Despite concerns about looming credit-quality problems, many big banks have been loading up on loans to businesses.

The nation's largest bank holding companies posted hefty gains in commercial and industrial loans and loans for commercial real estate, an American Banker survey found.

More than half of the top 100 lenders to businesses, excluding those in mergers, posted double-digit gains in their holdings. Tenth-ranked Bankers Trust New York Corp., for example, boosted its total loans to businesses - a broad category that also includes leases - a whopping 67%, to $30.7 billion. (Complete tables begin on page 8.)

"It was a great year," said Kevin Sullivan, head of loan syndications at Bankers Trust. "The loan business was very strong and very active"-a trend that is continuing in 1997.

Top-ranked Citicorp, meanwhile, ended the year with more than $100 billion in business loans on its balance sheet. That made up a full 36% of the company's total assets.

Loans for commercial real estate showed especially notable growth, with many banks posting their biggest increases since the late 1980s. The growth is raising red flags in some quarters.

"There is a herd mentality," said Dorothy M. Horvath, chief credit officer of National City Corp. and chairwoman of Robert Morris Associates, the commercial lending trade group in Philadelphia.

"We all chase the same markets, and as the activity builds in chasing that market, competition gets stiffer and standards are compromised," she said.

National City, based in Cleveland, ended 1996 with $16.3 billion in business loans on its books, up 22.5% from 1995. Secured commercial real estate loans totaled $5.2 billion, a 30% jump.

The top 100 banks increased their commercial real estate loan portfolios by about 7%, with especially large gains in loans for construction and development. Those loans were up 11.2%, the biggest jump since the nationwide real estate debacle of the early 1990s.

"I think that was pent-up demand," said Ms. Horvath. "If you looked at the last material building that went on, it was the 1980s."

Bankers say the new wave of real estate lending is different from those of the past, and safer. In addition to writing and holding loans, lenders are selling off pieces of their new real estate credits to other banks and investors, mimicking the syndication of commercial and industrial loans.

"There's a lot of volume, there's a lot of fee income, and there's a lot of nonspread revenue that's coming in on the commercial real estate side, but not necessarily a lot of balance-sheet growth," said Robert J. Higgins, president and chief operating officer of Fleet Financial Corp.

To carry out these deals, Fleet has created a special corporate finance capital markets group in its real estate unit, he said.

In the market for commercial and industrial loans, syndication is clearly on the rise among big banks. "But for the regional banks that tend to do a lot of lending to smaller companies, those loans may not be as liquid, so you may be more in a world of the old kind of lend and hold," said David Berry, a bank analyst with Keefe Bruyette & Woods.

The survey, based on data from Sheshunoff Information Services, showed that Chase Manhattan Corp. was the leader in commercial industrial loans, with holdings of $54 billion at yearend. First Union Corp. led in commercial real estate, with a portfolio of $16 billion.

At Bankers Trust, Mr. Sullivan said, there is a concerted effort to hold more loans, to strengthen relationships with clients. The bank's low writeoffs are enabling it to carry out that plan.

"We're clearly just living up to our own underwriting standards and we don't mind doing it," Mr. Sullivan said.

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