Bankers are examining ways to bring their small-business lending efforts to bear on their community reinvestment performance.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has received a slew of requests for opinions on small-business banking activities, said Matt Roberts, senior deputy comptroller for public affairs.

Many banks are hoping that innovative small-business lending efforts will gain them Community Reinvestment Act credit under new regulations that take effect in July.

"It had not been clear to everyone before that small-business lending was a part of CRA," Mr. Roberts said. "Economic development and business growth is a big part of credit availability."

The revised CRA regulations, adopted in April 1995, require banks to meet the lending, service, and investment needs of their communities. The rules contain a streamlined exam for small banks, which looks almost exclusively at the institution's record of satisfying the credit needs of low- and moderate-income consumers.

Small banks have been subject to the streamlined examinations since January 1996. Mr. Roberts said the new rules, which focus on tangible results rather than procedures, will reduce banks' paperwork.

"If you measure loans, banks will make more loans," he said.

The revamped regulations spurred bankers' interest in a variety of small-business efforts that could garner additional CRA credit, Mr. Roberts said. Those methods include:

*Investing in community development banks. Doing so brings partial CRA credit for money the development banks lend or invest.

Using this tool to lend to barbershops, carry-out restaurants, and other fledgling firms, Washington-based Riggs National Corp. improved its CRA rating from "needs to improve" to "satisfactory" in one year.

"This way we can extend credit to businesses we would not be able to serve," said Russell Simmons, senior vice president and head of the bank's community reinvestment division.

Citicorp last fall lent $1 million to the National Association of Community Development Loan Funds. The bank estimates that investment could help it garner CRA credit for as much as $3 million lent by the community group.

*Creating an actively managed fund to invest in bonds that finance affordable housing, education, or small-business loans.

*Purchasing small-business loans made in low- and moderate-income areas that are issued and securitized by other banks or nonbank lenders.

*Buying unsecured debt issued by a Specialized Small Business Investment Corp., a venture capital firm licensed and regulated by the Small Business Administration that finances small, minority-owned businesses.

*Investing in firms that finance micro-enterprises, defined as owner- operated businesses with fewer than 10 employees.

All of these potential investments must be made in areas that include the banks' assessment area.

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