WASHINGTON — Echoing Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan’s warning this week of a possible credit crunch, the central bank reported Wednesday that lending standards had tightened in seven of its 12 districts as loan demand slowed.

Noting declining profit margins in some cyclical activities such as building projects, the Fed report said bankers are concerned about a possible slowdown in the economy.

A case in point was the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Va., which cited a commercial lender who “reported that even though demand for business loans has remained fairly strong, he had become ‘more selective’ in extending credit in recent weeks.”

The Fed report said that lenders had toughened underwriting terms for commercial loans in the New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, and San Francisco districts. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York said that 16% of banks in its region had tightened standards for consumer loans and none had reported any easing of restrictions.

The report generally supported the message of Mr. Greenspan’s speech Tuesday: Though asset quality has weakened, loan portfolios are relatively strong by historical standards and bankers should not overreact. Credit quality held steady in the New York, Chicago, and Dallas districts but declined in the Atlanta and San Francisco regions, the report said. The other districts did not raise credit-quality alarms.

The report also noted that loan demand was mixed or declining in most areas and said that some districts have shown signs of slowing business, especially in New York, “where Wall Street firms have been affected by a decline in initial public offerings.”

These and other economic snapshots were included in the Fed’s Beige Book, a periodic survey of the central bank’s 12 districts. The Federal Open Market Committee considers the report when making interest rate decisions. The policymaking panel is next scheduled to meet Dec. 19.

Still, regulators continued to send mixed signals.

Office of Thrift Supervision Director Ellen Seidman defended bank and thrift agencies Wednesday at a press conference on the third-quarter performance of OTS-regulated institutions. She said that regulators are “working on a very modulated response to real problems that we are seeing” and are not in danger of overreacting.

Ms. Seidman pointed to increases in consumer and mortgage loans 30 to 89 days past due, a “leading indicator of potential difficulty.” Such loans climbed 7% in the third quarter, to $5.7 billion, compared with the year-earlier period.

In the third quarter, 1.72% of consumer loans were in this category, or nearly $994 million, compared with 1.56% in the same period last year, or $854 million.

Mortgages 30 to 89 days past due stayed about the same year-over-year, 0.84% in the third quarter, or $3.7 billion, compared with 0.85% in the third quarter of 1999, or about $3.6 billion. But they increased from this year’s second-quarter figure of 0.76%, or nearly $3.3 billion.

Thrifts’ earnings dropped 11%, to $1.9 billion, in the third quarter compared with the year earlier, which Ms. Seidman said reflected competitive pressures, fluctuations in interest rates, and the adoption of new accounting rules for derivatives. They fell 5.3% from the second quarter.

Average return on assets for the thrift industry fell to 0.83% in the third quarter, from 0.98% the year earlier, because of lower net interest margins and other noninterest income, along with rising noninterest expenses.

Thrifts’ total assets climbed to $908.3 billion in the third quarter, a 5% increase from $862.7 billion in the year-earlier period. Assets were healthy in the third quarter, with troubled assets at 0.58% of the total, a decrease from 0.65% in the year-earlier quarter.

Separately, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency on Wednesday announced that in the third quarter bank earnings from trading activities fell to $2.8 billion, from $3 billion in the previous three months. The volume of derivative contracts in the banking system also declined, by $1.01 trillion.

Mike Brosnan, the OCC’s deputy comptroller for risk evaluation, said that the primary reason for the decline in both profits and derivatives volume was a drop in financial markets’ volatility during the quarter.


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