Accountants are often called upon to help their small business clients deal with funding and liquidity issues. Why do Australian businesses seek external funds, and how successful are they?
This is an important issue. Small business is often perceived as a tough, cash-starved calling. Most people might think that many small businesses desperately need financing, but are frequently denied it. It’s a commonly held belief, both in the business sector and in the general community, but it’s not perhaps the most accurate picture.
Each year the Australian Bureau of Statistics surveys a large sample of businesses to see what, if any, business finance has been sought over the last financial year; why they looked for this funding; whether they tried to access debt funding or equity funding; and how successful they were in doing so. The results may be surprising.
Contrary to popular perception, less than one in five firms in Australia actually went looking for outside money. Micro-firms (those with less than five employees, and often consisting of only the business owner) were least likely to seek finance, and even amongst small businesses (those with 5-19 staff), less than a quarter did so. In general, the bigger your firm is, the more likely you are to seek finance.
Why did firms go looking for money? The most common reason is liquidity – financing short term cash flow needs. This accounted for more than 40% of all borrowing. Interestingly, larger firms are actually more likely to need this than small or micro-sized enterprises, even though most people believe that cash flow funding is a major concern for small business. Although the ABS doesn’t delve into the details, there is some underlying logic in the idea that the larger the firm, the larger its regular disbursements, and so perhaps that explains the greater pressure on their cash flow (this is particularly true in a time of economic volatility). Alternately, it just may be that small businesses are better cash managers than their larger counterparts.
Another frequent driver is equipment needs. Firms indicated that they often sought finance for the replacement of equipment or machinery (33%), the purchase of extra equipment (22%), or to upgrade tools and machinery (18%). Once again, larger firms are more active here, as may be expected in view of their greater requirements.
The most common type of finance that was applied for was debt finance. Broadly defined, in this case it means any form of funding that has to be ultimately repaid – such as a loan, overdraft, trade terms, credit card or line of credit. Debt finance is overwhelmingly the preferred tool of choice – more than 90% of businesses went looking for debt, whilst only a quarter applied for equity funding (which in this case is taken to mean exchange for a share in the ownership of the firm, in one form or another).
How successful were they? In most cases, businesses that seek debt finance do in fact tend to get what they ask for. About 88% of firms succeeded in obtaining some form of debt. However, it’s a different story when it comes to arranging equity finance – just over half (55%) reported a reported a positive response.
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Although these trends are broadly true for all sorts of firms, there are some notable discrepancies. For example, micro-businesses are less likely to obtain finance than other firms. Likewise, firms in growing sectors of the economy – such as IT – are more likely to need expansion finance and cash flow support than those in mature markets.
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(a) Businesses that sought debt or equity finance were asked the reason(s) for seeking finance.
(b) Proportions are of all businesses in each output category.
(c) Proportions are of all businesses that sought finance (either debt or equity) in each output category.
(d) Businesses could identify more than one reason.
Some of these figures are broadly in line with other research. For example, a recent report released by the NSW Business Chamber, based on research by Deloitte Access Economics, reported that nationally, five to ten per cent of SMEs experienced problems accessing finance. This is about 100,000 to 200,000 firms across Australia. That’s a lot of financing activity occurring at any given time.
These data are in interesting in their own right, but are also very broad-brush. Each business has its own story, and it is at this level that the practitioner can provide guidance. Particularly relevant is the issue of planning. Regular business planning can assist in forecasting and managing cash flow fluctuations over the business cycle, and budgeting for capital plant and equipment turnover that are the reported main drivers of finance requirements.
If this seems a bit ‘Business 101’, consider this: the ABS also surveyed the use of business performance measures by the sample of firms. The results are sobering: 36% of firms reported little or no reliance on financial metrics (e.g. profit, sales growth, ROI) and 40% little or no reliance on cost metrics. Clearly, some firms could do with some guidance in these areas.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics (2013) “Business Finance” in Selected Characteristics of Australian Business, 2011-12, Cat.no. 8167.0, Canberra: ABS.