Small signs of recovery must be nurtured in 2009 Budget

In all, one in four members (26%) surveyed as part of the FPB’s sixth Economic Downturn Panel, which is published on 17 April, reported an improvement in the market for their products and services – more than the 23% which reported a deterioration. This is the first time since the Panel was launched in November 2008 that more business owners have experienced positive rather than negative market conditions. More than half of respondents (51%) saw no change in the market.

In addition, 8% of businesses surveyed in April said access to finance has improved. In the previous month’s survey, not one respondent reported an improvement in credit. However, in April, 19% experienced a deterioration in the availability of credit and 73% cited no change.

“There appear to be grounds to be cautiously hopeful, but we are still a long way from genuine and sustained economic recovery. It is important to remember that the optimism reported by business owners in January declined significantly the following month,” said Phil Orford, Chief Executive of the FPB. “In order to capitalise on these positive signs, the Government must launch a long-term, strategic plan in the forthcoming Budget; one that helps small businesses survive and grow, and become a catalyst to broader economic prosperity.”

Significantly, not a single business owner reported an improvement in risk management carried out by financial services organisations (21% said it had deteriorated, although this was less than the previous month). In addition, no one saw an improvement in late payments, which 56% said have worsened, with 24% reporting increased cash flow difficulties as their ‘key issue’.

Although the provision of credit from banks has improved marginally for some small businesses, the cost of finance remains a significant barrier. The average interest rate for loans imposed by banks is 6.4% and for overdrafts 6.8%, both of which are well above the Bank of England base rate of 0.5%. In addition, 20% of the small businesses surveyed reported an increase in banking fees – a hike of 42% in overall fees over the six months since the Panel was first surveyed.

Just 5% of respondents believe that support from the Government has improved, with the same number reporting an improvement in support from the banks. In all, 25% cited a deterioration in government support and 41% a decline in bank support.

FPB member Tim Rhodes is Managing Director of Skypark Freight Ltd in Liverpool. He called on the Government to put small businesses like his first in next week’s Budget. “Different sources suggest the markets are improving, but a lot of that is false promise – we’ve never had a lower Bank of England base rate and yet the cost of borrowing remains much steeper,” he said. “Look at the housing market – it is improving at the moment but, because nothing has been put together in the long term to stop the slide happening again, it will just go back to what it was before.”

Mr Rhodes added: “Perhaps the situation is improving slightly for some businesses in certain sectors, but there needs to be an awful lot more done. The Budget should look at the economy logically and introduce safeguards specifically designed to support small firms, so that the problems we’ve had don’t happen again.”