Reviving a controversial idea, the Federal Reserve Board issued a proposal Wednesday to let lenders voluntarily collect more data on borrowers, including their race, religion, and gender.
The Fed also proposed requiring lenders to retain business credit records for 25 months rather than the current 12 months. Finally, the proposal would require lenders to retain records on prescreened credit solicitations, including the list of criteria used to select potential recipients.
The Fed is accepting comments on the plan for three months.
The idea first surfaced in the mid-1990s when the Community Reinvestment Act rules were being rewritten. It was quickly rejected by the banking industry.
Then in March 1998, the Fed issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking suggesting lenders collect race and gender data on borrowers. It generated 330 letters, many from angry bankers.
Why the Fed decided to resurrect the plan was unclear on Wednesday, but industry representatives remain opposed.
Nessa Feddis, senior federal counsel of the American Bankers Association, said similar data collection requirements under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act have not worked because the information can be arbitrary.
"What's Tiger Woods?" she said. "That's one of the complaints about HMDA data. Intellectually, it's not satisfying."
Data collection could actually foster "subtle or unconscious discrimination" by employees, Ms. Feddis said. "How do you make sure people aren't discriminating? Well, don't let them have the information."
But Richard J. Ritter, a Hilton Head, S.C.-based fair-lending consultant and former Justice Department prosecutor, said collecting this information would give the Justice Department "a tool to get to the bottom of this debate on whether there is discrimination in small-business lending."
Robert A. Cook, partner of Hudson, Cook, a law firm in Crofton, Md., said the Fed's plan is out of step with lenders' efforts to avoid discrimination.
"One of the things that lenders are trying to do is make their applications color blind through the use of credit scoring" and Internet application processing, "to distance themselves from any kind of bias," Mr. Cook said.
"This is about the most controversial thing the Fed is working on at the moment," he said, adding the data collection will invite lawsuits.
Lenders fear the data will be used unfairly against them by regulators and the Justice Department, he said, adding the scrutiny is unwarranted.
"I don't know of any lender actually trying to redline. Most recognize there is vitality in all markets," he said.
The proposal is part of the Fed's Regulation B, which implements the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. As currently written, banks are prohibited from collecting race and gender information on nonmortgage loans.