The Federal Reserve Board said Wednesday that demand for mortgages and commercial loans remained strong throughout the country during the last six weeks, though spreads continued to fall on credit to quality borrowers.
Bankers attributed a jump in mortgages to a refinancing boom spurred by falling interest rates, the Fed said in the Beige Book, its periodic report on the country's economic condition.
The Asian economic crisis began to be felt throughout the country. The Fed reported overall weaker export demand for industrial equipment, building materials, aircraft parts, semiconductors, processed foods, and some metals. Also, the stronger dollar made Asian products more competitive here.
The Fed said loan standards remained unchanged at most lenders. Studies have warned of slipping standards as fierce competition forced banks to bend underwriting criteria to generate business.
Consumer lending was generally sluggish, the Fed said. The reserve banks in Cleveland, New York, and Dallas found that consumer delinquency rates had declined or stabilized.
The Fed also found that rising occupancy and lease rates for office buildings had triggered some speculative real estate construction in Boston, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Dallas.
Overall, the Fed said economic growth was "moderate" in December and early January. Holiday retail sales were at or slightly above expectations, and motor vehicle sales picked up at the end of the year.
Findings from the 12 reserve bank districts include:
Boston: Insurance companies reported 5% to 10% revenue increases. New sales driven by variable products linked to stock market.
New York: Loan and deposit rates fell across the board. Delinquency rates on consumer and nonresidential mortgages down. Little change in credit standards.
Philadelphia: Middle-market firms seeking financing for working capital and acquisitions. Bankers worried about effect of low margins on commercial loans in 1998.
Chicago: Lending "very strong," led by commercial credit. Asset quality described as "excellent."
Minneapolis: Loan demand softening as businesses financed projects with retained earnings. Bankers expect profitable year in 1998, but worry how long "good times" will last.
Kansas City: Loan-to-deposit ratios edged down. Increases in demand deposits, NOW accounts, and money market deposit accounts.
Dallas: Loan activity remained steady, defying expectations it would fall. Competition eased for consumer loans and delinquencies stabilized at "comfortable" levels.
San Francisco: Banks report ample supply of capital and liquidity, but fierce competition for loans driving rates down.