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US takes a different stance on world debt payments

There are historical precedents for the massive international debt problems now troubling the world.

During World War I, France, Britain, and other European allies borrowed huge amounts of money in the United States to finance their war effort. Repayment difficulties prompted enormous political problems.

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US Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon in the 1920s negotiated a series of agreements providing for payment of the debts over several decades. All but Finland defaulted when the Great Depression arrived. The European nations were unable to earn through trade the money to continue repayment. Moreover, Germany was no longer paying reparations.

The US attitude was: ''They borrowed the money, didn't they?''

When World War II came, the US decided to avoid the same political hassle of a debt build-up by providing war equipment on a lend-lease basis during the war, after the war helping reconstruction with the famous Marshall Plan.

But once again the US is taking a tough attitude toward a serious world debt buildup. This time the less-developed nations owe more than $500 billion, and some are having trouble making payments.

These debts began to mount quickly when OPEC quadrupled the price of oil in 1973-74 and again doubled the price in 1979. The debtor nations tried to maintain their economic growth and avoid the cut in already poor living standards that was implied by a much higher oil bill. So they borrowed from the rich nations, mostly from commercial banks, to maintain the inflow of modern plant and equipment and other means of development. These orders eased the oil-bill adjustment problems of the industrial countries, though they did not prevent the recession of 1973-75.

Political leaders and economists praised the commercial banks and the developing countries for helping maintain momentum in the world economy.

However, today's recession in the industrial nations, prompted by their battle against inflation, has depressed commodity prices, including that of oil. The developing countries have seen the value of their exports plunge sharply.

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Moreover, the US and the European Community have imposed new trade barriers against such products as sugar, textiles, and tropical fruits.

''I hope there is no more protection,'' said Cesar Virata, prime minister of the Philippines, in an interview. ''If you are hoping to repay what you have borrowed, you have to export to earn the money.'' Nonetheless, Mexico, Argentina , and other developing countries are having trouble making debt payments. And US bankers are once again worried about collecting on their loans.

There is a difference in the American attitude from what it was in the 1920s, though an element of ''they borrowed the money, didn't they?'' remains.

Probably as important, the debts are now seen by key American officials as a lever for enforcing the developing countries to improve the management of their domestic economic policies.

In US eyes many third-world nations conduct improper inflationary policies. They print too much money. They permit huge budget deficits. They subsidize food or state-owned companies at enormous expense.

Beryl Sprinkel, the Treasury's undersecretary for monetary affairs, believes tougher economic policies in the developing nations will not only enable them to repay their debts but will improve the world economy by making it less inflationary, and will eventually help even Mexico and the other developing countries by putting their economies on sounder, more efficient bases.

Moreover, he figures the laws of economics require such adjustments - that nations, like people, cannot for a long time live beyond their means.

The US, he told a small press group here, has been getting its own economic house in order. Now it is time for the debtor nations to do so.

If the developing countries do not take such steps, their creditors would be throwing good money after bad money.

However, for political and practical reasons, the US cannot use the debt lever by itself to force the develping nations into what it regards as more appropriate economic policies. It works through the IMF and the World Bank.

If a debtor nation has a serious international-payments problem, it can seek a short-term loan from the IMF. But the IMF will put ''conditions'' on that loan. The borrowing country will have to alter its economic policies in a way that reduces its balance-of-payments deficit. That usually means an austerity program of some sort.

''Conditionality'' can also be attached to longer-term World Bank loans.

The Reagan administration has been campaigning to have the IMF toughen its conditionality since it came into office about 20 months ago. Mr. Sprinkel figures the campaign has succeeded.

Now he is worried that if the members of the IMF enlarge the resources of the fund by too much, that international lending body will be under less presssure to be firm on conditionality. His view is ''give bureaucrats money, and they will spend it.''

Thus, in the dispute over IMF quotas, the US has stood fast for only ''modest'' or ''adequate'' quotas - without specifying numbers - while other industrialized countries have agreed to a substantial boost in quotas. In numbers, the US wants an increase in the current $65 billion in fund resources of less than 50 percent; the others want hikes of more than 50 percent.

Mr. Sprinkel says the two sides have come closer. But it will take some tough negotiations between now and next April before an agreement is reached.

The other nations are more worried that a debt crisis will prompt a financial panic. The US, though concerned, apparently has stronger nerves and is sticking to its goal of forcing the world into a more stable economic pattern.

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