THE PAST YEAR'S oil price increases are now creating dangerous strains on the world's financial system. Most of the oil-exporting countries are earning revenues far faster than they can spend. Most of the oil-importing countries need credit, urgently, to keep buying oil and to keep their economies going. After the first oil crisis, in 1973-74, it was the big commercial banks that recycled the money. They took in the OPEC surpluses as deposits, and lent them back to the customers. But that won't work a second time.
A lot of the banks have lent as much to the Third World as they dare, and lot of the oil-consuming countries have taken on as much commercial debt as they can carry. This time the world's money men are going to have to think of something else.
Ideally, the OPEC governments themselves should lend the money directly to the poor nations whose prospects they have jeopardized. But they won't do it. They believe there is a certain risk to lending to poor countries, and they want somebody else to carry the risk.
A consensus seems to be forming in favor of assigning larger responsibilities to the International Monetary Fund. One question is whether the IMF -- a large organization, run cooperatively by most of the world's governments, rich and poor -- can respond fast enough to be useful. In two weeks, a committee of the IMF's board will meet in Hamburg to talk about next steps.
Over the past 35 years, the IMF has done a lot of lending to countries in trouble. But perhaps the policies and habits that it has developed in that long experience will not prove useful here. In the past, the IMF has generally set conditions -- rather stiff conditions -- for its help. It will provide credit to a country whose currency is sinking, or whose debts have become unmanageable, but only on condition that the country impose stringent reforms. That has ususally been justified in the past. But the present case is different. Even the best-run of countries is likely to be squeezed for credit over the next couple of years. Few can cut oil consumption, or reorganize trade patterns, faster than that.
Perhaps the IMF will need to revive the idea of a special oil-lending operation, running under rules quite different from those that govern the other IMF operations. Perhaps it will need to expand its provisions for emergency help. But it must assume that this time a substantial part of OPEC's oil earnings will have to be lent back to borrowers outside the conventional banking channels. Any communique from the Hamburg meeting will doubtless be couched in the infinitely cautious idiom of the international money men. But their subject will be the protection of the stability and prosperity of the world's economy.