Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady called in the nation's top banking regulators yesterday and encouraged them to make sure that problems in the banking industry do not exacerbate a credit contraction that could slow the economy further, according to government officials.
The two-hour meeting at the Treasury was the latest sign that the Bush administration is still concerned about anecdotal reports that banks have tightened credit in response to tough examinations by banking regulators, a concern that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan recently said might be somewhat justified.
"Everyone is trying to move in the same direction to find responsible steps the regulators can take to try to help the economy," said a senior Treasury official who attended the meeting.
President Bush added extra emphasis to the issue in his State of the Union message Tuesday night, saying, "I ... think there has been too much pessimism. Sound banks should be making sound loans now, and interest rates should be lower now."
Yesterday's meeting included Greenspan; Robert L. Clarke, comptroller of the currency; Timothy Ryan, director of the Office of Thrift Supervision; and L. William Seidman, chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
According to a senior Treasury official, the discussion was "more of a technical approach than a conceptual one," but it focused on regulatory issues that are crucial to the stability of major financial institutions. Topics included the disclosure of problem loans by banks, appraisals of troubled real estate and the concentration of loans in a single area -- a move that could expose an institution to local economic slumps.
It was not the first such meeting between Treasury officials and top banking regulators, but the Treasury said it indicated the administration continues to be concerned about the availability of credit to business.
Regulators have defended their standards and alleged that many banks are blaming regulators, when in fact the banks themselves have been trying to pare back risky loans.
Treasury Secretary Brady said that the administration recently has been soliciting specific examples from businesses of unfair loan rejections so that the Treasury can take their cases to regulators. "We have asked that people who have come to us with complaints that regulators are restrictive to please be precise; don't make a general statement," Brady said yesterday.
The Treasury and Congress are hearing complaints from borrowers that banks, fearful of being second-guessed by regulators, are not only refusing to make new loans but are reluctant to renew old lines of credit, causing financing problems for otherwise healthy customers.
A senior Treasury official denied, however, that the Bush administration was using the meeting to lean on regulators to let up on banks.
"We are there simply as a catalyst," he said.
Treasury officials yesterday encouraged regulators to move quickly on credit-easing proposals already in the pipeline, such as new bank accounting rules proposed earlier this week by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the agency that regulates national banks.
The OCC has suggested changing the way banks treat bad loans on their books to make it more attractive to renegotiate loans to troubled borrowers. At present, if a borrower is making part of the payments on a loan, the bank must classify the entire loan as bad. The proposed OCC rules would let the bank write off part of the loan without declaring it a total loss.
The comptroller also wants banks to voluntarily disclose more details of their loan problems. In some cases, OCC officials say, banks' loan problems may not be as bad as financial reports make them appear. Current reports, for example, do not distinguish between a loan on which no payments are being made at all and one on which the borrower is making partial payments. The bank is far less likely to suffer a loss on a borrower who is still making some payments than on a borrower who has given up entirely, but regulators now treat both loans the same.