WASHINGTON -- As with bankers, the minority-lending issue has turned a spotlight on banking regulators.

Congress and consumer advocates have criticized the four bank and thrift agencies for not vigorously enforcing civil rights laws. Growing increasingly frustrated with, their actions, these interest groups have cajoled, bullied, and even threatened the regulators.

Legislation has been proposed to force the regulators to more rigorously enforce community reinvestment and antidiscrimination laws. And some activists have talked of suing the regulators for malfeasance.

Comptroller Sets Tone

Partly as a result of this attention, and partly as a result of the new administration coming to Washington, the regulators have begun talking tough.

Eugene Ludwig, the comptroller of the currency and the first key Clinton appointee in banking regulation, has set a blistering pace.

Mr. Ludwig has already announced revamped fair-lending exam procedures and a testing program to detect bias at national banks.

He is working with the administration on strengthening Community Reinvestment Act regulations -- including emphasizing the importance of lenders' Home Mortgage Disclosure Act records -- and working with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to step up enforcement.

Others Jump on Bandwagon

Mr. Ludwig's vigor has energized some of the other agencies.

On the same day his agency announced the fair-lending rules and testing program for national banks, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. put out a press release saying it had changed its exam procedures a month earlier. The FDIC also announced that it was formally considering using testers.

Two days later, the Office of Thrift Supervision said it was sending a letter to all thrift directors in the country reminding them of their responsibility to make available affordable housing.

Coincidence, collusion, or just regulatory one--up-manship?

Public advocates say they don't care which it is, they are just pleased the regulators are changing their tune.

Higher on the Agenda

"The fact is, CRA and fair lending have moved up on the agendas of many of these regulatory agencies," said John Taylor, executive director of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. "We have never before heard a high-level regulator say his top priority is going to be fair lending and equal access to credit."

While the other agencies vie to demonstrate their commitment to enforcing antidiscrimination laws, the Fed has remained noticeably quiet.

Fed Governor Lawrence Lindsey, who oversees the agency's community affairs programs, has been the lone spokesman on minority lending in recent weeks.

He says the Fed is serving as a model for the other agencies as they revise their fair-lending programs. He acknowledges, though, that the Fed wants to do more.

"We're all looking hard for anything we think will solve the problem," he said. "It may even be fair to say we feel we haven't taken it into account enough in the past."

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