WASHINGTON - Wall Street investment companies are borrowing from the Federal Reserve's emergency lending program at a fairly steady pace.
The Federal Reserve said in a report Thursday that those firms averaged $16.6 billion in daily borrowing over the past week. That compared with $16.5 billion in the previous week. In the prior five weeks, investment firms had reduced their borrowing from the central bank.
The program, which began March 17, is one of several unconventional actions the Fed has taken to help financial companies and the national economy overcome fallout from housing, credit and financial problems.
After a run on Bear Stearns pushed the nation's fifth-largest investment bank to the brink of bankruptcy in March, fears grew that others might be in jeopardy, given major stresses in credit and financial markets at that time.
Scrambling to avert a market meltdown, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues — in the broadest use of the central bank's lending authority since the 1930s — agreed in March to temporarily let investment firms obtain emergency financing from the Fed, a privilege previously granted only to commercial banks.
The program, similar to one the Fed has long had for commercial banks, will continue for at least six months. It gives investment firms a place to go for overnight loans. Commercial banks and investment companies now pay 2.25 percent in interest for the loans.
Banks, meanwhile, stepped up their borrowing. Banks averaged $14.4 billion in daily borrowing for the week ending May 14. That compared with $11.7 billion for the previous week. The identities of commercial banks and investment houses are not released.
Earlier this week, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said turmoil in financial markets has eased somewhat, but the situation is still "far from normal."
As part of ongoing efforts to relieve credit strains, the Fed auctioned $7.2 billion in safe Treasury securities to investment firms on Thursday.
The auction — the eighth of its kind — drew bids less than $25 billion being made available. The reduction could be viewed as a sign of some improvement in credit conditions.
In exchange for the 28-day loan of Treasury securities, bidding firms can put up as collateral more risky investments, including certain shunned mortgage-backed securities and bonds backed by federally guaranteed student loans.
The auction program, which began March 27, is intended to make investment houses more inclined to lend to each other. It also is aimed at providing relief to the distressed market for mortgage-linked securities and for student loans.
To help shore up the shaky student loan market, the Fed recently agreed last week to let financial institutions put up bonds backed by federally guaranteed student loans as collateral. Thursday's auction was the first where that option was available. Spreading credit problems have forced more than 60 lenders to stop making federally guaranteed student loans, either temporarily or permanently.