WASHINGTON — For most banks, loan officers Monday said their lending standards were generally unchanged over the last three months and demand was little changed as well, but some smaller businesses saw easier terms.

The Federal Reserve's Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey, for the three months through Jan. 15, also found that while loan officers expected an improvement this year in loan delinquencies, they were no more optimistic than they were last year at this time.

The number of U.S. banks that tightened standards for lending to European entities was slightly less than in the previous survey.

Of 68 banks that responded to the latest survey, 63 found conditions "basically unchanged. Only three of the large banks saw lending conditions easing somewhat. Two of the rest of the banks saw standards easing.

When asked specifically about lending terms for small business, those firms with less than $50 million annual sales, the loan officers saw slightly more easing.

When asked about the size of credit lines extended to customers, 13 of the 68 banks saw more liberal standards, nine of them from among the large banks. There was some easing noted when the question was about the maturity of credit lines.

There was more of a response when the question was whether banks were charging less for their credit lines. Of the large institutions 10 said they were charging less and among other banks, 13 said their credit lines were less costly.

Overall, however, the report showed little if any significant change in the overall posture of the banking industry, still frequently criticized for cautious lending.

When bank loan officers were asked how they evaluated their own institution's deterioration, if any, in their capital positions, only three of the 68 responded that there was any change, saying the change was "not important."

Another question was whether the loan officers saw a less favorable or more uncertain economic outlook and again, responses were minimal. Only 1 bank of the 68 said a less favorable outlook was "somewhat important" to them in the past three months.

On the positive side, a question about customer funds increasing was characterized by one bank as "very important," and another seven as "not important."

The Fed characteristically offers minimal interpretation of the figures, staying away from any characterization of the survey as to whether it shows banks are operating as expected, or worse or better than expected.

The closest the Fed got in the latest report to weighing its responses was in noting that "generally modest fractions of domestic banks reported having eased their standards across major loan categories.

Market News International is a real-time global news service for fixed-income and foreign exchange market professionals. See www.marketnews.com.

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