WASHINGTON -- As scrutiny of minority lending broadens beyond home mortgages, lawmakers and administration officials have asked the Federal Reserve to revise rules limiting the type of data that banks can collect.
In recent weeks, Comptroller of the Currency Eugene A. Ludwig and House Banking Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez, D-Texas, have written Fed officials asking them to let banks voluntarily collect race and gender information about business customers.
With statistical analysis growing more important in testing for discrimination, they said, banks that want to make sure their policies are not biased should be able to gather raceand gender-related information about these borrowers.
Letter to Greenspan
"In order to avoid inadvertent violations of law, I believe many lenders may wish to monitor their lending practices with respect to minorities in various portions of their portfolios," Mr. Ludwig said in an April 21 letter to Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan.
But according to the Fed's Regulation B - which implements the Equal Credit Opportumty Act - banks are not allowed to collect data on the race and gender of bank borrowers, except in the case of home mortgages. In writing the rule in the 1970s, the board wanted to de- ' emphasize the role these variables play in lending decisions.
Rule Called 'Absurd'
Mr. Ludwig told Mr. Greenspan that he did not "understand the policy basis" for the rule. Mr. Gonzalez, in a letter of his own, called it "absurd."
And both Senate Banking Committee Chairman Donald W. Riegle, D-Mich., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., have written Attorney General Janet Reno, asking her for a legal opinion on the Fed's regulation.
Fed officials are reviewing their rules, but have not responded to the congressional and administration requests for revisions. The issues "are very complex and require a great deal of thought, both from a policy perspective and from a 1ogistical perspective," Fed Governor Lawrence B. Lindsey said.
Activists and some lawmakers have called for mandatory collection of business data for years. The success of the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act in focusing attention on bias in the mortgage market, they say, demonstrates the need for similar data on business lending.
And while mandatory collection of the data would be preferable, they add, at the very least regulators should allow banks to gather it voluntarily.
"We see this as a first step toward mandatory reporting of business loans in the same fashion as home loans," said Robert Gnaizda, general counsel of the Greenlining Coalition.
Industry representatives have long fought additional data collection rules and say they believe the Fed's existing interpretation of anti-bias laws is proper. Even voluntary collection would be complicated, said James D. McLaughlin, the American Bankers Association's director of agency relations.
"How do you attribute sex to a group of three people, one ot whom is female and two ot whom are male?" he asked. "You get into a whole host ot factual questions when you try to collect this information."
"We think the Fed's right," he added. "Without the protection of a statute, it is a violation ot the Equal Credit Opportunity Act" to collect the data.
Mr. McLaughlin predicted that even if told they could. banks would be reluctant to gather the data.
But Mr. Gnaizda, the force behind much of the recent flurry of letters about the Fed rule, disagrees. As part of a multimillion-dollar lending commitment reached last December,-his group persuaded Comerica Bank-California to gather and disclose data about the race and gender of its business borrowers
But the bank made this action contingent on a ruling by federal regulators that it is legal. And after being told by Fed officials that the action would, indeed, violate their rules, Mr. Gnaizda took the matter to lawmakers and administration officials.
"We believe the Federal Reserve is improperly interpreting the regulation," he said.