BASEL, Switzerland - International lending plunged in the first quarter, the Bank for International Settlements reported.

Net new financing within its reporting area sank 43% below the year-earlier level, to $60 billion. That was 9% above the fourth-quarter level but far below the $105 billion of the first three months of 1991.

The reporting area comprises the major developed economies plus important offshore financial centers.

The plunge came amid delayed economic recovery and weak credit demand worldwide, said the quarterly report from the Switzerland-based coordinating body for central banks. It cited pullbacks by Japanese lenders as a main reason for the global financial slowdown.

Japanese Presence Reduced

Net new financing in the 12 months through March 31 stood at only $200 billion, compared with $520 billion a year earlier. The sharpest decline was in new international bank credits, which fell to $55 billion from $405 billion.

Cross-border claims between Japan and other countries inside the reporting area of the Settlements Bank fell by $74 billion in the first quarter and by $143 billion over the 12 months to the end of March.

"The activities of Japanese banks resumed their downward trend, with further cutbacks in interbank positions and final lending," the report said.

Faced with a slowdown in domestic and international credit demand and concerns about borrowers, Japanese banks were seen shifting their strategies away from sheer market share and toward asset quality.

In addition, they were forced to meet tougher capital requirements at the end of their accounting year. As a result, they had scaled back foreign currency business at home and reduced their external positions.

Across the Board

The Settlements Bank estimated that Japanese banks' share of total international assets had fallen to 30.5%, near a six-year low.

But the overall contraction in international banking aggregates during the latest quarter affected nearly all major financial centers.

The outstanding external assets of the reporting banks plus their foreign-currency claims on residents declined by $55 billion during the first quarter of 1992, after rising by $114 billion during the last quarter of 1991. This decline was more than accounted for by a "sharp contraction" - $83 billion - in interbank claims.

The report added that announcements of new credit facilities in the syndicated loan market fell to $27 billion during the first quarter, nearly a three-year low, from $37 billion in the fourth quarter of 1991.

This was largely a result of a shift by borrowers to cheaper forms of financing, cyclical weakness, credit concerns, and the banks' attention to their returns on capital, the report said.

Meanwhile, there was increased demand for funds from oil-exporting countries and from developing nations outside the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

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