WASHINGTON - An unscheduled survey of senior loan officers released by the Federal Reserve Board on Monday found that underwriting standards for commercial loans have tightened since the beginning of the year - even as demand continues to decline.

But the fact that the central bank saw the need to do a survey two months early was more interesting to some observers, who said it signals the central bank is uneasy about the economy and its effects on the banking industry.

"It shows considerable concern," said Alan S. Blinder, a former Fed vice chairman. "The Fed doesn't normally do things like that. It reinforces the view that they are monitoring things closely - including the banks."

Mr. Blinder, now an economics professor at Princeton University, said the Fed already gets regular reports on commercial lending practices. An unscheduled survey, he said, "means they wanted more information."

The regular senior loan officer survey is normally done four times a year, and the next is scheduled for release in May. The extra survey is the first Fed departure from its regular schedule since the depths of the global financial crisis in 1998.

Douglas Johnson, a senior policy analyst at the American Bankers Association, said the supplementary survey was a "prudent" move by the central bank in a time of economic uncertainty. "Regulators are paid to worry, and they are just fulfilling their responsibility to be sure they have a grasp of what lending conditions are," he said.

Others saw the survey as part of a continuing effort by the Fed to make sure that banks do not contribute to an economic crisis by tightening standards too much.

Starting with a speech in December Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan "has been warning the banks against becoming too parsimonious - he is worried about the market seizing up," said David L. Littmann, senior vice president and chief economist at Detroit's Comerica Inc.

However, Mr. Littmann said, the Fed's urgings are not the only pressure on loan officers right now. "The banks have no choice, given Wall Street's imperatives and their own bottom lines, but to be more cautious. You can't take loan losses now, so you have to double, triple, even quadruple the scrutiny," he said.

The Fed did not say why it felt an additional survey was necessary.

The current survey, done from Feb. 23 to March 9, found that 51.9% of the banks contacted had tightened lending standards for large commercial borrowers and that 43.4% had tightened them for small businesses. None of the banks reported easing standards for borrowers of any size.

The most frequently cited example of tougher standards was an increase in the premiums paid by risky borrowers, followed by stricter loan covenants and increased collateral requirements.

The bankers reported that their primary reason for ratcheting up credit requirements was a "less favorable or more uncertain economic outlook." Other issues they raised included industry-specific problems affecting certain types of borrowers and a reduced overall tolerance for risk.

The survey also found that demand for commercial loans by large and midsize firms declined at 48.2% of banks polled, and rose at only 7.4%. Demand from smaller borrowers declined at 34% of banks polled, and showed an actual increase at only 7.5%.

The loan officers said that firms' most frequently cited reasons for reduced loan demand were less investment in plants and equipment, and fewer costs because of a decline in mergers and acquisitions activity.


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