An increasing number of bankers believe loan portfolios have become more vulnerable to an economic downturn, the Federal Reserve said Monday.

Of respondents for the 57 large banks surveyed, 25% said their chargeoff and delinquency rates had become more likely to rise if the economy slowed. Only 16.4% said their ability to weather a slump had improved.

"Certain loans are starting to strain, and there probably is a greater risk today," Allen W. Sanborn, president and chief executive officer of Robert Morris Associates, the credit-officer trade group, in an interview Tuesday.

When broken down by industry sectors, however, the responses varied widely.

Roughly 15% of respondents said their credit card customers were in worse shape today than two years ago. Similarly, 10% reported that other consumer borrowers' ability to withstand a downturn had deteriorated.

"It may be that the tightening of standards on consumer loans has not offset the deteriorating condition of some existing customers," the Fed said in its senior loan officer survey, which is prepared quarterly for the Federal Open Market Committee.

Despite the concerns over consumer portfolios, 84% said their willingness to lend to households is unchanged; 8% said they had increased consumer lending, and an equal number had reduced it. Most banks, however, did report lower credit limits and higher interest rates.

In a contrast to worries about consumer portfolios, 20% of the loan officers said their commercial real estate borrowers could weather a poor economy better than two years ago.

For commercial and industrial and residential real estate borrowers, banks were split evenly between those showing deterioration and those showing improvement.

About 25% of the domestic banks experienced increased demand for commercial loans from large companies, and 15% reported more demand from small-business customers.

Merger and acquisition financing accounted for the much of the rise, but strong demand for equipment and inventory funding was also reported.

Economic turmoil in Asia pushed banks to restrict lending to U.S. affiliates of Asian companies. About 75% of those surveyed had tightened their standards on loans to nonbank subsidiaries of South Korean enterprises. Also, nearly all tightened loan terms to Asian companies by shrinking credit lines and raising interest rates and collateral requirements.

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