WASHINGTON -- Lending by national banks declined again in the first quarter, especially business lending, according to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

The 3,735 national banks lent $55 billion less than in the year-earlier period, data from the Comptrollere's office show.

It was the sixth consecutive quarterly decline in lending.

At the same time, national banks reported record earnings of $3.95 billion in the first quarter, up by $1 billion from profits a year before.

Similar to Fed Data

Data released earlier in the week by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for all 12,000 commercial banks reflected the same trend. The FDIC attributed the profits to the decline in interest rates and one-time gains on securities.

A recent survey by the Federal Reserve showed that demand for loans has been picking up in the second quarter, but there hasn't been any hard evidence of a credit recovery thus far.

Data from the Comptroller's office show that total loans by all national banks slipped to $1.2 trillion, down 4.4% since a year ago.

"Banks are essentially gunshy," said James Barth, a finance professor at the University of Auburn. "They are trying to improve their overall [loan] portfolios. But businesses and consumers need to gain access to funds if they are going to ... generate economic growth."

Loans to businesses fell $36.17 billion, to $343.41 billion, in the quarter. Consumer loans slipped $9.10 billion, to $226.85 billion. Realty loans fell $1.08 billion, to $502.61 billion.

The largest falloff occurred among banks with assets between $1 billion and $10 billion. Their loans dropped 8% to $367.78 billion.

Loans at banks with more than $10 billion in assets slipped by 2.3% to $615.9 billion.

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