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Banking

SME finance: Weak loan demand is the real problem, say banks

In November, the European Central Bank published the findings of its latest survey of SMEs in the euro area. It contacted over 8,000 firms, the vast majority with fewer than 250 employees, and concluded with the headline that the dominant concerns for these companies was finding customers and access to finance.

Surely a sufficiency of the first is usually a prerequisite for the latter.

The responding SMEs reported a net increase in their need for financing, with the difference between those reporting an increasing need and a decreasing need standing at five percentage points. They also reported a slight deterioration in availability of credit, with 12% reporting applications for loans had been rejected, up from 11% during the previous survey period six months earlier. The percentage of SMEs reporting access to finance as their main problem remained broadly stable at 16%.

Armed with these numbers and citing a European Commission study from 2012 that found SMEs employ 70% of the region’s workers, Yves Mersch, executive board member at the ECB, warned: "Europe should be very concerned by the difficulties that SMEs are currently facing – in particular those in countries under stress. Firms have been forced to close not only because business models were flawed, but because they were located in the wrong place and could not get access to finance."

Dig deeper into the ECB’s survey and the picture becomes muddier. It shows a substantial decline in loan availability for SMEs in Italy, but marginal improvements in much of the rest of the periphery, notably Portugal and Spain, and abundant availability in Germany, Austria and Finland.

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