In a reprise of last spring's credit crunch, consumer interest rates have started back up -- although in many cases they are already bumping against usury ceilings -- and lenders have begun to draw back from handing out money.
"Banks in general in the Maryland and Washington area are edging rates up and being more and more selective, raising credit standards," said William F. Melville, senior vice president of Maryland National Bank, the largest in the state.
"It's deja vu. Having been there, it's familiar ground," he said. "That in itself is a bit frightening. In the financial marketplace, no one is much talking about it. It seems to be accepted as a fact of life."
In general, the same factors are at work to restrict credit as ocurred last spring, although no credit controls have been imposed. With the cost of money to the banks and other lenders rising, and ceilings on what they may charge to lend the money, a certain reluctance to lend sets in.
In New York, where the state legislature lifted usury ceilings effective Jan. 1, Citibank was announced that it will impose a $15 annual fee on its MasterCard and Visa credit cards and raise the interest rate on credit card loans and balances to 19.8 percent, effective Jan. 19.
Chase Manhattan Bank announced yesterday that it also will charge a $15 annual fee on its Visa credit card and raise the interest fee for charges and cash advances on the card to 18 percent. Before the legislature acted, the banks were limited to charging 18 percent on the first $500 in outstanding balances and 12 percent on any money borrowed beyond that amount.
In many states, including Maryland, charging a credit card fee has been interpreted as an addition to interest rates that unlawfully raises them beyond usury ceilings. That interpretation is being challenged by the lending industry. In Virginia, where fees may be charged, the largest Virginia bank -- United Virginia -- is considering such an option for its 400,000 to 500,000 Visa accounts.
Lenders probably also will push to raise or abolish usury ceilings -- currently 18 percent in Maryland and Virginia and 15 percent in D.C. -- in coming legislative sessions.
Within the limits of what they can do, many lenders are making adjustments. Maryland National expects that auto loan rates, now 16 percent, probably will rise to 18 percent. Other rates already are there.
Meanwhile, a survey of bank interest rates in Maryland shows lending institutions charging the maximum of 18 percent on a variety of loans is on the increase, the Associated Press Reported.
The survey of 105 banks in Maryland, taken Tuesday by telephone and released yesterday, was conducted by the Consumer Protection Division of the attorney general's office.
Nine of the 11 banks offering credit card accounts continued to charge the 18 percent maximum, according to the survey.
[The number of banks charging the maximum interest rate on personal loans above $3,500 increased from 31 to 42. The state last conducted its interest rate survey Dec. 2 and 3.]
American Security & Trust, the District's second-largest bank, has made no changes yet, but "in this kind of interest rate environment we're certainly carefully reviewing our options in the consumer credit area," said a spokesman.
Earlier this month, Riggs National Bank raised auto loan rates from 14 percent to 15 percent and raised mortgage rates from 14 percent plus a point to 15 percent plus a point (a point is equal to one percent of a mortgage loan, made at the time of lending as an extra charge).
Interest rates on secured loans at Riggs were increased from 14 percent to 15 percent, but charges for overdraft checking and school loans stayed the same, said vice president Mel Chrisman.
An exception to the trend is the National Bank of Washington, which said it would actively promote some of its credit programs even though the extension of credit is an increasingly unremunerative banking activity.
"I think this bank, of all banks, needs to be in the market," said National Bank of Washington's chairman, Luther Hodges. "We want to put this bank in an offensive rather than a defensive posture."
Hodges, the former Deputy Commerce Secretary, was brought in to solve problems that beset the bank when federal examiners and others began questioning the bank's lending practices.
"There could be an opportunity for us in this market. We can't stand too much pain, but we're taking a longer range view," Hodges said. He noted that borrowers attracted during the crunch were likely to remain as customers when lending becomes a more prosperous business.
Under a recent temporary change in the ceiling on credit union loan rates, credit unions -- traditional lenders to the working class -- may now charge up to 21 percent for loans. A check with several area credit unions, however, indicated that increases in loan rates, which have been limited to 15 percent, are likely to be more gradual.
The two largest credit unions in the United States, the Washington-based Pentagon Federal Credit Union and the Navy Federal Credit Union, said they don't expect to take advantage of all the room they have to raise rates. The Pentagon credit union will maintain its rates, and the Navy credit union will increase its rates slightly.
The Washington Telephone Federal Credit Union, with 19,500 members, also will maintain its rates at 15 percent, said manager Ray Donoghue.