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Business Sentiment Index reveals a cautious return to confidence for SMEs

Close Brothers Asset Finance’s Business Sentiment Index (BSI), which measures SME business confidence, has risen for the first time since September 2021 following three consecutive falls, and a low at the end of 2022. These were caused, in the main, by rising inflation, energy cost increases and higher interest rates.

Despite the headwinds still being faced by small and medium-sized firms and inflation stubbornly remaining in double digits, wholesale energy prices have fallen from their summer 2022 peaks, and there appears to be more certainty about where interest rates rises are headed, all of which is helping firms plan with more assurance.

This change in confidence is better understood when looking more closely at businesses’ priorities, which are achieving growth (28%) and managing costs (26%), well ahead of issues like paying down debts (9%) and business consolidation (9%).

Neil Davies (pictured), CEO of Close Brothers’ Commercial business, said: “After well over a year of declining confidence – according to our data – it’s encouraging to see an element of positivity returning to the market, no matter how tentative.

“What business owners want, almost more than anything, is an element of consistency, which gives them the ability to plan and forecast effectively. Many of the recent challenges have been entirely unexpected, and after the difficulties of the past few years, it’s impacted their ability to grow.

“But what it has again demonstrated is the continued resilience of the UK and Ireland’s SMEs, and we’re looking forward to working with them in the coming months and years.”

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Appetite for investment. Overall, the appetite to invest remains strong, as it was at the end of 2022, with three-quarters of UK firms looking to seek funding for investment in the next 12 months, up from 67% in July 2022.

This is reflected across all key sectors, with the most notable rise coming in transport & haulage, where the number of firms planning to seek funding has risen by 9% to 81% (from 72%), while manufacturing & engineering remained very strong at 83%; services saw a fall of 13%, from 76% to 63%.

Missed opportunities. The number of companies that have missed business opportunities because of a lack of available funding fell from 51% at the end of 2022 to 45% in May 2023.

While this is an improvement, these are historically ‘high’ figures – for example, in May 2022, 37% of respondents answered ‘yes’ to the question ‘have you missed a business opportunity in the last 12 months, due to lack of available finance?’.

It would appear businesses are concerned about impacting their cashflow by dipping into their reserves or taking out a standard loan and adding to their debt burden.

Economic outlook. Businesses continue to be more negative than positive about the macro-economic outlook but the gap between positive and negative sentiment narrowed significantly since the start of 2023.

That being said, this indicator that has contributed most to the decline in the overall BSI; for example, in November 2021 75% of respondents were positive about the economy – by December 2022 this had fallen to just 36%.

From a sector perspective, transport & haulage again saw the biggest swing towards the positive.

Predicted business performance. Predictions about future business performance remained stable, with the majority expecting their prospects to remain unchanged. Overall, fewer firms predict they will contract than earlier in the year (10% against 15%).

The most notable rise in positivity is the print and packaging sector, which saw an increase of 20% (19% to 39%) of firms expecting to expand.

Score calculation. The BSI is based on the views of 911 business owners and senior members of the UK’s business community and calculated from data charting their appetite for investment in their business in the coming 12 months; access to finance and whether they’ve missed a business opportunity through lack of available finance; views about the UK’s economic outlook; and thoughts on their likely performance in the coming 12 months.

By Lisa Laverick

Source: Asset Finance International

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Average SME plans to invest £321k to grow their business

New research from Aldermore’s SME Growth Index has revealed the investment and growth plans of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK. Despite the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, SMEs plan to spend an average of £321K on growth strategies over the next year. One in eight (12%) SMEs plan to spend over £1 million investing in growth.

SMEs plan to grow online but curb talent spend

A third of businesses want to expand their customer base (33%) and grow their current products and services (29%) in 2023, while also reducing costs to combat the cost-of-living crisis (30%).

To reach their goals, business leaders plan to invest in their online presence. One in four SMEs (26%) will put money into improving or building websites and apps over the next year. This is in addition to investing in digital marketing (24%).

Interestingly, following the ‘Great Resignation’ fears that saw SME-leaders prioritise talent spend in 2022, talent acquisition and increases to employee salary and benefits are likely to see the least investment (17% each respectively) over the next year.

Business leaders continue to put hands in their own pockets to invest

SMEs will often turn to business savings (27%) or various forms of business finance (e.g., asset finance – 11%) to meet their goals. However, nearly two out of five SMEs (18%) will turn to their personal savings and over one in ten will use their own overdraft (12%) to meet business costs.

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Barriers to growth

Despite optimistic plans to invest heavily in the coming year, the biggest concerns SMEs are faced with are high energy costs (24%) and double-digit inflation rises (24%). This will represent the biggest barrier to business growth in 2023.

Those concerned about inflation costs estimate it could lead to delays in existing projects (19%), missed opportunities for growth (21%), and difficulties securing new deals (20%).

Tim Boag (pictured), group managing director of business finance at Aldermore said: “SMEs are the backbone of our business community and their ambitious growth plans over the next year bodes well for the economy, however they also face challenges brought about by high inflation and soaring energy costs.

“At Aldermore, we’ve supported SMEs through challenging times. It’s great to see from their plans that a digital presence for many has become a major priority, as consumer expectations have evolved post-pandemic.

“For business leaders, there are many sources of investment, be it utilising savings or accessing a range of specialist finance products; and at Aldermore we remain fully committed to backing businesses to realise their ambitions.”

By Lisa Laverick

Source: Asset Finance International

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How asset finance companies can help SMEs to recover from COVID-19

There has arguably never been so much support for SME businesses than during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the UK, the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme and the newly introduced Bounce Back Loan Scheme are now thought to have provided over £10 billion worth of loans to the UK’s small businesses.

The Bounce Back Loan Scheme has had a tremendous impact, with more than £5 billion of funding approved in its first three days.

Under the CBIL Scheme, banks are having to guarantee 20% of the value of the loan and the business owner has to personally guarantee the loan if it is more than £250,000, meaning it has been less popular than the Bounce Back Loan, which is 100% government backed and quicker to provide.

With some investors’ sentiment levels falling to levels last seen during the 2008 financial crisis, asset finance opportunities may also offer crucial lifelines for small and medium-sized businesses.

For many small businesses, the major benefit of asset finance over a loan is the fact that business owners do not have to put up any of their other business or personal assets as security because the provider is not loaning any money – they are providing the asset itself, on a hire or lease basis.

As the finance provider legally owns the asset, at least until the SME has repaid the full value, that payment serves as the security.

Because asset financiers cannot decide to recall the loan at any point, as no money has been loaned, the business has greater security throughout the lifetime of the agreed term. This means that, unlike other loans or schemes, businesses can accurately plan their financial future on a more clear and stable footing.

As well as the securities that asset finance arrangements give, they can also be very flexible.

For SMEs, there is often a lot of scope to negotiate payment options. During the COVID-19 crisis, this has been invaluable for many businesses, particularly for those in the hospitality sector.

Asset financiers can support these businesses by helping their business leaders to gain access to vital infrastructure.

Asset financing is an exceptionally valuable tool, which many SMEs should look towards; especially as they rebuild their businesses over the coming decade.

To help them, finance providers need to explain the clear benefits to their potential clients in terms of how these agreements can help their cashflow and support revenue growth – something which many SMEs will be yearning for right now.

Written by Reece Tomlinson

Source: Asset Finance International

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Asset finance companies sign up to SME Finance Charter

Leading asset finance companies have pledged their support for a new SME Finance Charter launched in a collaboration between the industry, business organisations and the government.

The high-level commitments in the charter have been signed off by the Business Finance Council and reflect areas identified as being significant in ensuring that the SME finance market works effectively, particularly throughout Brexit.

Lenders have signed up to five broad aims, which they have each personalised with an explanation of how they will meet their commitments.

The aims are:

1. We’re open for business and ready to lend.
2. We’ll help you prepare for Brexit and beyond.
3. We’ll support your application and signpost other options if needed.
4. We’ll treat you fairly at all times.
5. We’ll work with the government-owned British Business Bank to support SMEs.

Lenders that have signed up to the charter include a number of 2019 International Asset Finance Network Award winners. The signatories are:

Aldermore – IAFN European SME Finance Provider of the Year 2019

  • Bank of Ireland
  • Bank of Scotland
  • Barclays
  • Bibby Financial Services
  • Close Brothers – IAFN European Bank Lessor of the Year 2019
  • CYBG
  • Funding Circle
  • HSBC
  • Lloyds Bank
  • NatWest
  • RBS
  • Santander UK
  • Secure Trust Bank
  • Simply – IAFN European Equipment Finance Lessor of the Year 2019
  • Ulster Bank
  • Ultimate Finance

Mike Randall, chief executive officer of Simply, said: “The SME Finance Charter is incredibly important and we’re proud to be a part of it. Ensuring entrepreneurs, family businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises across the country have access to the finance they need to grow and prosper is vital. Simply has a company-wide commitment to SMEs, providing tailored solutions and long-term partnerships that will see them through good times and bad. SMEs want to feel safe in the knowledge they can get funding quickly and our business is built to do this.”

Edward Winterton, UK chief executive of Bibby Financial Services, said: “We recognise the importance of helping our clients and other SMEs to prepare for Brexit, which is why we have signed-up to the SME Finance Charter.

“We’ve supported UK businesses for more than 35 years and are committed to continuing this support by helping them to access the funding they need and through additional support services, throughout Brexit and beyond.”

Josh Levy, chief executive officer of Ultimate Finance, added: “We tailor our funding by looking at the bigger picture to find the right solution at the right time – an approach that’s integral in the current uncertain context. Whatever happens to the UK economy and the terms of our departure from the EU, it’s certain that the country needs SMEs to continue to be as ambitious, flexible and resilient as before, and with the right funding and non-financial support that we will continue to provide, we have no doubt that businesses will rise to this, through Brexit and beyond.”

Lenders were congratulated by senior government officials for their commitment, including minister for small business Kelly Tolhurst.

She said: “Financial support from banks and lenders is often crucial to the success of an SME. Continued and proactive support will give SME customers the confidence they need ahead of Brexit and beyond – with opportunities to thrive, grow and scale up in new markets.”

The commitment comes amid continuing political and economic uncertainty over the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum vote to leave the European Union.

While Prime Minister Boris Johnson is focused on delivering Brexit by October 31, he lacks a majority in parliament and his proposals have suffered repeated defeats to MPs who oppose his plans, including rebels in his own party.

The UK has already missed one deadline to leave the EU under the previous prime minister, Theresa May, who resigned after failing to win parliamentary support for her departure deal.

Johnson has struck a new deal with the European Union, but European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said this week that it could only approve the UK’s exit once it has been given the green light by the British parliament.

He told European MPs in Strasbourg: “It is not possible, not imaginable, that this parliament would ratify the agreement before Westminster has ratified the agreement. First London, then Brussels and Strasbourg.”

After his latest parliamentary defeat, Johnson has been forced to write to European leaders requesting another potential extension to the deadline if British MPs fail to back the deal by the end of the month.

European Council President Donald Tusk is discussing the request with leaders of the other 27 EU member states, with a decision expected “in the coming days”.

Written by John Maslen

Source: Asset Finance International

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39% of brokers expect asset finance demand to increase in 2018

Almost two-fifths of brokers (39%) believe that demand for asset finance funding will continue to increase in 2018, according to the latest United Trust Bank survey.

A quarter (25%) expected asset finance demand from SMEs to stabilise, while 8% believed lending activity would decline.

Some 28% of brokers were unsure of what 2018 had in store and selected the “don’t know” option.

When asked which industry sectors were likely to drive demand for asset finance in 2018, brokers chose the construction industry as the most likely sector, followed by transport and waste management.

Martin Nixon, head of asset finance at United Trust Bank (pictured above), said: “There’s no doubt that awareness of asset finance is growing among UK SMEs.

“Lenders, brokers and industry bodies – such as the FLA and the NACFB – are working hard to spread the word about the versatility and flexibility of asset finance and how quickly and easily transactions can be completed.

“Dealing with a professional asset finance specialist is a far cry from what’s involved in trying to raise a business loan from a high street bank or applying to increase your company overdraft.

“Brokers have known this for years, but the message is now getting through to business owners across the country, and this is good news for everyone.

“The government’s push to tackle the housing shortage should mean that construction and housebuilding companies are kept busy for the foreseeable future.

“As a result, we also expect significant activity in the funding and refinancing of new and used construction plant and machinery.”

Source: Bridging and Commercial