Loan demand remained strong in most sections of the country the last six weeks, though demand for real estate and consumer credit slowed in some regions, the Federal Reserve Board said Wednesday.
Banks in the Fed's Dallas, Atlanta, and Chicago regions reported robust lending growth, according to the Fed's Beige Book, a periodic review of the country's economic health. But the St. Louis region reported an overall reduction in loan volume, and consumer credit leveled off not only there but also in the Cleveland and Kansas City districts.
The St. Louis Fed attributed the declines to a drop in real estate lending, which fell 4.6% in the period. Commercial lending still grew by 6.2% in the region.
Many of the Fed's 12 district banks noted a decrease in refinancings. Higher interest rates, especially for residential mortgages, were a culprit. And as one realty agent quoted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Va., said, "Everyone has already refinanced."
Overall, the economy continued to grow in the last six weeks. The Fed said that consumer spending remained healthy, led by strong motor vehicle sales, and most districts continued to report tight labor markets. Prices generally remained stable, with oil, gas, and some building materials the exceptions.
"What we are seeing out there is in many ways a reflection of what we know from earnings reports," said Diane C. Swonk, deputy chief economist at Bank One Corp. in Chicago. "Consumers are still spending like crazy, and the economy is still expanding."
Credit quality also remained stable, the Fed said, but there was movement in certain regions. New York reported some tightening of standards for commercial loans, and consumer-loan delinquency rates fell in both New York and Chicago. In Atlanta, meanwhile, intense competition was blamed for some relaxation of commercial loan terms.
Agricultural loans continued to be a concern at banks in the Midwest. Chicago district lenders said "farm loan repayments were coming in slower than last year." However, some banks said they have been able to finance marginal customers by obtaining loan guarantees from the Farm Service Agency.
The Dallas Fed said Texas wheat production is expected to be 30% lower than in 1998 and livestock conditions remain good.