Since 1973, the debt of the Soviet Union and its European allies to western banks and governments has quadrupled to more than $40 billion.
This growing burden - a new development in the history of East-West relations - is viewed with concern by some economists. They believe that several Communist countries could have serious trouble meeting their obligations by 1980. This, in turn, could have repercussions on detente and Western foreign policy.
However, that view is not shared by representatives of 15 leading U.S. commercial banks who met at the Commerce Department Wednesday for the latest of a series of regular meetings to monitor the Communist debt situation.
Government sources said bankers felt the Communist debt posed no problem at its present levels and probably could be expanded considerably. However, that view has been questioned recently by some private economists.
Predictions are that Communist credit obligations could reach anywhere between $70 billion and $90 billion by 1980. These countries have been running sizable trade deficits with the West ever since East-West trade began to grow rapidly in 1972.
A recent article in Foreign Affairs quarterly by Richard Portes cited Poland as a country that may have trouble paying off its Western debts on time at the end of the decade.
Porter, a professor of economics at the University of London, wrote that while Poland substantial reserves of copper, coal and sulfur, "only a very large increase in the price of copper would offer any real hope" that the country can repay the debts on time by 1980.
Portes also wrote that several of Poland's dollar-earning exports, such as furniture and textiles, will meet resistance here and in other countries attempting to protect jobs of domestic workers in those industries.
He also cited coming problems in East Germany, which faces a "dangerously high debt/export ratio."
U.S. officials involved with East-West trade do not believe the situation is serious yet, but they concede that the financial pressures on the Communist countries are likely to mount.
The President's International Economic Report, published in January, declares that it is doubtful the Communist countries can close the trade gap soon and says it is evident that the debt cannot be expanded indefinitely to finance imports.
Western banks have extended loans to the Communist countries at rates reserved for low-risk customers. For instance, Hungary recently received a seven-year, $200 million loan in dollars from Europe at only one percent over the rate at which banks lend to each other.
Western bankers say these rates are justified because they believe the Soviet Union eventually would pay off the loans of its allies rather than allow them to default. Of the $39 billion debt at the end of 1976, $25 billion was attributed to the East Europeans and only $14 billion to Russia.
West Europeans lent the bulk of this money. About one quarter of the total is from West Germany. If the East Europeans were forced for financial reasons to curb their trade with the West, whole sectors of the West Germany economy would adversely affected.
Only about $3 billion of the loans are from the United States, almost all of it from commercial banks.
The concern of economists is that starting in about 1980, many of the loans extended to the Communist countries come due at about the same time.
When developing countries have had difficulty paying debts, they often have been aided by loans from the International Monetary Fund, which imposes stringent requirements as a precondition of assistance. However none of the East European countries except Romania belongs to the Fund and official, say those countries' central planners would not accept directives from outside organization or banks.