IGNORANCE, misdirected zeal and isolationism were in the majority as the House took up the IMF bill this week. They are a powerful alliance. The bill would permit the United States to lend-- lend, not give--another $8.4 billion to the International Monetary Fund to stabilize the world's sytem of credit and trade. The Senate has passed the bill. But in the House on Tuesday the debate--if that's the word for it--brought up a series of familiar questions. Let's go through some of them.
Doesn't this bill bail out banks that have made big loans to the developing countries? Answer: the loans to the developing countries now amount to more than $600 billion. The $8.4 billion in the IMF bill would be a very small bucket for bailing out that huge pool, if bailing were its purpose. But it's not. The American contribution of $8.4 billion would be matched by four times that much in other countries' contributions, then matched again by further bank loans to help debtors avoid defaulting--that is, falling into bankruptcy and being unable, among other things, to buy American goods.
Didn't the American banks lend too much? Answer: too much for whom? Remember that most of those loans financed, directly or indirectly, purchases of U.S. exports. Do you mean that American exports for the past 10 years have been too high, creating too many jobs in this country's export industries?
But shouldn't Congress penalize the banks for greed, and set limits to the interest that they charge poor countries? Answer: remember what happened in this country, in those states that had interest ceilings. When the market rates went up through the ceilings, nobody could borrow in those states and the numbers of bankruptcies soared. Trying to legislate interest rates won't help the poor countries. But congressmen who want a crack at banks' lending practices will have a better opportunity in the banking legislation that is likely to come before them later this year.
Shouldn't Congress try to curb bank lending abroad in order to keep the credit here at home for American businesses? Answer: if Congress interferes with the flow of credit overseas, it will raise the chances of default. A major default abroad would threaten to shrink the banking system's capacity to lend at home as well. The United States has been down this road once before; it happened in the 1930s.
At the beginning of this week the secretary of the Treasury, Donald Regan, confidently pressed the House leaders to go ahead with this bill, assuring them that the administration had the votes. The past two days have demonstrated that Mr. Regan had grievously miscalculated, and President Reagan's session yesterday with some of the House Republicans doesn't seem to have improved matters greatly. The bill has now been pulled back, and when it will come to a final vote is up in the air. Quite possibly it won't be before September.
With that further delay in the American contribution, the danger of serious economic trouble rises significantly. Congressmen sometimes ask what's in an international lending bill like this one for their constituents at home. Answer: what's in it is continued recovery from the recession, and jobs in American factories.