurs and large domestic markets.
New lending for commercial projects will depend on internal conditions, he says. "The pull is going to come from business decisions," he said, "not from banks looking to expand their business."