Big banks reportedly approved more small-business loans in January than they have in the last three years.

Banks with $10 billion or more in assets approved 17.8% of small-business loan applications they received last month, up from 17.6% in December and 15.3% a year earlier, according to the latest Biz2Credit Small Business Lending Index. Biz2Credit, which looks at 1,000 loan applications each month, began conducting its survey in January 2011.

"Increasingly, creditworthy borrowers are applying for small-business loans at big banks and having them approved," Biz2Credit Chief Executive Rohit Arora said in a Tuesday press release. "Big banks, which request proof of three years of profitability, are now receiving applications from companies whose fortunes increased from 2011 to 2013."

Small banks, classified as those with less than $10 billion in assets, also approved more small-business loans in January. Small bank approval rates reached a new survey high of 50.9% in January as Small Business Administration lending programs grew in popularity, Arora said. Approval rates stood at 48.7% in December and 49.9% a year earlier.

Credit union approval rates fell to a survey low of 43.4% in January. Credit unions approved 43.9% of funding requests in December and 46.9% a year ago.

Alternative lenders also approved fewer small-business loans last month; their rates dipped to 64.1%, down from 67.3% in December. A year earlier, the approval rate for alternative lenders was 63.7%.

"What we may be seeing is a return to normalcy for alternative lenders," Arora said. "While they offer speed in their decision-making, alternative lenders charge higher rates than others. As banks have become more aggressive in small business lending, the higher quality borrowers seem to be going to them."

Biz2Credit's January index also introduced a new category: institutional lenders. That group includes insurance companies, credit funds and other nonbank financial institutions that offer small-business financing products of up to $1 million. They approved 56.5% of small-business loan applications.

"Institutional investors have emerged in small-business lending and offer interest rates that generally fall somewhere between the rates offered by banks... and alternative lenders," Arora said. "As more institutional lenders come into the marketplace, it provides greater amounts of long-term, stable money to the marketplace. Borrowers can get better products at attractive interest rates and terms."

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