Community activists are betting the arrival of two Clinton appointees will force the Federal Reserve Board to revive a plan permitting banks to collect data about the race and sex of small-business and farm borrowers.
The proposed changes to Regulation B, which many bankers oppose as added regulatory burden, have languished since last April 19, when new Community Reinvestment Act rules were adopted.
In a compromise with the White House, the Fed agreed to change its equal credit opportunity rules if the administration dropped demands for mandatory collection of race and sex data under the CRA.
The Fed proposed the changes but never followed through.
Community activists are hoping President Clinton's nominees to the board - White House Budget Director Alice Rivlin and Washington University professor Laurence Meyers - will provide the edge needed to get the voluntary reporting approved.
The Fed board has changed a lot in the last 10 months. Former banker John P. LaWare resigned, and if Ms. Rivlin and Mr. Meyers are confirmed, as expected, Clinton appointees would hold three of the Fed's seven seats. (Four if Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan is included. Mr. Clinton just renominated Mr. Greenspan.)
The Rev. Charles Stith, national president of the Organization for a New Equality in Boston, and Robert Gnaizda, general counsel of the Greenlining Institute in San Francisco, pressed Mr. Greenspan in a meeting late last month to finish the regulation.
"I don't believe Greenspan opposes it," Mr. Gnaizda said in an interview after the meeting. He said he expects the change to take effect next Jan. 1.
Mr. Greenspan and other members of the Fed will not comment on matters pending before the board.
Mr. Gnaizda said he told Mr. Greenspan that the six largest banks in California, including Wells Fargo and Bank of America, want the power to collect race and sex information so they can prove the diversity of their small-business portfolios.
"It's one more thing to point to when you file that merger application," Mr. Gnaizda said.
Wells Fargo, which has an application pending before the Fed to acquire First Interstate Bancorp., has been supported in its bid by community groups like the Greenlining Institute.
James D. McLaughlin, director of regulatory and trust affairs at the American Bankers Association, said these banks do not represent the industry at large.
"Some of these banks have applications pending," he said, and are supporting Reg B changes to curry favor with the community activists. "There are a lot of banks that don't like it."
Mr. McLaughlin said bankers fear that while the data collection would be voluntary in the beginning, eventually the Fed could require it. "It's a slippery slope."
In fact, in a Feb. 15 letter to Mr. Greenspan, Wells Fargo executive vice president Karen Wegmann said the data "should be collected and disclosed by all small-business lending providers" if it is released to the public.
"Otherwise, it will lead to incomplete and distorted profiles of market activity," Ms. Wegmann wrote.
Mr. Gnaizda admits that once some banks start collecting the data, competitive pressure will force others to follow suit. But Mr. Stith said the community groups are not pushing for mandatory collection.
"It will have a momentum of its own," he said, as banks compete with each other to become the number one lender to, for example, Hispanic-owned small businesses.
In a deal cut with the California banks, Mr. Gnaizda said community groups have agreed not to demand public disclosure of the banks' results for two years to give banks time to fix any problems discovered by the data collection.