• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Frozen lending market is thawing but spring seems a way off

THE business lending market is, if we are to listen to the big UK banks, thawing. But many small and medium-sized businesses are not sensing this suggested transition from winter to spring in terms of their dealings with the banks.

The Bank of England's latest quarterly credit conditions survey, published this week, makes interesting reading. In it, UK banks claim they have increased the availability of credit for businesses big and small. What was more interesting was the response from the Federation of Small Businesses.

Colin Borland, head of external affairs for the FSB in Scotland, was at pains to highlight continuing difficulties for small businesses in obtaining bank funding.

The banks, in the credit conditions survey, have reported that the proportion of approved loan applications from small businesses rose in every quarter of 2013.

However, Mr Borland cited the FSB's finding, in its latest survey published last month, that nearly three-quarters of small firms in Scotland believe credit availability is poor.

And more than two in five businesses in Scotland consider that the affordability of credit is "poor" or "very poor", albeit this proportion was greater previously.

The FSB has itself noted signs of an improvement in the business lending market. But Mr Borland, rightly, is emphasising that this improvement is from a very low base.

The FSB figures do not signal that the credit climate for small businesses is anything other than wintry. And it is likely that the investment plans of many firms remain deep-frozen by a lack of availability of credit, or of loans on palatable terms.

It is the tone of the FSB's message, rather than that from the big banks, which chimes best with anecdotal feedback from small and medium-sized businesses. In this context, we should not forget the political pressure on the big banks to lend to businesses. So it is understandable that they would be at pains to highlight the positives through their public relations and lobbying machines.

The FSB has hammered home its belief that more could be done to help businesses gain access to finance.

It has also warned that firms' ability to invest may be limited by a lack of credit, and we must not underestimate the importance of this point.

The results of the Coalition Government's efforts to boost business investment, which have included slashing the main corporation tax rate, have been truly lamentable.

Businesses need funding to be able to invest.

Results this week from the Auchrannie hotel and spa resort on the Isle of Arran underlined what can be achieved with a vision, and with bank funding to enable investment plans to be implemented.

Auchrannie has been built up over the last 25 years by the Johnston family, which has invested consistently over the decades to expand and upgrade the resort.

Like all businesses in its sector, it has faced tough market conditions.

However, it resisted any temptation to retrench during the downturn, focusing instead on quality and customer service.

It is now adding 20 bedrooms to its 36-bedroom Spa Resort, having obtained funding from Royal Bank of Scotland to support this project.

Accounts filed with Companies House showed this week that Auchrannie achieved a hike in pre-tax profits to £200,014 in its last financial year, from £33,406. And it is on course to almost double pre-tax profits to nearly £400,000 in the current 12 months to March, with turnover expected to surge through £5 million.

Presumably, Auchrannie's strong track record of delivering results from its investment over the decades stands it in good stead when it is seeking bank finance. Many other businesses, which perhaps have a good idea but less of a track record, will find it much more difficult to obtain finance.

The banks reported in the latest credit conditions survey that, in spite of their increased availability of funds for business lending, demand for credit from small firms was little changed.

It may be that demand is depressed partly because some businesses, which found themselves at the mercy of their banks after the economy plunged into recession but have since worked their way out of trouble, wish to remain the masters of their own destiny.

However, there is probably something else at work here.

The loan approval figures relate to formal applications. But, it may be that many businesses, no doubt capable of hearing the mood music from their bankers, do not make a formal application if they feel they are likely to be rejected.

What seems clear from talking to the business community and the FSB is this: the lending situation may have improved slightly but much more requires to be done.

With the UK's export performance having been woeful, failing to live up to Chancellor George Osborne's vision of a "Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers", business investment is crucial to a balanced recovery, as opposed to the current consumer-fuelled spurt.

Such investment is dependent on funding being available more widely, on acceptable terms.

What seems clear from the business community is the lending situation may have improved slightly but much more requires to be done

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

204826