PRESIDENT REAGAN'S POCKET VETO of the maritime authorization bill may not have been a total surprise after all.

Some insiders now say the signs within the Reagan administration were fairly clear almost as soon as Congress passed the bill.The Office of Management and Budget was intent on making a point and, in the end, persuaded the president to veto it.

Because the veto had no practical effect - the Maritime Administration and the Federal Maritime Commission will continue to receive their funding through appropriations legislation - most observers believed the president just wouldn't bother to do it.

But the message delivered by his refusal to sign the measure into law was plain: The Title XI ship construction loan and mortgage insurance program the president criticized is at the end of its road.

If the administration can't persuade Congress to repeal the law, it will likely continue its administrative lid on it as was done to ship construction and operating subsidies.

DEBT-EQUITY SWAPS are a new fad stemming from the developing countries' debt crisis. How serious the trend is depends on who's talking.

Treasury officials estimate that the swaps, in which creditor banks sell off loans at sizable discounts and the proceeds are invested in a debtor country business, represent a potential $5 billion annual market.

Chile and Mexico each have already transacted about $500 million in swaps and Argentina may sanction about $1 billion of swaps next year, Treasury officials note.

Treasury has been encouraging swaps, with the idea that it helps moderate developing countries' debt.

But at least one banker - Terence Canavan, Chemical Bank executive vice president - thinks the swaps market is pretty much limited to the debt holdings of smaller banks wanting to get out of the international credit game.

Swappable paper may soon dry up and the deep discounts disappear, he said here last week. Bigger banks, he said, generally prefer to keep their loans outstanding, for the eventual collection of principal.

A SENATOR as an International Trade Commissioner?

That's the speculation about William Hathaway, ex-Democratic senator from Maine and now an attorney with Patton, Boggs and Blow, a Washington law firm.

A rumor is that he is a potential candidate to fill the post on the International Trade Commission being vacated by Paula Stern. She is due to leave Jan. 27. The position is likely to be filled by a Democrat.

There's precedent for a senator becoming a trade commissioner. In the 1940s, two ex-senators - Fred Brown and George McGill, both Democrats - served as commissioners.

THE WHITE HOUSE had not announced, through last week, that President Reagan would sign the Water Resource Development Act.

But according to the office of Sen. James Abdnor, R-S.D. - who was intimately involved in getting the omnibus legislation passed - a signing ceremony for the port and waterway funding legislation is scheduled for this afternoon - only 10 and half hours before the deadline for the bill expires and it is automatically vetoed.

President Reagan was supposed sign the bill on his earlier campaign swing through the Midwest but a printing foul-up ruled that out. The delay has caused some speculation on what will happen if the bill is sidetracked at the last moment, but presidential approval is considered assured.

The real concern for the industry will be the attitude of Congress toward funding when it returns next year and takes up authorization of a second round of projects.

THE AIR TRANSPORT ASSOCIATION is gearing up for the expected fight next year in Congress over reauthorization of the airport and air traffic control improvement program and the taxes that support it.

William F. Bolger, association president, has delivered a scathing attack on government poli cies that he said are causing intolerable delays in air travel.

He said the current, inefficient, air traffic control system will cost airlines and their passengers and shippers more than $2 billion this year. The Federal Aviation Administration must accelerate efforts to train new air traffic controllers and upgrade equipment, he added.

The money for such is available. The Aviation Trust Fund has an unspent balance of $4.3 billion, he noted.

The association is pushing for creation of a national aviation authority, independent from the FAA, to handle trust fund money and airport and airway development projects in the future.

THE PETROLEUM MARKETERS Association of America, whose members account for more than half of U.S. gasoline sales and three-quarters of the home heating oil market, is opposing a suggestion by the president of the American Petroleum Institute that the government set a minimum oil price.

Phillip Chisholm, executive vice president of the marketers' association, said that government involvement in setting minimum prices allows consumer advocates to make a compelling case for future caps on price increases.

He said the petroleum industry has always been a free market industry and

backtracking from that position would be hypocritical.

VIRGINIA'S ATTORNEY GENERAL, Mary Sue Terry, will appeal a federal district court's ruling that Virginia's law limiting damage awards is unconstitutional.

The insurance community has been concerned because it has been lobbying state by state for limitations on damage awards.

The Virginia law, like many enacted in other states, sets a limit for non- economic awards in malpractice cases of $1 million. The jury in the district court case, however, disregarded the law and awarded $2 million in punitive damages along with $6.3 million in compensatory damages.

The decision by Judge Harry Michael said that such limitations violate the Constitution.

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