The research, carried out as part of the bank funded BDRC Finance Monitor, showed the number of firms using external finance dipped to a new low in the first three months of 2013 with just 39% of SMEs actively seeking credit. When the first Monitor was undertaken in 2011 the figure stood at 51%, with successive quarterly studies showing a decline, with the number reaching 41% in the last quarter of 2012.
The BDRC research also suggests it remains the smallest firms, those employing nine or less, which are the ones least likely to use external finance, just 52% compared to 73% of the larger employers – those with 50+ staff.
But there was also a significant decrease in all Q1 lending trends for SMEs, regardless of size, compared to the same period last year. In Q1 2012 40% of firms were using bank finance, while for the same period this year there was just 32% – almost a quarter less. But the report showed three quarters of SMEs were happy non-seekers of finance – the highest number in the Monitor's history – and a figure suggesting firms either weren't looking to invest, or had their finance needs covered.
The Forum's Chief Executive, Phil Orford, said: "The decline in bank lending appears to have continued into 2013, which perhaps won't come as a shock to many. But if this trend continues into Q2 and 3, eyebrows may be raised with all the talk recently of recovery, not to mention the government's ‘supercharging' of the Funding for Lending scheme.
"It seems likely that the banks are still licking their wounds, and that may be the case for some time to come yet, but this pattern of decline can't continue if we are to have meaningful growth.
"What seems highly likely now is that any recovery this summer is going to come largely from firms spending their own stockpiled cash, but this isn't sustainable in the long term. While three quarters are happy non-seekers of finance, there will come a point when they do need the help of lenders to grow. That could be the crunch point and be a problem in the making for years to come."
The BDRC data also reveals businesses are continuing to use alternate forms of lending to access cash as opposed to more traditional methods. Bank overdraft usage has dropped more than a third since 2011, and even the use of credit cards has dropped, down from 20% in 2011 to 17% in 2013 Q1.
Whilst around half of all applications for new money were successful, it remains the case that younger firms, seen as the more risky, were still less likely to get a yes from their bank manager.
This, added Orford, was something their own members were reporting: "We speak to our members all the time and this is something we hear frequently. Established firms quite often appear to see no issues accessing bank credit, it's the start-ups and the fledgling firms that are the ones with issue here. This BDRC data confirms what we've been saying for months."
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The Forum of Private Business has said new data published today has shown another clear decline in bank lending for the first quarter of the year.