* Leasing and finance volume $7.6 bln, down 7 pct from Sept
* Confidence index also lower, reflecting election, fiscal cliff
* Number of borrowers late on payments at record low
By Nick Zieminski
NEW YORK, Nov 26 U.S. companies borrowed slightly less last month to invest in everything from industrial equipment to office machines and aircraft, but credit quality remains healthy, the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association (ELFA) said on Monday.
Companies signed up for $7.6 billion in new loans, leases and lines of credit in October, down 7 percent from September's $8.2 billion, but up 27 percent from $6 billion a year earlier, ELFA said.
Business borrowing typically dips sequentially at the start of the fourth quarter, but often jumps at the end of the year. The index rose for the 30th consecutive month year-over-year, pointing to modest growth in demand for loans and in the wider U.S. economy, ELFA Chief Executive William Sutton said.
"There is still demand for equipment across a wide spectrum of the economy," Sutton said. "(But) we don't get any signs of any kind of expansion."
The leasing and finance index measures the volume of commercial equipment financed in the United States. It precedes the U.S. Commerce Department's durable goods orders report by a few days.
Trucking and construction are areas of relative weakness, ELFA said. The group's index does not yet confirm recent signs of a pick-up in U.S. housing and in non-residential construction, but it may do so soon, Sutton said.
Separately, ELFA's non-profit affiliate, the Equipment Leasing & Finance Foundation, said its November confidence index fell to 49.9, from 53.3 the prior month. That reading is neutral since 50 marks the dividing line between a positive and negative outlook.
The confidence index partly reflected uncertainty ahead of the Nov. 6 elections and concerns about the looming "fiscal cliff" of tax hikes and spending cuts.
Washington-based ELFA, a trade association with more than 550 members that reports economic activity for the $628 billion equipment finance sector, said the quality of loan portfolios is healthy.
The group said 1.7 percent of borrowers were late by more than 30 days on their debts, down for the fifth straight month to a record low. By comparison, about 5 percent of borrowers were 30 days late during the worst of the 2007-2009 recession.
ELFA's monthly leasing and finance index is based on a survey of 25 members that include CIT Group Inc, Bank of America Corp, BB&T and the financing affiliates or subsidiaries of Caterpillar Inc, Deere & Co, Dell Inc, Verizon Communications Inc, Siemens AG , Canon Inc, and Volvo AB.