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Zedillo: Taxpayers Should Pay Debt

June 19, 1998

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ President Ernesto Zedillo’s proposal sounds like an invitation to political suicide.

He wants taxpayers, most of whom aren’t rich enough to have a bank account, to pay off a $65 billion debt generated partly by corrupt and incompetent bankers. And he’s asked Congress to endorse the plan.

Opposition legislators rant against the proposal, but they may have to approve it.

The government has already taken responsibility for the debt. Although the opposition charges the government acted illegally, there is little suggestion of a default. No one wants the kind of crisis that led to a $50 billion, U.S.-led international bailout three years ago.

``If the debt isn’t paid, it could cause a terrible crisis of confidence,″ said Fortunato Alvarez, a deputy from the opposition National Action Party.

The proposal to assume the debts of the bank savings protection fund, known as Fobaproa, is one of Mexico’s hottest political battles. It’s likely to be a top issue in the 2000 elections as the opposition tries to break the ruling party’s 69-year grip on the presidency.

The money at stake is mind-boggling. The $65 billion is about 14 percent of gross domestic product, the total value of economic activity. Mexicans _ about 40 percent of whom live in poverty _ would need about 30 years to pay it back. The U.S. savings and loan bailout was eight times greater, but the U.S. economy is about 100 times larger.

The proposal, part of a banking reform package, is stalled in the opposition-led Congress. Legislators are awaiting audits that will look for evidence of bad banking practices and theft and determine how much of the debt can be recovered.

The roots of the debt problems date to the bank privatization of the early 1990s. Businessmen, many closely tied to the governing party, bought banks even if they weren’t qualified to run them. Lax oversight led to embezzlement and bad loans.

When the value of the national currency, the peso, dropped sharply shortly after Zedillo took office in December 1994, interest rates surged, debtors couldn’t repay loans and the already-weak banking system was near collapse.

Through Fobaproa, the government kept the system afloat. Fobaproa used government-backed notes to buy off the banks’ bad debts. Deposits were protected.

It was part of an emergency economic program that the government touts as a big success: Through tough austerity measures and the international bailout, it revived the economy.

The government sees the Fobaproa proposal as a step toward further shoring up the banking system.

Some see the proposal as little more than a bookkeeping move: Because it backed the notes, the government is already liable for the debt.

But to the opposition, the government’s backing of the Fobaproa notes was illegal because Congress was never consulted.

``Incredibly, the executive power now wants Congress to legalize its illegalities, presenting the issue as a matter of national survival,″ the leftist Democratic Revolution Party said in a newspaper ad.

It has called for the resignation of central bank governor Guillermo Ortiz, who, as deputy treasury secretary and later treasury secretary, helped design the privatization plan and the bank rescue.

With the opposition winning control of Congress last year for the first time, it could reject the proposal. But if it wins the 2000 elections, it would have to deal with the economic consequences.

``In the end, there is no question in my mind that the package will be approved,″ said economist Rogelio Ramirez de la O. ``The country has to move forward and this is such a big stone in the road, that in the absence of approval, almost nothing else can be discussed, let alone approved.″

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