STRENGTHENING the safeguards in the world's banking system is now a matter of some considerable urgency. It's hard to imagine a more foolish or willfully misdirected response than the performance that the House Banking Committee put on last week. The secretary of the Treasury, Donald T. Regan, had come to it with a bill to increase the lending resources of the International Monetary Fund, which is now playing a crucial role in managing the top-heavy debts of the big Latin American borrowers. One member declared that the committee wouldn't support it unless it also contained new subsidies for the domestic housing industry. The committee's chairman, Fernand J. St. Germain, who habitually turns up on the least-enlightened side of these questions, maintained his reputation by denouncing the whole IMF funding operation as a bail-out of the big commercial banks.
To the contrary, the IMF is forcing the commercial banks to keep lending to the Latin debtors to stave off a collapse. But it can continue to do so only as long as it has money of its own to put in the packages of new, or renewed, loans. Most of the committee understands that perfectly well. But a general hostility toward big banks is one of the few attitudes that disgruntled liberalism shares with right-wing populism, and the temptation to make the most of it was evidently too much to resist.
It's entirely true that the commercial banks have made some spectacularly unwise loans to the Latins -- especially within the past year, pushing the money out in a crescendo of blind competitive zeal with little concern for the recipients' deteriorating ability to repay. It's already clear that the principal of many of these loans will never be repaid; the immediate questions now involve only the interest.
Consider the following possible sequence of future events -- not a likely sequence but, unfortunately, not impossible. News arrives of a coup in one of the debtor countries; Argentina is the example that springs to mind. In a burst of Peronista fervor, the new government there announces that it is repudiating all foreign debts as burdens forced illictly upon the struggling poor of the Third World by the international military-financial conspiracy, etc., etc. Within minutes the big depositors -- whose big deposits, unlike yours, are not insured -- begin moving their money out of the banks with exposure in the defaulting country. To bring those deposits back, the banks desperately begin raising the interest rates that they will pay. As anxiety about the banking system spreads, the whole structure of interest rates shifts upward -- carrying with it the rates on automobile loans, mortgages and industrial bonds. With that, any hope of economic recovery in the United States recedes beyond the horizon.
Any congressman who thinks that the present recession has gone on long enough, and that the numbers of unemployed people have risen high enough, will think twice before delaying the American contribution to strengthening the IMF. The accusations about bailing out the banks are both inaccurate and irrelevant. The IMF needs greater resources for the job that lies ahead of it, and that job is to protect North Americans as well as South Americans from the fatal impact of an international financial collapse on next year's fragile recovery.