WASHINGTON - Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr., chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, is warning that Congress will take action to end loan discrimination if regulators do not.

In letters this week to the four top federal banking regulators, the Michigan Democrat said the industry was not moving quickly enough to eliminate racial bias.

He cited the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data for 1991, released on Tuesday by the Federal Reserve Board, which showed that minority applicants are far more likely than whites to see their loan applications rejected.

Inattention Charged

"The results of the second round of enhanced HMDA data reflect poorly on the attention antidiscrimination law has received from your agency," Sen. Riegle wrote. "I recognize that the problem of lending discrimination cannot be corrected instantaneously, but I am disappointed at the lack of progress that has been made."

In 1991, the mortgage-denial rate for blacks - 37.6% - was 2.17 times the 17.3% of whites. The black-white ratio improved from 2.35 in 1990.

Of Hispanic applicants, 27.3% were rejected. That was 1.54 times the white rate, up from 1.49. Asian/Pacific islanders constitute the only racial group with a lower denial rate than whites - 15% in 1991.

Program Is Sought

Sen. Riegle asked the regulators for a "concrete plan to step up enforcement of antidiscrimination and community reinvestment laws." He put them "on notice" that he will follow up early in the next congressional session.

If "such administrative attempts are insufficient," he added, "the committee may consider specific remedies."

Regulators and bankers insist that strong minority-lending programs are in place, but they say they came too late to be reflected in the analysis for 1991.

The Consumer Bankers Association released a survey Wednesday showing that of 140 medium-size and large banks, 91% have at least one program in place to increase mortgage lending to minorities or low-income applicants.

The study also found:

* 78% of the responding banks have enhanced marketing targeted to minorities or low- to moderate-income groups.

* 77% sponsor or support a pre-homeownership counseling or education program.

* 68% provide employee awareness or sensitivity training relating to mortgage approval.

"These findings clearly show that the banking industry has made a major commitment to increase mortgage lending to this market," said Joe Belew, president of the association.

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