By Darryl Wee, Country Head of Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA)
The collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered the worst global economic downturn in living memory. Two years on, many parts of the global economy are returning to growth, but research shows many SMEs are still in danger.
To investigate how SMEs were coping in the economic recovery, ACCA joined forces with two other major accountancy bodies last year – CGA-Canada and Italy’s CNDCEC – and commissioned Forbes Insights to survey nearly 1,780 small and medium-size businesses (SMEs) in six countries: Canada, China, Italy, Singapore, South Africa and the UK. In Singapore, 337 SMEs were polled.
Many of the findings are impossible to take out of context: the six countries considered in the Forbes study are too different for that. Nevertheless, some common lessons can be drawn.
1. We’re not out of the woods yet.
Small businesses that survived will barely have a moment to pat themselves on the back – the long climb to recovery is almost as treacherous as the downward slide was. As the global economy continues to edge forward, most SMEs are looking forward to a rebound in sales. However in reality, ACCA ’s Global Economic Conditions Survey suggests the recovery has run out of steam, and the Forbes survey found that more than a third of SMEs haven’t got enough reserves to weather a renewed downturn.
2. Cash is king.
In this as in other studies, cash has emerged as the strongest determinant of success in raising funds. This is partly because the need for liquidity is driving most of SMEs’ demand for funds, and partly because lenders, in particular, are now more risk-averse and less reassured by promises of sustained growth. SMEs that can prove, through solid planning and forecasting, that they are in control of their cashflow will have a better chance of getting finance.
3. Collateral is here to stay.
In most of the developing world it is a generally accepted fact that nearly all loans to small businesses must be secured against assets, typically ones worth much more than the loan itself. This used to be the understanding in developed countries too – until the credit bubble began. With the end of the bubble the demand for security is back with a vengeance and will be with us for years to come.
4. Lenders will not finance an SME’s customers and investors will not refinance debt.
Our findings confirm that, although lenders will finance a small business’ working capital, they don’t like the idea of their funds being used to extend credit to customers. The business plans of SMEs seeking credit need to reassure the bank that their funds will be used for capacity-building purposes – investing in tangible assets is usually a plus.
Similarly, investors prefer to provide funds for national and international expansion, including the hiring of staff. But bringing in an equity investor such as a business angel is much more difficult if a business has debts it needs to refinance.
External finance may not be forthcoming from conventional providers for SMEs facing either of these two problems. If the business is not making profits, you will almost certainly need to tap either your suppliers, your own savings, or even those of your family for funds.
5. Don’t run for the exits.
As lenders gradually withdraw from unsecured lending and turn away from customer credit risk, many business owners unable to obtain funds are falling back on potentially unsuitable sources of finance, especially personal credit cards and late payment. These expose SMEs to substantial financial and reputational risks, and although some may genuinely have no other option, they should try to consider alternatives while they can, such as suppliers – agreeing easier credit terms is better for both parties than being late with payments.
6. SMEs are banks too.
Credit from suppliers is the most commonly used source of external finance among SMEs. In some countries, the flow of trade credit is twice as large as that of short-term bank lending. This gap is set to widen even more, as the chances of obtaining credit from a supplier are now much better than the chances of getting a new overdraft facility. The problem is that much of this credit flows from SMEs to other SMEs. Unlike (good) banks, SMEs in the real economy rarely have solid credit or collection policies in place and cannot afford to set aside capital against losses, so they end up taking substantial risks.
SMEs that find themselves in this position need to start taking stock of customer credit risk, diversifying the customer base and improving their credit management. Most importantly, SMEs need to start thinking of credit as a financing and cashflow issue – not just a tool for achieving sales. Many already have: the study confirms that suppliers have become much smarter about credit in the past two years.
8. There is no finance without information.
Lenders and investors don’t want to take risks they can’t measure. When we plotted finance approval rates in the six countries represented in the Forbes survey against each country’s Getting Credit ranking (one of the World Bank’s Doing Business indicators, which measures the ease of obtaining credit information and enforcing claims), we found that, in countries with a strong supply of credit information, obtaining funds is easier and a healthy balance sheet is more likely to give easier access to finance.
The same effect holds at the micro level: businesses that produce better information are more likely to attract funding. This is true of all but the riskiest of borrowers: SMEs can benefit from preparing financial information, even if they don’t have the best news to offer the bank manager, provided they are honest and keep them up to speed.
SMEs in Singapore
Compared to the global outlook, the local situation is comparatively more positive. SMEs in Singapore have seen a higher revenue growth over the past year. In the survey conducted last October, 43 per cent of the SMEs polled in Singapore said that revenue was higher, as compared to the global overall of 38 per cent.
Findings also reveal that SMEs in Singapore were less anxious about their capital position and 63 per cent indicated that they had adequate cash reserves to weather another financial crisis. We also saw the greatest improvement in our ability to secure financing, with 35% of SMEs indicating their ability to find financing had improved in the past year.
Nevertheless, the lessons are clear. Businesses should remain alert against the backdrop of an increasingly uneven global economic recovery. Mastering uncertainty is the next challenge. SMEs will increasingly need to plan against multiple contingencies and consider macroeconomic factors such as growth shocks, interest rate rises, exchange rate volatility and inflation in a formal way when developing business plans and risk management policies. Pay attention to cash flow to maintain liquidity and tap on professional advice when necessary.
ACCA country head Darryl Wee is tasked with the responsibility to continue strengthening ACCA’s presence and reputation in the accountancy profession in Singapore and engaging with key partners both in government and the commercial sector. There are more than 30,000 ACCA members and students in Singapore, many of whom are employed in industry, banking and financial services, the government sector and in public practice.