Mexico's finance minister said today that industrial countries will save between $60 billion and $80 billion because of lower oil prices this year and that some of it should be channeled to hard-hit oil-exporting countries such as Mexico to help them pay their debts.
Mexico, with a foreign debt close to $100 billion, will find it difficult even to pay just the interest this year because of the precipitous decline in the price of oil. Oil accounts for about 70 percent of Mexico's export earnings.
Speaking to a two-day debt conference here, the finance minister, Jesus Silva Herzog, did not spell out how the industrial countries' savings should be transferred to debtor nations. He called for "lower interest costs and compensatory financing in adequate terms."
Terrence Canavan, executive vice president of New York's Chemical Bank, said that commercial banks, which account for about two-thirds of Latin America's $370 billion in foreign debt, will have to step up their lending to debtor countries, but warned that banks will find it impossible to justify interest rates so low that the banks lose money on the loans.
Canavan and Eduardo Wiesner, a top official of the International Monetary Fund, endorsed the debt strategy outlined last year by U.S. Treasury Secretary James. A. Baker III. The so-called Baker initiative was proposed to help Latin American countries resume healthy economic growth after years of recession.
The Baker initiative calls for a sharp increase in lending to debtor nations by commercial banks and multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. In return for the increased lending, debtor nations are supposed to make major changes in their economic policies, such as selling inefficient state companies.
Canavan predicted that within a matter of months there will be new lending packages for Mexico and Argentina that will be considered part of the Baker plan. He said the Baker process is slow because countries first have to reach agreements with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank before they go to commercial banks for new loans.
Banks have been criticized in recent months because their lending to debtor nations virtually has dried up during the last year. Because Latin American debtors must spend as much as 50 percent of their export earnings to pay interest on their foreign loans, most of them have been unable to afford the imports and investments that are vital to economic growth and modernization.
Silva Herzog, who signaled the beginning of the debt crisis in 1982 when he announced that Mexico no longer could pay its debts on time, said yesterday that lower oil prices will have a positive effect on the world at large, including most debtor nations.
But countries that rely heavily on oil exports -- among them Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador and Nigeria -- have been hit hard by the drop in oil prices. Crude oil prices have fallen from about $27 a barrel late last year to about $11 a barrel today. Silva Herzog warned that, unless oil-exporting debtor countries are helped, there is a danger of a "further deterioration of the debt crisis forced by economic, social and political realities."
He reiterated a theme sounded two months ago by Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado that it is time for banks and others to share some of the sacrifices that debtor nations have borne for the last several years. But like De la Madrid, Silva Herzog was not specific today in how those sacrifices should be shared.
Canavan of Chemical Bank said that bank lending to debtor nations will continue, although at a slower pace than in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He said that the debts never will be repaid in full, any more than the debt of the United States or the debt of American Telephone & Telegraph will be repaid.
He said that the goal of the Baker initiative and commercial banks is to create an environment in which debtor nations grow fast enough to have no further problems paying their foreign loans.
The Latin American debt conference is sponsored by the center established by former president Jimmy Carter at Emory University here.