WASHINGTON (AP) _ Big Wall Street investment companies are pulling back on their borrowing from the Federal Reserve's emergency lending program, a sign that credit conditions may be improving a bit.

A Federal Reserve report Thursday said those firms averaged $22.6 billion in daily borrowing over the past week. That compares with $24.8 billion in the previous week. It marked the third straight week where investment firms borrowed less from the central bank.

The program, which began on March 17, is one of several extraordinary actions the Fed has taken recently to limit the damage from a trio of crises - housing, credit and financial.

After the sudden crash of Bear Stearns, the nation's fifth-largest investment bank, fears grew that others might be in jeopardy, given major stresses in credit and financial markets.

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 last month to temporarily let investment firms obtain emergency financing from the Fed, a privilege previously granted only to commercial banks.

The program, similar to the 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 pay 2.5 percent in interest for the loans.

Banks, meanwhile, averaged $10.7 billion in daily borrowing for the week ending April 23. That compares with $7.8 billion for the previous week. The identities of commercial banks and investment houses are not released.

As part of the effort to relieve credit strains, the Fed auctioned $59.46 billion in super-safe Treasury securities to investment firms on Thursday.

The auction the fifth of its kind fetched bids totaling less than the $75 billion worth of securities the Fed was making available. That could suggest that demand for Treasuries may be moderating a bit. And that might be viewed as a sign of some improvement in credit conditions, analysts said.

"Although the $59.5 billion sold is still a sizable amount, it does suggest that liquidity strains could be easing," said Lynn Reaser, chief economist at Bank of America's Investment Strategies Group.

In exchange for the 28-day loan of Treasury securities, bidding firms can put up more risky investments as collateral, including certain shunned mortgage-backed securities.

In the five auctions held so far, the Fed has provided nearly $218.41 billion worth of the Treasury securities to investment firms. The program began March 27.

In Thursday's auction, investment firms paid an interest rate of 0.2500 percent for a slice of securities.

The auction program is intended to help financial institutions and the troubled mortgage market.

The goal is 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. Questions about their value and dumping of these securities had driven up mortgage rates, aggravating the housing slump.

On the Net:

Federal Reserve Bank: http://www.federalreserve.gov

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.