Soothing regulators' concerns, a survey released Monday showed the vast majority of banks supervised by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. are maintaining loan underwriting standards.
Though standards did not deteriorate during the past year, FDIC officials won't know whether banks are accepting inappropriate risks until after future surveys.
Underwriting practices were unchanged at 89% of the 2,001 banks the agency surveyed during the 12 months ended in February. "We don't know if that's a good percentage or not," said Robert W. Walsh, manager of planning and programming for the FDIC's division of supervision.
The survey, the first of its kind, found that 7% of the banks tightened loan standards and just 4% loosened up.
Several underwriting concerns were highlighted, however:
*10% of surveyed institutions failed to adjust loan pricing when business conditions heightened risk. Another 36% failed to adjust pricing frequently enough.
*"Speculative" construction lending was cited as a concern at almost 14% of the institutions.
*And 10% reported frequent failure to demonstrate repayment ability of consumer loans. However, no major problems were reported in credit card lending - where rising delinquencies have recently caught regulators' attention.
In addition, the FDIC report found that underwriting quality varied "considerably" by region. Examiners based in the FDIC's San Francisco and Dallas offices reported looser standards twice as frequently as their counterparts elsewhere.
The agency's examiners also judged the overall riskiness of each bank's portfolio. Thirteen percent of the surveyed institutions have portfolios with "above-average" risk; banks in California, Louisiana, and New York led the way.
The results are the first from a new FDIC program to study institutions' underwriting practices as part of regularly scheduled bank exams. The surveyed institutions are all state-chartered banks supervised by the FDIC.
"The results will help the FDIC monitor emerging risk in the banking system that could ultimately trigger losses for the deposit insurance funds," said Ricki Helfer, agency chairman.
Plans for the survey were begun 18 months ago after regulators grew worried that banks were making riskier loans.
Mr. Walsh said it's too early to tell whether those concerns were unfounded. "The study does ease our concerns somewhat, but I don't think it's a definitive answer yet," he said.
Other regulators already have issued reports on underwriting practices. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency issued its first survey of consumer lending practices in November, and the Federal Reserve Board includes credit-quality measures as part of its periodic economic reports.
This first FDIC survey will become a benchmark, said James L. Freund, the agency's chairman of economic analysis. "We think we've been pretty successful in getting a good base," he said. "We will highlight lending trends that have caused trouble for banks over the years."