Federal bank regulators yesterday for the first time issued guidelines advising banks to avoid predatory lending practices that critics say are often targeted at the poor and elderly.
But the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates federally chartered banks, also said it would take comments for 30 days on a proposal that would exempt national banks from a far tougher predatory lending law in Georgia.
Consumer and community housing groups for some time have urged the federal government to ban predatory lending practices. Yesterday they complained that the federal guidelines were too vague. They also said they would oppose efforts to exempt nationally chartered banks from the Georgia law or other state laws.
There are different predatory lending laws in four states and nine cities, including the District. The New Jersey legislature is considering such a law.
Banks, which have argued that inconsistent regulation is drying up credit and making mortgage loans more expensive, praised the federal effort.
"The OCC proposal recognizes the need for a uniform standard for national banks that applies no matter where they do business and at the same time provides consistent guidance to prevent predatory lending practices," said Janis Smith, a spokeswoman for Wells Fargo & Co. "We believe this is the right approach."
Critics said the federal government's action was too little too late. "Many of the abuses in predatory lending should have been addressed by the federal regulators as they emerged years ago," said Peter Skillern, executive director of the Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina, a banking industry watchdog group. "They failed to intervene in a timely fashion so that it has become a policy problem on a national level."
Among the practices the laws and guidelines are meant to stop are misleading marketing, excessively high fees, and penalties for paying off a loan ahead of schedule. Critics contend that lenders aim those practices at poor, elderly or black borrowers and that they often result in a loan default or foreclosure.
The comptroller's office guidelines are flexible advice. Officials say hard-and-fast rules might inadvertently outlaw useful loan features.
Comptroller of the Currency John D. Hawke Jr. said banks must take the guidelines seriously. "The failure of the industry to address these issues is an invitation to legislation," he said.
Hawke said state and local governments should focus on regulating stand-alone mortgage companies and state banks, not national banks.
Banks are particularly upset with the Georgia law because it allows an aggrieved borrower to sue -- for unlimited punitive damages -- both the original underwriter of an abusive mortgage loan and any bank or firm that subsequently buys that loan.
Banks argue that Georgia's law is wreaking havoc with the huge secondary market in mortgages. Banks usually sell mortgages to free capital to make more loans. Once the loans are sold, they are often put into large pools and the income they generate forms the basis of asset-backed securities that are sold to investors.
The rating agency Standard & Poor's Corp. declared last month that it could no longer rate any securities that included home loans from Georgia because the risk was too difficult to assess. Moody's Investors Service Inc. and Fitch Ratings Ltd. agreed. Bankers predicted that the new law will result in less money for mortgage loans in Georgia.
The comptroller's office said it would publish a request by National City Bank to make national banks exempt from Georgia's law. Hawke said his office would decide what to do after reviewing comments on the proposal. Consumer advocates said they may consider challenging such an exemption in court, although they acknowledged that the federal bank regulators have significant authority over such matters.
Although yesterday's proposal is directed solely at Georgia's law, consumer advocacy groups said it may provide a clue about how federal regulators will treat other state and local laws.
Consumer and housing activists also oppose a bill introduced last week by Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) that would nullify all state and local anti-predatory lending laws and replace them with federal standards. Consumer groups and community housing coalitions say Ney's bill would provide far weaker protection than current state laws. Banks say the bill would ensure that they can operate efficiently.
"What we need is a national standard that is enforced locally by state attorney generals," said Jeffrey Zeltzer, executive director of the National Home Equity Mortgage Association. "I think the state protection rules, in many cases, are not reasonable. Otherwise deserving consumers are thrown out of the credit market."