The top guns on global financial policy from the world's seven richest nations are about to hold what may be their most important meeting since they agreed in Paris in February 1987 to keep exchange rates stable within acceptable "target zones."
This exclusive club, the Group of Seven finance ministers and central bankers, will meet in New York, probably on Jan. 20 and 21, just a few days after the Jan. 15 deadline given by the United Nations to Saddam Hussein for an exit from Kuwait.
The impact of the Persian Gulf crisis on the global economy will dominate the session, the first of several leading to the mid-year economic summit in London. One remaining uncertainty on timing relates to German Finance Minister Theo Waigel's busy schedule while his country is forming a new, unified government.
The New York meeting will deal less with exchange rate stability -- overriding objections by the French -- and more with a global economic picture that has deteriorated sharply since officials met last September. French Finance Minister Pierre Beregovoy has publicly expressed his dismay at the fall of the dollar over the past year. A declining dollar gives the United States a trade advantage over France.
The session may also produce a confrontation with Germany, whose central bank president, Karl Otto Poehl, has threatened to boost interest rates because of the growing budget deficit from the costs of unification.
The other powers worry that higher German interest rates, inevitably forcing up rates everywhere, would be the wrong global policy medicine right now. While Germany wants to maintain a strong mark and tight monetary policy as insurance against inflation, that stance could exacerbate recessionary trends in the rest of the world. "The Germans are not very popular in Europe right now," says one observer.
Another sensitive issue concerns the failure of the Uruguay Round trade talks. The G-7 ministers will probe for a way to revive them. But the Americans and Canadians bitterly condemn a combined European-Japanese strategy that led to the fiasco in Brussels, and the ill-feeling is reciprocated.
The American economy, meanwhile, is entering a full-blown recession, a situation Bush administration officials were not ready to concede when the G-7 met last September. Among leading nations, only Germany and Japan can expect solid economic growth this year -- and even Japan is lagging behind its usual stellar pace. Recession or general weakness will prevail among the rest of the G-7 -- Britain, Canada, France and Italy.
Beyond their own troubles, G-7 ministers must face negative economic factors in the world at large, chief among them economic deterioration in the Soviet Union and massive problems in the Eastern European countries. As a recent International Monetary Fund study commissioned by the Houston Economic Summit certified, the economic malaise in the Soviet Union has gained speed and force and is spilling over into Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the other former satellites.
For the fledgling democracies in Eastern Europe, the Soviet collapse couldn't have come at a worse time. These countries have been battered by the disruption of trade patterns with Iraq, which supplied oil and bought manufactured goods, and the loss of East Germany as a good customer. Now that the former East Germans have access to quality goods -- and marks to buy them -- they're less interested in lower-quality goods from Poland or Czechoslovakia.
The U.S. Treasury has collected a special international fund to disburse to Jordan, Egypt and Turkey, the "front-line" nations in the gulf crisis. But help for Eastern European countries hasn't been organized in the same way.
Short of an end to the confrontation in the gulf, insiders say there is little that the G-7 meeting can do to alleviate Eastern Europe's economic distress. Help for the Soviet Union, now that the leaders have the massive study by the IMF and three other international agencies before them, might be accelerated. But that depends largely on whether Mikhail Gorbachev is able to pursue the kind of economic reforms spelled out by the IMF report.
Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady will push for an endorsement of President Bush's suggestion that the Soviets be granted a "special associate status" with the IMF and World Bank. Officials also will discuss whether additional aid money should be raised for the Turks, Egyptians and Jordanians.
Tensions over the dollar's decline will be papered over. Beregovoy accuses the Bush administration of following a policy of "benign neglect." But given the weakening U.S. economy, a bargain like that reached at the Louvre in Paris in 1987 is out of the question: Other G-7 members have concluded there is little real power they could or should exert to stabilize the dollar at this juncture.
The United States will continue to reject outright the French accusation of "benign neglect" of the dollar. At the same time, officials will concede that the United States's top priority is to limit the extent of recession and to assure recovery. That, in all likelihood, will require further reductions in U.S. interest rates.