NEW YORK (AP) — Small business lending is showing small signs of growth, according to data compiled by the government.

The total amount of small business loans outstanding at the end of the fourth quarter came to $586 billion, up from $584 billion in the third quarter, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. That was the first quarterly gain in small business lending since the FDIC began tracking loans on a quarterly basis at the start of 2010. The FDIC is a government agency that insures bank deposits and oversees financial companies.

Despite the year-end improvement, the lending environment for small business remains weak. The December number was down from $598 billion in the final quarter of 2011 and $626 billion at the end of 2010.

The FDIC numbers included commercial and industrial loans, along with commercial real estate loans under $1 million.

Surveys have shown that small business owners remain cautious about borrowing. Low demand has been one of the factors behind weak lending since the recession ended.

On Tuesday a survey released by Thomson Reuters and PayNet showed that small businesses grew more reluctant to take out loans to buy equipment or expand in February as federal budget cuts approached. That continued a weak trend in lending that the two companies saw throughout 2012 and into the new year. PayNet provides credit ratings on small businesses.

The Thomson Reuters/PayNet Small Business Lending Index fell to 101.3 from 111.7 in January. The January reading was revised downward from a previously reported 113.1. In December the index stood at 115.

Small businesses have been reluctant to borrow since the recession because they've wanted to lower their debt burden, and because they've been uncertain about the economy and gridlock in Washington that has led to $85 billion in budget cuts. They're also uneasy about borrowing while they wait to see how much health insurance will cost them next year, when the government's health care overhaul is fully implemented.

The Thomson Reuters/PayNet study was compiled from data on commercial loans and leases in PayNet's database.

 

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