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Banks (Finally) Ready to Start Lending Money Again

Paul Hilton | Bloomberg | Getty Images

With economic conditions getting tighter, banks appear to be figuring out that it's time to get looser.

Lending conditions, particularly for businesses, are finally beginning to thaw after five years of financial lockdown, according to the latest Fed Senior Loan Officer survey.

Though banks are still hesitant to lend to lower-quality homebuyers, they are indicating a willingness to get money flowing to firms and commercial real estate, in particular.

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"In fact lending standards are now as loose as they have been in the history of the survey for small firms, and not far off for larger firms" and commercial real estate, Hans Mikkelsen, credit strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said in a report for clients. "For residential real estate there was a small—but noticeable—shift to net easing of lending standards for prime loans."

The financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 emanated from ultraloose lending standards that led to a collapse of the subprime mortgage business and the downfall or near-downfall of some of the industry's biggest names.

Under political and regulatory pressure, banks have since taken what amounts to a baby-out-with-the-bathwater position toward lending, so that even high-quality borrowers have a hard time getting money.

The result has been the worst real estate market since the Great Depression, with the sector just getting restarted.

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In the meantime, banks have rolled to record profits thanks to a taxpayer-funded bailout, and cheap money and liquidity from the Federal Reserve.

Profits in just last year's fourth quarter soared to $34.7 billion, a staggering 37 percent higher than the same period in 2011, according to Mikkelsen. And in fourth-quarter 2012, just a fraction of banks indicated that they were easing standards for loans.

Shareholders, though, have begun to demand that banks, whose shares have performed in line with the Standard & Poor's 500 after excelling in 2012, put capital to work.

The Fed survey "shows some evidence that when banks are focused on creating shareholder value in an ultralow-interest-rate, low-uncertainty environment, they are forced to loosen lending standards," Mikkelsen said.

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"During the second half of last year, the major U.S. banks finally completed the cycle of post-financial crisis balance sheet repair," he added. "Now they are focused on using their balance sheets."

The survey indicated that the net percentage of banks that had eased standards for business lending had widened from 6 percent to 19 percent. Consumer loans and residential mortgages also saw some loosening but by a smaller degree, with one-third of respondents saying they were less likely to provide lending to mortgages backed by the Federal Housing Administration.

Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, said the survey results were encouraging. But he noted that the economy faces the challenge of the budget stalemate in Washington, which could offset any easing from banks.

(Read the full survey here.)

Gross domestic product gained a less-than-expected 2.5 percent in the first quarter, after stumbling through a 0.4 percent gain in the previous quarter.

"Still-tight lending standards explain why the U.S. economic recovery was so lackluster in the first few years after the recession ended," Ashworth said. "But increasingly it is contractionary fiscal policy and the weakness of global demand that explains why U.S. growth is still below par."

—By CNBC's Jeff Cox. Follow Jeff on Twitter @JeffCoxCNBC.com.

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