A month after Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu's government announced a unilateral moratorium on repaying its loans, there is no sign of progress on rescheduling the debt, and Western creditors have yet to agree among themselves about which bills the Romanians should pay first.
During the last three weeks, senior Romanian officials have met with representatives of some of the 312 foreign banks to which they owe money to plead for a "limited" rescheduling of about $2.3 billion in 1981 and 1982 debts.
The Romanians reportedly asked for a three-year grace period before beginning to repay the money and gave assurances that their economy would be strong by then.
However, banking sources familiar with the negotiation say the Romanian proposal raises a number of issues.
One question is how the dozens and perhaps hundreds of Western companies owed money would fare in a rescheduling arrangement.
According to Western sources here, "dozens" of American companies that supply grain, coal, chemicals and equipment are holding about $300 million in uncollected bills, and numerous foreign companies, including some U.S. overseas subsidiaries, are owed another $500 million.
In talks with Western bankers and with the International Monetary Fund, Romanian officials have challenged those estimates. They acknowledged that $630 million was overdue to Western companies as of the end of 1981, but they claimed that only $20 million of that was owed to American firms. According to the Romanian accounting, another $110 million in debt to the U.S. companies is covered by credits and is not yet in arrears.
Sources here said the companies are opposed to a suggestion, put forward informally by the Bucharest representative of Manufacturers Hanover Trust, that the debt to the companies be rolled into a new refinancing package along with debt to the banks.
Although some Western commercial representatives here say they have agreed to let the Romanians pay them back on the installment plan, they add that it would be unfair to treat their debt in the same way as the debt to the banks.
Romania's strategy in coping with its current financial crisis appears to combine a stringent curb on imports with a political offensive aimed at the IMF and Western governments, according to Western analysts. They say the Romanians hope to draw on the good will built up in the last 15 years as a result of the country's independent foreign policy stand within the Soviet Bloc. Romania, for example, did not support the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and refuses to allow Warsaw Pact maneuvers on its territory.
Virtually all new Western credit to Romania has been cut off since late last year. In November, the International Monetary Fund closed its credit window to the Bucharest government. Even before that, efforts by the government to raise financing in the West had been unsuccessful, as word spread through the banking community that Romania was falling into arrears on interest payments to banks and on IOUs to suppliers.
Finance Minister Petre Gigea and president Nicolae Eremia of the Romanian Bank for Foreign Trade met with IMF officials in Washington during the last week of March to discuss conditions for reopening Romanian access to $1.3 billion in standby credits. If the IMF starts the credits flowing again, Romanian officials suggest, loans from governments and banks will follow.
Officials here indicated that they are hoping for quiet support from the Reagan administration. But sources close to the secret talks say the situation has been complicated by lingering concern in the West over Poland and by the difficulties of winning concessions from what they describe as a rigid, secretive Romanian bureaucracy.
"It isn't the governments that need to be convinced now," said one of them. "It's the banks."
One concern is the difficulty of obtaining accurate information on which to base loan decisions. In a March bulletin on the Romanian debt situation, Wharton Econometric Forecasting Associates described economic statistics published in the party newspaper Scinteia as "either incorrect by design or sheer incompetence of the reporting officials."
Two bankers in New York suggested that Romania is trying to use the complex rescheduling negotiations to postpone paying its short-term loans and IOUs to the companies. The bankers said they feared that if such a concession were made to Romania, other countries with financial problems might demand the same terms.
At the same time, some bankers have charged privately that a committee of the nine banks that are Romania's leading creditors is cooperating with the Bucharest government rather than representing the interests of all foreign banks.
"The more debt the big banks can get rescheduled, the better the chances are that they will get paid," said one banker.
Some bankers also have complained that the Romanians, by continuing to pay their debts to the U.S. and other foreign governments, are attempting to isolate the commercial banks and weaken their bargaining position. U.S. officials said in Washington this week that Romanian payments to the Commodity Credit Corp. and the Export-Import Bank are current.
Despite these difficulties, Western firms such as Dow, Mitsubishi, General Electric, 3M, Monsanto, Hoechst, Bayer and Mannesmann still are represented in force here, although they are adjusting their business practices to protect themselves.