INTERDEPENDENCE is not quite so new as it sounds, for in the 19th century financial crises jumped the Atlantic with great speed and force. In the present circumstances, it's useful for Americans to remember the period in which the United States was a developing country, and the development was heavily financed by an erratic flow of foreign loans.
The panic of 1873 was the first of the great international crises, and led directly to the first prolonged depression in this country's experience. As the economist Charles P. Kindleberger noted several years ago in his illuminating study of financial panics, that one started with the indemnity that France paid to Prussia after the war of 1870. That led to a surge of speculation in Germany, including heavy investment in American railroads and western land. It was apparently the abrupt end of this lending that led to the collapse of credit and the depression. Mr. Kindleberger's point is that systems of money and credit are unstable, and require a lender of last resort -- a super-bank with resources of such depth that it can withstand any shock.
In recent weeks, there has been a lot of discussion of the forms that a future crash might take. Most of it reflects the fear that a bank failure abroad might set off a chain of collapses worldwide. There would be good precedent, for the first world crisis began with the failure of an Ohio bank in 1857, with severe repercussions in London, Paris and Hamburg.
Where is the lender of last resort in 1982, and how well equipped is it? In the United States, it is the Federal Reserve System, with the unlimited resources of the federal government behind it. It unquestionably is able to preserve the liquidity -- that is, the capacity to pay off deposits -- of any American commercial bank, or combination of them. But securing the international system is a little more complicated. There are now carefully prepared networks of support among the central banks of all the rich countries. Beyond that, there is the International Monetary Fund.
Its members are the governments of most of the world's trading countries, and its resources are as large as those governments choose to make them. They are now in the process of increasing their quotas. It will take legislation or parliamentary approval in most countries, including this one. There will be some opposition in Congress, because of irritation over loans that the IMF has or hasn't made in the past. But those disputes are pretty minor, compared with the present necessity. The IMF is emerging as the world's lender of last resort, and no one can be sure that it will not be needed.