By Ann Saphir
(Reuters) - Borrowing by small U.S. firms rose in August, in part because the month had more business days than July, and the percentage of firms late on repaying existing loans also increased, data released on Tuesday showed.
The Thomson Reuters/PayNet Small Business Lending Index rose to 133.7 in August from an upwardly revised 123.1 in July, which had three fewer working days. Borrowing by companies in most industries, except construction and recreation, fell.
"It's malaise, rather than freefall," said Bill Phelan, PayNet's president.
Companies also struggled to pay back existing debts, PayNet data showed. Loans more than 30 days past due rose in August to 1.63 percent, the fifth straight monthly increase and the highest delinquency rate since December 2012.
The figures come as the Federal Reserve mulls the timing of its next rate hike. Higher interest rates tend to slow economic growth. Movements in the index typically correlate with movements in gross domestic product growth a quarter or two ahead.
The U.S. economy grew an estimated 1.4 percent in the second quarter, though many economists believe that rate improved in the third quarter.
Small business borrowing is a key barometer of growth because small companies tend to do much of the hiring that drives economic gains.
PayNet collects real-time loan information such as originations and delinquencies from more than 325 leading U.S. lenders.
(Reporting by Ann Saphir; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)