Christopher Kent, RBA Assistant Governor (Financial Markets), spoke at the 30th Australasian Finance and Banking Conference on The Availability of Business Funding, a subject which was featured in the recent RBA Bulletin.
While his speech covered the gamut of business finance, his comments on small business are important. He acknowledged the need for, and difficulty of getting funding in this sector. Something we have highlighted in our SME Report series, and which are still available. Whilst alternative lenders (Fintechs for example) have a role to play, (and there is massive opportunity in the SME sector in our view), most SME’s still go to the banks, where they have to pay more, for poor products and service. Indeed, if you are a business owner seeking to borrow, without a property to secure against, the options are limited. This is because the banks’ view is, correctly, unsecured risks are higher than secured, and in any case, they prefer to lend to mortgage holders more generally, as the capital required to do so is lower. Therefore many SME’s are at a structural disadvantage, and often end up having to pay very higher interest rates, if they can get finance at all.
There is much to do, in my view, to address the funding needs of SMEs, and this is a critical requirement if we are to seen sustained real economic growth. As Kent suggests, perhaps Open Banking will assist, eventually!
The challenge of obtaining finance has been a consistent theme of the Small Business Finance Advisory Panel. In this context, it is important to distinguish between two types of small businesses. First, there are the many established small businesses that are not expanding. Their needs for external finance are typically modest. Second, there are small businesses that are in the start-up or expansion phase. They are not generating much in the way of internal funding. Accordingly, those businesses have a strong demand for external finance. I’ll focus my comments on the issues relevant to this second group of small businesses.
I should emphasise again that access to finance for small businesses is important because they generate employment, drive innovation and boost competition in markets. Indeed, small businesses in Australia employ almost 5 million people, which is nearly half of employment in the (non-financial) business sector. They also account for about one-third of the output of the business sector.
Compared with larger, more established firms, smaller, newer businesses find it difficult to obtain external finance since they are riskier on average and there is less information available to lenders and investors about their prospects. Lenders typically manage these risks by charging higher interest rates than for large business loans, by rejecting a greater proportion of small business credit applications or by providing credit on a relatively restricted basis.
The reduction in the risk appetite of lenders following the global financial crisis appears to have had a more significant and persistent effect on the cost of finance for small business than large business. After the crisis, the average spread of business lending rates to the cash rate widened dramatically. The increase was much larger and more persistent, though, for small business loans (Graph 9). In part, this increase owed to the larger increase in non-performing loans for small businesses than for large business lending portfolios (Graph 10). It’s not clear, however, whether the increase in interest rates being charged on small business loans relative to those charged on large business loans (over the past decade or so) reflects changes in the relative riskiness of the two types of loans.
Over recent years, there has been strong competition for large business lending, which has resulted in a decline in the interest rate spread on large business loans. Part of the competition from banks for large business loans has been driven by an expansion in activity by foreign banks. Large businesses also have access to a wider array of funding sources than small businesses, including corporate bond markets and syndicated lending.
In contrast, competition has been less vigorous for small business lending. Indeed, some providers of small business finance were acquired by other banks or exited the market following the onset of the crisis. Also, the interest rates on small business loans have remained relatively high. This difference in competitive pressures is evident in the share of lending provided to small business by the major banks, which is relatively high at over 80 per cent. This compares with a share of around two-thirds in the case of large businesses. Small businesses continue to use loans from banks for most of their debt funding because it is often difficult and costly for them to raise funds directly from capital markets.
The RBA’s liaison has highlighted that if small business borrowers are able to provide housing as collateral, it significantly reduces the cost and increases the availability of debt finance. Lenders have indicated that at least three-quarters of their small business lending is collateralised and they only have a limited appetite for unsecured lending. However, there are a number of reasons why entrepreneurs find it difficult to provide sufficient collateral for business borrowing via home equity:
- they may actually not own a home, or have much equity in their home if they are relatively young;
- similarly, they may not have sufficient spare home equity if they’ve already borrowed against their home to establish a business and now want to expand their business;
- and even if they have plenty of spare home equity, using their homes as collateral concentrates the risk they face in the event of the failure of the business.
Many entrepreneurs have limited options for providing alternative collateral, since banks are far more likely to accept physical assets (such as buildings or equipment), rather than ‘soft’ assets, such as software and intellectual property.
Given the higher risk associated with small businesses, particularly start-ups, equity financing would appear to be a viable alternative to traditional bank finance. However, small businesses often find it difficult to access equity financing beyond what is issued to the business by the founders. Small businesses have little access to listed equity markets, and while private equity financing is sometimes available, its supply to small businesses is limited in Australia, particularly when compared with the experience of other countries (Graph 11). Small businesses also report that the cost of equity financing is high, and they are often reluctant to sell equity to professional investors, since this usually involves relinquishing significant control over their business.
Innovations Improving Access to Business Finance
There are several innovations that could help to improve access to finance by: providing lenders with more information about the capacity of borrowers to service their debts, and connecting risk-seeking investors with start-up businesses that could offer high returns.
Comprehensive credit reporting
Comprehensive credit reporting will provide more information to lenders about the credit history of potential borrowers. The current standard only makes negative credit information publicly available. When information about credit that has been repaid without problems also becomes available publicly, the cost of assessing credit risks will be reduced and lenders will be able to price risk more accurately; this may enhance competition as the current lender to any particular business will no longer have an informational advantage over other lenders. It may also reduce the need for lenders to seek additional collateral and personal guarantees for small business lending, particularly for established businesses. Indeed, the use of personal guarantees is more widespread in Australia than in countries that have well-established comprehensive credit reporting regimes, such as the United Kingdom and the United States.
For several years, the finance industry has attempted to establish a voluntary comprehensive credit reporting regime in Australia. Participation has so far been limited. However, several of the major banks have committed to contribute their credit data in coming months. The Australian Government has announced that it will legislate for a mandatory regime to come into effect mid next year.
The introduction of an open banking regime should make it easier for entrepreneurs to share their banking data (including on transactions accounts) securely with third-party service providers, such as potential lenders. When assessing credit risks, lenders place considerable weight on evidence of the capacity of small business borrowers to service their debts based on their cash flows. For this reason, making this data available via open banking would reduce the cost of assessing credit risk. A review is currently being conducted with a view to introducing legislation to support an open banking regime.
Large technology companies
Technology firms can use the transactional data from their platforms to identify creditworthy borrowers, and provide loans and trade credit to these businesses from their own balance sheets. This could supply small innovative businesses that are active on these online platforms with a new source of finance. Amazon and Paypal are providing finance to some businesses that use their platforms. For example, Amazon identifies businesses with good sales histories and offers them finance on an invitation-only basis. Loans are reported to range from US$1 000 to US$750 000 for terms of up to a year at interest rates between 6 and 14 per cent. Repayments are automatically deducted from the proceeds of the borrower’s sales.
Alternative finance platforms
Alternative finance platforms, including marketplace lending and crowdfunding platforms, use new technologies to connect fundraisers directly with funding sources. The aim is to avoid the costs and delays involved in traditional intermediated finance.
While alternative financing platforms are growing rapidly, they are still a very minor source of funding for businesses, including in Australia. The largest alternative finance markets are in China, followed by the United States and the United Kingdom. But even these markets remain small relative to the size of their economies (Graph 12).
Marketplace lending platforms provide debt funding by matching individuals or groups of lenders with borrowers. These platforms typically target personal and small business borrowers with low credit risk by attempting to offer lower cost lending products and more flexible lending conditions than traditional lenders. Data collected by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission indicate that most marketplace lending in Australia is for relatively small loans to consumers at interest rates comparable to personal loans offered by banks (Graph 13).
It is unclear whether marketplace lending platforms are significantly reducing financial constraints for small businesses. Unlike innovations such as comprehensive credit reporting, which have the potential to improve the credit risk assessment process, marketplace lenders do not have an information advantage over traditional lenders. As a result, they need to manage risks with prices and terms in line with traditional lenders. Nevertheless, these platforms could provide some competition to traditional lenders, particularly as a source of unsecured short-term finance, since they process applications quickly and offer rates below those on credit cards.
Crowdfunding platforms have the potential to make financing more accessible for start-up businesses, although their use has been limited to date. Crowdsourced equity funding platforms typically involve a large number of investors taking a small equity stake in a business. As a result, entrepreneurs can receive finance without having to give up as much control as expected by venture capitalists. Several legislative changes have been made to facilitate growth in these markets, including by allowing small unlisted public companies to raise crowdsourced equity.