WASHINGTON - At a hearing on bank failures Tuesday, regulators and lawmakers acknowledged the risks of subprime lending but expressed reservations about a Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. proposal to make the most active subprime lenders set aside more capital.
FDIC Chairman Donna A. Tanoue, one of four regulators to testify before the House Banking Committee, said subprime lenders are 20 times more likely than other banks to be on the agency's "problem" list. They accounted for six of the last 11 failures, she said.
"Subprime lending is moving into the banking business because the capital requirements for banks are less than what the markets force nonbank subprime lenders to hold," Ms. Tanoue said. "Our capital proposal would help to level the playing field."
But several lawmakers cast doubt on the FDIC's draft proposal, which would require banks with subprime portfolios totaling at least 25% of Tier 1 capital to set aside at least twice the usual capital.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said she feared the plan would cause Community Reinvestment Act loans to dry up. "While I share the FDIC's concern for the safety and soundness of the banking system, I am concerned that adopting any arbitrarily high capital standard for subprime lending will unnecessarily reduce the number of subprime lenders," she said.
The panel's ranking Democrat, Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-N.Y., cautioned bank regulators "not to prematurely regulate or potentially delimit an activity because a few banks have failed while engaging in it.
"We know from experience that depository institutions can and do fail performing the most traditional and seemingly safest of authorized activities," he said.
Subprime lenders have been nervously following the FDIC's moves since November, when Ms. Tanoue announced the initiative. And blood pressures shot up last month after details of a confidential draft currently under review by the four agencies leaked out. At least one lender, Providian Financial Corp., has hired a Washington firm to lobby the regulators.
But the FDIC may have trouble rallying fellow regulators' support for a new rule; it may ultimately have to settle for guidelines, which have less force. Federal Reserve Board Governor Laurence Meyer and Comptroller of the Currency John D. Hawke Jr. did not endorse the FDIC plan. Saying it is tough even to define subprime lending, Mr. Meyer said it might not be appropriate to single out just one category of risky loans for higher capital requirements.
In an interview before Tuesday's hearing, Office of Thrift Supervision Director Ellen Seidman said that though a rule like the FDIC's would provide uniformity and certainty it could create problems. For example, she said, though March 1999 interagency guidelines cautioned subprime lenders to price their products according to risk, the FDIC's draft proposal would impose greater capital requirements on subprime lenders who charge very high interest rates.
Ms. Seidman also said that any new capital rule should give "equal billing" to preventive measures, such as risk management, staff expertise, and servicing quality.
Regulators and lawmakers tackled several other issues at Tuesday's hearing, including asset securitization, supervision of megabanks, and the FDIC's authority to do back-up examinations at thrifts, national banks, and state member banks.