WASHINGTON - Bank and thrift examiners are likely to pay more attention in the coming year to fair-lending issues involving small businesses owned by women and minorities, federal regulators said Tuesday.

Complaints from small-business owners who had difficulty receiving loans have risen steadily over the past few years, the regulators said at a Consumer Bankers Association conference here.

Fair-lending specialists from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Office of Thrift Supervision, and Federal Reserve Board participated in the panel.

While the regulators cautioned that evidence of any unfair practices is still sketchy, they said the agencies will scrutinize banks and thrifts closely.

"Right now, there is only a lot of anecdotal evidence," said R. Russell Bailey, a senior fair-lending specialist at the FDIC. "You could say there is a lot of smoke, and we are looking to see if there is really a fire there."

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