NAB Launches Online SME Unsecured Lending Product

In a nod to the emerging Fintech SME lending sector, NAB today announced $100,000 unsecured lending for Australian small business owners to grow and expand, backing the strength of their business without the need for security requirements such as property or cash, with a decision is around 10 minutes.  As we discussed recently, getting funding for SME ex. security is tough.

The rates look highly competitive at 13.85% relative to many of the other Fintech alternatives.

Customers apply via a fast and simple digital application process, with conditional credit approval granted in minutes. Once application contracts are signed and returned, cash is delivered within 24 hours.

Executive General Manager Business Direct and Small Business Leigh O’Neill said NAB recognises that fast and easy access to funds is critical for small businesses as they grow.

“There is often a perception that access to credit is difficult without a property or other major asset to secure against. That’s why we’ve responded by placing more emphasis on the strength of the business rather than traditional physical bricks and mortar, and we’re doing this at a fair and competitive price,” Ms O’Neill said.

NAB is the only Australian bank to have developed in-house an unsecured online lending tool without a third party referral involved. QuickBiz first launched in June 2016, initially up to $50,000.

The new $100,000 QuickBiz loan is an extension to NAB’s existing unsecured, self-service digital financing facilities, which includes an overdraft and credit card, all unsecured and capped at $50,000 for eligible customers.

“Six months after a QuickBiz loan application, just under half of our customers grew their business turnover by greater than 10 percent. This confirms we have an important role to play by offering finance to businesses with good prospects- it’s the the kick-start they need.”

“Small businesses are the backbone of the Australian economy. We need all parts of the economy – big business, government and industry – to get behind them to move the country forward.”

NAB’s Unsecured Solutions Fast Facts:

  • Unsecured QuickBiz loan, up to $100,000 available for eligible Australian SMEs
  • Direct connectivity to Xero or MYOB data, or simple financial upload from any accounting package
  • Application and decision in under 10 minutes
  • Competitive and transparent annualised interest rate charges, 13.85 % – no hidden surprises

For more information on the entire QuickBiz product suite (loan, overdraft) and Low Rate NAB business cards),

Yes, Finance For Small Business IS a Problem

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.[11]

Graph 9
Graph 9: Interest Rate Spreads on Business Debt
Graph 10
Graph 10: Business Lending Default Probabilities

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.

Graph 11
Graph 11: Venture Capital Funding

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.[13] 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.

Open banking

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).

Graph 12
Graph 12: Alternative Financing for Businesses

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).

Graph 13
Graph 13: Marketplace Lending in Australia

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.

Bank of Mum and Dad Also Funding Kids’ Businesses Too

We have  highlighted the fact that Young Home Buyers have been turning to the Bank of Mum and Dad to fund their transaction, on average to the tune of more than $85,000; despite the risks of eroding their parent’s retirement savings.

Now the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman has released a study into factors impacting small to medium enterprise investment. And the Bank of Mum and Dad figures again; another sign of inter-generational wealth shifting and the two tier “have and have nots”.

Speaking at the Institute of Public Accountants national conference on the Gold Coast, Ombudsman Kate Carnell said barriers to investment included access to capital, red tape and energy prices.

Ms Carnell said removing barriers to investment would give small businesses confidence to grow and boost jobs.

Despite recent claims by bank executives that lending to small firms is booming, Ms Carnell said this wasn’t the case for borrowers who don’t have equity in property.

“Traditional bank loans are backed by real property mortgages and although alternatives are emerging, they are not currently mature and affordable,” she said.

“Young aspiring small business operators are particularly disadvantaged and increasingly rely on their parents to provide seed finance.”

Ms Carnell said this meant the “Bank of Mum and Dad” was often called on to help young entrepreneurs.

“This offers convenience and flexibility, but it puts people’s retirement savings at risk,” she said.

“It also raises social equity issues in that the children of affluent parents have greater opportunities to buy and grow businesses.”

Ms Carnell said a government-backed guarantee scheme could be the answer, similar to the British Business Bank.

The Ombudsman’s study also takes aim at red tape, saying past reduction efforts have largely been “window dressing”.

Ms Carnell said a successful pilot in Parramatta to make compliance requirements seamless should be extended to other areas.

“It was found there were more than 50 pieces of regulation which applied to setting up a hospitality business in Parramatta and that the regulation meant it took up to 18 months to commence trading,” she said.

“Regulation wasn’t removed, but was instead sped up and made invisible. Information provided once was used to automatically complete forms in other areas of bureaucracy.

“This is a smart way of using systems and technology to relieve regulatory burdens on business.”

Prospa first Australian fintech to deliver a half billion dollars of small business loans

Prospa, Australia’s number one online lender for small business, has announced the delivery of more than half a billion dollars into the economy, providing loans to over 12,000 small businesses across the country.

Now in its sixth year, Prospa has scaled rapidly, today placing second in the AFR Fast 100 for 2017 thanks a 239 per cent average revenue growth since 2013-14. The AFR’s Fast 100 ranks the fastest growing companies in Australia, and in previous years has included the likes of Atlassian, Lonely Planet, SEEK and WebJet.

2017 has been been a bumper year for Prospa, having secured over $50m in equity and debt funding. The firm announced a $25m equity round led by AirTree and Square Peg in February (the largest deal of its kind in Australia at the time), which was followed by an additional $20m debt funding line from Silicon Valley-based Partners For Growth in July.

Over the past twelve months, the company has doubled the size of its loan book, and also grown its team by more than 50 per cent to 150 people from 33 countries. Recent key hires include Damon Pezaro ex Domain as Prospa’s first Chief Product Officer, and Rebecca James ex ME Bank, as Chief Marketing and Enterprise Officer.

Prospa also became the first fintech to win a Telstra Business Award, being named a New South Wales state winner in 2017, as well as being named Employer of Choice in the AON Hewitt Best Employers Program 2017.

Greg Moshal, co-founder and joint CEO of Prospa, comments, “For over five years, we’ve been transforming the way small business owners experience finance. Before Prospa, small business owners simply couldn’t access finance unless they had an asset to put up as security, and they certainly couldn’t do it in a fast easy way from the convenience of their own workplace. We’ve now provided over half a billion dollars in loans to small businesses, and there’s obviously a real need there. We’re now focusing on finding more ways to provide quick, easy access to capital: how, where and whenever it suits our customers.”

Beau Bertoli, co-founder and joint CEO of Prospa adds, “As we scale up, we’re taking a long term view on our growth plans. Awareness of fintech is at all time high, and the sector is at a tipping point in Australia. Regulatory uncertainty is being addressed through consultation and fast decision-making by Treasury, and we’re confident this will help kickstart the next wave of innovation and growth. We’re genuinely excited about the future.”

As a long term Prospa investor and Board member, Avi Eyal, Partner at UK-based Entrée Capital commented, “Prospa has had exceptional growth over the past four years, led by two of the best CEOs in tech today, Greg Moshal and Beau Bertoli. The team is world class and together they are the clear leaders in the Australian fintech market. We are proud to have Prospa in our portfolio.”

Danielle Szetho, CEO of FinTech Australia, commented: “We congratulate Prospa on this important achievement. Prospa’s incredible growth is a great reflection of our recent results from the EY FinTech Australia Census, which shows that fintech companies have tripled their median revenue since 2016, and that the industry overall is rapidly maturing.

This strong revenue growth is happening because fintech companies such as Prospa are providing new and innovative services that delight their customers, compared to the previous offerings from traditional financial services institutions.”

Small Businesses Warned on Email Practices

From Smart Company.

Small businesses are warned to get across their obligations when managing customer databases and sending email communications, after internet provider TPG was fined $360,000 this month for failing to process “unsubscribe” requests from customers.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) confirmed last Friday that TPG Internet received the infringement notice after an investigation prompted by customer complaints revealed the company’s “unsubscribe” function was not working as required in April 2017.

Customers complained that despite having hit the “unsubscribe” button after receiving electronic promotions from TPG, and withdrawing consent to receive such material, they kept getting these messages.

ACMA found TPG’s systems weren’t processing the requests properly in the month of April, meaning the company breached subsection 16(1) of the Spam Act 2003, which relates to sending messages to customers without their consent.

The Act makes it compulsory for businesses sending electronic communications to include “a functional unsubscribe facility”.

“This is a timely reminder to anyone who conducts email or SMS marketing to make sure the systems they have for maintaining their marketing lists are working well,” ACMA chair Nerida O’Loughlin said in a statement.

The communications authority has marked consent-based marketing strategies as an area of top priority.

However, director of CP Communications Catriona Pollard tells SmartCompany that in her experience discussing email and electronic content with businesses, too many are not aware of are rules for collecting data and communicating with customers.

“I would suggest there is a high percentage of people who haven’t ever read the Spam Act and don’t have any information about what they can and can’t do,” she says.

Aside from the risks of fines, Pollard says from a brand perspective, this lack of knowledge can mean companies might really infuriate customers.

“People hate spam, and I think businesses are often more focused on building up their database than on how people will see them,” she says.

Unsubscribes are unavoidable, so make sure the function works

Pollard warns businesses never to do things like “hide the unsubscribe button”, explaining unsubscribe requests are “part and parcel” of sending any digital communication, and businesses must take that on board.

Companies will see regular unsubscribe requests from customers, but even so, “email marketing is still one of the most powerful marketing tools,” Pollard says.

Director of InsideOut PR, Nicole Reaney, observes businesses are often keen to use low-cost formats like email to build a user base, but they still have to follow legislative requirements and make sure customers have consented to getting this information.

“It’s extremely tempting for businesses to utilise the very affordable and efficient platform of digital media with direct emails and text messages. However, it does place them in a position of exposure if there was no prior relationship or consent to the contact,” she says.

Pollard says for smaller operators, one way to get bang for buck is to focus on writing informative and useful content for your audience. That way, regardless of some people hitting the unsubscribe, a business will be engaging with those who most want that kind of information.

“Writing really good copy is really effective. It’s not just thinking about blasting information out to your database,” she says.

SmartCompany contacted TPG Internet for comment but did not receive a response prior to publication.

ATO warns ride-sharing drivers about GST obligation

From Smart Company.

The Australian Taxation Office has put the hard word on ride-sharing drivers and the wider gig economy, reminding drivers working for platforms like Uber about the importance of meeting their GST obligations next tax time.

The tax office determined in 2015 that ride-sharing and ride-sourcing drivers should be classified in the same way as taxi drivers for GST purposes, meaning they must register for an Australian Business Number and for the GST even if they are under the $75,000 threshold.

Uber appealed the decision in the Federal Court earlier this year but lost, and since then the ATO has been periodically reminding drivers of their tax obligations.

However, the tax office says the message isn’t getting through, with ATO assistant commissioner Tom Wheeler saying in a statement that the tax office has notified over 120,000 ride-sharing drivers over the past 18 months regarding their tax obligations.

“We know that most drivers do the right thing, and we are now focusing attention on the minority of drivers that are not currently meeting their obligations,” Wheeler said in a statement this morning.

“Our message to taxpayers is that if you have a ride-sourcing enterprise you must get an Australian Business Number and register for GST as soon as you start driving. You also need to include the income on your tax return at tax time.”

Wheeler notes the ATO is sourcing information “directly” from banks and facilitators, and warns “we know who you are, and we know if you aren’t correctly meeting your obligations”.

“This isn’t a black economy issue,” says Lisa Greig, SME and start-up tax specialist at Perigee Advisers.

“The money’s going through Uber and into a bank account, [and] it will be found.”

Companies should remind workers of GST obligations

Wheeler says if ride-sharing drivers who have not registered for GST continue to ignore the ATO’s prompts, the tax office will register the drivers itself and then backdate the registration to their first ride-sharing payment.

“[The drivers] will be required to lodge and pay all outstanding tax obligations. Penalties and interest may also be applied,” he says.

Greig tells SmartCompany she believes many of these outstanding cases would be drivers who maybe did a few trips for a ridesharing app over a couple of weeks, made around $60 dollars, and then haven’t driven again.

“Those people still have to be registered for GST,” she says.

Businesses who employ a significant number of these ride-sharing type contractors – such as Uber – should have a “duty of care” to inform workers of their GST obligations, believes Greig.

SmartCompany understands Uber drivers are directed to the ATO’s ride-sharing information page and notified of their obligation as part of the signup process, but Uber is unable to sign them up when a driver registers on the platform, because Uber not a registered tax agent.

Other companies working with similar types of contractors should take a similar course in informing them about GST obligations, because companies should make it “as simple as possible” for workers.

However, one reason the ATO is having to chase people now might come down to the slackness of the drivers, Greig says, suggesting that signing up for an ABN and GST would likely take less time than signing up to drive with Uber.

“People who forget to register for GST are like those people who forget an old bank account has $2 of interest in it when it comes to tax time.”

Looking to the future of tax reporting, Greig says it won’t be surprising if Uber driving income is automatically detected by the tax office in future.

“But with where this is all going, in the future all your ride-sharing data will just get populated in MyTax come tax time and you won’t have to worry.”

Fintech Disruption Index Moves Higher

The latest edition of the Disruption Index has just been released, and it is 41.57, up from 38.29 last quarter. This is good news for Fintechs in that the SME community is adopting digital faster than ever.

The Financial Services Disruption Index, which has been jointly developed by Moula, the lender to the small business sector; and research and consulting firm Digital Finance Analytics (DFA).

Combing data from both organisations, we are able to track the waves of disruption, initially in the small business lending sector, and more widely across financial services later.

The index tracks a number of dimensions. From the DFA Small business surveys (52,000 each year), we measure SME service expectations for unsecured lending, their awareness of non-traditional funding options, their use of smart devices, their willingness to share electronic data in return for credit, and overall business confidence of those who are borrowing relative to those who are not.

Moula data includes SME conversion data, the type of data SME’s share, the average loan amount approved, application credit enquiries, and speed of application processing.

Here are some of the highlights:

Business Confidence

SME Business Confidence of those borrowing is on the up, reflecting stronger demand for credit, with the indicator jumping a healthy 15.8%, however, the amount of “red tape” which firms have to navigate is a considerable barrier to growth.

Knowledge of Non-bank Financial Providers

Awareness of new funding options continues to rise if slowly, creating a significant marketing opportunity for the new players, and a potentially larger slice of the pie.

Business Data

Greater willingness to share data and use of cloud-based services continue to rise. One-third of businesses have data held within the cloud, including accounting, customer management, invoicing, human resource, and tax management. We see variations across the segments in their use of these services. Of the businesses applying for funding, almost 90% now provide some form of electronic data via online loan application and are clearly comfortable in doing so (suggesting security concerns are less of a deterrent than the incentive of the speed of application and execution).

Average Loan Size

Average loan size continues to move upwards to register above $40k for the first time, indicating that better businesses are embracing alternative finance arrangements. More than likely, these businesses have traditional banking relationships, but either choose (or are forced to) look elsewhere for liquidity.

SME’s Are Getting Funds Quicker, Thanks To Alt. Finance

Data from the Digital Finance Analytics Small and Medium Business Surveys highlights that firms who apply for unsecured credit are getting funds more quickly on average now, compared with 2015. You can request a copy of our latest SME report.

However, there are considerable differences between the average timeframes experienced by SME’s when they deal with the major banks, compared with those going to the Fintechs.  The new players are faster.

SME’s as they become more digitally aligned, also have a higher expectation of service, with firms saying that 4.8 days would be considered, on average, a reasonable time to time wait, as we discussed in the Disruption Index, a joint DFA and Moula initiative. The next edition will be out soon.

We think major lenders are responding to the the competitive pressure to turn applications around faster, as the number of Alt. Lenders grows. This is good news for all SME’s seeking a loan.

To underscore this, we note that RateSetter is now offering loans of up to $50k, unsecured, with a 24 hour turn around to the SME sector. RateSetter which launched in 2012 was the first peer-to-peer lender licensed to provide services to all Australians, not just wholesale and sophisticated investors. RateSetter provides secured and unsecured loans to Australian-resident individuals and businesses.

 

Australia needs new insolvency laws to encourage small businesses

From The Conversation.

The Ten Network’s recent experience of voluntary administration and subsequent rescue by CBS demonstrates how insolvency law works for large Australian companies. But 97% of Australian businesses are small or medium size enterprises (SMEs), and they face a system that isn’t designed for them.

60% of small businesses cease trading within the first three years of operating. While not all close due to business failure, those that do tend to face an awkward insolvency regime that fails to meet their needs in the same way it does Network Ten.

The lack of an adequate insolvency regime for SMEs inhibits innovation and growth within our economy. It adds yet more complexity to the already difficult process of structuring a small business. Further, it inceases the cost of funding. Lenders know that recovering their money can be onerous if not impossible, so they impose higher costs of borrowing.

Australia’s insolvency regime

Australian insolvency law is divided into two streams, each governed by a separate piece of legislation.

The Corporations Act deals with the insolvency of incorporated organisations, and the Bankruptcy Act addresses the insolvency of people and unincorporated bodies (such as sole traders and partnerships).

Both schemes are aimed at providing an equal, fair and orderly process for the resolution of financial affairs. But a large part of the Corporations Act procedure has been developed with the complexity of a large corporation in mind. For example, there are extensive provisions that allow the resolution of disputes between creditors that are only likely to arise in well-resourced commercial entities.

The Bankruptcy Act, by contrast, takes account of the social and community dimensions of personal bankruptcy. This legislation seeks to supervise the activities of the bankrupted person for an extended period of time to encourage their rehabilitation.

SME’s awkwardly straddle the gap between these parallel pieces of legislation. Some SMEs are incorporated, and so fall under the Corporations Act. SMEs that are not incorporated are treated under the Bankruptcy Act as one aspect of the personal bankruptcy of the business owner. But of course, SMEs are neither people nor large corporations.

How insolvency works

Legislation governing corporate insolvency is founded on the assumption that there will be significant assets to be divided among many creditors. Broadly speaking, creditors are ranked and there are sophisticated and detailed provisions for their treatment. If Ten would have proceeded to liquidation, creditors would have been broadly grouped into three tiers and paid amounts well into the tens of millions.

One type of creditor is a “secured creditor”. Banks, for example, will often require that loans for the purchase of business equipment are secured against that equipment. In the event of default, the bank takes ownership of the equipment in place of the debt, if they can’t be paid out.

Unsecured creditors, on the other hand, do not have an “interest” over anything. If a company goes into liquidation, an unsecured creditor will only be paid if there are sufficient funds left after the secured creditors have been paid, and the cost of the process has been covered. There is no guarantee that unsecured creditors will be paid. Most often, they are only paid a portion of what they are owed.

The unique challenges of SME insolvency

When it comes to SMEs, there is little or no value available to lower-ranking, unsecured creditors in an SME insolvency estate. At the same time, higher-ranking, secured creditors tend to have effective methods of enforcing their interest outside the insolvency process. For instance they could individually sue the debtor to recover money owed. As a consequence, creditors are rarely interested in overseeing or pursing an SME insolvency process. This means the system is not often used and creditors with smaller claims go unpaid.

Even if creditors do want to use the insolvency process, it is likely the SME’s assets are insufficient to cover the cost of employing an insolvency practitioner and the required judicial oversight.

This problem is made worse because SMEs often wait too long to file for insolvency, owing to their lack of commercial experience or the social stigma of a failing business. Instead, debts continue to grow well beyond the point of insolvency, and responsibility falls on creditors to deal with the issue.

There are further difficulties depending on whether the SME is incorporated. Incorporated SMEs are frequently financed by a combination of corporate debt, taken on by the SME, and the personal debt of the business owner. This may result in complex and tedious dual insolvency proceedings: one for the bankruptcy of the owner and the other for the business.

Unincorporated SMEs, in turn, suffer from two stumbling blocks. First, the personal bankruptcy scheme has not been created to preserve the SME or encourage its turnaround. Second, personal bankruptcy proceedings require specific evidence that the person has committed an “act of bankruptcy”, such as not complying with the terms of a bankruptcy notice in the previous six months.

This hurdle makes the process far more time-consuming than the corporate scheme. It is also more difficult for creditors to succeed in recovering their investment and, by extension, prevents them from efficiently reallocating it. There is a real danger that this will deter creditors and raise the cost of capital at first instance.

What can we do about it?

The best way to meet the needs of SMEs would be to create a tailored scheme that sits between the corporate and personal regimes, as has been done in Japan and Korea. These regimes focus on speeding up the proceedings, moving the process out of court where possible and reducing the costs involved.

However, as the legislation in these two countries notes, there can be marked differences between small and medium-sized businesses that all fall under the SME banner. Therefore, what is needed is a flexible system made up of a core process, together with a large array of additional tools that may be invoked.

Designing such a scheme remains no easy feat. However, at its core, such a scheme would ideally allow business owners to commence the insolvency process and remain in control throughout. The process would sift through businesses to identify those that remain viable, and produce cost-effective means for their preservation.

Non-viable businesses would be swiftly disposed of, using pre-designed liquidation plans where possible and relying on court processes and professionals only where absolutely necessary. Creditors would therefore receive the highest return possible, and importantly, honest and cooperative business owners would be quickly freed from their failed business and able to return to economic life.

Authors: Kevin B Sobel-Read, Lecturer in Law and Anthropologist, University of Newcastle; Madeleine MacKenzie, Research assistant, Newcastle Law School, University of Newcastle

DFA’s SME Report 2017 Released

The latest results from the Digital Finance Analytics Small and Medium Business Survey, based on research from 52,000 firms over the past 12 months, is now available on request.   You can use the form below to obtain a free copy of the report.

There are around 2.2 million small and medium businesses (SME) operating in Australia, and nearly 5 million Australian households rely on income from them directly or indirectly. So a healthy SME sector is essential for the future growth of the country.

However, the latest edition of our report reveals that more than half of small business owners are not getting the financial assistance they require from lenders in Australia to grow their businesses.

Most SME’s are now digitally literate, yet the range of products and services offered to them via online channels remains below their expectations.

More SME’s are willing to embrace non-traditional lenders, via Fintech, thanks to greater penetration of digital devices, and more familiarity with these new players. In addition, many firms said they would consider switching banks, but in practice they do not.

Overall business confidence has improved a bit compared with our previous report, but the amount of “red tape” which firms have to navigate is a considerable barrier to growth.

Running a business is not easy. In some industries, more than half of newly formed businesses are likely to fail within three years. We found that banks are not offering the broader advice and assistance which could assist a newer business, so even simple concepts like cash flow management, overtrading and debtor management are not necessarily well understood. There is a significant opportunity for players to step up to assist, and in so doing they could cement and strengthen existing relationships as well as creating new ones.

We think simple “Robo-Advice” could be offered as part of a set of business services.

The sector is complex, and one-size certainly does not fit all. In this edition, we focus in particular on what we call “the voice of the customer”. In the body of the report we reveal the core market segmentation which we use for our analysis and we also explore this data at a summary level.

Here is a short video summary of the key findings.

The detailed results from the surveys are made available to our paying clients (details on request), but this report provides an overall summary of some of the main findings. We make only brief reference to our state by state findings, which are also covered in the full survey. Feel free to contact DFA if you require more information, or something specific. Our surveys can be extended to meet specific client needs.

Note this will NOT automatically send you our research updates, for that register here.