Instead of searching the skies of Moscow for clues to the intentions of the new Soviet leadership, the leaders of the West might better turn their attention to the disquieting racket arising from the machine rooms of the Western economy. Our leaders are suffering from two serious delusions.
Faced with the formidable Third World debt, they are convinced that international financial institutions are able to cope with the resulting bankruptcies case by case and by using the traditional methods. Moreover, hoping to be delivered from their nightmares, they anticipate the recovery of the American economy and with it the automatic rescue of the other imperiled economies of the world.
Unfortunately, both of these convictions are lame. No one can really claim to be able to read the future of the U.S. economy, or to say when, with what force or for how long the winds of recovery will blow. The American economy staggers under the triple weight of the federal budget deficit, high real interest rates and world recession. I doubt that the promised recovery will turn it into a powerful locomotive to pull out other economies. The general confidence in the solidity of the international financial system reflects a strange degree of optimism.
True, until now accidents have been avoided. When needed, central banks intervened with determination and speed. Commercial banks did not flounder. The IMF fully assumed its role.
However, is the situation really under control? Is it enough just to sit back and wait for the clouds to clear? The answer is probably not, for four reasons:
Despite appearances, the problem of indebtedness is political, rather than financial. The most difficult task is not to have central banks impose emergency measures nor to get countries in a state of bankruptcy to accept rescheduling agreements as provided by the IMF. The real problem will surface when the time comes to carry out the drastic rehabilitation measures prescribed.
It is unduly optimistic to believe that fragile governments -- in countries whose populations grow at a staggering rate and where there are glaring social inequalities and widespread unemployment, corruption and misery -- are ready to enforce the financial and economic diktats imposed on them. What is more probable is that, under the pressure of an agitated public, the established authorities or those who may replace them will eventually decide, either unilaterally or in agreement with other debtor countries, to repudiate their debts and to refuse the sacrifices demanded of them in the name of Western banks.
Debtor countries must reduce their imports to balance their accounts and repay their debts. The IMF encourages them to do so, and, besides, they have no choice. However, the process necessarily means a further deterioration and extension of the world recession and leads to a painful contradiction. At a time when the IMF urges all borrowing countries to clean up their houses, Western countries through the GATT demand that they open their markets, threatening retaliation should they refuse. It is past time to put some order into our own politics and to view the problem of debt and its economic consequences in a coherent global context.
2 The role the system entrusts to the IMF is that of negotiator and guarantor rather than lender. The bulk of the actual financing is done through private banks. A good example is Mexico: while using all the financial facilities it disposes of, the IMF supplies a little over $1 billion per year, while private banks are asked to increase their commitments to $5 billion for 1983 alone.
Despite the errors they have committed, that is asking quite a lot from those major banks, whose dubious loans already run far higher than their capital. It is asking way too much of the some 1,500 small- and medium-size banks that, disregarding pressing appeals, are choosing to pull out.
By putting pressure on banks, governments run a serious risk. For, should the operation ultimately fail, they expose themselves to justified demands for compensation.
There is reason to wonder whether the present situation is not deteriorating rather than improving. The total debt of underdeveloped countries is estimated at $600 billion, to which short-term debt should be added. This cumulative figure is but one element. No one knows the exact nature of the off-shore banks' transactions. The collapse of the Ambrosiano Bank and the Italian government's refusal to guarantee its transactions in Luxembourg underscore the risk that such interbank activity -- estimated at $2 trillion -- implies.
Finally, too little attention is paid to the rising European debt. Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and Ireland are already faced with difficult financial situations. Italy, Spain and France are on a downhill slope.
So what lessons can we learn from this gloomy picture?
The threat weighing on the world economy is much more serious than commonly acknowledged. If we allow it to develop, a depression similar to the one that shook the world in 1929- 1930 could well follow. But with a difference: it would quickly revive inflation, which all affected governments would be forced to confront. Unavoidably, they would react in a way that dealt a massive backhanded blow to the measures of financial rehabilitation that are now being so painfully put in place.
Then, it is high time for Western leaders to drop their wait-and-see policies. A major initiative is imperative. Instead of nurturing the hope that everything will fall into place by itself, that there is no particular urgency and that it is necessary to maintain a conspiracy of silence, Western countries must face the crisis squarely and offer plausible solutions.
The Versailles summit, which failed to broach any one of these problems, will be remembered in history as the summit of idle talk and blindness. What the world needs is a "Versailles in reverse."
At the top of the agenda would be the restructuring of world debt and the substantial expansion of funds available to the IMF.
It would then be necessary to create a financial security net designed to restore confidence, a prerequisite to any real economic recovery. This would have to go beyond the present cooperation among central banks.
Finally, we would need to reconstruct the international financial system, drawing the proper lessons from the experience since 1973. Rash actions in the past resulted not only from errors in judgment but also from structural weaknesses, which are well known and must be eliminated.
There is no reliable source of information on the actual situation of the debtors. There are still major gaps in a number of countries' internal legislation. Commercial banks have become the principal money lenders but are unable to impose the disciplinary measures that should accompany their loans.
The reciprocal responsibilities of central banks and commercial banks are unclear. The first should not pull the second out of difficulties resulting from unsound management. But commercial banks have reason to turn to their governments when they fulfill a mission in the public interest, one undertaken with governmental approval and because of the government's own failure to act.
Then, international institutions should be able to offer Third World countries the long-term funds they need for their development. Unfortunately, this is not part of the IMF's role and is not within the means of the World Bank.
Avoid the worst, restore confidence, reconstruct an obsolete financial system: those are the urgent tasks awaiting the Western world. They will determine not only the well-being of our economies but also our political future.
No one can say how Yuri Andropov will conduct the policies of his country. But it is common knowledge that in the balance between East and West, the Soviet Union depends on its military advantage while the West has always played on its economic strength. This balance would be shattered if, by sheer blindness or apathy, the West failed to take the necessary measures immediately to preserve its economic vitality. That is one favor the West should not grant Andropov.