ATEbank, Greece’s sixth-largest bank, said yesterday first-quarter profit increased 23 percent to 37.3 million euros, boosted by trading gains. Net interest income at the state-controlled bank grew 8.9 percent to 158 million euros, with net interest margin dropping to 2.6 percent from 2.9 percent in the first quarter last year, the result of a narrowing of deposit spreads. The bank said net fee and commission income rose 15.8 percent to 17.5 million euros. «Despite the severe financial crisis and deteriorating economic environment, ATEbank has succeeded in maintaining a solid capital base and adequate liquidity and is improving its profitability,» said Chairman Dimitris Miliakos in a statement. Lending to small businesses grew 64.5 percent to 2.1 billion euros, also above the market’s performance, partly due to ATEbank’s involvement in working capital loans launched by the Small Businesses Guarantee Fund, part of government measures to boost lending to small and medium-sized enterprises. Its nonperforming loans ratio improved to 6.8 percent from 7.8 percent in the first quarter of 2008. «The bank projects credit expansion of at least 10 percent in 2009, driven by increased lending to companies, households and the agro-business sector,» added Miliakos. Shares in ATEbank jumped 4.48 percent to 1.40 euros on the Athens bourse yesterday compared to a 0.58 percent retreat on the broader market.