Obama urges small banks to lend more

WASHINGTON — President Obama took his plea for more small-business lending to community bankers Tuesday, but his prodding was far gentler than it was with high-finance CEOs last week.

The president offered to help ease regulation that bankers say has restricted lending. He praised the small bankers as pillars of their communities. And he listened sympathetically to their pleas for easier access to capital at the meeting with 12 regional bankers and top administration officials.

That's a different tone than last week when he famously called top bankers "fat cats" in a television interview.

No wonder. Small bankers have not aggressively fought central elements of his sweeping financial regulation proposal, they don't make as good a populist target as Wall Street's banking chiefs, and they are essential to Obama's goal of spurring small-business lending.

"The administration recognizes that, truly, community banks are in a different business than the megafirms and the megabanks," said Mark Schroeder, chairman and CEO of German American Bancorp of Jasper, Ind., and a participant in the meeting.

The bankers told Obama that good loans weren't financed because regulators demanded banks hold more capital and downgrade existing loans. Privately and then later before reporters, Obama acknowledged that the regulators are independent agencies but said his administration is looking at "possibilities to cut some of the red tape."

"In some ways the pendulum may have swung too far in the direction of not lending," the president said.

The meeting came as the administration is trying to forge a program that would give community banks access to about $30 billion in low-interest money from the government's $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Small bankers have been loath to accept TARP money, however. They say they fear the reporting requirements that come with the money as well as any restrictions on compensation and lending that would be attached.

"Right now you couldn't make it cheap enough for them to touch it," said Camden Fine, president and CEO of the Independent Community Bankers of America.

That poses a dilemma for the White House. Obama advisers see small-business expansion as an answer to the high unemployment that has hurt the president politically and is likely to linger well into next year's congressional election season.

James MacPhee, president of Kalamazoo County State Bank in Schoolcraft, Mich., said using bailout money is "problematic" for banks, but that banks facing regulators' demands to increase capital might not be in a position to turn it down.

Expanded Small Business Administration loans and new capital injections would go far to increase lending by community banks, said Diane Casey-Landry, chief operating officer with the American Bankers Association. She said banks can't access the long-term capital — also known as "patient capital" — they need as a bridge before loans and other assets regain their value.