Read the fine print

We are hearing stories of lenders applying enormously high rates of interest, as high as 59%, on asset-based loans to businesses or in one case, 26% per month.

It is possible that the influence of lenders like Wonga have persuaded people that rates up to 5000% for unsecured loans are the acceptable “new normal” and this has influenced the asset based lenders, especially for bridging or short-term finance, to significantly increase their rates or apply huge fees.

Some SMEs are desperate for money, perhaps because they want to take advantage of the improving economy to develop or more often due to creditor pressure, and as a consequence are neither thinking straight nor considering restructuring as an alternative when agreeing to such loans that are normally secured against personal assets.

While annual rates quoted on a loan may seem reasonable, it is only close scrutiny of the paperwork that reveals penal rates such as the example of 26% per month that may apply to a covenant breach, despite any security.

Our advice is to look very carefully at the detail when considering an asset-based bank loan and to shop around for alternative sources of finance.  There are plenty of options out there and you can find them in our free, downloadable guide:  http://www.k2finance.co.uk

Economic recovery and funding growth

A recent survey by the FSB reported that 47% of its members had been refused loans in the last three months to September and 56% felt that banks did not care about SMEs.

At the same time, the Chief Executive of the British Bankers’ Association warned that requiring banks to improve their leverage ratio (money lent out in relation to capital reserves) could “do more harm than good”. Contrast this with Sir John Vickers, who was involved in drawing up post-crisis reforms to the banking sector and his arguing that the suggested ratios are still way too low and risky.

And, banks are still facing an estimated £10 billion in potential payouts to businesses mis-sold interest rate protection and hedging products.

No wonder that banks aren’t lending to SMEs.

In the meantime large business are estimated to be sitting on £700 million of cash reserves in readiness for funding development and growth.

What are small businesses supposed to do?

Firstly, there are other sources of finance besides the banks and K2 has a free, comprehensive guide to the options. You can find it at http://www.k2finance.co.uk

Secondly, and more importantly given the prospect of over trading as the recovery gathers pace, now is the time to ensure that the business model is right to fund growth and avoid running out of cash.

Advice from restructuring professionals is not exclusive to when a company is insolvent.  Their experience and solutions can also be used to help SMEs grow.

Turning around SMEs for growth

Signs of an economic recovery seem to be feeding through into increased confidence among chief financial officers of some of the UK’s largest companies, according to the latest quarterly survey from Deloitte, which has put the appetite for risk at a six-year high.

The findings, reported in Monday’s business section of the Telegraph, found that 54% of financial officers believed it was a good time to take risk onto their companies’ balance sheets.

This is all well and good, given that many of these companies have been sitting on an estimated stash of £700 billion in cash, but what about the SME sector?

There has been no sign of any improvement in lending to this sector as we have heard repeatedly in recent weeks, yet they are seen as essential to a sustained economic recovery.

So what can they do if they don’t have either the reserves or the borrowing capability to take to take advantage of the signs of recovery?

Many SMEs have been hanging on, managing cash flow and paying down debt wherever possible but if they are to grow they need to make sure they are in the best possible shape and this may be exactly the time when a restructuring expert should be called in to take a thorough look at their business model and whether it is possible to free up some of the cash currently going to creditors.

Quick, skilled teamwork by turnaround professionals does not have to be used only when a company is insolvent.  The techniques can also be used to put SMEs into the best position to plan for growth. But they need a consensual approach involving all stakeholders as we say in this article in the Turnaround Supplement just published by the Daily Telegraph here.

Growth will not come from betting on certainties

Financially speaking we are living in a risk averse world post 2008.

This may be understandable but in a globally connected and highly competitive world UK businesses need to innovate if they want to survive and prosper.

It’s a point that British inventor Trevor Baylis OBE, inventor of the wind-up radio in the early 90s, emphasises in calling for the importance of innovation and invention to be taught in schools in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.

Invention is also in the spotlight this week with the announcement by the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s 2013 winner of the annual Faraday Award. The winner was Sir Michael Pepper, a professor of nanoelectronics at UCL whose work has pioneered development of an unhackable computer.

Other IET medallists are in the fields of supercomputing and research in bio-inspired technology that could lead to the first artificial pancreas.

All this takes money and commitment, and while there is some evidence from an analysis of company tax receipts by national accountants UHY Hacker Young showing that investment in R & D in 2012 was 8% higher than in 2011 thanks to increased tax relief on research spending it is still less than 2% of economic output.

But how many SMEs are likely to be able to take advantage of this or have the resources to put into development and innovation when they are still facing an uphill struggle to raise finance from banks unwilling to lend to them?

Indeed banks like most of the lenders coming into the market to replace them, want security over assets which does not allow for innovation.

Many are unaware of other sources of finance and K2 has a comprehensive, free, downloadable guide to sources of business finance available at http://www.k2finance.co.uk

Turning around the economic juggernaut means restoring SMEs’ confidence

Business Secretary Vince Cable warned at the LibDem conference that rebuilding the economy was going to be a long process requiring investment in business, in research and in training people in the skills that will be needed in the future.

We are also told, repeatedly, that SMEs are the primary engine for the country’s growth.

The trouble is that SMEs’ confidence has been knocked for six over the last five years, not least because despite innumerable Government initiatives they have time and again been refused lending by the banks. The most recent figures on the Funding for Lending scheme published earlier this month showed that lending to businesses and consumers had fallen by £2.3 billion since June 2012.

Now the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB ) has produced research showing just how beleaguered SMEs are feeling with more than 56% of those polled believing that the banks just do not care about them and more than a third reporting sharply increased bank fees over the last year. Very few of those polled knew that it is possible to appeal against a bank’s refusal of a loan application.

Worse still only 37% of those polled were aware of alternative sources of lending, such as crowd funding. 

K2 has a comprehensive, free, downloadable guide to sources of business finance available at http://www.k2finance.co.uk . The FSB has also launched a guide, How to Get a Bank Loan, which also covers appealing against refusal, switching banks and other finance options.

Further evidence that a safe pare of hands is not enough for growth

Some new figures on attitudes to innovation from Price Waterhouse Cooper reinforce the point that growth will not come from being risk averse and hoarding cash.

In the UK the most innovative top fifth of companies grew 50% faster than the bottom fifth and, more alarmingly, the survey found that in the UK just 32% of companies regarded innovation as very important, compared with 46% of German and 59% of Chinese companies. Just 16% of UK companies planned to prioritise product innovation in the coming year compared with almost 33% globally.

Further proof, if it were needed, that, while it would of course be foolish to be complacent about economic recovery, the risk-taking, innovative manager is needed more at this point in the cycle than the risk-averse accountant.

 

It’s the political silly season again

The first shots are being fired in the annual round of party conference one-up-manship with Chancellor Osborne claiming that the economy is “turning a corner”.

Oh really?

It may look like that in London thanks to a rapidly inflating property bubble but out here in SME world even to say “turning a corner” may prove to be premature.

Monday saw publication of a survey by the FSB that had found 47% of its members had been refused loans in the last three months and 56% felt that banks did not care about SMEs, the much vaunted “engine for growth”.

On the same day, with the Banking Reform Bill due for debate this week, the Chief Executive of the British Bankers’ Association warned that requiring banks to improve their leverage ratio (money lent out in relation to capital reserves) could “do more harm than good”. Contrast this with Sir John Vickers, who was involved in drawing up post-crisis reforms to the banking sector and his arguing that the suggested ratios are still way too low and risky. Sounds like joined up banking!

In addition the banks are facing an estimated £10 billion in potential payouts to businesses mis-sold interest rate protection and hedging products. Other news such as the trade gap (between imports and exports) doubling in July and questions about where the demand will come from all challenge the notion of ‘green shoots’.

Businesses, like consumers, are under increasing pressure from rising prices, and continue to focus on cash flow.  While there may be a bit more optimism around it plainly has not yet translated into anything as definitive as turning a corner.

Lies, damn lies and statistics!

A safe pair of hands does not include plans for growth

UK companies are reportedly hoarding as much as £700 billion in cash. Despite this, business investment grew by just 1.7% in June, according to Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, in his first speech to businesses in Nottingham.

It appears that businesses are still not confident of sustained economic recovery, and this may be understandable following the shock waves after the onset of the global economic crisis in 2008.

When times are hard the general rule is to put an accountant in charge as they will basically hoard a company’s cash.  Accountants are generally pretty risk averse and when the emphasis is on controlling cash flow they are a mainstay of business survival.

But at what point in the cycle should companies start to look at investment and growth for future profits? And at what point should accountants take a back seat and hand over to someone else?

In UK we tend to be slow to adapt to changes in the market. Let’s face it no one will criticise managers for not losing money. Only too late will shareholders realise they have been left behind.

We are still pursuing a strategy of hoarding cash when perhaps the time has come to shift from pessimism to optimism and at the very least we should be planning for growth. Now is the time for carrying out market research, modest investments, testing markets and building capacity for growth. 

We need managers with courage, managers who value mistakes and will learn from them, managers who know how to grow businesses.

Pre-packs under scrutiny again?

Baker Tilly’s purchase of the debt-laden accountancy firm RMS Tenon has put the use of pre-pack administration under the spotlight again. It follows other recent high profile pre-packs such as Dreams and Gatecrasher and the debate about Hibu as publisher of Yellow Pages.

While a pre-pack may be a useful tool for saving a struggling business by “selling” its business and assets to a new company immediately upon appointment of an Administrator, the consequences to unsecured creditors and shareholders can be catastrophic as it normally involves writing-off most of their debt and all the investors’ equity. The only beneficiaries are normally banks and other secured creditors who control the process through their appointed insolvency practitioners.

In the case of RMS Tenon, which had more than £80.4 million of debt, unsecured creditors and investors are reportedly furious that their entire debt and shareholdings have been wiped out, the more so because Lloyds TSB, its only secured lender, allegedly forced the sale by refusing to grant a covenant waiver while at the same time agreeing to finance Baker Tilly’s purchase of the assets of RMS Tenon.

While the sale has safeguarded the jobs of around 2,300 RMS Tenon staff, and this is surely to be welcomed in the current economic climate, there are plenty who will once again question pre-pack administration. It may be legal, but is it an acceptable and ethical method of rescuing a business in distress? There are other restructuring options that offer a better outcome for creditors and shareholders, such as Schemes of Arrangement and Company Voluntary Arrangement for instance. But all too often these are not pursued.

As the UK economy proceeds along its halting path to recovery the last thing that is needed is short-term and self-interested behaviour by secured creditors.

Administrator’s fees of £500k for a small firm

This shocking story in the Daily Telegraph did not name the insolvency firm who built managed to charge a staggering £500,000 for the administration of a small company with 40 employees, see http://tinyurl.com/jwzlcmc.

It appears that secured lenders pulled the plug on this small shopfitting business, presumably to recover their secured loan. The article refers to 10p in the £1 being paid to unsecured creditors.

Given that secured loans are paid ahead of the insolvency fees and that these are paid ahead of unsecured creditors, then this business had significant assets. While the fees will have been justified as representing the time and costs incurred in performing their duties, administration fees also need to be proportionate. Stories like this don’t do the insolvency profession any favours.

Insolvency firms will always justify any adopted procedure and its associated fees but sometimes we might question whether they are justifiable.  If there were sufficient funds in the business to pay such fees then why wasn’t an effort made to restructure and save it such as by using the much less expensive CVA (Creditors’ Voluntary Arrangement) procedure?

Indeed who was advising the directors and shareholders? Too often directors make the mistake of trusting the advice of an insolvency practitioner who is normally working for the secured or unsecured creditors. They rarely ever appoint their own advisors.  

All too often a company in difficulty is closed down rather than being restructured. In most cases everyone loses out: directors, shareholders, unsecured creditors and employees. 

The only “winners” in an administration are the insolvency firm and the secured creditor that appointed them.