Few events in recent economic history have been deemed as important -- or greeted with as much enthusiasm -- as Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III's Oct. 8, 1985, speech to the meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Seoul acknowledging that something new had to be done to pump more money into the major debtor nations, especially those in Latin America.
Baker's address, said Third World expert Richard E. Feinberg, "marked a fundamental shift for the Reagan administration in several conceptual areas," not the least of which was that the former strategy of dealing with the problem wasn't working.
At recent New York City economic association meetings, former Treasury Undersecretary and New York Fed president Anthony Solomon praised Baker's policy moves on debt (and on exchange-rate intervention) as a return of "pragmatism . . . in a rush."
Despite endorsements of Baker's suggestion that banks boost their lending to debtor nations by $20 billion and the multinational development banks step up lending by 50 percent in the next three years, nothing concrete has happened.
The question is: "Where's the beef?"
Baker's initiative has been kept afloat by statements that it is a terrific idea, but no one has seen the first loan. To be sure, there was a series of approving letters from big bankers to the World Bank and the IMF in time for the meeting of Latin debtors on Dec. 15. "It was a nice show of hands," says Andre de Lattre of the Institute for International Finance, a Washington group representing international bankers.
Then, separately, IMF Managing Director Jacques de Larosiere and World Bank President A. W. Clausen said Baker had a good idea there.
Later, Clausen and de Larosiere reissued their statement, suggesting they thought their first "commercial" for Baker hadn't gotten enough notice.
Finally, Baker, Clausen, de Larosiere, several private bankers and a few potential borrowers -- including Mexican Finance Minister Jesus Silva Herzog -- all met for dinner at Washington's posh F Street Club last week. Again, the Baker idea was praised, and the problems of the debtor nations were reviewed.
But where are the loans? The first job, explains de Lattre, a former official of the French central bank, is to find a country ready to meet the conditions set out by Baker, and to which the World Bank and/or the Inter-American Development Bank are ready to make "structural adjustment loans," which take care of general economic difficulties rather than specific projects.
In Seoul -- and in subsequent discussions -- everybody had assumed that among the 15 countries on Baker's list, Argentina would be first out of the gate.
Argentina had received well-publicized visits from Treasury Assistant Secretary David Mulford and Fed Chairman Paul A. Volcker. But nothing has happened -- no banker has laid hard cash on the line. Meanwhile, Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid told President Reagan at their meeting in Mexicali last week that his country needed to borrow an additional $4 billion this year, of which $2.6 billion would come from commercial banks.
While the debtor countries welcomed Baker's admission that the United States and other major nations -- not just their commercial banks -- must help resolve the again-growing debt crisis, they are not yet ready to buy the imposition of a new, international supply-side ideology.
"We all want economies that grow," one Latin American official said in Montevideo last month. "But not all countries can or want to make the same types of economic changes. If the conditions attached to Baker plan loans are too tough, they will become an obstacle to its use."
There is little time to waste in getting the Baker plan -- at a minimum -- working. In a helpful little volume titled "Till Debt Do Us Part," Alfred J. Watkins of the Roosevelt Center for American Policy Studies warns that, unless there is a sudden shift to a fast-growth (or high-inflation) track that typically benefits debtors, the Baker initiative won't defuse the debt crisis.
On a voluntary basis, the banks will do little to increase their exposure in Latin America. Although exact figures are not available, Feinberg says that bank profits on Latin American loans have remained large during this whole period.
That may be surprising to some, but throughout the debt crunch, Latin America has been paying back to its lenders about $30 billion to $40 billion a year in net-resource transfers, or an amount equivalent to 6 percent of their GNP.
The bottom line is that Baker's initiative not only has to get started, but mightily expanded -- in our own self-interest -- to cut this flow of money from the poor to the rich. It's not always well understood that the economic crisis in Latin America means that the United States loses business, and American workers lose jobs. Between 1981 and 1984, as Watkins points out, the debt crisis in Latin America was as much of a factor in the U.S. trade deficit as the bulge in imports from Japan.