As concerns about asset quality mount, Lee B. Murphey says that now is the perfect time to be chairman of Robert Morris Associates.

The industry group, which promotes strong credit policies and risk management procedures, is meeting high demand for information about credit risk.

Mr. Murphey, an executive vice president at $1.5 billion-asset First Liberty Bank of Macon, Ga., said that as complaints from regulators about underwriting standards grow louder and more insistent, bankers are "a much more receptive audience."

Competition among lenders has prompted renewed debate in recent months over the quality of bank loan portfolios. Some regulators and other industry observers recently suggested that the nation's banks have lowered commercial lending standards to dangerous levels.

A study released Thursday by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency showed that 44% of banks eased credit policies in 1998, up from 40% in 1997. At the same time, 4% of banks tightened credit standards, compared with 12% last year.

Mr. Murphey, who is also chief credit officer at First Liberty, said the credit cycle has come close to the bursting point it reached before the commercial real estate crisis of the early 1990s.

"The job of the credit policy officer now is to anticipate and make sure that the impact will be as small as it can be," he said.

This time, the problems are not as obvious as they were in the early 1990s, Mr. Murphey said.

Credit exposure in emerging markets that has affected many of the Northeast's largest banks may not hurt southwestern banks as much, he said.

Flooding and drought affecting agricultural lending in the Midwest might not hurt banks in other regions.

"I don't think it's as focused as it was in the early 1990s," a period of widespread defaults on commercial real estate loans, Mr. Murphey said.

Mergers have also created new and more-complex scenarios for credit policy officers, he said. Banks that were once small regional institutions with more limited lending and analytical resources have emerged into national powerhouses. The blending of credit cultures at these merged banks has sparked concerns over management risk, he said.

"A lot of talent has been lost to the industry in the last several years because of these mergers," Mr. Murphey said. "Some of the newer credit officers may never have been through a downturn. That creates a management issue."

However, technological innovation has created better methods of measuring and tracking risks. As the costs of these risk management tools has fallen, more banks can afford them.

In addition, more banks are able to securitize commercial and consumer loans, spreading the risk beyond one institution, he said.

As chairman of Robert Morris, Mr. Murphey's assignment is to encourage stronger risk management practices. He will serve a customary one-year term.

The association, founded in Philadelphia in 1914 and named for the signer of the Declaration of Independence who helped fund the American Revolution, now counts 18,000 individual members representing 3,000 banks.

And membership is rising, Mr. Murphey said.

"The industry is very willing to share information among themselves," he said, adding that "people are much more sensitized" to risk issues.

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