The Bush administration is practicing a delicate balancing act in economic policy, trying to discourage banks from making the kind of risky loans that have helped cause record bank and savings and loan failures without triggering a "credit crunch" that would dry up loans to businesses and drag the nation into a recession.
The administration is continuing to relay its message in background briefings, insisting there has been no general tightening of credit and no reason for it to occur. At the same time, Treasury officials are acknowledging that they are concerned about the situation and are intent on avoiding a crunch.
A potential consequence is that by simply talking about a credit crunch, administration officials may foster the impression there is one. Still, policy makers want to make clear to the public that their goal is to balance the need for prudent lending against the need to avoid a recession.
The message that bankers should lend carefully but keep lending was first given directly to leaders of the American Bankers Association two weeks ago by the government's top banking regulators: Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, Comptroller of the Currency Robert Clarke and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman L. William Seidman.
Now, other administration officials say in background discussions that the extraordinary meeting between bankers and bank regulators was part of a broader and continuing effort to maintain the balance.
In looking at statistics that tell policy makers whether a lending crackdown is occurring, the Treasury Department is trying to distinguish between localized and broad-based tightening. "We don't see what you would call a credit crunch that could affect all segments and geographic regions," said Deputy Treasury Secretary John Robson in a weekend interview.
Robson emphasized that it is important -- and difficult -- "to separate out what is a response to market conditions in particular sectors and geographic regions and a broad tightening and restriction of credit that could affect other economic sectors."
Despite vocal complaints from the real estate industry and from other borrowers in some parts of the country, economic data from government and private sources show little evidence of a general tightening of credit.
Those who have looked for a credit crunch and say they haven't found hard evidence of it include the Federal Reserve Board and two private business groups -- the Conference Board, representing the nation's biggest corporations, and the National Federation of Independent Business, voice of the small business community.
A survey by the NFIB found no increase in the number of member firms that say they are having trouble borrowing money.
Where lending has been curtailed, it is not because of bank regulators, the Federal Reserve reported recently. Banks "have tightened the availability of business loans to middle-market firms and to small businesses mainly because of a less favorable economic outlook and a deterioration in their loan portfolios," the Fed said.
The Conference Board said it is not so much the supply of money but the demand for it, that is causing a contraction in bank lending.
"The slowdown in lending is not due to credit nervousness by banks as much as to the lack of demand by business," said the board's chief economist, Gail D. Fosler. "There is no evidence of a credit crisis, managed or otherwise, brewing in the financial system."
Economists at Salomon Brothers, the big Wall Street firm, came to a similar conclusion in an advisory to clients issued Friday, saying, "The recent decline in bank lending to businesses is more a function of dwindling demand than of a supply crunch.
"... As long as anecdotal evidence of a crunch persists, undesirable side effects cannot be dismissed and policy makers will remain alert to broader signs of its economic effect," Salomon's report said.
But the complaints about tightening of credit are loud and frequent enough that the administration's economic policy makers cannot ignore them. Both economic and political considerations are leading the administration to pay unusually close attention to those who see a credit crunch occurring now or who fear that one is just around the corner.
Just because no slowdown in lending is shown in surveys by the Fed and private groups doesn't mean it doesn't exist, administration officials say. Such surveys don't show the borrowers who decided not to even ask for a loan or those who asked for a smaller loan figuring that was all they could get. Because the anecdotal evidence is so much more negative than the statistics, it could turn out to be a leading indicator of a major economic development.
The complaints are loudest in the real estate industry, where reforms prompted by the savings and loan scandals have made it much more difficult for developers to borrow money.
Because so many S&Ls were destroyed by losses on loans to developers, the S&L reform bill passed last summer slashed the amount that can be lent to any one borrower to only 15 percent of the previous maximum.
The new S&L limits are the same as those that have been effect at commercial banks for decades. Once developers adjust to the new rules -- and spread their borrowing among several institutions to reduce the risk -- there should be plenty of money available, the people who wrote the bill say.
But this is not a good time for developers to be courting new lenders. In many parts of the country, real estate markets are badly overbuilt, making banks reluctant to lend money for new homes, offices and stores when so many old ones are vacant or for sale.
Banking examiners who learned in the Southwest how risky real estate lending can be are now applying those lessons to real estate loans from Maryland to Massachusetts to Maine. In response to a series of tougher examinations of Northeast banks, lenders are pulling back from real estate. In some cases, administration officials fear, the banks are overreacting to the examiners, paying more attention to the "body language" of the regulators than to what they are saying.
Some banks are telling borrowers that the regulators are to blame for them not getting loans, regulators say, because the bankers don't want to have to say "no" to regular customers.