Borrowing by small U.S. businesses jumped in November to the highest level in more than two years, PayNet Inc reported on Monday, as entrepreneurs invested in their businesses and did a better job of paying existing debts.

The Thomson Reuters/PayNet Small Business Lending Index, which measures the overall volume of financing to U.S. small businesses, rose 17 percent in November from a year earlier, PayNet said.

It was the fourth straight double-digit jump and the ninth consecutive monthly increase of the gauge, which measures the loans, leases and lines of credit that small businesses originate to finance investment in their operations.

The index, which uses January 2005 as its base, rose to 88.3 in November, its best showing since September 2008 and up from 79.8 in October and 75.3 last year.

This provides definitive proof that the small business economy is continuing to grow and recover, Bill Phelan, PayNet's president, said in an interview. Everywhere you look at the index, it's very, very positive.

Separate data released by PayNet on Monday showed that fewer companies are falling behind on existing loan payments, another positive economic sign.

Accounts in moderate delinquency, or those behind by 30 days or more, fell to 2.51 percent of receivables in November from 2.65 percent in October and 4.26 percent last year, PayNet said.

Accounts 90 days or more behind in payment, or in severe delinquency, fell to 0.76 percent in November from 0.78 percent in October and 1.42 percent last year.

Accounts behind 180 days or more, or in default and unlikely to ever get paid, fell to 0.79 percent of total receivables in November, down from 0.81 percent in October and 0.88 percent last year, according to PayNet, which provides risk-management tools to the commercial lending industry.

Non-current balances continue to decline, Phelan said. So asset quality for lenders is continuing to improve, too.

Phelan said improvement was likely to increase lender confidence in small businesses in 2011, creating a virtuous cycle that would funnel more money into the critical sector, which accounts for most of the nation's new hiring.

The big question, of course, is whether the increased borrowing presages increased hiring. The December U.S. employment report, which will be released on Friday, will provide at least a preliminary answer.

Economists polled by Reuters are forecasting a gain of 140,000 private sector jobs and a slight decline in the unemployment rate to 9.7 percent.

The Thomson Reuters/PayNet small business lending index is correlated to developments in the overall economy, with changes in the index preceding changes in the overall economy by two to five months.

PayNet collects real-time loan information, such as originations and delinquencies, from more than 200 leading capital equipment lenders.

(Reporting by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Leslie Adler)