Underwriting standards have been tightening across a range of lending lines at banks industrywide all year long, and in many cases this began well before the start of 2008.
It is a process that clearly is not yet complete. Interviews with executives at banks of varying sizes, geographies, and business concentrations indicate that reduced risk tolerance seems far from an inflection point. In areas like commercial real estate, borrowers are being required to put up more of their own cash. And selectivity is the order of the day.
"We have less appetite for larger customers," said H. Patrick Dee, the chief operating officer of First State Bancorp., a $3.5 billion-asset company in Albuquerque. "We're trying to manage our capital as best as we can."
His company recently signed a pact with regulators agreeing to suspend dividends and payments on trust-preferred securities until it improves its capital position after significant loan losses on construction and land development loans.
Bank of America Corp. announced third-quarter earnings this week that significantly missed analyst estimates in large part because of broad credit deterioration.
On Monday the company reported earnings of 15 cents a share, or 47 cents below the average of analysts' estimates, and it cited deterioration in unsecured consumer lending, credit cards, and residential mortgages, as well as commercial loans.
The earnings report was two weeks early and coincided with the $1.83 trillion-asset company's plan to slash its dividend in half and raise $10 billion to shore up capital. (On Thursday, a spokesman said that B of A raised $9.8 billion.)
Joe L. Price, B of A's chief financial officer, said a broad tightening of underwriting criteria had caused a "significant slowdown in loan growth."
During the first nine months of this year, he said during the company's third-quarter earnings call, the company shut off $11 billion of home equity lines to higher-risk customers in states where deterioration has been an issue.
However, he said, B of A continues to lend in all sectors, particularly on the commercial side, where the company continues to "see opportunities."
"Whether it's governments or municipalities, medical-type or hospitals, et cetera, you see some good, solid growth where we have the opportunity for good client selection, good structure selection, et cetera," Mr. Price said.
Jonathan Lorenzo, the CEO of CoBiz Bank, a unit of the $2.5 billion-asset CoBiz Financial Inc. in Denver, said his company is being careful in the real estate sector, particularly when dealing with real estate investors.
CoBiz is still making some loans in both its Colorado and Arizona markets, Mr. Lorenzo said. But he added, "We're steering away from investor real estate and are focusing on owner-occupied real estate — on both construction and commercial mortgages."
"We are requiring our borrowers to put more cash equity up-front," he said, "about 5% to 10% more cash into the project, whether it's construction or commercial real estate" mortgages.
CoBiz is focusing more on middle-market companies than small businesses, he said. "Generally, the smaller the institution, the less capital they have and less capability to ride through the economic downturn," Mr. Lorenzo said.
First State, meanwhile, is focusing on small-business customers and less on those in the middle-market category that want commercial and industrial loans and commercial real estate loans, Mr. Dee said. The company has stopped making residential development loans for projects on which the developer has no prior home-sale commitments. However, Mr. Dee said the company will make some residential construction loans if the developers are willing to put more equity into the projects or accept lower loan-to-value ratios.
The company reported a second-quarter net loss of $118.3 million after reserving $28.7 million for loan losses and writing off $127.4 million of goodwill on its acquisitions. It had earned $7.2 million in the year-earlier quarter.
First State has purposely slowed loan growth in an effort to preserve capital, Mr. Dee said. Its total risk-based capital ratio was 10.44% at June 30, and the company would rather wait on ramping up its lending until this ratio is "much further above the minimum to be considered well-capitalized."
Mark Garwood at Tamalpais Bank, a unit of the $649 million-asset Tamalpais Bancorp in San Raphael, Calif., said his company is steering clear of any kind of residential credit. "We're shying away from anything to do with mortgages or home building because they are very depressed markets," he said Thursday.
Gerald H. Lipkin, the chief executive of the $13 billion-asset Valley National Bancorp in Wayne, N.J., said his bank is continuing to lend "but not as aggressively." Mr. Lipkin said media reports of bank failures had made the public jittery.
"You don't know what's going to come around the corner, if people start panicking and pull their money out of banks," he said. "Because of this uncertainty, we are acting more cautiously."
"Most people have no real knowledge of the strength of their local banks," he said.