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Mexico's boom years turning to bust

With the hoopla of Mexico's election over and Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado confirmed as Mexico's next president, attention south of the border is focusing on how this United States-educated technocrat will confront Mexico's deteriorating economy.

The international economic doomsayers, who had a field day with Poland, now are targeting Mexico.

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They suggest Mexico is ripe for economic collapse and cite these statistics:

* Inflation, which hovered at 30 percent a year in 1980 and 1981, is galloping along at 60 percent this year.

* Public foreign debt rose by $18 billion in 1981 alone - reaching a burdensome record of $51.7 billion - and it will clearly go over $65 billion before 1982 ends. It may even reach $70 billion.

* Oil revenues, needed to repay this whopping debt, are averaging a third less in the 1982 market than oil officials had forecast before the world oil glut occurred.

* More than 40 percent of adult Mexicans (over age 17) are either unemployed or underemployed - and Mexico must create some 700,000 to 800,000 new jobs yearly.

* The nation's growth rate, a healthy 8 percent a year in the late 1970s, is almost flat. There is concern that, unless present trends are reversed, Mexico may register a decline in the gross national product in 1983.

In recent weeks, reports of business failures, including that of Grupo Industrial Alfa, S.A., Mexico's largest conglomerate, have rocked both Mexico and the international community.

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''We are now in the most critical period of our 20th century economic life,'' says a banker who heads one of Mexico's top banks, a facility that is weathering the present economic and financial storm - but, as he puts it, ''just barely.''

Bank failures, if they occur, could cause political instability, observers say. The outgoing administration of Jose Lopez Portillo is expected to take steps to prevent such collapse if it seems imminent.

But business collapse is already taking place, as the Alfa empire's trouble indicates. About 1,000 smaller but key industrial firms have sought bankruptcy protection this year. Mexicana de Aviacion, Mexico's private-sector airline, is heavily in debt and there is talk of its imminent collapse.

The causes are multifold. Inflation, which eats into personal pocketbooks, also eats into corporate ledgers. Overexpansion, inability to pay debt or get new loans, and idle productive capacity are other problems.

Put another way: Mexico and Mexicans, after enjoying half a dozen years of oil-fueled growth, are barely getting by. The implications - for Mexico, but also for the US, which counts heavily on Western Hemisphere stability - are enormous.

Already, the flow of undocumented Mexicans looking for work in the US has reached a floodtide. Some estimate the flow in 1982 will be more than 2 million. That calculation may be too high, and some Mexicans will return home after a season of work. But the number of Mexicans heading north is likely to rise higher.

This migration has been a safety valve for Mexico. Any US effort to halt the flow could present Mexico with additional social problems.

Merely keeping up with creating jobs sufficient in number to meet the hundreds of thousands of young Mexicans who come onto the job market each year will require Herculean efforts by Mr. de la Madrid. Mr. Lopez Portillo did fairly well on this score, but sustaining his job-creation record will not be easy.

The President-elect is faced with a flat economy. The economy is ''paralyzed, '' admits Secretary of Finance Jesus Silva Herzog.

In retrospect, those 8 percent growth rates during the late 1970s and early 1980s were probably a mistake.

Mr. Silva Herzog admits that the Lopez Portillo government should have adjusted to the situation with less borrowing. But that, of course, is hindsight.

The mistakes of the past six years now must be met by Mr. de la Madrid, who served briefly as planning and budget minister under Lopez Portillo. A fiscal conservative, he told campaign audiences that he views inflation as Mexico's single ''most worrisome phenomenon.'' Public opinion polls support this conclusion.

''My administration will be judged on how it meets this problem,'' Mr. de la Madrid stated with engaging frankness in the campaign. For audiences in rural areas of Mexico, where the intricacies of inflation are lost on most people, he had some very simple words:

''This issue, which is hard for any of us to understand, centers on what it does to the pesos in our pockets. When you have just as many pesos today as you had yesterday, but you cannot buy as much with them, that is inflation. I know it is hard for you because you cannot do much to make it go away. That is my problem and I must solve it.''

Mr. de la Madrid said often that Mexico's inflation ''is totally out of proportion with the rate of inflation internationally.'' Many observers see this as an admission that, although some of Mexico's problems result from international problems beyond Mexican control, many of its dilemmas are of Mexican making - and they must be solved soon, and in Mexico.

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