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Obama presses bank chiefs to lend more

By Binyamin Appelbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 14, 2009; A03

President Obama, who lashed out Sunday at "fat cat bankers" who "still don't get it," plans to gather the heads of major banks at the White House on Monday to urge them to make more loans and to accept the necessity of greater regulation.

Obama convened a similar meeting with bank executives in March, and the need for a replay highlights the lack of progress in the interim. The banking industry has reduced lending for five consecutive quarters, even as it has regained profitability thanks to vast public aid.

The administration's success in rescuing banks stands in starker contrast every day with the financial problems of many Americans, most of all the lack of new jobs, and Democrats made restless by the disparity are mounting pressure on the White House.

Meanwhile, the prospects for financial reform legislation have been clouded by industry groups that convinced moderate and conservative Senate Democrats that some proposals would unduly suppress financial innovation and limit economic growth.

The president and his advisers have responded in recent days with a burst of heated rhetoric, arguing that the government rescued the banking industry and that banks now are failing to show proper gratitude.

"What's really frustrating me right now is that you've got these same banks who benefited from taxpayer assistance who are fighting tooth and nail with their lobbyists . . . up on Capitol Hill, fighting against financial regulatory control," Obama said in an interview with the CBS show "60 Minutes" on Sunday.

The need for moderation in executive pay also is on the agenda, officials said. The guest list includes the chief executives of 12 of the nation's largest banks, among them Bank of America's Kenneth D. Lewis, J.P. Morgan Chase's Jamie Dimon and Goldman Sachs's Lloyd C. Blankfein.

Democrats increasingly are frustrated that renewed economic growth is not yet producing new jobs, and they have focused on the fact that banks are making less money available to businesses. The amount of money on loan from banks fell by almost $600 billion, or 7.2 percent, from September 2008 to September 2009, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Lending to businesses, excluding construction loans, fell 15 percent.

The Congressional Black Caucus paused the progress of financial-reform legislation in the House earlier this month to demand a greater focus on jobs. At a hearing last week of the Congressional Oversight Panel monitoring the bank bailout, the chairman, Elizabeth Warren, laced into Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner over what she called an insufficient effort to spur new lending, which she and others view as critical to creating new jobs.

The reasons for the lending decline are complicated. After years of foolish lending, some banks are holding back because they lack the confidence even to make good loans. But demand for loans also declines in every recession, as people and businesses delay planned purchases. And some banks say that regulators are requiring unnecessary levels of caution after years of lax oversight.

It is not clear what impact the president's jawboning will have.

Treasury officials also may propose giving banks access to the government bailout program, without restrictions such as limits on executive pay, provided that the money went to small businesses.

The industry has adopted a low profile during the debate, allowing groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to run ads and hold news conferences. But outside the limelight it has argued fiercely against elements of the plan, particularly the proposed creation of an agency to protect borrowers from abuse by lenders.

"For them to be complaining about serious regulation directed at making sure this never happens again is wrong," Lawrence H. Summers, the president's chief economic adviser, said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." "For firms that have benefited from taxpayer support to be complaining about the government burdening them is, frankly, a bit rich."

Bank executives, however, say that they strongly favor reform -- they just differ on some of the particulars. Edward L. Yingling, president of the American Bankers Association, noted that on key issues, such as preserving the regulatory responsibilities of the Federal Reserve, large banks have sided with the administration against rival proposals by House and Senate Democrats.

Staff writer David Cho contributed to this report.

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