Will Project Merlin Make any Difference to Business Lending?

With so many companies in financial difficulties will many companies be able to take out further loans as a result of the new agreement known as Project Merlin?

The government last week announced that it had reached agreement with the UK’s four biggest banks to increase the amount of new lending to business in 2011 to a total £190 billion, of which £76 billion would be for small and medium sized businesses (SMEs). The SME portion is an increase of 15% on 2010.  

The lending to businesses will be on commercial terms that reflect the reduced number of lenders in the market. With bank base rates being so low, currently 0.5%, companies are being charged a huge premium with interest rates being set as 8 – 9% above the base rate. In addition, huge arrangement fees are also being applied, where fees representing 5 – 10% of the loan are not uncommon.

Many balance sheets are so decimated carrying huge liabilities to creditors such as HMRC, suppliers and asset based lenders (often at over value) that many businesses will not be able to justify a loan.

Business advisers, who see the effects of policy on the ground, say that one effect of Project Merlin will be for the banks to convert short term revolving facilities, such as overdrafts renewable daily, monthly or quarterly, into medium term loans. These will almost certainly be categorised as new loans in the quota reports but won’t actually represent additional, new funding. The banks continue to run rings around the politicians.

Converted loans are increasingly repayable on demand and therefore are being agreed on terms that allow the bank to keep all its options for essentially demanding immediate repayment.

Andrew Cave, of the Federation of Small Businesses, commented that the majority of small businesses were not seeking finance from the banks at the moment because the cost of existing and new borrowing is increasing and David Frost, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, also cast doubt on whether the agreement will make any difference because of what he called the banks’ poor and opaque decision-making and over-centralised processes, with a lack of good frontline relationship managers locally in the banks.

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