The industry's exposure to troubled commercial real estate loans — the subject of much conjecture as banks attempt a rebound from the financial crisis — became much clearer Monday.
More than two-thirds of respondents to a Federal Reserve Board survey of top senior loan officers said that as much as 10% of their commercial real estate loans were in foreclosure. The problem was particularly pronounced for lending that supported land purchases; up to a quarter of these loans are threatened by foreclosure, according to 10.4% of the respondents.
The survey of 57 domestic banks also said banks continue to clamp down on a wide range of loans and are preparing to tighten the reins on credit cards ahead of legislation that toughens rules for the sector.
But the commercial real estate findings demonstrate just how enthusiastic banks were to make loans even as the recession was beginning to take hold of residential markets.
"These were the projects that were bought late," said Chris Low, the chief economist at First Horizon National Corp.'s FTN Financial. "It's the land that was bought, but there wasn't time to build anything before everything turned."
Regulators responded to the commercial real estate woes by releasing guidelines last month that, among other things, help lenders determine how the value of collateral underlying these loans has changed.
Monday's survey showed that banks continue to shy away from commercial real estate lending, but not as much as they had. Nearly 34% of respondents said they were tightening credit standards for approving loan applications in this sector, down from 46.3% in the July survey.
Demand for commercial real estate loans continues to deteriorate, 46.4% of the bankers said.
As it does with every senior loan officer survey, the Fed tacked on special questions to learn more about areas of particular importance at the moment. This time, it asked how banks are responding to the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act, which President Obama signed into law last May. The law takes effect in February and restricts the discretion of card issuers to change the terms of credit cards.
Reinforcing the claims made by the industry when it fought the legislation, the bankers surveyed said they would tighten credit standards in light of the law.
More than half said they plan to curb credit limits and another 54.3% said they expect to raise interest rates to widen the spread over their cost of funds. More than 47% said they would require higher credit scores from borrowers and 38.2% said they would tighten their rules for annual fees.
The bankers said they would be even tougher on nonprime borrowers, with nearly 58% predicting lower credit limits and 73.7% expecting higher interest rates for these borrowers.
Another special question probed banks about why they are making fewer commercial and industrial loans; such lending is off 15% this year, the Fed said.
But bankers essentially rejected the possible reasons offered by the Fed, which ranged from paydowns of bridge loans, a higher rate of loan maturities that were not rolled over or increased loan prepayments.
The only thing that a sizable chunk of bankers — 46.8% — classified as "very important" to the lower loan rate suggested lower demand: "decreased originations of term loans."
Still, respondents reported further tightening of commercial and industrial lending; 14.1% said they toughened standards on large and middle-market firms during the past three months.
Another 21.1% said they were restricting the maximum size of credit lines and 47.4% said they widened the spreads between loan rates and the bank's cost of funds.
Demand for commercial and industrial loans remain on the decline, according to 40.3% of the bankers.
Though some focus has shifted to commercial real estate lending, more banks are strengthening rules for residential mortgages. Nearly 26% of the respondents said they were tightening credit standards for prime mortgages, up from 21.5% in July. Still, 44.5% said demand for mortgages from prime borrowers is on the increase.
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