HOT SPRINGS, VA., JUNE 15 -- Comptroller of the Currency Robert L. Clarke said again today that he is not telling banks to stop making loans, and he implored Washington area bankers to stand up to federal examiners who are reviewing their books if the bankers believe the examination standards have gone awry.
"The bankers have to show a little backbone in this, too," Clarke said after his speech to more than 150 Washington bankers and their customers who are meeting here.
For more than an hour Clarke tried to convince the group that his office is not cracking down on area lenders, forcing them to needlessly write down millions of dollars in real estate loans and frightening the bankers from extending new credit.
"It's not the examinations that have changed," Clarke said. "It's the market. We're not asking the bankers to do anything that isn't prudent."
Most of the bankers and their customers reacted with frustration to Clarke's remarks, saying they didn't believe he was painting an accurate picture or that anything would change as a result of the meeting.
Clarke's address was the latest in a series of speeches he is giving around the nation to counter the growing perception that the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is forcing banks to pull back from real estate and other lending markets.
But it was a tough pitch to make to members of this crowd, who have said time and again that Clarke's examiners are being unreasonable in their demands and are forcing a credit crunch in Washington that could send the area's economy into recession.
"The pendulum has swung too far," said Ellen Sigal, head of Sigal Construction Co. and one of dozens of area developers who say they've been cut off from credit without just cause.
Sigal said two years ago that she could get whatever money she wanted, no constraints. "I know there was overbuilding," she said. "But today, we've gone too far the other way."
An example of the problem, Sigal said, are the increasingly stiff financial requirements lenders are asking developers to meet in order to get loans for downtown development. "That's ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous," Sigal said.
Clarke told Sigal and others that it was the banks, not his examiners, setting those kinds of requirements. "We don't tell bankers that they can't make a loan to somebody," he said. "Some of these bankers have to step up and say 'We don't run this bank for the examiners or the analysts or the stockholders. We run this bank for our customers,' " Clarke said.
And, to the jeers of the audience, he suggested that bankers are using regulatory examinations as a convenient excuse for not making loans they wouldn't want to make anyway. Clarke said he has not yet seen any real evidence of a credit squeeze or of unfair examination standards.
While Clarke urged the bankers to oppose overzealous regulators, Thomas J. Owen, immediate past president of the Washington Area Bankers Association, said that might not be in the bankers' best interest. "The prisoner in the cellblock does not complain to the warden of the guard on that cellblock," Owen said.