WASHINGTON — Momentum toward tightening commercial credit has abated, alleviating fears that overreaction by bankers would worsen the economic slowdown, the Federal Reserve Board reported Thursday.

“We are not in the middle of a credit crunch, nor do I think we face one,” Fed Vice Chairman Roger W. Ferguson said in testimony before the House Small Business Committee about the central bank’s latest survey of senior loan officers. “Credit flows have been well maintained, and lending institutions are in much better financial health than a decade or so ago.”

The testimony appeared to be a turnaround for the Fed, which had repeatedly warned bankers against tightening their credit standards too much. Though Mr. Ferguson said some business borrowers might still consider loan terms too strict, he said that tougher underwriting is to be expected after years of rapid expansion and had produced no ill effects. He added that the survey showed there is a reasonable supply of credit, particularly to small firms.

“Importantly, reports from small businesses are relatively upbeat with regard to the availability of credit,” he said. “Although risky borrowers face close scrutiny, banks apparently have continued to accommodate the needs of their creditworthy business customers, while bank lending rates, on average, have moved lower.”

Industry analysts said the survey, combined with Mr. Ferguson’s comments, proved that banks are acting prudently.

“The Fed was very apprehensive banks would commit a self-fulfilling error and would overly tighten credit to customers — that is demonstrably not the case,” said David L. Littmann, a senior vice president and chief economist at Detroit’s Comerica Inc.

Specifically, the central bank said that the rate of tightening had declined since its January survey. Though there were still no reports of an easing of credit standards, slightly more than 50% of bankers responding to the survey said they had reined in standards for loans to big companies, compared with 60% who reported such tightening in January.

As Mr. Ferguson noted, the survey said that 36% reported tightening credit for lending to smaller companies, down from 45% in January.

In addition fewer banks reported tightening the loan terms listed in the survey. More than 60% of respondents reported charging higher premiums on riskier loans to large firms, down from nearly 75% in the fourth quarter. Almost 40% of domestic banks reported tightening loan covenants for these borrowers, compared with almost 60% in the January survey.

The results tracked a narrower March survey done by the Fed and dovetailed with a Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. report last week on underwriting standards that also showed initial signs that tightening had reached its peak.

The Fed survey’s findings on consumer lending were not as rosy. The number of banks reporting tighter standards for credit card loans jumped to 20% from 12% in January. About 20% of respondents reported tighter standards for other types of consumer loans. Most respondents cited recent or expected increases in delinquency rates as the primary reason for higher standards.

Also, the rate of tightened standards for commercial real estate loans remained largely unchanged, at 40%, the survey said. About 22% of domestic banks said demand for these loans had weakened during the first quarter.

Still, analysts said the survey showed a positive outlook for banks.

“It was a relatively optimistic sign that banks have started tightening standards fairly early in this slow-growth period,” said Alan S. Blinder, a managing partner at Promontory Financial Group and former vice chairman of the Fed.

Nicole Duran contributed to this article.


Related Content Online

From Our Archive

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.