It's hard to argue with the new HMDA numbers.

The data released under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act show an increase in lending to the nation's minorities - a dramatic increase. Loans to blacks are up 55%, and credit extensions to Hispanics show a 42% rise.

Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan marveled at the numbers at a congressional hearing this week, and he got no argument from the lawmakers who attended. Two of the House Banking Committee's more liberal members - Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Rep. Floyd Flake, D-N.Y. - joined him in applauding the results.

Likewise, bank industry representatives are elated. "Very positive overall," said Donald G. Ogilvie, head of the American Bankers Association.

"It underscores that we are doing a very good job," added Kenneth A. Guenther, his counterpart at the Independent Bankers Association of America.

On one level, the HMDA numbers help make the industry's case for regulatory relief: With so many institutions doing so well in serving the poor and minorities, isn't it time to ease up on the legal and regulatory pressure?

Perhaps. But to many others, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, the numbers make the case against the industry. They suggest that the lenders - banks, thrifts, and mortgage brokers - are doing the right thing precisely because they feel the coercive hand of the federal government weighing down on them.

In the first three years in which HMDA data were disclosed, the news was mostly bad. Lenders were shown to be turning down blacks at twice the rate that they rejected whites, and those disparities have persisted until this day. Industry representatives said lenders got religion in the first year, but it took time for the results to show up in the data.

By 1994, however, the results were being felt in force. The disparities were still there, but the number of loans being made to minorities had skyrocketed.

Community activists say government pressure, in the form of regulations like the Community Reinvestment Act, finally worked.

"That shows that these laws are needed," said Jonathan Brown, the head of Essential Information, a Ralph Nader-sponsored group that tracks bank lending practices.

Joe Belew, president of the Consumer Bankers Association, agrees that laws are needed to keep his industry focused on fair-lending.

"Most of our community development bankers feel there is a need for CRA," he said. "Without a federal law, you just won't get the same results."

Strictly speaking, the CRA is not a fair-lending law. It calls for service to low-income communities, rather than minorities who suffer discrimination. But it is one of a number of tools that has been used to help minorities, and Mr. Belew and his organization are strong supporters.

That leaves the Consumer Bankers pretty much alone in the industry. Most bankers want to see the CRA laws overhauled - and they think the new HMDA results will help them in that effort.

Other industry leaders say that while the new numbers couldn't hurt, they're almost irrelevant in the new political environment.

"The elections changed everything," said one prominent lobbyist. "Last October, there was no issue hotter than fair-lending. Since then, the regulators have backed off."

The regulators deny that they have changed their position. "We remain as committed to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Fair Housing Act as ever," said Konrad Alt, chief of staff to the Comptroller of the Currency.

"But that is only a small part of the range of issues that we care about," he added. What some see as a retreat from fair-lending, he added, is only a more realistic appraisal of the agency's priorities.

While the HMDA data provide support for almost everyone in this debate, on balance the information is likely to help the banking industry. The Republicans who control Congress are predisposed to cutting regulations, and the numbers give them comfort.

And the administration, which desperately wants to support both lenders and civil rights activists, can afford to relax its hand a bit, knowing that the trend on fair-lending is going in the right direction.

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