A sense of complacency on the Third World debt problem has set in. Says former Assistant Secretary of State Robert Hormats, "Right now, we may simply be in the eye of the hurricane." His judgment is shared privately by key figures in the multilateral lending institutions.
Today's seeming calm can be traced to a successful short-term emergency rescue job triggered by Mexico's troubles last year. That signaled a larger crisis, and pushed the Reagan administration, the IMF, the Federal Reserve and other central banks into somewhat panicky action.
That sense of urgency has now subsided. Yet, the longer-term, underlying problems have been pretty well ignored, most recently at the Williamsburg summit.
There are two broad areas of potential trouble: first, some of the larger countries that borrowed from the IMF have already found it necessary to seek easier terms. And second, some other Latin American countries are not considered good enough risks by the commercial banks to warrant new loans.
The latter won't have enough borrowing capacity to sustain economic growth. As Hormats observes, that could transform what is now merely a financial problem into a serious developmental and political problem.
The able and sophisticated Mexican minister of finance, Jesus Silva Herzog, admitted to a group of Washington Post editors the other day that after 40 years of positive economic growth prior to the 1982 crisis, fully half of Mexico's population remains in poverty. He warned that the slip backward this year--that is to say, into a period of negative economic growth--can't go on for more than another year or two without creating a social crisis.
There is a long agenda waiting to be accomplished if the debt "time bomb" is to be defused. In Mexico and other Third World countries, the so-called "adjustment" process must include more than austerity measures. Corruption that has helped skew the distribution of income must be tackled by courageous political leaders.
And the commercial banks that once followed the dictum of Citicorp's Walter Wriston that lending to a sovereign state is a no-risk business must not be allowed now to squeeze the less-developed nations--on whom they once lavished loans--for extra interest and fees.
Said Silva Herzog with a trace of nostalgia: "I remember that when we used to come to international monetary conferences we would have a number of invitations of breakfast, and lunch and dinner from the international bankers. We were really very much liked. We had to divide ourselves --why don't you go with this banker and I'll go with that one, and so on. Let me tell you that at the IMF meeting in Toronto (last September after news had broken of the Mexican crisis) we had to go have breakfast, lunch and dinner by ourselves."
For the Mexicans, it's no more free lunches, and they pay through the nose for the commercial loans they get. This reporter noted back in March that the commercial banks, by increasing their interest rates and slapping on huge fees for rescheduling loans, were extracting an extra $800 million from Mexico in 1983.
In the current Foreign Policy magazine, Karin Lissakers of the Carnegie Endowment quotes one banker, in what she says was an unguarded moment: "That (unmentioned country) is a cash cow for us. We hope they never repay!"
For the moment, the Reagan adminstration and the banks are lobbying for Congress to appropriate $8.4 billion in new money for the IMF. If they get it, says Lissakers, there will be an implied government guarantee for new loans to the debtor countries.
She suggests that the governments, the banks and the IMF have struck "a Faustian bargain" in which the banks have been paid too high a price to secure their cooperation in keeping a flow of money going to the Third World.
Not only are the banks free to squeeze countries like Mexico for extra cash-- even though the IMF involvement almost negates the risk--but governments in effect have endorsed the loose banking practices that helped bring on the problems in the first place.
"The current solution to the international debt problem is disturbingly similar to the policies and processes that created the crisis in the first place," says Lissakers.
A real solution should require not only a leash on greedy private bankers, but actual removal of protectionist barriers so as to open markets here and in Europe to Third World exports. It would involve a rational consolidation of existing international debts over a long term. It would require major banks and their stockholders to "eat" some considerable losses.
But until the "debt bomb" explodes, none of these things is likely to happen.