With the summit out of the way, President Bush can now turn his attention to a long list of domestic problems, including the budget deficit, the savings and loan crisis and the liquidity crisis in metropolitan Washington.
Liquidity crisis in metropolitan Washington?
There could very well be one, according to the Greater Washington Board of Trade. The area's leading business advocacy organization is so concerned about the possibility, in fact, that it has asked the president's help in preventing one.
The Board of Trade is absolutely convinced that federal regulators are pressuring banks to tighten credit to business borrowers, thus hurting the area's economy. So 60 directors of the Board of Trade signed a letter last week informing Bush of their concern.
Although the Board of Trade's action may have been well-intentioned, sending the letter to the president seems a bit premature, if not ill-advised, given the strength of the area's economy and the absence of any overwhelming evidence that a liquidity crisis is emerging.
Growth in the local economy has slowed and the area's commercial real estate market is wobbly from being overbuilt, to be sure, but not even bankers envision a liquidity crisis. If there is a crisis, it's in the loan portfolios of a number of financial institutions that became heavily exposed in a real estate market that has softened considerably.
Nonetheless, the board's letter to Bush urged "a more measured approach" in enforcing federal regulation of commercial banks. More specifically, the Board of Trade wants the president to rein in bank regulators, whom it blames for what is being described as a credit crunch in metropolitan Washington.
Business borrowers here and elsewhere in the country are finding it more difficult to obtain bank loans and lines of credit. Real estate developers in particular are being subjected to more stringent loan requirements because of the area's overbuilt office market. No one -- not regulators, not bankers and surely not the area's business leaders -- want to see financial institutions here collapse under the weight of risky real estate loans as in the Southwest and in the Northeast.
But tighter controls on bank loans could eventually hurt the local economy, according to the Board of Trade, which early last month wrote to Comptroller of the Currency Robert L. Clarke, complaining about stricter regulatory oversight of bank lending. Clarke denies there has been a change in policy, though he stresses the need for banks to exercise greater caution in approving loans in soft real estate markets.
That's not good enough for the Board of Trade, so it's taken its case to the White House, hoping to impress upon Bush that "ill-conceived actions" are having "adverse effects on both large and small businesses -- particularly the real estate market, which is in a period of adjustment."
Notwithstanding the urgency of the letter and dire warnings of a liquidity crisis, the Board of Trade fails to make a persuasive case that the stability of the local economy is threatened. In fact, the Board of Trade's bullish assessment of the area's economy may be the strongest argument against intervention by the president. With its repeated emphasis on the strength of the region's economy, the Board of Trade may have sent Bush mixed signals, in effect minimizing the concerns that prompted the letter.
"Ours is a strong economy," the Board of Trade assured Bush. "We have come through a period of almost unprecedented robust expansion," it noted before ticking off an impressive list of factors that help make the local economy as strong as it is.
"Our unemployment rate is 2.5 percent, the lowest of any metropolitan area in the United States," the board said. "Our commercial office space market last year led all other metropolitan areas in the United States by leasing more than 12 million square feet of space ... Three-fourths of the world's multinational corporations have offices in our market ... Almost 10 percent of all biotechnology companies in America are located in our region."
Still, the area's business leadership worries about the possible effects of bankers' decisions to be more cautious about lending to certain loan applicants. Uncertainty, says the Board of Trade, "threatens to choke off business activity that relies on efficient and accessible credit markets ... We can quickly find ourselves in intensive care."
Although two bankers signed the letter to Bush, not all agree that the situation is as bad as business leaders say it is. Not only did a prominent local banker dismiss the notion that there is a credit crunch, but emphasized in a recent conversation with reporters that stricter loan approval policies went into effect at least two years ago. Real estate developers in particular, he said, are being asked to provide more information about cash flow, their net worth and their ability to repay loans. Building owners not only must show that their properties are substantially leased but must demonstrate the ability of tenants to pay the rent, he said.
That's the norm and not the exception. And it's not so much regulatory pressure to curb lending as much as it is market forces. Not only did some financial institutions in the area recently report losses because of sour real estate loans, but several have added substantially to their reserves for possible losses from the same types of loans.
The stricter loan policies certainly aren't being applied only to real estate industry borrowers. "If you are a small- to medium-sized company and you hit a bump in the road, you might see your banker react differently than he would have a year ago," a local banker recently told a reporter for The Washington Post. "The ones that are shaky are getting the hardest hit."
Even if the president intervenes and orders bank regulators to back off, Washington area banks will continue to follow a more stringent policy when it comes to making loans, especially to high-risk borrowers. The pressure to do so won't come from regulators but from stockholders and battered loan portfolios.