Published: December 2013
This report presents the results of a study into access to finance for growth amongst SMEs in Ireland and Northern Ireland. The study aims, for the first time, to examine not only bank finance but finance available to SMEs from other sources such as government funding, venture capital and angel finance.
The study uniquely presents a complete picture of the supply of finance to SMEs across the island of Ireland, in particular the supply of bank finance in Northern Ireland. In Ireland, banks provide supply-side data to the Central Bank of Ireland. However, at present, no such process exists within Northern Ireland. This study provides the first analysis of the total value of the credit extended by banks in 2012 to SMEs in Northern Ireland. This study is an important component in the complete and rigorous assessment of the current supply and demand side issues related to bank and non-bank finance for SMEs trading in Ireland and in Northern Ireland.
The key findings and recommendations are summarised below.
1. KEY FINDINGS
IMPORTANCE OF UNDERSTANDING THE LENDING CONTEXT FOR SMES
Demand is at least as important, if not more important than supply, as the key SME finance issue. The data gathered for this report shows that demand for credit is currently at its lowest level since 2010, as measured by applications for credit by SMEs. In addition, businesses say that the supply of finance is no longer the most significant issue facing them, with finding new customers and/or addressing cost pressures now cited as their most significant challenge. However, a concern remains that, when an economic recovery begins to gain momentum, it could be inhibited or even derailed by a supply-side deficit.
There is a dearth of diversity in the financing landscape for SMEs across the island. The capital structures, market and economic position of SMEs on the island have a disproportionate reliance on banks for their funding needs. Bank funding, largely in the form of overdrafts and loans, accounts for 94% of total SME finance which is comfortably greater than other European counterparts.
- A general lack of financial literacy exists across the broad financing landscape. A lack of knowledge on alternative funding options is inhibiting the development of a more diverse funding panorama for SMEs and the subsequent use of more appropriate and less costly funding alternatives. Not only is there an over-reliance on bank funding but local SMEs are also more reliant on short term finance, in particular overdrafts and trade credit, in comparison to the EU average. They also still have a significant dependency on cheques rather than funds transfer or other payment methods.
- There is a lack of balance sheet “right sizing”. In general, Irish and Northern Irish banks need to be more engaged in the debt restructuring or write off of debt for SMEs who demonstrate sustainable trading positions but are over-leveraged due to property or other legacy debt issues. Banks are only very slowly disengaging from short term forbearance measures, a temporary and short term solution which, in the absence of strong economic growth, may not address the need for long term restructuring of the balance sheets of many SMEs. A sustainable SME whose debt has been “right sized” to a level which they can service is a better asset to both the bank and wider economy.
- A lack of investment is potentially damaging SMEs businesses. The economies of Ireland and Northern Ireland are both heavily dominated by SMEs, particularly micro companies with low levels of turnover, employees and a domestic economy focus. While there are encouraging signs that more firms are moving to a growth mode, a still significant proportion of SMEs are focussed on survival or stabilisation not on growth or expansion and, as such, are not looking for growth or development capital from any finance source. A lack of investment in a business ultimately damages that business and therefore represents a systemic and long term risk to the economies of Northern Ireland and Ireland.
- There is a continued need to leverage EU-wide and UK initiatives. Both Ireland and Northern Ireland have been successful in drawing down support under EU measures. Ongoing engagement with the EU will remain an important aspect of SME policy to ensure maximum potential is derived from the range of available EU funding initiatives, such as the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme, JEREMIE and the European Investment Bank. With regard to UK initiatives the authorities in Northern Ireland remain concerned to ensure that regional needs are addressed and responses can be tailored, in order to ensure maximum benefit from the Enterprise Finance Guarantee Scheme and the Funding for Lending Scheme.
SUPPLY OF AND DEMAND FOR FINANCE FOR GROWTH
The report provides, for the first time, a picture of total supply of bank finance for both Ireland and Northern Ireland. As at 31st December 2012 total bank finance of €31.5 / £25.7 billion had been extended to Irish and Northern Irish SMEs. Of this total €25.7 / £20.9 billion is to Irish SMEs and €5.8 / £4.7 billion to Northern Irish SMEs.
Businesses are over-reliant on bank funding. As at 31st December 2012 94% of total SME finance for both Irish and Northern Irish SMEs came from bank funding. In comparison to European SMEs, Irish and Northern Irish SMEs demonstrate an overreliance on short term bank finance with a disproportionately high use of overdrafts.
A lack of bank supply data exists for Northern Ireland. The absence of regularly reported figures for Northern Ireland presents a significant gap in the analysis of total funding available to SMEs in Northern Ireland and thus hampers the development of policy responses to funding gaps that might exist in that market.
There has been a fall in both the supply of and demand for bank finance. Both the supply of and the demand for bank finance has fallen significantly in the period since 2008. In Ireland, the fall in supply has also been impacted by the withdrawal of a number of providers from the Irish market, in 2010 and 2013. Total outstanding credit to Irish SMEs had decreased from €34 billion at the end of Q1 2010 to €26 billion at the end of Q4 2012. No trend figures are available for Northern Ireland.
High levels of bank debt exist for the largest sectoral employers. Of the four main sectoral employers in each jurisdiction, three (retail, construction and hospitality) are in distress, are very dependent on the domestic economy, and have high levels of bank debt.
Demand for bank finance is focused on short term working capital needs. Demand for credit amongst SMEs in Ireland and Northern Ireland has fallen significantly since its measurement began on a systematic basis in 2009 and, where demand currently exists, it is primarily to fund short term working capital and to support cash flow.
SMEs with property debts are more likely to need working capital. SMEs with legacy property debt are three times more likely to request working capital finance than their counterparts, pointing to the difficulty many SMEs are facing in servicing this debt and the delayed beginning of restructuring programmes for such debt in many banks.
Most SMEs are approved for bank finance when they apply formally. While 7% of SMEs who require finance are afraid to approach their bank, all surveys have consistently shown that the majority of SMEs who apply for credit receive a favourable response. This figure is relatively consistent with patterns shown in similar studies carried out in other European countries.
SME views on bank lending are often not based on personal experience. SMEs are primarily forming the view that banks are not lending from the information they receive from the media, business groups or the experience related by peers rather than from direct experience. Banks should encourage SMEs to formally apply for credit or, at a minimum, direct them to mediation support services within the bank to support them with their application. This is a model that has been adopted very successfully in France where local mediators provide support to SMEs in the completion of their credit applications.
- There is a misconception about SME credit ratings. Many SMEs are concerned that a declined credit application may impact their credit rating. This is an incorrect assumption and SMEs should be encouraged by policy makers, advisors and business representative groups alike to make applications for credit formally (i.e. by completing a formal written application form). This is then subject to internal bank assessment and the decision may also be appealed internally within the bank or, in Ireland, to the Credit Review Office.
- The average bank decision time is a concern for SMEs. Survey results suggest that the average time from application to reaching a decision on the loan request is 21 working days. In many cases, decision time is much longer and this is a source of concern and, in some cases, distress for SMEs.
Direct government funding represents less than 1% of total SME finance. Direct government funding, not included in equity finance, represents less than 1% of all finance extended to SMEs as at 31st December 2012.
Poor knowledge of finance schemes exists amongst SMEs and their advisors. The research has found that SMEs and their advisors, business representative groups, accountants and other professional advisors are typically unaware of the public schemes and funds that are available. The complex nature of non-bank funding sources and the varied application routes makes the use of non-bank funding difficult and often expensive for SMEs.
In practice, funding schemes are focused on exporting SMEs or companies trading in specific sectors. Whilst in theory the majority of schemes or funds are open to all business sectors, in practice the main beneficiaries are those SMEs who export and those operating in the manufacturing, information and communication technology and tradeable professional and scientific and administrative/ support service sectors. There is limited support for SMEs operating in most distressed sectors outside of traditional bank finance, the Credit Guarantee Schemes (in Ireland and UK) and the MicroFinance scheme in Ireland, some of which, in their early stages, show low levels of take up.
The SME support infrastructure is more developed in Ireland. The SME support infrastructure, in the area of bank finance, has developed significantly in Ireland in recent years. Given the similarity in access to finance issues apparent amongst SMEs in Ireland and Northern Ireland, there are a number of measures implemented in Ireland in the period since 2009, that should be considered in Northern Ireland either on a cross-border or a specifically Northern Irish basis.
The supports required by SMEs have changed since the economic crisis began in Ireland and Northern Ireland. SMEs now require tailored support in the restructuring of balance sheets, in engaging with banks on negotiating sustainable debt restructuring initiatives, in developing funding strategies for the current economic environment and in developing overall solutions to their finance needs.
Equity finance is now a significant source for SMEs. The second most significant source of funding for SMEs is external equity finance as represented by seed capital, venture capital and business angel finance. External equity finance, including government-backed equity finance, accounted for approximately 5.6% of total SME funding at 31st December 2012, with the proportion significantly higher in Ireland than in Northern Ireland. Total equity finance of €1.9 / £1.5 billion had been invested in Irish and Northern Irish SMEs in the five year period to 31st December 2012, the majority invested in Irish companies.
Equity finance is focused on a small number of business sectors. In general equity finance is targeted very specifically at a small number of business sectors, mainly Information and Communications Technology, Professional, Scientific and Technical Services, and Manufacturing, particularly Medical Devices.
Demand for equity finance is low. Existing survey data would suggest that the demand for any form of non-bank finance is low in the general SME community. It is generally accepted that equity finance will only ever be suitable for a small minority of SMEs, often start-ups and/or high potential growth businesses and more mature companies with short to medium term growth or expansion plans. Thus demand for equity is restricted by the fact that government, angel and venture capital investors typically only provide finance to a small number of specific businesses in targeted industry sectors which match the investor’s portfolio, risk and return on investment goals. Among the factors which explain low levels of demand for and take up of equity finance in Ireland and Northern Ireland are the profile of SMEs, supply side issues impacting demand and confidence in equity, and a lack of awareness and understanding of equity finance amongst SMEs.
A significant SME finance capability gap exists. Despite some improvement due to access to investment readiness support, early stage companies still require support to improve commercial and management skills of investee teams and support in preparing and presenting for follow-on funding.
There is a vibrant Irish venture capital landscape. The Irish venture capital industry has received significant and sustained support from the Irish Government over the last few decades. In this time, the Irish Government, through Enterprise Ireland (EI), has committed approximately €348mn to 41 local Seed and VC funds resulting in capital of approximately €1.2 billion for investment in innovative high growth companies. The challenge is for potentially strong start-ups to secure follow-on funding, pointing to a continued need for government support of seed and early stage finance in Ireland.
Supply gaps exist in the Northern Ireland equity market. Significant additional investment in seed and early stage capital is required in Northern Ireland as a demand stimulant. A strong consensus exists that there has been insufficient availability of risk finance at pre-seed, seed and early stage in Northern Ireland. In early 2013, the Invest Growth Proof of Concept Fund (pre-commercial grant), which was fully committed at the end of 2012, and the Invest Growth Fund were extended by £2m each to March 2014, with a view to putting in place increased seed and early stage funding from April 2014.
The level of angel investing is increasing. The importance of business angel investing at seed and early stage has received increasing attention due to its growth internationally relative to venture capital investing. The formal angel networks have and are continuing to develop in line with international best practice and the development of formal angel investing has been significant over the last number of years, including the increased development of angel groups/syndicates. Supply statistics on formal angel investing indicate that angel investment has increased year-on-year since 2008. In Northern Ireland, while levels of investment are small but developing, angel investment is in relative terms more important, due to the low level of venture capital activity in Northern Ireland. It was suggested in the course of the study, that a co-investment fund (one is already in place in Northern Ireland) would be an important feature in continuing to develop business angel investment in Ireland as a complement to the range of other funds in place including the Enterprise Ireland (EI) Seed and Venture Capital Programmes.
Northern Ireland Growth Loan fund serves a specific demand. The Growth Loan Fund in Northern Ireland is a mezzanine debt product, which primarily allows growth companies to draw down unsecured loans at higher interest rates based on growth projections. Although primarily a debt product, this alternative financing product may have the potential to overcome the reluctance on the part of some growth businesses, as outlined in Section 4.3.2, to go down the route of equity. This would appear to have tapped in to some latent demand in Northern Ireland and may be an important consideration in Ireland in terms of extension of financing options.
The Irish National Pension Reserve Fund (NPRF) Turnaround Fund should provide a useful policy tool. The new NPRF SME Turnaround Fund, introduced in Ireland in January 2013, will invest in underperforming businesses which are at, or close to, the point of insolvency but have the potential for financial and operational restructuring. Demand statistics on this fund including profile of applicants, even where unsuccessful on the fund, may provide important information for evidence-based policy making for such SMEs (potential but hamstrung) and may be a useful source of information in both jurisdictions to address this important cohort of SMEs.
Both the supply of and demand for finance are now at necessarily lower levels than the artificially inflated and unsustainable peaks of a few years ago. However the readjustment process has exposed a very narrow SME financing landscape and provided a window of opportunity to develop a broader and more informed financing ecosystem that will support and not inhibit economic recovery. Much has already been undertaken in this regard in both Northern Ireland and Ireland to ensure a financial ecosystem that can support the needs of customers, support recovery and growth and avoid the mistakes of the past. The recommendations that follow are consistent with and intended to support the work already completed or ongoing. They focus on two areas that are critical for the development of a more diverse funding landscape across both jurisdictions. These are:
- Information; and
- Financial capability
The report then concludes with a number of recommendations aimed at encouraging the further development of the venture capital and angel investor markets on the island.
The availability and flow of high quality and relevant information is fundamental to the smooth operation of any marketplace. The following recommendations are designed to address informational deficiencies in the market for finance in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Recommendation R1 – Capture bank lending figures in Ireland and Northern Ireland
The recent Economic Advisory Group for Northern Ireland report (EAG, 2013) highlighted that the absence of bank lending data was a significant issue for Northern Ireland. It stated that “there was a general sense that banks would sign up to the provision of regional lending data for Northern Ireland on the proviso that they all sign up to it and they are confident in the organisation holding the information”. On the basis of the framework developed in Ireland since 2009, and the fact that supply data had been made available by the main banks operating in Northern Ireland under that process, these banks provided Northern Ireland data to the researchers in the course of this study. This is an important milestone in understanding the SME finance environment in Northern Ireland, but the process needs to be maintained and improved in order that patterns and trends may be monitored and analysed over time and appropriate policy responses developed.
Therefore, a clear and comprehensive framework for the supply side capture of SME lending, application, approval and rejection rates should be introduced in Northern Ireland with quarterly returns of data to the Department of Finance and Personnel. The model which was introduced in Ireland in 2009 and handed over to the Central Bank in 2011 could be used in this regard. An initial process of bank data cleansing and review would be required to support the ongoing reporting of SME supply side data in order to ensure the accuracy and consistency of the data provided.
Recommendation R2 – Capture demand for finance among SMEs in Northern Ireland
A lack of regular and consistent demand-side or lending surveys of Northern Ireland SMEs makes it difficult to analyse the extent of any demand gap. Regular and detailed surveys, along the lines of the Irish Department of Finance’s bi-annual demand surveys should be introduced in Northern Ireland. The InterTradeIreland Business Monitor could be used for this purpose with the questionnaire and sample designed in consultation with the new Access to Finance Implementation Panel.
Policy makers also need a clearer profile and better information on the attributes of the SME population to inform policy development (in addition to data on lending which receives the most attention). The Australian model referred to in Section 6 should be considered in this regard. This data should be maintained on an ongoing basis, developed and held centrally in both Ireland and Northern Ireland and access provided to government agencies and policymakers. This data should include:
- Sectoral profiles;
- SME employment profiles;
- Levels of reliance on domestic economy;
- Levels of distress in specific sectors;
- Extent of impact of property debt overhang; and
- Characteristics of export base and identification of
Recommendation R3 – Provision of Better Information to SMEs by Funding Providers
All banks and public funding agencies should endeavour to provide their SME customers with a written and clear reason as to why their formal application for credit has not been accepted in both Ireland and Northern Ireland. We acknowledge this is required at present under the Code of Conduct for Lending to SMEs in Ireland and the need to take into account the difficulties of communicating a negative outcome. The explanation that is currently provided is generally derived from a master system list of reasons and does not provide adequate information in many cases to the SMEs. Banks in both Ireland and Northern Ireland should also introduce internal programmes to ensure quicker turnaround on decisions especially at the smaller end of SME lending (e.g. €25k to €75k).
In the case of public funding agencies this written explanation should include some element of future signposting – i.e. directing the SME to other more possible alternative finance sources. This follows a model which has been successful in France where OSEO publishes a guide to its schemes specifically for banks so that lenders can direct SMEs whose application for credit has been declined to other funding agencies.
Recommendation R4 – Encourage Formal Credit Applications
Continued work is required to encourage SMEs to proactively and formally apply for credit. Recent initiatives such as the standardisation of the application process in Ireland and other awareness campaigns should assist this conversion and should be examined for rollout in Northern Ireland. Above all, it is important that SMEs are made aware by banks that a rejected
application does not result in a negative credit rating.
Recommendation R5 – Promoting Alternative Sources of Finance
Consideration should be given in Ireland to promoting alternative financing options such as quasi-equity/mezzanine products to provide alternatives to those SMEs who do not want to cede control via a full equity play. While relatively new (late 2012), the Growth Loan Fund in Northern Ireland would suggest that there is demand for a middle ground option such as mezzanine finance, albeit that some commentators have suggested that some of this demand may be due to the absence of alternative equity options in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, as this is a relatively new fund, there may be potential to increase awareness and education of this fund and source of finance at both the demand (SME) and supply sides (front line bank staff, other advisors and intermediaries).
A range of alternative forms of finance have also been relatively widely used in other countries as outlined in Section 6 (Canada, France, Germany, US, UK), as a post-crisis government response to reduced availability of bank debt. Further consideration needs to be given in both jurisdictions to extending the range of alternative financing options available to SMEs.
A single public body in both Ireland and Northern Ireland should be charged with the development and maintenance of a single repository of all schemes /supports / funds / credit facilities available to SMEs. This database should include bank, public and equity funding and should be both accessible and searchable by sub-region and sector. It should be made available publicly to SMEs, public bodies who advise SMEs, business groups and accountants so that the complex SME funding landscape that currently exists with over 50 funders and upwards of 170 schemes is easier to navigate for SMEs and their advisors.
The following recommendations are aimed at improving financial literacy within the broader financing ecosystem which is necessary to develop a broader based market with a wider portfolio of financing products and solutions. Improving the strategic preparation of SMEs for dealing with funding providers will be key to the exploitation of the opportunities offered by such a wide portfolio.
Recommendation R6 – Non-Financial Support Measures for SMEs
SMEs require support in assisting them to become more competitive, acquiring the skills to enter new markets, securing new customers and exporting. However, SMEs also need to acquire the financial and development skills pertinent to the current economic environment.
A series of publicly funded, practical educational programmes should be made available in Ireland and Northern Ireland to support SMEs, especially at the micro / smaller end. These programmes should focus on:
- Navigating the funding landscape;
- Preparing cash flows for sustainable trading businesses;
- Preparation of business plans in the current environment including stabilization planning;
- Restructuring of balance sheets / finance positions appropriately (balance sheet “right sizing”);
- Negotiation with banks on restructuring of debt;
- Matching finance needs with finance products or sources;
- Management of working capital;
- Developing export capabilities;
- Analysis of finance needs (funding mix, appropriate use of long and short term finance etc.); and
- Investment readiness preparation for companies applying for equity or similar forms of finance.
InterTradeIreland has developed expertise in the area of improving investor readiness for equity finance, through EquityNetwork, and ought to explore the potential for expanding these services and solutions for a broader range of financing options including applications to banks.
In particular the support provided should focus on assisting SMEs in the capital restructuring  of their balance sheets so that sustainable trading businesses  can be prepared and supported in approaching their bank or funding institution with a view to securing a fundamental balance sheet restructure. This type of support has to be developed and delivered by those currently advising SMEs. The advisors need to be fully conversant with balance sheet restructuring models and best practice SME sustainability metrics which is the case for a limited number of professional advisory firms.
In Ireland, the establishment of the Local Enterprise Office (LEO) framework (from the conversion of County and City Enterprise Boards) represents an ideal opportunity to implement this recommendation and fundamentally change the skills profile of front line publicly funded support staff advising SMEs. There will also be the opportunity to promote awareness and use of the voucher schemes, soon to be operating in both Northern Ireland and Ireland, which are there to support SMEs improve their financial capabilities.
Consistent with the initiatives in Australia, New Zealand and the UK outlined in Section 6 of this document, we suggest that a national helpline be considered to operate on an all-island basis, possibly co-ordinated by a cross-border body such as InterTradeIreland. This helpline could follow a model similar to the well-established Australian model and could also take account of the new UK Business Link helpline. Whilst we acknowledge that a helpline was considered in Ireland in 2011 and discounted for cost reasons, we suggest it should be re-examined and developed in accordance with the models put in place in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, that it is integrated into an existing support agency and leverages the benefits of additional measures such as a comprehensive database of the products, schemes and solutions across the funding landscape in both jurisdictions. The helpline could operate both before and after normal business hours, and provide information on finance options, cash flow management, balance sheet restructuring, government supports, business planning, accounting, taxation and diagnostic services. An all-island helpline could deliver economies of scale but would also ensure that cross border initiatives as well as new learnings from both jurisdictions are leveraged.
Recommendation R7 – SME Voucher Schemes
Governments in Ireland and Northern Ireland currently have SME Voucher schemes in place. This report identified a need to enhance the capability of a significant number of SMEs in the areas of financial and commercial management capability, areas in which there would appear to be a high requirement and preference for tailored and one-to-one support. Vouchers represent an important support for SMEs who are currently unable to afford professional advice in engaging with their banks or in applying for credit or restructuring their debt levels. International research has also suggested that cost is a significant impediment to SMEs drawing down business support services even where there is clear need for support. These voucher schemes would allow SMEs to procure and pay for professional support in particular to:
- Analyse existing balance sheet or funding positions;
- Develop funding proposals to banks, public funding agency, venture capital or other third party funders; and
- Support the SME in engaging with their bank in restructuring existing debt positions for sustainable SME trading businesses.
Demand for such voucher schemes is always high, and they provide an effective way of both addressing the varied needs of the heterogeneous population that SMEs represent (micro, small, traditional, high tech, high growth etc.), and allowing individual SMEs to cost effectively draw down bespoke support. The governments should monitor the uptake of these and then consider their extension, possibly on a joint North/South basis, like the Innovation Vouchers.
Recommendation R8 – Further Development of the SME Capabilities of Banks
Consideration should be given to putting in place a small dedicated team within each pillar bank in Ireland. This team would:
- Review rejected SME credit applications for appropriateness and consistency of decline decisions, thereby negating the need for an SME to separately apply to the Credit Review Office.
- Explore the options which exist through the full or partial use of other government backed schemes (e.g. Credit Guarantee Scheme / Microfinance scheme) thereby negating the need for the SME to reapply to each scheme or fund individually, completing different forms and providing different information in each case.
- Reviewing informal applications or enquiries (which the main banks are now starting to log) which are not put forward to credit committees by the bank relationship manager to whom the enquiry was made and performing follow up satisfaction calls to SMEs making such enquiries.
- Front line staff training on cash flow lending, SME funding available, debt restructuring, sustainability assessment;
- Dedicated distressed credit / challenged units;
- SME coaching initiatives;
- Single application form, standard business plan, cash flow model;
- Auto grading of micro loans;
- SME feedback initiatives; and
- Dedicated SME officers in 2013.
Whilst not all the banks operating in Northern Ireland who lend to SMEs are regulated in Ireland, for a number of them their primary regulator is Irish and they are supervised under passporting rules in the UK. As such, some of these schemes could be supported or encouraged by the Irish Central Bank. However they represent best practice in dealing with SMEs and distressed credit and are being rolled out in many banks internationally and in the UK. This issue has also been raised in the Review of Access to Finance for SMEs in Northern Ireland (EAG, 2013).
Consideration should also be given to the development of international trade finance products for SMEs, i.e. export-focused guarantee scheme to support lending under guarantee. We acknowledge that at the date of publication of this report, this recommendation is being considered in Ireland by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.
Recommendation R9 – Further Development of Credit Review and Mediation Services
A number of recommendations have been made in a recent Department of Finance report following an assessment of the operation of the Credit Review Office (CRO) (Grant Thornton, 2012). We welcome those recommendations and suggest that consideration should also be given to expanding the remit of the CRO to include:
- Further encouragement of non-pillar banks operating in Ireland to engage with the CRO.
- Consider the extension of the remit of the CRO beyond its current brief to include a credit mediation service following the example of the French credit mediation office. The French model as (set out in detail in Section 6) should be reviewed to assess the benefits of a wider and distributed mediation role for SMEs.
- Quicker turnaround times as, when an SME has a credit problem, time is of the essence (the above mentioned report includes recommendations on expediting the application process).
- Sample testing of credit applications which have been rejected by the banks but which have not been referred by the SME to the CRO. This will over time improve the quality of credit assessments, encourage banks to focus more on solutions rather than just credit decisions and ultimately will provide increased assurance to SMEs on the robustness of the bank credit application process. Alternatively banks should refer a sample of all rejected credit applications across each sector to the CRO by the participating banks.
- Consideration should be given to adopting a version of a model similar to that developed and rolled out in the last 3 years in France. Location of a CRO officer in each pillar bank on an ongoing basis, so that whilst the officer is operating independently of the bank, he/she is none the less working in closer proximity and thus able to discuss possible solutions with the bank and to provide sign posting for under funding options.
We recommend that the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Northern Ireland banks, in conjunction with the British Banking Association and the Independent External Reviewer agree an approach to systematically promote the uptake of the UK Banking Taskforce Appeals Process by Northern Irish SMEs to ensure that existing processes are leveraged to the greatest extent possible. In addition, consideration should be given to an extended independent mediation support for SMEs in Northern Ireland which incorporates some of the benefits of other models, including elements of the French model set out in Section 6. This could entail a separate unit which coordinates access to finance issues for SMEs who have been refused bank finance but who may also require specialist advice on their application quality and improving the standard thereof, advice on capital structure and financing options and signposting to more appropriate financing solutions.
DEVELOPMENT OF THE VENTURE CAPITAL AND ANGEL INVESTOR MARKETS
Recommendation R10 – Continuation of Government Support for Seed and Early Stage Finance in Ireland
Consideration should be given to the following in relation to seed and early stage finance:
- Introducing an investment follow-on fund specifically targeted at participants of seed programmes.
- Ensuring that an appropriate range of alternative finance options (as per recommendation R5 above and based on examples in section 6) is available to such businesses including entrepreneur loans or hybrid instruments incorporating debt and subordinated tranches.
- Targeted venture capital funding, including consideration of Ireland-only or all-island non-seed funds, to allow for a lower bar for some emerging viable seed companies who may not compete at the international level in terms of follow-on funding. The five new Enterprise Ireland non-seed funds (Ireland-only), currently at expression of interest stage, may address some of these issues, albeit that they are focused on the broad technology and life sciences sectors.
- Continued support and assistance to emerging Irish seed companies in competing for commercial funding from international venture capital funds to raise the standard in terms of financial, commercial, management and presentational skills amongst this group.
- Consideration may need to be given to addressing the lack of diversification in seed and early stage funds (focused primarily on high-tech) to ensure that potential high-growth companies which are not necessarily high tech are not dissuaded from the equity route (self-selecting themselves due to a perception that the funds are not relevant to their sector or company type), or otherwise restricted due to fund restrictions or the specialist focus and preferences of the VC fund managers. We understand that Enterprise Ireland is in discussions with the European Investment Fund in this regard.
Recommendation R11 – Support of Angel Investment across the island of Ireland
The establishment of an Irish dedicated co-investment fund or angel fund should be considered where investment selection is initially led by the private investors, who set the terms, but with the remaining funding provided by the co-investment fund.
We recognise the existence of the Co-Fund NI which supplied £1.7m in funding to seed and early stage businesses. Co-Fund NI leveraged additional private sector investment of £3m in addition to the Invest NI (INI) portion of £1.7m (2012).
The establishment of a co-investment fund or angel fund, which has merit in its own right to further promote business angel investing, may also promote further diversification where initially led by the private investors.
The recent establishment of a new all-island food business angel syndicate may demonstrate potential for funding of ‘non-tech’ sectors by equity investment although it is too early to make any detailed assessment of the syndicate.
As the visible business angel market in Ireland is small relative to other countries and due to the fact that investments through structured vehicles such as the Seed Capital Scheme (SCS) and the Employment and Investment Incentive (EII) scheme show a downward trend in overall investing, consideration should be given to the following:
- Further promotion and awareness raising of the benefits of the existing SCS and the EII scheme are required; and
- Extension of the terms of the EII relief in line with the more extensive and attractive UK-based Enterprise Investment Scheme and the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme.
Due to the increasing relative importance of business angels as a source of finance for SMEs and, the as yet relatively small size of the total business angel market in Ireland and Northern Ireland, we recommend continued public funding of both the jurisdictional and cross-border Business Angel network infrastructure.
Recommendation R12 – A Venture Capital Strategy for Northern Ireland
Echoing the recent Review of Access to Finance for SMEs in Northern Ireland (EAG, 2013), we recommend that a comprehensive Venture Capital Strategy is developed for Northern Ireland which informs and develops the equity funds under the Access to Finance Strategy, dovetails with the new Innovation Strategy (to be published in early 2014) and supports wider policy objectives to further promote entrepreneurial activity in Northern Ireland. This strategy should address medium to long-term considerations including the avoidance of future gaps in the continuum of funding, an issue which is likely to have impacted demand and confidence in
equity funding in Northern Ireland. And, in the shorter term, it should frontload early risk capital initiatives and associated support services to take into account the importance role of proof of concept, seed and early stage capital availability as a demand stimulant.
Two new development capital funds of £30m each were awarded in 2013 and are understood to be subject to contract at the date of writing. In early 2013, the Invest Growth Proof of Concept Fund (pre-commercial grant), which was fully committed at the end of 2012, and the Invest Growth Fund were extended by £2m each to March 2014, with a view to putting in place increased seed and early stage funding from April 2014.
Recommendation R13 – Investment in Seed and Early Stage Capital in Northern Ireland
The extension of risk capital needs to be supplemented by a range of wider support initiatives to promote innovation and the entrepreneurial environment and provide wrap around services to start ups. Despite acknowledged success of some investment readiness support programmes, it was considered that further work was required to simplify and streamline the full range of supports, promote them in a more user-friendly and understandable manner, improve the commercial and management skills of early stage company teams, and extend the level of support available recognising that a significant degree of handholding was required for early stage companies. Consideration needs to be given to the appropriate nature and level of wrap-around services appropriate to an extension of risk capital for seed and early stage companies to address potential demand side weaknesses and leverage the benefits of the investment.
 Restructuring refers to a fundamental change in the capital structure of a borrower either by mutual agreement and/or a legal process. A restructuring can be deemed as sustainable if the borrower is in a position to ultimately repay the restructured debt amount either through amortisation payments or asset sales.
 A business can be deemed sustainable if it can generate a positive free cashflow before debt service, through the business cycle.
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