NEW ORLEANS - Gulf Coast bankers reached out to large institutions across the country Thursday, asking for various kinds of help to recover from last summer's hurricanes.
At a conference with close to 200 bankers and regulators, local representatives told how outside banks could assist, including purchasing the mortgages of storm-affected banks on the secondary market, creating more loan participations, and lending employees and expertise.
Regulators speaking at the conference encouraged bankers to help each other and finalized guidance to give more Community Reinvestment Act credit for assistance to the region.
"The purpose of the conference is to facilitate partnerships between some of the large and small institutions," said Martin Gruenberg, the acting chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
The requests reflect the evolution of challenges facing community banks here.
Katrina hit Aug. 29. In its immediate aftermath, lenders scurried to establish emergency branches and track down employees and customers.
Six months later, insurance payouts have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into some local banks, and some parts of New Orleans appear nearly back to normal. Outside the Marriott hotel in the city's French Quarter, where the conference was held, Mardi Gras beads from the celebration this week still hung from lampposts and palm trees.
But bankers said new problems have arisen.
Guy Williams, the president and chief executive officer of Gulf Coast Bank and Trust in New Orleans, said some institutions have had trouble selling mortgages on the secondary market.
When selling mortgages, banks are routinely required to provide the government-sponsored enterprises with data on comparable home sales - but Mr. Williams said such data is hard to collect in the storm-affected regions. He said he hopes larger banks will buy local ones' mortgages to help pick up the slack.
D'Auby Schiel, the chairman and chief executive officer of Coast Community Bank in Biloxi, Miss., said GSEs need to create products designed for the Gulf Coast that would allow people with low credit scores to obtain low interest rates.
Both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have already made several underwriting concessions, including encouraging lenders to rely on pre-Katrina credit histories.
James Hudson, the president and chief executive of Omni Bank in Metairie, La., asked other banks to lend staff and experts in disaster recovery and information technology, because so many local banks have lost employees. Mr. Hudson even asked if banks could offer counselors to bank customers and employees in the area who are still dealing with the emotional impact of the storm.
He said banks are also seeking to participate in loans outside the affected region in order to diversify their portfolios.
"The real opportunity now is that banks have to band together," Mr. Hudson said. He noted that many banks shared branches immediately after the storms. "That cooperative spirit has to continue on right now," he said.
Some large banks have already begun to offer more partnerships.
Alden McDonald, the president and chief executive of Liberty Bank and Trust Co. in New Orleans, said G. Kennedy Thompson, the CEO of Wachovia Corp. in Charlotte, recently committed $30 million. Mr. McDonald said Wachovia agreed to make the deal "at better than the going rate."
Other banks may follow suit soon. Speaking at the conference, Thomas Wind, a senior vice president of JPMorgan Chase & Co., said large banks are amenable to many of the suggestions laid out at the conference.
"I really see this as a great opportunity for dialogue over the next couple of days," he said.
Don Powell, a former chairman of the FDIC and the Bush administration's point man on rebuilding the Gulf Coast, said he would "encourage" banks to form more partnerships.
"It's natural, and it would be easy to work," Mr. Powell, dressed in blue jeans, a blazer, and cowboy boots, told reporters.
Regulators at the conference restated their commitment to flexibility and said they expect bankers and examiners to be creative and innovative.
"We regulators will need to consider doing things we have never done before," said Office of Thrift Supervision Director John Reich.
Comptroller of the Currency John Dugan said he had instructed examiners not to "second-guess" the decisions made by bankers when renegotiating loan terms with customers.
Regulators also finalized CRA guidelines on Thursday that say financial institutions will be granted community development credit for loans, investments, and services to distressed areas.
The guidelines say that investing in middle- and upper-income areas (particularly in rural areas, to attract businesses or residents) that revitalizes a designated disaster area will also satisfy CRA standards. The guidelines extended to three years, from one, the period for making such CRA loans in a disaster area.
In a speech in New Orleans, Comptroller of the Currency John Dugan said Thursday that a longer extension might still be granted.
"We are very likely to extend this period beyond three years, given the need for long-term involvement by financial institutions in helping to address the widespread devastation caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita," he said.
The Louisiana Bankers Association has also created a task force of 15 bankers, led by Liberty Bank's Mr. McDonald, to explore longer-term issues and bring them to regulators.
"There needs to be a central clearing house for people to come and for banks outside of the area to meet with local banks," Mr. Reich said.