ALTHOUGH WE evidently don't want to face the fact, we are in the midst a global banking crisis -- and the bankers who have the most to lose seem determined to push the system closer to the edge.
The basic elements of the crisis should be fairly familiar by now. On one side, Poland, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and a half dozen other countries have accumulated much more foreign debt than their economies can support. On the other side, Chase Manhattan, the Bank of Tokyo, Germany's Commerzbank and hundreds of other banks have far more foreign loans at risk than they have capital and other reserves to draw on in the event of nonpayment by borrowers.
That spells potential trouble, on a large scale.
What is the plan to avert a breakdown? It calls for economic "belt-tightening" and still more borrowing by struggling debtor countries; short-term credits from institutions like the International Monetary Fund and from individual governments (in the hope of making the austerity measures tolerable and to ensure that the debtors at least keep making interest payments); and more lending -- at the higher interest rates -- by private banks.
These steps may allow bankers to continue the pretense that their debtors merely lack cash, temporarily, and will have no difficulty paying if they can be carried through this awkward time. But it is only a pretense.
The reality is that the solution will create more debt, tighten the financial squeeze on debtor nations and increase, rather than ease, their debt burdens. In short, it may well move the global financial system closer to the disaster scenario everyone seeks to avoid.
That scenario need not be the collapse of a major international bank following a repudiation of its debts by a single country or by a "debtors' cartel," as many assume. Mexico, Brazil and Argentina reportedly did consider renouncing their debts and rejecting the austerity programs being pressed on them. But they have backed away, for now, in the face of concerted warnings from the industrial countries and their banks that all new credit would be blocked and the defaulters' assets abroad -- bank accounts, real estate, ships, planes and goods in transit -- would be seized as payment for defaulted loans.
So Argentina and Mexico have reached agreements with the IMF, and Brazil is taking steps the IMF would be expected to demand under a stablilization program.
Although a number of other disaster scenarios also have surfaced of late, the U.S. stock market appears to have discounted the possibility of a major banking crisis. Indeed, bank stocks have risen sharply in the bull market of recent months as increased bank earnings have been reported (in some cases with the help of insufficient reserves being set aside to cover potential losses).
But the stock market's optimism in this case, as in others, may be ill-founded. As John Heiman, former comptroller of the currency, says, "The system can deal with the anticipated crisis; in this business it's the unexpected that gets you."
Talks with those who manage the international flow of funds suggest the "the unexpected" might be something like this:
It is Dec. 27, little more than a month from now. The trouble signs are noticed first by the 50 people working in a little grey temple on an odd-shaped block toward the front of Broad Street, headquarters of the New York Clearing House. This building at 100 Broad houses CHIPS, the Clearing House Interbank Payment System, electronic nerve center of the $1.5 trillion Eurodollar market.
CHIPS is the central clearing mechanism for all transactions in dollars held or loaned outside the domestic U.S. capital market. It is a computerized "pool" into which member banks put all international dollar payments due to and from them that day. The 100 participants make these payments and withdrawls on behalf of all nonmember banks active in the Eurodollar market.
At the end of the day, payments and withdrawals must balance. In recent months, the flow of payments through the CHIPS computer has averaged about $225 billion.
Late today, it is discovered that several participating Third World banks, including Banco do Brazil, a Venezuelan bank, an Argentinian bank and two Mexican banks, have failed to pay into their clearing agents substantial sums due from them. The unwillingness of the New York banks to grant the enormous loans necessary to eliminate the shortfall makes final settlement of the day's transactions impossible. Clearing House banks that were counting on payments from the Third World banks to cover their own obligations are left holding the bag for hundreds of millions of dollars.
CHIPS barely survived a similar experience in 1974 when the small Herstatt bank was closed by German banking authorities in the middle of the banking day, leaving some banks dangling in mid-transactions with Herstatt. Two days later, the CHIPS system had virtually halted. Because of a sudden loss of confidence, banks were refusing to release their own payments until they had received payment from other banks owing them. Thus every bank was waiting for some other bank to move first, paralyzing the process.
But then there were only 50 participating banks, all from industrial nations, and because the crunch came on a Friday, there was time before Monday morning to gather the chief executives of the major clearing banks and contact central bankers to work out a solution. The CHIPS computer was kept open -- in effect extending Friday through the weekend. Assurances that the Clearing House would stand behind its members and backing by the Federal Reserve restored confidence in the clearing process.
Now the numbers are larger, and many more banks are involved. Confidence in the international banking system is already badly shaken, and this failure comes in the middle of a Christmas holiday, when both central banks and commercial banks are operating with skeleton staffs. Officials senior enough to make decisions have to be tracked down at ski lodges, Caribbean resorts and grandma's house. Decisions have to be made before the opening of business tomorrow. Finally, the central banks of the five defaulting CHIPS members may not have adequate reserves to back those banks, even if they are willing to do so. Therefore, there seems no quick way to restore confidence.
This evening, CHIPS managers have no choice but to offer every member the option of withdrawing its payments from the clearing. All do.
The next day, all activity in the Eurocurrency markets grinds to a halt. No CHIPS member has been willing to put in its payments to other banks for fear of coming up short. On Wall Street, stock prices drop sharply as European and other foreign investors withdraw from the market, unable to move funds into the United States.
What is behind this collapse of CHIPS? On Dec. 29, a spokesman for the New York Fed explains that it has been caused by the failure of Argentina to pay several hundred million to banks in developing countries to cover goods and securities already delivered.
The government in Buenos Aires has refused all official comment. But an unnamed finance ministry official is quoted as saying that while Argentina cannot afford to default on credits from major industrial countries, its Third World trading partners are in no position to retaliate. Therefore, Argentina has deferred payments on its Third World debt and is using its limited foreign exchange resources to continue paying the industrial nations.
The next day, the governments of Mexico, Brazil and other countries affected by Argentina's action announce that they will deduct from their debt payments to U.S., European and Japanese banks sums equal to the payments overdue to them from Argentina.
The Fed in Washington and the central banks of Western Europe and Japan announce that they will ensure the solvency of any commercial bank in their jurisdiction that might be hurt by the CHIPS breakdown.
The U.S. Agriculture Department urges all responsible authorities to act decisively to solve the problem. Shipments of U.S. grain bound for the Soviet Union are being held up because the Narodny Bank is having trouble transferring payment to the grain companies. And President Reagan has prohibited sales on credit to the Soviets.
The New York Port Authority says shipments of other goods are piling up at dockside. U.S. exporters apparently are holding up shipments as banks refuse to issue the necessary letters of credit. Oil tankers are said to be circling in the Atlantic, barred from delivering their cargo because the CHIPS breakdown has tied up dollar oil payments.
On Dec. 31, the U.S., Western European and Japanese central banks announce that the U.S. Fed will temporarily take over the Clearing House operation and that each central bank will stand behind all transactions by its own banks through CHIPS. Banks that failed to make payments on Dec. 27, however, will be barred from using CHIPS.
But by Jan. 3, Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil have announced that they will halt all dollar debt payments until their banks are readmitted to CHIPS. Stalemate.
This scenario may be viewed as improbable, but it is not implausible. And the steps now being taken or proposed make it more, not less, plausible.
Remember that interest payments on foreign debt now constitute the single biggest drag on many debtor nations' finances. This year, these interest payments will equal 45 percent of Brazil's export earnings, 44 percent of Argentina's, 40 percent of Chile's and 37 percent of Mexico's.
In the case of Mexico, for example, none of the "rescue" measures will ease that nation's burden, and some will make it worse.
The $1 billion U.S. prepayment for Mexican oil and the $1 billion Commodity Credit Corporation credit guarantees for U.S. grain exports both carry commercial rates of interest. The $1.8 billion in currency swaps arranged by the U.S., European and Japanese central banks must be repaid soon, probably with part of the $4.5 billion in loan aid it is counting on getting from the IMF. But IMF loans, too, must be repaid -- with interest.
These loans will not reduce Mexico's foreign debt or increase its productive capacity. All they will do is provide funds for Mexico to pay the $16.1 billion in interest it owes to private banks and to other creditors between now and the end of the year.
The banks are expected to reschedule at least the $22 billion in loans to the Mexican government that come due in this period. Rescheduling agreements usually stretch repayments over seven to 10 years, with two to four years' "grace." Interest on these rescheduled loans, however, must be paid currently and usually at a new, higher rate. A substantial rescheduling fee is also standard.
Mexico will also ask the banks to extend some new loans. Such loans will be made only at a substantially higher "spread" -- a greater margin for the bank over the London Interbank Offer Rate (LIBOR), which serves as a benchmark for interest charged on most international loans. In 1981, Mexico was able to borrow at a spread of 0.5 percent. Now it will probably be asked to meet the same terms as Brazil, which in recent months has been paying 2 1/8 percent over LIBOR for 8-year money, plus a 41/2 percent fee.
Thus some of the benefits of declining interest rates in recent months are being offset by the bigger spreads and fatter fees banks are charging the most heavily indebted countries. From the bankers' viewpoint, the higher rates are justified by the risk they take in continuing to lend to these nations. But the real effect is more indebtedness and bigger interest burdens in the future.
Mexico, for its part, will have to slash imports and reduce its domestic standard of living so that more export earnings will be available for interest payments. The external accounts will look better, but the internal economy may be greatly weakened.
Deep cuts in imports could cripple much of Mexico's manufacturing sector, and a sharp contraction in Mexico's economy will only add to the recessionary trend in the world economy. As Secretary of State George Shultz has noted, if every debtor country adopts an austerity program, where is the recovery to come from? The United States, which supples 70 percent of Mexico's imports, will be the first to feel the effects of a Mexican "belt-tightening." And this is to say little of the increased flow of illegal immigrants that will result.
If there were some prospect of a vigorous worldwide economic recovery in the next year or two it might make sense for even very heavily indebted countries to borrow still more to tide them over, planning to export their way out of the debt trap. But forecasters agree that the recovery in the industrial countries will be weak. Persisting high unemployment creates pressures on governments to protect domestic industries and jobs against foreign competition -- especially against exports from low-wage, developing countries.
Under these conditions, the answer to the debt problem cannot be to lend already debt- ridden developing countries more money at higher interest rates.
There is an alternative: to provide real debt relief by allowing debtors to reduce or withhold interest payments for a time.
Without the drain of large interest payments, debtor nations would need to borrow less and could devote the bulk of their export earnings to investment and paying for imports. A higher level of economic activity could be maintained without incurring more debt, and potentially destablizing reductions in the standard of living could be avoided. The world economy would benefit, and over time these nations would be in a stronger position to resume paying their debts.
The banks have sought to avoid this solution, warning that if they don't keep lending and the countries don't keep paying interest, the banking system might collapse.
Writing off the entire $300 billion commercial banks have loaned to developing countries, or just the $110 billion on loan to Mexico and Brazil, would indeed be catastrophic for the biggest U.S., European and Japanese banks. Their combined capital and reserves are only a fraction of these loans. But that would only happen if these countries flatly repudiate their debts.
Forgoing current interest income on the loans is a different proposition. Yes, the banks would suffer a temporary but substantial drop in earnings. Some might even show losses for several quarters. International lending accounts for roughly half the earnings of the largest U.S. banks, and loans to highly indebted developing countries have been particularly profitable. As Salomon Brothers, the investment banking firm, notes, banks' "net interest income in both Brazil and Argentina soared in 1981, following perceived credit and liquidity concerns in these nation."
Interest income from these countries would no longer "soar," but a temporary decline in bank profits would be manageable. According to the U.S. Country Exposure Lending Survey, at the end of 1981 nine large U.S. banks held 20 percent, or $22 billion, of Mexico's and Brazil's combined commercial bank debt. Assuming that average funding expenses for the banks will be 8 percent in 1983 -- that is, that the banks will have to pay about 8 percent to depositors and others to acquire the money they lend out -- it would cost these banks $1.76 billion if Mexico and Brazil paid no interest at all in 1983.
The combined net earnings of these nine banks last year totaled $3 billion. Reported earnings for most of these banks were up substantially in the third quarter of this year. Thus even assuming the worst case of no interest payments at all from the two biggest international debtors over the next year, these banks would most likely show a substantial profit.
Less drastic concessions -- cutting interest payments in half, for example -- could make a substantial contribution to easing the financial squeeze on the most heavily indebted countries without devastating the banks.
Banks have shown great flexibility in providing interest relief to domestic corporations that are on the verge of bankruptcy, when there is no one else to bail them out. And in the case of Chrysler and New York City, Congress made public assistance contingent on parallel sacrifices by the banks. Why should the same not be done for debtor countries? Sacrificing some income now could ultimately be far less painful for the banks than pushing debtor countries -- and their political systems -- to the point where default seems the only alternative.
The Polish experience should be kept in mind. The Polish government under Edward Gierek, like Mexico under Lopez Portillo, launched a wildly ambitious economic modernization program which it financed by borrowing against future earnings. The borrowed billions were squandered through bureaucratic inefficiancy and corruption. When the debts came due before the export earnings had materialized, Gierek struggled desperately to reconcile the competing economic demands of Polish workers and his foreign creditors. He slashed imports, slowed wage increases and sought to raise food prices to free up more foreign exchange for debt servicing. The workers revolted, Solidarity came into being and the Gierek government fell.
There is no reason to believe that Latin American workers will react more passively than the Poles to a tough austerity program. In Mexico, Brazil or Argentina, the government's response may not be repression of workers but defiance of foreign creditors.
The current debt crisis is manageable, provided all the parties who helped create it are willing to bear part of the cost of resolving it. If, however, the creditor governments and the creditor banks insist on putting the entire burden on debtor countries, the weakest party in this unhappy triangle, they will invite a crisis that may not be manageable at all.