width=290Small and medium-sized business borrowers in the United States showed signs of continued stress in February as the percentage of loans in default stayed at a two-year high, PayNet Inc reported on Thursday.

Accounts behind 180 days or more, and unlikely ever to be paid, remained at 0.90 percent of lenders' portfolios in February, unchanged from the 25-month high they reached in January, according to PayNet, which provides risk management tools to the commercial lending industry.

Accounts in moderate delinquency, or those behind by 30 days or more, rose in February to 4.41 percent from 4.37 percent in January, according to PayNet.

The only glimmer of hope in PayNet's monthly report was with accounts 90 days or more behind in payment, or in severe delinquency, which improved modestly in February, slipping to 1.36 percent from 1.38 percent in January. It was the seventh consecutive monthly improvement in the measurement.

But the Thomson Reuters/PayNet Small Business Lending Index, which measures the overall volume of financing, fell 6 percent year-over-year in February and was down 8 percent from the previous month.

In January, the SBLI had risen for the first time in 27 months, a uptick that fueled hopes prospects were improving for small businesses, which led the broader economy into the past two recessions and are widely regarded as the best hope for job creation in any recovery.

Bill Phelan, president and founder of Skokie, Illinois-based PayNet, said the drop indicated that lenders remain reluctant to extend credit to small and medium-sized businesses.

What we see in these trends is that it's an anemic recovery, Phelan said. Business expansion is tepid. The financial health of small businesses is still tenuous. Job creation certainly can't be occurring with these kinds of indicators.

On Wednesday, three separate reports raised questions about the job-creating strength of the current U.S. recovery.

The payroll processing company ADP reported that U.S. private employers unexpectedly shed jobs in March and measures of U.S. Midwest business activity and New York City business conditions both fell.

It just shows the plodding nature of the recovery, Phelan said. Usually you see growth ignite as you come out of a recession because there's pent-up demand. But we don't see that in these numbers.

PayNet collects real-time loan information from more than 227 leading U.S. lenders. The company's proprietary database, which is updated weekly, encompasses more than 16.5 million current and historic contracts worth $740 billion.

More than half the money invested in plants, equipment and software in the United States in any given year is financed with loans, leases and lines of credit.

(Reporting by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Richard Chang)