BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, called Saturday for major changes in the way federal bank examiners supervise lending practices at commercial banks. He said that by often failing to recognize banking's true nature, the examiners had played a significant role in making banks reluctant to lend.
"They are responding inappropriately," Mr. Greenspan said. "Even if we did not have a credit crunch, it would be wise to look at this process, because the very structure is an archaic one."
Mr. Greenspan said he had "never been interested in bank supervision as a technical issue until" it restricted bank lending and affected the economy.
In a luncheon speech at the semiannual meeting of the directors of the National Association of Manufacturers, and in a brief interview afterward, Mr. Greenspan offered an endorsement of banking's special role in society that he had not made so explicitly in the past.
Although bank supervision was the main thrust of his speech, he said a lack of demand for new loans was the most important reason for the cutback in lending that has hit the economy in the past eight or nine months.
Consumers and companies are intensifying the recession by not borrowing for spending and investment.
"We do not see any evidence that lending is opening up," said Mr. Greenspan.
He noted that the Federal Reserve's recent interest-rate reductions were aimed at encouraging lending, and his concern that lending has not picked up left open the possibility of more interest-rate cuts.
The federal examination process plays a significant role in limiting credit, a role best illustrated by real estate lending, Mr. Greenspan said.
"There is an increasing tendency to look at deposit institutions and say we should mark to market the loan portfolios, meaning try to regain the values . . . that the loans represent if we sold them in the market tomorrow," Mr. Greenspan said.
This tendency produces problems, the Federal Reserve chairman said. One is that just as bank appraisers overvalued real estate in the mid-1980s, expecting prices to keep rising, they are "low balling" a property's value because of expectations that prices will continue to fall.
The entire procedure conflicts with the true nature of banking, Mr. Greenspan said. Banks should not be trying to market long portfolios, as if they believed that they "have to be out of business tomorrow," he said.
"This is fundamentally wrong, because commercial banking, and savings and loan activities as well, are a very special form of activity," Mr. Greenspan said. "Commercial banking is the practice by which you make illiquid loans."
Bankers should determine the profitability of a loan over its lifetime, even 20 years, and not the day-to-day value of the underlying real estate. When borrowers get into trouble, the banks should work with them to solve the problem, Mr. Greenspan said. The bank examination process should reflect this role of banking.
"The basic process is not to get paid back immediately or to sell the loan," but to carry the loan for its full life, Mr. Greenspan said.
"We are trying to get some sense of how what we conceive of as a mistaken process is adding to the credit crunch," he said.