THE ECONOMY is strangely out of phase. The long recovery from the great wringing-out of the early 1980s continues, but its benefits are unevenly felt. The unemployment rate edges down, but the books of lending institutions continue to be pockmarked and burdened with bad loans. The recovery has not been strong enough to wash away this financial wreckage. Increasingly it seems as if the government will have to play a part, but there are tricky questions here.
The two leading examples of lingering costs are the Farm Credit System and the savings and loans. Perhaps an eighth of the savings and loans in the country are now technically insolvent. To keep and add depositors, they promised higher interest rates. To earn the higher interest, they made riskier loans, and the loans went bad.
There is a federal insurance system for the S&Ls. The insured associations pay in premiums; the pool is used to keep depositors whole if an association fails. But currently there is not enough money in the pool to pay off the depositors if the regulatory agency shuts down all the S&Ls it should. The administration has proposed a bill to expand the pool and free the regulators. But the healthy S&Ls don't want to foot the bill; the unhealthy don't want to be shut down; and both the House and Senate have responded classically by temporizing, authorizing smaller amounts than almost anyone believes will be necessary to do the job. This leaves for the future the question: Who will pay the rest -- the industry or the taxpayers?
There has also been hesitancy to face the problem of the Farm Credit System. This federally chartered (though not federally funded or insured) lending network makes about a third of all farm loans. So many loans are bad and -- because the value of farmland has declined -- have so little collateral behind them that the system needs help. Not all its member banks and credit associations are hurting equally, and Congress first tried to have the healthy help the weak. The healthy have resisted just as did the solvent S&Ls. Now the idea is to have the Treasury extend a line of credit. If farm values some day turn up again, the Treasury would be paid off; if not . . . .
Meanwhile, there are also questions about how to reform the system to guard against excess in the future, and how hard to come down on the farmers who are behind in their loans. As always, Congress wants to be both businesslike and generous, to placate both the farmer and the taxpayer.
But at some point these goals become contradictory -- and what is most important in both these rescue operations is not to dawdle. The issues are hard enough to resolve in a recovering economy; a recession would compound them while limiting the government's ability to help. As with the budget deficit and other weak welds with which it must deal, Congress faces not just structural problems but the clock