By Ann Saphir

(Reuters) - Borrowing by small U.S. firms slipped in October to the lowest since January, and the percentage of firms late on repaying existing loans rose to its highest in nearly four years, data released on Thursday showed.

The Thomson Reuters/PayNet Small Business Lending Index fell to 121.3 from a downwardly revised 128.8 in September. Measured from a year earlier, it was the fifth straight monthly decline, with the index at its lowest point since January.

Companies also struggled to pay back existing debts, PayNet data showed. Loans more than 30 days past due rose in October to 1.68 percent, the seventh straight monthly increase and the highest delinquency rate since November 2012.

Still, PayNet CEO and founder Bill Phelan sees a glass half full in the numbers, noting that a delinquency of 2 percent or higher was the norm for most of the pre-crisis era when the lending index was at a similar level.

Now that the U.S. presidential election is over, Phelan said, "we are getting more clarity" on the direction of policy, a positive point for small business. A reduction in uncertainty, he said, "will remove some of the funk."

Movements in the index typically correspond with movements in gross domestic product growth a quarter or two ahead. Economic growth in the United States sped up in the third quarter to a 3.2 percent pace, data released this week showed.

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 James Dalgleish)