CONCORD, N.H. -- Early this month, a delegation of New Hampshire bankers that included the chief executive officers of BankEast, Amoskeag Bank Shares and Dartmouth Bancorp went down to Washington, where they met with Michael J. Boskin, chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers.

Their message was as bleak as the sharp-edged winter landscape in this year of late snow in New England:

Several of the state's larger banks, including those represented at the Washington meeting, have suffered such large losses that they could fail unless they get help. Collectively, commercial banks here have lost nearly $100 million so far this year while writing off $145 million worth of loans as uncollectable.

New Hampshire, they said, is in a "death spiral" created by a weak economy, rigid federal bank regulation, collapsing real estate values and an inability of the weakened banks to make new loans. This tale of a creditcrunch and its economic impact is a tale not restricted to New Hampshire, and it has led White House Chief of Staff John Sununu -- a former New Hampshire governor -- and others in the Bush administration to put public pressure on bank regulators to ease up.

"We got a sympathetic hearing but no promises," said Christopher Gallagher, an attorney who advises the N.H. Bankers Association. But late last week, federal bank regulators did signal that they have been listening. At least one rules change is in the works that could boost bank incomes a bit and another is under consideration that could help break the downward spiral by changing the way in which bank examiners regard the value of real estate in a falling market.

Whether the steps the regulators said they are planning or considering will help New Hampshire, however, remains unclear.

With the real estate losses eating up banks' capital, the New Hampshire bankers said in Washington, so few new loans are being made that many small and medium-size businesses cannot get the money they need, creating anguished cries of a credit squeeze. Furthermore, there is a growing fear that by the time the region's economic decline hits bottom, which forecasters predict will not happen until late next year at the earliest, so many banks will have failed that there won't be enough left to finance a recovery.

Some federal officials, such as L. William Seidman, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., whose agency insures most of the bank deposits in New Hampshire and whose examiners check the state chartered banks here, agreed that bank failures could occur in New Hampshire and that if they do, it would hurt borrowers.

Seidman said the FDIC protects insured depositors and, in some cases, all depositors when banks fail. "But on the borrower side, there may be great disruptions. Even though we reconstitute the bank {with new management}, it usually is a much smaller institution. There is an adverse effect on borrowers, a very significant adverse effect in many cases."

Blaming the Regulators Without denying their own past mistakes and lending excesses, many bankers and business officials here blame federal banking regulators for making both the slump and the damage to the banks worse than they needed to be.

Gallagher said the banks' original losses have been magnified by regulators' rules that all but force banks dealing with overdue loans to foreclose on homes, office buildings and other real estate and sell them, often at an auction. Such fire sales often fetch very low prices, which examiners take as being representative of the current market value of other real estate-backed bank loans. As those assumed values fall, the banks suffer further losses, foreclose on more delinquent loans, hold more auctions and drive prices down further.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates national banks, has just begun work on a rules change that could break this spiral by changing appraisal procedures.

The other element of the spiral is its cumulative impact on bank capital. The losses come out of capital, which is a key determinant of how much a bank can lend to its customers. As capital has dropped, fewer loans can be made and the entire economy suffers, Gallagher said.

The banks are now in such bad shape, declared John Crosier, president of the Business & Industry Association of New Hampshire, that "you can't sell the banks," they cannot raise new capital and "they can't perform their purpose," which is providing credit to New Hampshire households and businesses.

"You can keep pushing the values down and the U.S. government will end up owning a lot of real estate" after they take over the failed banks. "No one will buy it. There will be no one here to give credit," Crosier declared.

That's undoubtedly an overstatement because not all New Hampshire banks are in serious trouble and there are alternative sources of credit for many borrowers. One very conservatively managed institution, the Bank of New Hampshire, has had losses but is still well-capitalized. Another, First New Hampshire Banks, the state's largest bank holding company, is owned by the Bank of Ireland, which has pumped $110 million worth of new capital into it so far this year to offset losses. And yet another, Fleet/New Hampshire, is a subsidiary of Providence, R.I.-based Fleet/Norstar, a major regional bank holding company that remains strong.

As for alternative sources of credit, most large corporations here routinely deal with big regional banks in Boston or major banks in New York. At the other end of the scale, homeowners looking for mortgage money have a variety of mortgage brokers operating in the state.

And some businesses have specialized credit sources. For instance, Earl McFarland, vice president and treasurer of an automobile dealership that opened for business last week in Manchester, the state's largest city, said the Nissan Motors Acceptance Corp. was providing financing for the cars on his lot. In addition, two Massachusetts banks -- the Bank of Boston, the region's largest, and BayBanks -- are underwriting new-car loans processed by the dealership.

Banks Only Source of Credit But for many small and medium-size New Hampshire businesses -- whether a manufacturer looking for money or an auto body shop needing funds to carry it over until the winter's usual rash of accidents -- New Hampshire banks are almost the only source of credit. At the moment, little is forthcoming, according to Gallagher, Crosier and a number of bankers.

In a survey conducted by Crosier's organization in September, three-fourths of 115 businesses responding said they believe businesses are having more trouble getting credit this year. Four out of every 10 respondents said their companies are having difficulty getting credit, with the type of loans most affected being those for working capital.

Most of the companies also said they thought the lack of ready availability of credit was having a substantial impact on the state's economy, according to the survey.

Few bankers disagree with this assessment by their customers. One of the men who traveled to Washington, Walter N. Dewitt, chairman of BankEast, which has about $1 billion in assets, said he is spending far more time with lawyers and regulators than he is on other parts of his business.

"We have no time to make loans, to go out and check somebody's credit," Dewitt said.

Aside from having to deal with the regulators constantly, Dewitt is also facing stockholder suits, worried bank employees and a need to come up with a reorganization plan in the wake of a federal bankruptcy filing in October. Only the holding company, not the bank, is in bankruptcy.

Dewitt's holding company has lost $16.9 million this year and at the end of the third quarter had only $36.6 million worth of stockholder equity. The holding company filed for bankruptcy because it could not continue making interest payments on its $115 million worth of long-term debt, owed primarily to two insurance companies, once the bank was forced to stop paying dividends to the holding company.

Amoskeag Bank Shares, a bank with $1.7 billion in assets, has lost $45.4 million this year. At the end of the third quarter it had $56.7 million worth of stockholder equity.

Usually, when a bank's equity is exhausted covering loan losses, state or federal authorities take over the institution.

Ralph E. Jensen is president of Numerica Financial Corp., the state's largest savings bank holding company. His company, too, is in financial difficulty and is having trouble justifying new loans.

"The capital basis of our banks has declined," Jensen said. "With this process, we are very, very uncomfortable making loans. ... The regulatory process has been severe. ... We have had to set aside significant amounts of loan-loss reserves, and that causes problems," he said. "I don't want to be misunderstood. I wouldn't say the regulatory process has been unfair or that examiners have been unfair. They come around and do the job they are told to do."

At the heart of the New Hampshire appeal for help, however, is the conviction that the region has been treated harshly by the banking examiners who descended on New England a year ago to assess the damage done to the banks by the region's real estate debacle.

"What we are seeking to do at several levels is to convince the administration that New Hampshire and indeed New England find themselves in circumstances that present {bank} regulations are ill-equipped to deal with," explained Crosier. "If they are left untouched, New England will suffer severe economic consequences."

State banking commissioner Roland Roberge fully backs the effort to get the federal regulators to ease up and give the banks and the state some needed time to adjust.

"The short-term outlook is clear," he said. "It is bleak. The long-term outlook, however, is bright. ... We need to build a few bridges to buy us some time. Time will take care of these real estate values. Inflation has a habit of doing that."

If the regulators hang tough, he acknowledged that a significant number of New Hampshire banks may fail. "I don't deny that. Absolutely. There's going to be a lot of sadness around."