MEXICO'S CURSE

NOW THAT THE COMMERCIAL BANKS seem likely to cough up the $6 billion in new loans Mexico has been asking for, it's time for the Mexicans to go about the business of bringing down their high rate of inflation.

In addition to the $6 billion in new money Mexico will receive - if the 13-member advisory committee, made up of the largest creditor banks, sells the plan to Mexico's 500 other creditors - the commercial banks will provide further credit of $1.2 billion in public and private-sector investment in the event the price of oil falls below $9 a barrel. If Mexico fails to meet its growth targets, the banks will kick in an additional $500 million.The Mexicans complain interest rates on the package are still too high - 13/16ths of 1 percent above the London interbank borrowing rate. But that rate is a reduction from the previous 1 1/8 percent above Libor, and covers $43.7 billion of previous debt in addition to the $6 billion in fresh money.

All in all, the Mexicans are happy. "It's a good deal," Gustavo Petricoili, finance minister, said.

While there was grumbling from many commercial bankers about this ''concessional" loan package, the Mexicans have earned another shot. They have instituted numerous economic reforms in recent years and for that they are to be lauded. The government devalued the peso, which has made Mexican non-oil exports more competitive in world markets. As a result such exports have increased 30 percent. On the import side, the Mexicans have liberalized the import licensing procedures and slashed tariffs.

They've also joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

These much-needed reforms have brought Mexico into the global trading order, while having the very positive effect of pushing Mexican domestic industry to become more competitive.

Equally as important, Mexico has employed tight fiscal and monetary policies to stem the flow of capital. By setting interest rates at high levels, the Mexican government has reduced internal borrowing, while providing an incentive for Mexicans to keep their pesos at home.

So hats off to the Mexicans for making necessary economic reforms, kudos to the commercial banks, the IMF and the World Bank for their well-conceived debt package and everything is crackerjack; except for one thing - an annual Mexican inflation rate of 96 percent. That's not as bad as the rates of inflation in Brazil, Argentina or Israel in recent years, but it's serious enough to cripple any economic recovery.

What's worse, Fidel Velasquez, the leader of the official trade union movement - and the most powerful man in the country after President Miguel de la Madrid - says Mexico will adopt a system of wage indexation next year. Up to now, the Mexican government has resisted such a plan, and for good reason. If wage indexation were to become law, inflation would soar to even higher levels.

Brazil and Argentina have successfully cut inflation - albeit to levels most countries would still find unacceptable - by either scrapping or reforming wage indexation. If Mexico is to do the same, the government must maintain its opposition to indexation.

The government has other tasks ahead of it, as well. Chief among them is the privatization of state-held industry. The inefficiency of Mexico's government-owned petroleum monopoly Pemex, for instance, is legendary. Although some progress has been made in this area - the state has jettisoned a steel mill - more needs to be done.

The outlook for the Mexican economy is brighter than it was before the debt agreement was drawn up at the World Bank/IMF meetings two weeks ago. But the optimism surrounding the new debt package will fade quickly unless Mexico can get a grip on its inflation. With that in mind, a wage indexation plan is the last thing Mexico needs.

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