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Small business lending bankfacts

10 Aug 2011

Bank lending to small businesses is one of the most important services banks undertake. Lending enables businesses to grow, take on more employees and ultimately generate greater wealth. While the benefits of lending to small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and to the wider society are clear, it is important that banks can earn a return on this activity in order to sustain that service throughout the business cycle.

Ultimately, the price of lending is determined by the market. Lending is one of the key areas for competition as firms choose where to place their business or switch banks: banks that overprice will lose business, while those that underprice will not be able to sustain their operations.

There are three key drivers behind how banks price lending:

• cost of funds;

• cost of risk and capital; and

• administration costs.

Cost of funds

In order to lend money to businesses, banks need to attract funds from depositors by paying them interest. They also need to aim to hold deposits for similar lengths of time as the term of loans financed. For this reason many institutions must pay higher interest rates for deposits.

Cost of risk and capital

For every loan a bank makes, it must set capital aside to ensure the bank remains solvent and depositors are secure, even if that loan isn’t repaid. To ensure the confidence and security of savers, all banks around the world are currently holding higher levels of capital than in recent years. There is a cost to holding this capital and, as banks have increased the amount set aside, this cost has risen along with it.

Price reflects the probability – in the banks’ experience and according to its data – of the borrower not being able to repay the debt. The higher the level of risk, the higher the price must be to cover the likely loss. This amount of risk is also influenced by the level of security offered by the borrowing, so that when the value of security falls, such as commercial property values, the risk increases, and vice versa. The methodology and calculations used to determine the cost associated with the risk of lending are set by the Basel III regulatory framework.

Risk-reflective pricing enables higher-risk, but still viable businesses, to access finance, whilst lower-risk and well-managed firms get the benefit of lower-cost funding. Pricing to risk is in businesses’ interest: even more marginal businesses can still get access to finance.

Cost of administration

Meeting a business customer, assessing an application for finance, setting up a facility, providing the documentation, then monitoring and controlling that facility as well as providing regular information and revising facilities as required has a cost. While banks may use credit and performance-scoring tools, most will also require a judgement to be made by an experienced relationship manager. Smaller facilities tend to have a relatively higher administrative cost per pound lent than larger facilities, and not all of that cost can be recovered through fees. So small facilities tend to bear higher margins, even if the risk is comparable with larger lending.

Changes since the financial crisis

In the run-up to 2007, some banks used the wholesale markets to source a proportion of their deposits that they lent to businesses. At the time, that money was relatively inexpensive and enabled banks to offer lower lending prices than was historically normal. However, from 2008, with the dramatic freezing of wholesale markets, this source of funding proved much less attractive. This has increased demand for other, more traditional funding sources, such as retail deposits, which in turn has increased the costs of banks raising funds to lend to something more like a historical norm.

Banks have also been asked by regulators to raise deposits over longer terms than they have historically, and to hold greater liquidity buffers against unforeseen circumstances. This means that banks must pay higher market rates for longer term deposits, and that a higher proportion of those deposits raised cannot be lent to customers but must be put aside, incurring additional cost.

Combined, these factors mean that (although reference rates like Bank of England base rate and LIBOR continue to be used in quoting finance costs – for example, two per cent over Bank of England base rate) they do not reflect the real cost of funding and banks real costs are considerably higher.

In addition to changes in how banks fund lending, the amount of capital banks are required to hold by regulators has risen sharply, leading to a corresponding increase in the cost of capital that is included in the price of debt.

All these factors have considerably increased the cost to banks of providing finance compared to the more benign economic conditions up to 2007.

Changes in the cost of finance for SMEs

The vast majority of SMEs are paying substantially less than two years ago in absolute terms, as a result of reductions in the Bank of England base rate (and other reference rates such as LIBOR) having been passed on to customers in full. The Bank of England base rate is currently the lowest since World War II.

Data from our members shows that gross interest rates for SME loans have decreased from around 5.4 per cent in Q4/2008 to around 3.5 per cent in Q2/2011. In recent Trends in Lending reports, the Bank of England (see footnote ‘[1]’) gave the following illustrations:

After the reduction in borrowing costs in 2008 there has been an incremental increase in the costs of funding. As illustrated in the graph on the next page[2], the three-month sterling LIBOR rate has been increasing from a trough in October 2008 of 0.57078 to its current level of 0.8289. This increase in the LIBOR may be due to the end of quantitative easing by the Bank of England and the need to recapitalise.

There has however, been a gradual reduction in three-year and five-year spread on retail bonds over the past year. Data from our members have indicated that this has occurred mainly because of companies exhibiting higher risk profiles, reduced asset values and falling sales and profits – as can be expected in an economic downturn. So, even with an increased risk profile, an average SME would now pay less to the bank than it did two years ago.

Administrative costs may also increase in a more volatile economic climate: when risks rise a greater degree of assessment, monitoring and control is required.

Banks continue to provide credit to businesses and are committed to lending more to support the economic recovery. They are also in the business of lending – it is an absolutely crucial element of their business – but it must be done in a manner that safeguards and returns depositors’ money, which means pricing debt appropriately.

[1] LIBOR data from BBA LIBOR Ltd. Spread on 3-yr and 5-yr retail bonds fromBank of England: Trends in Lending. On-line access:
 Last Accessed: 02 August 2011

[2] Bank of England: Trends in Lending. Graph taken from July 2011 edition – available at:
  Last Accessed: 2 August 2011

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