WASHINGTON — Though hopes are rising that the economy may soon recover, bankers continue to brace for further widespread deterioration in credit quality, according to a Federal Reserve Board study released Monday.
The central bank's periodic survey of 53 senior loan officers at domestic institutions found pervasive pessimism about loan portfolios. Bankers were particularly downbeat on the prospects for commercial real estate loans, nontraditional residential mortgages and credit cards. More than 90% of the respondents said they expect those loans to continue to produce losses.
In its monetary policy statement last week, the Fed said the pace of economic contraction "appears to be somewhat slower," but the gloomy outlook from bankers demonstrates just how much work remains to be done at the central bank to stimulate critical markets.
The Fed appears to be paying close attention to how banks are managing the amount of credit available to consumers. In a rare move, it repeated a special question from its January survey that asked whether banks had altered the size of credit lines. Nearly 55% of the bankers said they reduced limits on consumer credit cards, while 52.7% said they lowered lines of credit for financial firms. More than 40% of the respondents said they cut the size of home equity lines of credit.
There were several positive signs in the survey. While credit for most sectors remains tough to find, it is not as tight as it was several months ago. For instance, 64.1% of respondents said in January that they cracked down on credit standards for large and middle-market commercial and industrial firms. That number dropped to 39.7% in April.
In the hard-hit commercial real estate market, the percentage of loan officers who said they are tightening standards fell to 66 in April, from 79.3 in January.
The Fed said it was the first time since April 2007 that fewer than 70% of respondents said they were clamping down on commercial real estate lending. Still, none of the bankers said they were easing loan terms. Demand for commercial real estate loans was lower, according to 71.6% of the respondents.
With commercial and industrial lending, banks said they tightened credit mostly by raising the cost of credit lines, charging higher premiums on riskier loans and widening the spread of loan rates over the bank's cost of funds.
As they have in previous surveys, a large portion of respondents (67.4%) said their bank's capital position had nothing to do with their decision to tighten standards on commercial and industrial loans. Most of the blame — 47.7% — was traced to a less favorable outlook for the overall economy.
Demand for commercial and industrial loans from large firms remains generally weak; 67.9% said interest was off and just 7.5% said it was "moderately" stronger. More than 46% of the bankers attributed the lower demand to weaker investments from customers, while 28.2% said financing needs for mergers and acquisitions had slackened.
Strong borrowers are still facing hurdles to finding a residential mortgage; 49% of the bankers said they tightened standards on "prime" mortgages. The few banks that continue to sell nontraditional mortgage products are also clamping down, according to 64% of the respondents.
Despite the tougher standards, a thirst for home loans remains evident. More than half the bankers (51%) said demand from prime mortgages had picked up. Just 14.3% said interest in a prime product had fallen.
Demand for nontraditional mortgages trended down, with 28% saying interest fell while 16% said it strengthened.
The home equity lines of credit that many homeowners tapped during the boom years continue to be subject to tougher requirements. Half of the bankers said they tightened standards on the loans; not a single officer reported easing the terms.
More than 58% of respondents said credit standards tightened for credit cards. Beyond lowering credit limits, banks are also raising minimum credit scores required to obtain a card.
For consumer loans other than credit cards, more than half of the bankers said they were tightening terms by widening the spread between the rate and the bank's cost of funds.