CHICAGO - Reigniting the debate over lending discrimination, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago said Wednesday that banks reject marginally qualified minority borrowers more often than whites.
The findings, by Chicago Fed research director William C. Hunter, support a controversial 1992 study by the Boston Fed, which concluded that banks reject minorities 1.6 times more often than whites.
While the Boston study has been a public relations nightmare for the banking industry, a number of recent studies have taken issue with its analysis.
However, after editing the Boston Fed data and applying new statistical tests, Mr. Hunter also found evidence of discrimination. Sixty-nine percent of marginal white applicants - those with bad credit histories, poor property location, and high debt ratios - received loans, compared with only 16% of similarly situated minorities.
At a press conference here Wednesday, Mr. Hunter said he found no evidence that banks intentionally discriminate.
Rather, he said loan officers had a "cultural affinity" - or common bond - with whites and not with minorities. This meant loan officers were more familiar with white neighborhoods, businesses, and civic leaders.
Mr. Hunter said this familiarity made it easier for loan officers to collect additional information on white applicants.
But, because bankers know so little about minority communities, they would have had to commit significantly more time to get the same data for minorities.
Giving in to human nature, bankers often rejected the loan rather than trying to find sources for the information on minorities, he said.
"The idea here is you don't have to look as hard for more information if you know the sources already," Mr. Hunter said.
Banking industry economists, however, were quick to discount Mr. Hunter's conclusion.
"Replicating a 1992 study with the same 1992 techniques and the same 1992 data set yields the same results and should come as no surprise," said Mike ter Maat, an economist at the American Bankers Association.
"What is needed is to put to use the more advanced techniques that we only recently learned are so important to avoiding spurious conclusions," he added.
Those new techniques include more sophisticated computer models that more accurately manipulate the data.
One bank economist who saw the Chicago Fed report said Mr. Hunter failed to adequately address the flaws other researchers discovered in the Boston Fed study.
"There are all these problems with the data," said the economist, who requested anonymity. "You can't tell if they were qualified, if they had the assets, if they had credit problems. The data base is so flawed you can't rely on it."
Bankers and their advocates, while not accepting the rejection rate analysis, did say they saw merit to Mr. Hunter's proposed solution: hiring a more diverse group of bank loan officers. This diverse staff could better identify which customers from various ethnic and racial backgrounds were sound credit risks, according to Mr. Hunter.
"It has some intrinsic appeal," said Mark A. Willis, president of Chase Community Development Corp. "The better you understand the community, the better you can serve it."
Mr. Willis said this is why Chase staffed one of its home mortgage units with people from the neighborhood it targets.
Mr. Hunter said he found no evidence that loan officers were coaching whites - and not minorities - on what to include with the loan application. This phenomenon, known as thick file-thin file, was the basis for the Justice Department's recent settlement of lending bias charges against Northern Trust.
Also, he said the government needs to continue to enforce the fair- lending laws vigorously.