Was Treasury Secretary James A. Baker's speech to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund his swan song to that annual gathering? That question was being asked last week because the imaginative Cabinet officer tossed a bundle of new ideas on the table dealing with Third World debt -- and one shocking proposal relating to gold.
His suggestions on debt flirt, ever so cautiously, with debt "relief," which means forgiving or reducing current payments. It's an approach Baker at first ruled out.
If Baker intends to resign his Treasury post some time next year to take charge of George Bush's campaign for the presidency, he may have been anxious to generate discussion of provocative notions that might bring to fruition his main international goals.
Baker suggested including the price of gold in a commodity index, which would be among indicators used to check the economic performance of major countries. Although this was not intended as a prelude to resurrecting a gold standard, this first mention of gold in an official way in 16 years upset some of Baker's colleagues.
But for now, the debt question takes priority. Two years ago at the Seoul annual meeting of the IMF and World Bank, Baker came up with his now famous initiative to help solve the debt crisis among developing countries. The ''Baker Plan,'' as it became known, was widely applauded -- although, as a high official whispered to me on the Baker plane en route to Korea, ''there's not much there, it's only an effort to buy time.''
In essence, Baker called on the commercial banks, with some help from the World Bank, to continue to make substantial new loans to 15 key countries. In return, these nations would commit themselves to stimulate economic growth.
The pro-growth, anti-austerity rhetoric was fine. Some progress was made, but hardly enough. Having been badly burned, banks weren't interested in throwing good money after bad. Even if they had been, as critics such as Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) pointed out, adding new loans onto the existing debt hardly made sense: it simply enlarged the annual interest rate burden.
At last week's annual meeting in Washington, debt relief for the first time began to get official acceptance. The critical test, said IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus, is ''that anything that can be done without adding to the level of existing debt is welcome,'' provided there are no unilateral decisions and the solutions ''are rooted in the market.''
Such a transition from the Baker Plan is a striking development. Camdessus could be that bold because Baker himself has been inching away from his original concept. Last spring, Baker cautiously suggested that banks choose from a ''menu'' offering alternatives to outright new loans, including ''exit bonds'' and ''debt-equity swaps.'' Last week, he broadened the menu to include a cautious endorsement of ''voluntary interest capitalization'' for selected small debtor countries. They would be allowed to add interest payments onto the loan capital itself. Banks don't like interest capitalization because it takes current interest payments off their balance sheets.
Baker also proposed a more generous, ''easy money'' lending program through the IMF to ease the burden caused by higher interest charges generated in the rich nations. He thus directly acknowledged the validity of one of the Third World's most bitter complaints.
Taken together, these Baker initiatives could represent a turning point in the approach to the debt problem. ''Exit bonds, debt-equity swaps and, now, interest capitalization all are one form or another of cutting the payments on the debt,'' said Richard Feinberg of the Overseas Development Council, a Washington think tank.
But for all of these incremental modifications of the old pattern, what still is missing is a grand design. The World Bank is ultimately to get a capital increase, thanks to Baker's sale of that idea to the Reagan White House. But World Bank President Barber Conable did not convince anyone -- especially the big bankers -- that the World Bank can take the lead. The IMF seems to be edging into a more important role, especially in Africa, but results must be awaited.
Meanwhile, the debtors agitate for a more concerted effort. African scholars who met recently in London complained that World Bank and IMF programs have had a negative impact on their countries. They want a conversion of their debts into grants, or more write-offs.
A bold approach is going to be necessary in the end. Substantial debt will have to be cancelled to avoid unilateral action by debtors. The world's major governments, still in the hands of conservative political parties, are moving with more deliberate speed. But they are being pushed by events. Camdessus put it best: ''We need to do more and do it better!''
The Baker of the Washington IMF-bank meeting has gone far beyond the Baker of Seoul, but he's still buying time. One wonders where he -- or his successor -- will be by the time the two lending institutions meet next fall in West Berlin.