Bankers are getting increasingly cautious about making loans, particularly to commercial real estate developers, but also to other corporate borrowers and homebuyers, a Federal Reserve Board survey finds.
Compared with a similar poll three months earlier, the latest survey "generally painted a picture of increased credit restraint, with agencies and branches of foreign banks reporting more tightening than domestic banks," the central bank reported this week."The pullback was least evident in consumer and home mortgage lending and was clearest in commercial real estate lending, a category for which a large majority of respondents continued to raise their credit standards," it said.
The October survey of senior loan officers at 60 large banks comes as Bush administration officials are showing growing concern that a shortage of credit is deepening the economic downturn.
Financial institutions and some borrowers have complained for months that bank and savings and loan examiners have overreacted to the thrift crisis by discouraging even sound loans. The regulators, however, say they are only urging prudence in response to the weaker economy.
President Bush met with top administration officials on the situation last week. Chief of staff John Sununu, Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher and budget director Richard Darman reportedly said the examiners should ease up, while Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan argued that the closer scrutiny of lending is appropriate.
"There perhaps have been some regulators that have been overzealous at times," said Michael Boskin, Bush's chief economic adviser.
"We need to make sure they are prudent and do enforce the safety requirements . . . but I think it is likely the case that some, seeing the S&L situation, have perhaps inadvertently overreacted," Boskin said when asked about Monday's survey at a National Press Club lunch.
He added that some banks have been forced to make fewer loans in response to stricter capital standards taking effect Jan. 1 under an international accord.
Banks that cannot raise additional capital have little choice but to restrict the number of new loans they make while they build their capital gradually by retaining earnings.
Nearly two-thirds of the respondents in the Fed poll reported tightening lending standards for commercial real estate loans, while almost half of the respondents had tightened lending standards for non-real estate commercial and industrial loans to large corporations.
They most often cited "a deterioration in the economic outlook" and "problems specific to individual industries" for the greater restraint, the report said. About one-fifth of the banks surveyed said their capital position restricted new lending, while two-thirds said it had no effect.
"Home mortgage lending remained relatively favored," the Federal Reserve said. But it noted that more U.S. banks, particularly in the Northeast, are reporting tighter standards even for those loans.
About one in four of the banks said they were either requiring a higher down payment on home mortgages or had raised the household income needed to qualify for a loan.
"In sum, the results of this lending practices survey suggest that a deterioration in the general economic outlook since summer has prompted a sizable share of domestic respondents to tighten credit standards more," the central bank said.
In addition to scrutinizing borrowers more closely, about half the banks said they had raised their loan fees and charged a bigger spread over base interest rates. Between one-third and one-half are requiring better collateral.