Federal banking regulators announced yesterday they will ease pressure on banks hurt by bad farm and energy loans by allowing them to reduce cash reserves and take advantage of special bookkeeping techniques.
The Federal Reserve Board, the comptroller of the currency and the chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. issued a joint statement to the Senate Banking Committee outlining a three-pronged policy that requires no approval from Congress and takes effect immediately.
The policy applies to the nation's 14,500 banks but is intended to avoid a crisis and give what Comptroller Robert L. Clarke called "breathing space" to the several thousand lending institutions in farm and oil-producing regions squeezed by falling prices for crude oil and the depressed farm economy.
The policy was unveiled amid growing concern that the increasing number of bank failures is straining the funds of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which provides federal insurance to the nation's banks. It also comes just one week after key members of the Senate Banking Committee said they will push legislation allowing banks to use some of the controversial bookkeeping methods that prop up hundreds of sick savings and loans.
Regulators said yesterday they will:
*Allow capital -- the difference between assets and liabilities -- to fall below required levels at banks that appear able to restore their reserves within five years. At the same time, they still will allow banks to include certain loan losses as assets for calculating how much money they can lend.
Normally, a bank's lending limit is based on capital reserves. Banks have resisted loan write-offs because they eat into capital reserves. That cuts the number of loans a bank can make and eventually can push reserves below the regulatory minimum of 6 percent of assets.
"A major function of capital is to absorb unanticipated losses and help an organization weather a period of adversity," the joint release said.
*Encourage banks to take advantage of a little-used accounting rule permitting them to keep on their books some loans that have been restructured when payments fall behind. Loans are restructured by extending repayment periods or cutting interest rates.
Restructured loans qualify for the special treatment as long as the bank anticipates getting back the principal amount of the original loan.
*Change reporting rules so that restructured loans don't fall automatically under the heading of "nonperforming assets," which tags them as riskier assets. Instead, some loans would be called "restructured and in compliance with modified terms," regulators said.
Regulators, who said part of the new policy could go into effect immediately and the plan could be fully implemented within 45 days, also encouraged Congress to lift limitations on where banks can operate and what products they can sell. They also asked lawmakers to extend and amend the Garn-St Germain Act of 1982, which expires April 15, to allow ailing banks to be purchased before they fail and to lift size limitations on what institutions can be sold.
The new policy doesn't go as far as many bankers would like, "But it's a step in the right direction," a spokesman for the American Bankers Association said. "It's really the first sign of relief."
Some regulators have opposed use of the unusual methods. FDIC Chairman L. William Seidman, for example, said yesterday, "Relief programs may only delay failures, and our experience suggests delay results in larger losses to the FDIC insurance fund."
But the policy presented yesterday encourages banks to write off and get rid of bad loans by taking advantage of accounting rules similar to those used by savings and loan institutions.