Backing away from a provision of last year's savings and loan rescue law that has been blamed for a credit squeeze in the construction industry, federal regulators yesterday temporarily raised the limit on the amount that healthy S&Ls can lend to real estate developers.
The Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) issued regulations allowing healthy thrifts to lend any one individual home builders four times as much as the law originally provided and permitting them to renew existing loans to developers of offices, stores and other commercial project.
Congress drastically tightened the "loans to one borrower" limit after research by the General Accounting Office concluded that a number of thrifts had failed because they made excessively large loans to developers and builders who were unable to repay their debts. The goal was to limit the damage to an S&L if one large customer got into trouble.
The law slashed the maximum loan to one borrower to 15 percent of a thrift's capital, forcing S&Ls to cut off loans to longstanding customers and sharply reducing credit for construction of new buildings. Capital is the amount of their own money that owners of an S&L invest in the business to serve as protection against losses.
The real estate industry blamed the new rule for a credit squeeze that has slowed home building, costing thousands of construction jobs, and has been lobbying intensely for relief from the provision.
The transition rule announced yesterday by thrift regulators marks the first time the Bush administration has backed away from a key provision of the thrift reform law, but it gave the developers far less than they were asking for.
"We do not expect this will alleviate the credit crunch," said Kent Colton, executive vice president of the National Association of Home Builders. He called the move "a step in the right direction," but said, "If we could have done it six months ago, the impact on the market would have been better."
The new rules are scheduled to be published in today's Federal Register, and building industry officials said the details available then will make it possible to assess the full impact of the changes.
More than 100 members of Congress had signed on as cosponsors of a bill introduced by Rep. Peter Hoagland (D-Neb.) that would have phased in the stricter borrowing limits over a three-year period, but OTS lawyers decided the agency had the power to issue regulations accomplishing the same goal.
Only the 1,100 healthiest thrifts will be permitted by the OTS to take advantage of the higher lending limits, and developers of commercial property will not get the same breaks as home builders.
Most of the industry will have to live with the old 15 percent of capital rule. Healthy thrifts will be allowed to lend as much as 60 percent of their capital for housing projects until the end of this year and 30 percent next year, with the 15 percent limit taking effect in 1992.
The same limits will apply to loans for both residential and commercial projects that were made before the law was passed, so thrifts will not have to cut off credit to existing customers.
The OTS rule includes one provision that will make the higher limit less attractive to some developers: It requires that borrowers be made personally liable for the debt, a protection for the lender rarely required in the past.