The devastating earthquake that caused massive damage in sections of Mexico City could force the country to seek billions in reconstruction funds and interest relief from international creditors at a time when banks already are reluctant to add new loans to the $96 billion currently owed, according to business and financial experts.
President Miguel de la Madrid's government, which the international financial community had pointed to as an example for other Latin American countries trying to find ways out of the region's debt crisis, signaled last month that it needed $2 to $3 billion in new funds.
Bankers who have said they are skeptical about the pre-earthquake loan requests now are waiting nervously in anticipation of pressures both to lend new money and to show flexibility on repayment of interest on the old debt.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency equipment, food, and medical supplies now are being airlifted into this traumatized capital from cities around the world. But Mexico is slated, at the same time, to send out some $900 million during this and every month to pay the interest on its $96 billion foreign debt. Four out of 10 of those dollars go to banks in the United States.
Foreign bankers here spent much of today in internal conferences and in meetings with Mexican officials and U.S. and other western diplomats to examine the earthquake's financial impact.
The bankers appear to be resisting calls for a possibly precedent-setting interruption of interest payments during the reconstruction period, according to sources familiar with the discussions, although public statements on the issue have been more circumspect and there were some signs of division among the bankers on how to respond.
"We have not received any such request from the Mexican government," said Jose Carral, vice president for Mexico of the Bank of America, one of the country's major creditors.
Carral, who said in a telephone interview that he has communicated regularly since the earthquake with Bank of America's San Francisco headquarters and Mexican Finance Minister Jesus Silva-Herzog, called the earthquake "basically an urban problem" that should be resolved with Mexican "government and private sector resources" together with emergency loans from the World Bank and other noncommercial lenders.
Many analysts, however, doubt Mexico's ability to absorb the cost of the earthquake reconstruction without help from commercial banks. "We are easily talking about several billion dollars of damage to the city's basic infrastructure," a Western European businessman said today, asking not to be named. "Without commercial foreign financing, I don't see how Mexico can do it."
Despite pressure to give Mexico a temporary break from this debt servicing load, foreign bankers and Mexican officials say Mexico has not yet asked for such special treatment during the reconstruction period. "It is too early to say whether Mexico will be asking for a payments moratorium or any other things that have been mentioned abroad," Rafael Resendiz, chief spokesman for the Finance Ministry, said today.
Mexico's entire national budget last year was less than $45 billion and the country next year is scheduled to pay about $14 billion in interest and principal payments, more than half its anticipated export earnings.
Mexico's creditors believe the country can continue to meet its debt commitments, although there may be "some changes or amendments" in its payments plan, Carrals said. He said he could not yet specify what these changes might be.
In response to the disaster, major multilateral lenders have agreed to disburse quickly loans that already were in the pipeline to Mexico. World Bank President Tom Clausen has promised the Mexican government $300 million in previously approved credits for potable water works and urban transport services. Antonio Ortiz Mena, president of the InterAmerican Development Bank and a former Mexican finance minister, flew here Saturday and announced that $800 million in approved loans would be made available immediately for the construction of new schools, hospitals, and other public services.
On Friday, the day after the earthquake, International Monetary Fund Director Jacques de Laroisiere sent a telex to de la Madrid saying the IMF "stands ready to assist your country to the fullest extent possible," Mexico's Finance Ministry reported today. De Larosiere said in his message that he would be sending a representative to Mexico within a few days to discuss the possible granting of an emergency disaster aid loan, the Finance Ministry said.
This contrasted sharply with the IMF's decision on the eve of the earthquake to deny Mexico $800 million in new credits because the country had not lived up to earlier agreements.
Finance Minister Silva-Herzog, meanwhile, is starting to contact the large international finance organizations as well as the central and commercial banks of the major industrial nations "to examine the possibility of coordinated foreign aid," Resendiz said today in a telephone interview.
Bankers are "disposed to sit down and study Mexico's requiremenents for fresh money," Carral said, noting the pre-earthquake request for $2 billion to $3 billion in new credits next year. The unforeseen expense of the earthquake reconstruction effort should "not necessarily alter that estimate," he said, contending noncommercial sources should be able to provide sufficient emergency loans.
Privately, however, some representatives of other foreign banks here say they are sympathetic to the idea of granting Mexico a respite from interest payments, perhaps through the year's final quarter -- a move that would free nearly $3 billion for reconstruction.
Moreover, a hard line by bankers in Mexico's postearthquake crisis-period could stiffen resistance to punctual debt payments that already had been growing in recent months in Mexico's political community.
The full extent of the earthquake damage is just now becoming evident. An estimated 700 buildings have collpased or are slated to be demolished, including more than 200 schools and the city's largest hospitals. Even more costly than the construction of new offices and housing, according to some experts, will be the rebuilding of the infrastructure beneath the streets of the devastated central city district.
"We are going to have to repair gas lines, water mains, power cables, and we're not even sure where some of the older ones run," one federal official said. "This process is going to be enormously expensive and terribly slow."
The country's ability to generate critical hard currency also was affected by the physical damage sustained Thursday. Among the many major office buildings destroyed are the headquarters of the Commerce and Budget ministries, crippling the country's foreign trade and economic regulation bureaucracy.