WASHINGTON - By softening disclosure requirements for small business loans, federal bank regulators may have set up an early test case of President elect Bill Clinton's commitment to reduced regulation.

Bankers were pleased with the rules, which they said made the best of a bad law. But business organizations, consumer groups, and some lawmakers were angry, and some said they expect the new administration's regulators to rewrite the rules soon after the inauguration.

"Clinton could change the rules, and we are going to be lobbying them pretty heavily on it," said Deepak Bhargava, legislative director for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.

Chris Lewis, a lobbyist for the Center for the Study of Responsive Law, said consumer groups might sue the banking agencies as a way to force the issue onto the agendas of the Clinton appointees next year.

Bankers, who were cheered by campaign statements suggesting that Gov. Clinton sees regulation as an impediment to credit availability, are hopeful that the president-elect's regulators will stand behind the new rules.

The rules stem from an amendment to last year's banking law sponsored by Rep. Richard Neal, D-mass. Motivated by the credit crunch that hammered New England, Rep. Neal pushed through language requiring banks to provide information on loans made to small businesses and small farms.

Based on Size Now

An early draft of the regulations would have required banks to break down loans to businesses of different sizes, categorized by revenues. Under the rules approved this week, banks would provide information based on the size of the loan.

Mr. Bhargava said it would be impossible to tell from the data whether the loans were going to small businesses or large ones. In addition, he criticized the rules for failing to break out loans to minority businesses.

"We would like to see the Neal amendment repealed," said Edward L. Yingling, chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association. "But short of that, this is probably the best we could do."

Even with the weaker language, he said, "this is a very expensive proposition" for banks. "It is very troublesome."

Both Rep. Neal and House Banking Committee chairman Henry B. Gonzalez, D-tex., criticized the rules, which were announced this week by the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council. The council coordinates regulations between the federal bank and thrift agencies.

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