WASHINGTON — Most banks kept lending standards tight in the first three months of 2010, except for big banks that eased some terms for firms and households, the Federal Reserve said in a report Monday.

The majority of banks kept the bar high for borrowers at unchanged levels at the start of the year amid continued weak demand for loans, the Fed survey showed. A small portion even tightened many loan terms further.

Big banks, however, eased some standards on commercial and industrial loans to large firms, as well as for prime residential mortgages and home equity lines of credit.

"Most of the banks that reported having eased some lending policies in the April survey were large banks," the Fed said in its quarterly survey based on responses from 56 banks and the branches of 23 foreign banks.

Lending in financial markets nearly came to a standstill following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in Sept. 2008, forcing the Fed to step in with a series of emergency lending facilities. As financial conditions and the wider economy slowly improved, the Fed has been able to gradually unwind those facilities. But lending to the broader economy remains tight.

Hit hard right after the financial crisis, big banks are now doing better than smaller lenders during the recovery. JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s first-quarter net profit rose 55% from a year earlier to $3.3 billion as the economy improved.

None of the smaller banks, which compose roughly half of the Fed's survey panel, indicated that they had eased their loan standards to large firms over the past three months. When asked about standards on loans to smaller firms, almost all domestic banks, regardless of size, reported little change.

The April survey also showed that banks tightened terms on business credit card loans to small firms over the past six months.

A significant number of banks continued to report having tightened standards on commercial real estate loans. However, the fraction was considerably smaller than in the January survey.

Turning to households, the report showed that banks reported tighter lending standards and terms for credit cards, but their lending stance toward other consumer loans eased.

The Fed report, officially called the Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey on Bank Lending Practices, provides a window into banks' lending practices and is reviewed for signs of recovery from the financial crisis.

Data earlier Monday showed the manufacturing sector continued to lead the economic recovery in April, while consumer spending strengthened in March.

Gross domestic product rose at a 3.2% annual rate January through March, the government said Friday, in its first estimate of the economy's benchmark indicator. The increase marked the third straight quarter of growth following the worst recession since the 1930s.

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