U.S. businesses are finding credit harder to get and more costly as bankers continue to tighten their lending standards.

That's according to a survey of senior loan officers released yesterday by the Federal Reserve.

Consumers were faring better than businesses, however.

The survey, conducted last month, showed that banks were not making it tougher for consumers to borrow, except that about one-third of the 60 banks queried said they were asking for larger down payments on home mortgages.

About one-third of the U.S. banks and virtually all of the foreign-owned banks surveyed said they "had tightened credit standards for approving loan applications from large, medium and small commercial and industrial firms in the October-January period," the Fed reported.

Even that was slightly better than the figure for the previous three-month period, when a similar survey found that half of the U.S. banks and all of the foreign banks tightened their lending standards.

Many economists and officials of both the Bush administration and the Federal Reserve have said a growing unwillingness of many banks to make loans was one factor behind the current recession.

Concern about credit availability was one reason the Federal Reserve has aggressively cut interest rates as the recession has worsened, and Fed policy makers believe banks' willingness to lend will be a key to recovery.

At a meeting Dec. 18 of the Federal Open Market Committee, the central bank's top policy-making group, several members said that "economic recovery would depend to an important degree on the availability of credit," a policy record of the meeting released yesterday said.

A further tightening of credit "could not be ruled out," the statement said, posing new risks to the economy.

Since that meeting, the Fed has cut the key short-term interest rates it sets by a full percentage point.

Most of the loan officers surveyed last month said the deteriorating economic outlook and problems in specific industries, such as real estate, were the principal reason loans were harder to get and more costly.