Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker continued yesterday to resist appeals from members of Congress that he try to persuade bankers to lower the interest rates they control to bring those rates more in line with money market rates.
Volcker acknowledged, as he has before, that consumer loan rates and the 11 percent prime lending rate of commercial banks are unusually high, both with respect to inflation and to money market rates, such as those on government securities.
A prime rate of "10 percent would be more normal" compared to market rates, he told the Senate Budget Committee. "I think it could be cut in some sense. I hesitate to say 'properly,' because that is a decision for the banks to make."
The day before, President Reagan also had told reporters that it is up to banks, not the Federal Reserve, to bring rates down.
Reagan said he saw "no reason why the banks can't bring those interest rates down another notch or two. It is up to the banks. And I do not know of what the Fed could do to force that. They cannot give orders."
Several committee members, however, wanted Volcker to do just that. Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and other members complained that banks were keeping rates unnecessarily high and turning down loan requests from qualified local borrowers, such as farmers, while investing in Treasury securities that offer a lower return to the bank.
Volcker said that although rates were high relative to inflation, they are coming down. "Unfortunately, this does take time," he said. In the meantime, many short-term loans are being made by banks at rates lower than the prime rate, he added.
The way to make sure consumer and business loan rates keep coming down is to make sure that inflation does not revive, Volcker declared. "It would not do us any good to jawbone with our mouths if our actions tell the banks inflation will be higher and, therefore, interest rates will be higher."
At a separate hearing before a House Banking subcommittee, economist David M. Jones of Aubrey G. Lanston & Co., a New York bond house, presented a chart covering 30 years comparing the prime rate with the increase in consumer prices over the preceding 12 months.
During much of the period from 1953 to 1973, the difference between the prime and the inflation rate remained between 2 and 4 percentage points. Beginning in 1974, the difference became much less stable, but still generally ranging between 0 and 3 percentage points.
Late in 1980, however, the spread shot up to more than 7 percentage points and has fluctuated between 7 and 10 percentage points since then, according to Jones' testimony.
Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan told the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday that "there's no doubt about it, banks are trying to maximize their profits" by keeping interest rates up for as long as they can. However, he said this was just one factor holding rates up, and added "I don't blame them for it."
Two more important reasons are uncertainty over the course of monetary policy and financial market worries over the large federal budget deficits now in prospect, the Treasury secretary said. However, he agreed that "in part it is true, small part," that banks are holding up interest rates on loans to American consumers in order to counteract some of the effects of their shaky foreign loans.
At the Budget Committee hearing, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) accused federal and state banking regulators of spreading "terror" among bankers in his state by being unduly strict in their assessment of whether loans in the bank portfolios are too risky.
Grassley said bankers were blaming requirements set by bank examiners when they were refusing to loan money to some farmers.
Volcker said that he had heard such complaints before and that he had asked the Federal Reserve's banking supervision section "whether they have, consciously or subconsciously, tightened their loan review standards. The answer I get is an unambiguous, 'No.' "
It is up to the banks to set interest rates on their loans and to determine which loans to make, Volcker declared. "We cannot be, and will not be, in the position of telling banks to make bad loans."
In addition to urging the banks to lower their rates, Sen. James R. Sasser (D-Tenn.) suggested that the Federal Reserve should also lower its discount rate--the interest rate the Fed charges on loans to financial institutions.
"That is one side of the argument," Volcker replied. The other, he said, is whether a cut in the 8 1/2 percent discount rate at this time would be consistent with the money and credit policies needed to keep inflation down. He added that in December when the rate last was cut, market interest rates did not decline.
With the money supply growing rapidly and an economic recovery under way, the Federal Reserve has decided against lowering the discount rate for the time being, sources there have said.