The governor of South Africa's central bank, Gerhard de Kock, found little encouragement on either side of the Atlantic yesterday as he held lengthy talks with senior banking officials in London and New York to outline measures aimed at easing his country's financial crisis.
Banking sources in London and New York said that it was highly unlikely that South Africa would be able to secure fresh loans from western commercial or central banks to cover South Africa's acute short-term debt problems.
De Kock, however, continued to cast his mission in positive tones, telling reporters at London's Heathrow Airport, "This is no easy task, but I am heartened." He flew on to New York where he immediately began meetings with banking and monetary officials.
The crisis was triggered by the refusal of foreign banks, particularly American ones, to renew credit lines to South Africa. The move threatens South Africa's ability to repay about $12 billion of foreign credits maturing within the next 12 months.
This credit squeeze means that South Africa's financial crisis is rapidly converging with a political upheaval that has built steadily in recent weeks as nonwhites have taken their campaign for major reforms in the country's system of apartheid into the streets.
De Kock's emergency mission through western financial capitals is expected to include meetings in Washington with Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker and officials of the International Monetary Fund and State Department where he reportedly will outline plans to halt the plunge in the value of South Africa's currency, the rand, and to ease demands for loan repayments.
Yesterday, de Kock held talks throughout the day with senior bankers at Citicorp in New York. A Citicorp spokesman declined to give details, but banking sources in London and New York said in telephone interviews that there was little likelihood of western central or commercial banks offering new credit to tide over short-term debt repayments.
South Africa is widely expected to announce measures to shore up the rand and ease its debt problems before financial markets reopen Monday. On Tuesday the government halted trading in stock exchange and currency markets in an effort to stem the flight of foreign capital and halt the slide of the rand, which fell to a record low of 35.5 cents.
There was speculation in London yesterday that South Africa may declare a moratorium on its $12 billion in short-term debts as part of a new financial package.
A senior banker familiar with South Africa's debt problems said he was bracing for a moratorium. "If the bankers are not prepared to lend, then that does not leave de Kock with many options."
The banker said that de Kock either had to find a new source of credit, which was highly unlikely, or opt for a moratorium. "De Kock is not in a position to have even-handed discussions," said the banker, "because everything is colored by the political situation in South Africa. The banks would just have to sit it out and wait for repayment."
This view was confirmed by other London banking sources who played down suggestions of new loans being arranged by the Fed or the Bank of England. "The situation is very different from other debt problems such as Mexico; there is a strong political element which cannot be ignored," one banker noted.
According to this view, western central banks would balk at offering fresh loans to Pretoria because they would risk being accused of propping up apartheid. "Banks will listen patiently, but I don't think they're going to be receptive until they've seen some real reforms," said one banking source in New York.
The pressing nature of South Africa's debt repayments means that de Kock will have to string together a rescue package, perhaps involving the IMF or the Basel-based Bank for International Settlements, which acts as banker to the world's central banks. Another option canvassed in banking circles is for South Africa to arrange new loans backed by its still substantial gold reserves.
Banking sources in London said in telephone interviews, however, that they were skeptical about the IMF becoming involved. "You have to look at the voting pattern of the board. There might not be too many in favor of bailing out South Africa," said one senior banker.
Although political considerations about extending new credit to South Africa rank high, bankers are also questioning how Pretoria allowed short-term debt to pile so high and so quickly. They said that de Kock's mission would cover not only requests for maintaining credit lines but also specific measures aimed at preventing a recurrence of the debt problem.
"In the short-term, the refusal of western banks, particularly American ones, to renew credit lines was partly inspired by sound commercial reasons," said Michael McWilliam, managing director of Standard Chartered Bank in London, which has been active in South Africa since the 1850s.
McWilliam said that the debt crisis was caused by a "collective myopia" among western banks serving South African bank demands for short-term credit over the last nine months.
According to McWilliam, many South African banks sought loans abroad at interest rates far below the prevailing 20 percent domestic rate set by the government to squeeze inflation. Most of these were three- to six-month loans in dollars and British pounds.
South African banks and corporations have sought cheap foreign credit in the past, but the demand was particularly strong last year.
The problems began with the slump in the rand, which brought unexpected pressure on the banks who were having to pay back their loans in dollars or sterling.
"Last year, South African banks were paying 180 rand for their sterling; this year they are paying more like 320," said Peter Toeman, an analyst at brokers Phillips & Drew in London