Larger SMEs more optimistic about growth

New data for the final quarter of 2017 by BDRC’s SME Finance Monitor, based on more than 130,000 interviews, reveals that current demand for finance remains limited, but ambitious SMEs are more likely to be financially engaged.

Shiona Davies, Director at BDRC, commented: “There have been no dramatic market changes in SME sentiment since the referendum. Whilst there are some increased concerns about the economy and political uncertainty, larger SMEs in particular are more likely to be planning to grow and to be using finance, as are those SMEs with a long term objective to be a bigger business.

“Four in 10 SMEs are planning business activities that might benefit from funding, but SMEs are as likely to think they would fund a business opportunity themselves as approach a bank for funding. Awareness of equity finance, which could provide longer term funding, appears limited even amongst larger SMEs. For those who do apply for a loan or overdraft, success rates remain high. However, first time applicants’ success rates are currently lower than in 2015, albeit still higher than they were in 2012. Additionally, fewer SMEs who are not currently using finance show any appetite to do so.”

Key findings

Use of (and demand for) finance remains limited, as self reliant SMEs use trade credit, credit balances and financial support from directors in addition to external finance. Awareness and use of longer term equity finance is also limited.

  • In 2017, 8 in 10 SMEs (82%) were profitable and 42% reported having grown, both little changed from 2016.
  • 38% were using some form of external finance, but more (47%) met the definition of a ‘Permanent non-borrower’ with little apparent appetite for finance, similar to 2016.
  • 7 in 10 SMEs (70%) would rather grow more slowly than borrow to grow faster and this has changed little over time.
  • Fewer SMEs in 2017 were ‘happy to borrow to help the business grow’ (34% in 2017, down from 45% in 2016) and the proportion of SMEs who are not using finance but would be willing to do so in future has declined over time (24% of all SMEs in 2015 to 16% in 2017).
  • A third of SMEs (35%) received trade credit and 25% hold more than £10,000 in credit balances. In both cases, most of those with trade credit or credit balances say it reduces their need for finance.
  • 29% have received an injection of personal funds from the owner/director. Given a (hypothetical) opportunity that would require finance to achieve, 39% said the directors or the business would provide the funding, compared to 37% who would approach their bank for funding. 1 in 5 SMEs (19%) would not take up the opportunity because of concerns over the risks associated with debt.
  • In 2017, 5% of SMEs reported making a new or renewed loan or overdraft application in the 12 months prior to interview. This was unchanged from 2016 and remains at half the level reported in 2012 (when 11% of SMEs had made such an application).
  • Overall, 15% of SMEs in 2017 reported any kind of borrowing ‘event’, and 2% had wanted to apply but something stopped them (the Would-be seekers). The Happy non-seekers (83% of all SMEs) remained the largest group, in line with 2016.
  • In a new question for H2 2017, 62% of SME companies said that equity finance was a form of funding that they knew nothing about. Larger SMEs were somewhat more aware, but even amongst those with 50-249 employees, 52% knew little about this form of finance with just 6% of them using or considering using it. 1 in 5 companies were aware of equity finance, but thought it was not a suitable form of finance for them – this varied little by size of company.

Whilst appetite for finance remains limited, a consistent 8 in 10 of those who did apply for a loan or overdraft were successful – although those applying for new money for the first time were somewhat less likely to be successful than in other recent periods.

  • 80% of all loan and overdraft applications made in the last 18 months (to Q4 2017) were successful, in line with other recent periods.
  • Almost all renewals in this period were successful (97%).
  • Applications for new money on loan or overdraft have always had a lower success rate than renewals. For the 18 months to Q4 2017, 63% of applications were successful. This was lower than was seen in the 18 months to Q4 2015 (when 70% of new money applications were successful), but remained ahead of the 49% who were successful in the 18 months to Q4 2013.
  • Success rates for new money applied for by those who had borrowed before was stable (78%), so this decline in new money success rates was due to a lower success rate for first time applicants (currently 50% compared to a success rate of 60% for applications made in the 18 months to Q4 2015). However, as with overall success rates, this is higher than was seen in the 18 months to Q4 2012 and to Q4 2013 when 4 in 10 first time applicants were successful.

Looking forward, whilst more SMEs with employees are planning to grow, there are some concerns about the economic and political climate. Future demand for finance remains stable, but it’s worth noting that a quarter of SMEs are ‘Ambitious risk takers’ with a greater engagement with finance and 4 in 10 SMEs are planning a business activity that might require funding.

  • 45% of SMEs in 2017 were planning to grow. This is somewhat lower than the 49% planning to grow in 2012, due to declining levels of growth amongst 0 employee SMEs (46% to 41% over this period). Growth aspirations amongst SMEs with employees was in line with, or higher than, their aspirations in 2012.
  • The top 3 barriers to running the business remained “legislation and regulation” (15% in Q4 2017), “political uncertainty” (15%) and the “current economic climate” (14%). 29% of SMEs mentioned at least one of these as a barrier in 2017, up from 22% in 2016.
  • 12% of SMEs in 2017 were planning to apply for finance, unchanged from 2016 but increasing quarter by quarter from 10% in Q1 to 14% in Q4 2017. Confidence that the bank would agree to lend was somewhat lower in 2017 at 50%, and remained below the actual success rates achieved. Most of those planning to apply were already using finance.
  • 27% of SMEs in H2 2017 agreed that they both wanted to become a much bigger business and that they were prepared to take risks to succeed. These were more likely to be younger, innovative businesses that were, in turn, more likely to use and to apply for finance. A willingness to borrow to grow was a key predictor of being one of these ‘Ambitious risk takers’.
  • 42% of SMEs in H2 2017 were planning to undertake one or more business activities that might require funding, including 19% planning to take on more staff, 17% planning to invest in plant and machinery and 16% planning to develop a new product or service. Larger and younger SMEs were more likely to be planning such activities, as were those planning to grow overall (61%). 19% of those planning any of these activities was also planning to apply for finance, compared to 8% of SMEs with no activities planned.