Byline: Tony McDonough reports
BOLD predictions of a short resolution to the credit crunch just a few weeks ago have now given way to the sound of hatches being battened down.
A survey published in the last few days by accountants Baker Tilly reveals 23% of businesses in Liverpool are now reporting problems obtaining financing from banks or other sources. This has led in many cases to an urgent review of business strategy with the March survey revealing that 64% of firms were now being more cautious about their future plans compared to 22% just a month earlier.
Another study published this week by the British Chambers of Commerce found around 25% of firms were having difficulty obtaining credit. However, it also showed that 57% of firms were reporting no problems with banking facilities and the BCC is insisting the SME sector remains "resilient".
Many business people have been reading with dismay the stories about the banks having to go cap in hand to the Government to access more than pounds 50bn of extra liquidity.
Royal Bank of Scotland became the first of the banks to announce it was attempting to raise extra funds through a rights issue. It is asking investors to stump up pounds 12bn. HBoS is said to be finalising plans to raise pounds 4bn in the same way and many analysts believe it is only a matter of time before others follow suit.
The National Federation of Enterprise Agencies (NFEA) is so concerned about the issue that it has designated this week as Credit Crunch Week. The group will be running workshops, seminars and surgeries all this week to try to offer advice and reassurance to SMEs. "At a time when all the headlines are bad, it's important to get the message across that with a cool head and sound management, you can work your way through this situation," said NFEA chief executive George Derbyshire.
But the banks insist it is "business as usual" claiming there has been no specific change to lending criteria. But the message from the ground paints a different picture.
Howard Hackney, head of family law at Grant Thornton, said that he had noticed a dramatic change in the attitude of the banks to small firms in just the last few weeks.
"If you had asked me six weeks ago what the attitude of the banks was to SMEs, I would have said there was no real problem. But since their attitude has totally changed.
"We spoke to people from one bank the other week who were in fits of depression because they were not able to lend any money. It is bad for them personally because their bonuses depend upon it. If any of them are lending at all, they are looking to widen their margins.
HAT makes it worse is that some businesses are now actually making decisions based on what they think the banks are going to do.
"We have one client that doesn't own the building they are based in. When the premises came up for sale with an asking price of more than pounds 2m, they approached the owner with an offer to meet the full asking price.