Are Alternative Lenders ‘the Heroes or Villains’ in Funding UK SMEs? Part 2

  • Posted

In a two part blog, Alexei Garan, Head of Shaw & Co’s Debt Advisory team, ponders who are the heroes and villains in the UK funding landscape – banks or alternative lenders? In part 2, Alexei considers the role of alternative lenders.

Yesterday in part 1, I set the context of the SME funding market, once dominated by banks but now challenged by alternative lenders. The alternative lenders have ‘earned’ their market share by solving many of SMEs’ problems and taking advantage of the restrictions placed on banks following the financial crisis of 2008. So successful have these ‘alternatives’ been, it might be time we think of another name to better reflect the increasing mainstream adoption.

Alternative lenders have seen a gap in the market left by the banks as they fight to bolster their balance sheets and comply increased regulation. Risk appetite of banks is not what it was pre-2008, for very good reason.

Traditionally, a bank works by taking deposits from one group of customers and lending those deposits to another group of customers making a margin in the middle. Pretty simple? However, in order to protect the savings and deposits of customers the bank must retain a certain amount of liquidity to meet the reasonable demands of depositors wishing to withdraw funds usually on demand. Post 2008, the definition of reasonable has changed drastically forcing banks to take a different view on the risk they can take on the lending side. The description is hugely simplified, but it paints the picture.

By remaining outside of banking regulations, alternative lenders are much better placed to match ‘assets and liabilities’. They have no duty of care to the man on the street. Most cash lent by alternative lenders is sourced from pension funds, insurance companies and family offices – not depositors. Because of this, alternative lenders can offer secured or unsecured cashflow loans to fund growth or acquisitions with repayment schedules as long as 8 or even 10 years, and risk profiles significantly higher than a bank could ever entertain.  A bank on the other hand will be hard pushed to offer a similar term loan over a period of more than 4 years.

Because of the alternative lender market, SME growth plans are no longer held back by banks’ ability to lend a company only 1.5 – 2.0 x its proven historical earnings against a rapid capital repayment profile. The alternative market habitually offers loans of 2.5 – 4.0 x earnings to smaller firms and as much as 6.0 -7.0 x to the larger SMEs over longer repayment periods. This is an important part of the market as this sort of finance better suits a huge percentage of the SME market when compared to bank loans or at the other extreme, equity investment.

So the ‘Hero’ badge can be attributed to the alternative funding market as a whole for empowering SMEs with radically more choice and flexibility. However, to a typical SME CEO or Finance Director, such diversity offers additional problems – we frequently hear:

  • Who are these new players?
  • Are they reputable?
  • Are they regulated?
  • Which products does each of them offer?
  • Who funds them and how does this drive their lending?
  • How to understand all their jargon; what is the difference between ‘unitranche’, term loans or mezzanine debt?
  • What do they look for and how to best represent an SME to them?
  • How does an SME protect itself from ‘off-market’ terms when these lenders are under less scrutiny from regulators?

These are just some of the questions my team and I frequently address from clients considering the alternative market. These concerns are understandable.

So are the alternative lenders really improving the market for SME funding or just complicating it?  In my experience of running numerous funding processes – they are certainly improving it! 

Another key factor alternative lenders bring is constant innovation due to their more flexible internal structures and challenger attitudes. This improves products, services and flexibility to the benefit of the SME funding market. So, for a CEO or a finance director of today, the alternative funding market holds an enormous promise of fulfilling the constantly evolving funding requirements of a modern business. And with the guidance from the right corporate finance advisor, the perceived opaqueness and complexity of the alternative funding market can be used to gain advantage over your less-brave competitors put off by all the jargon or simply preferring the comfort of only dealing with well-known banks.

If you have a funding requirement and would like to discuss the best way of addressing it in today’s funding market, please give me a call.

Alexei Garan – Head of Debt Advisory, Shaw & Co

Alexei leads Shaw & Co’s Debt Advisory team and supports clients in a range of sectors including Energy & Renewables, Engineering, FMCG, Healthcare, Human Capital, Leisure, Manufacturing and TMT. Over the last 10 years, he has advised on over £2bn in restructured post crisis client portfolios and arranged over £400m in client funding. Alexei has also been called in as an expert witness in several post-financial crisis legal cases.

*** Covid-19 emergency support for UK businesses ***

We have a dedicated section on our website that provides up to date information about the emergency funding support offered to SMEs including CBILSCLBILS and the Future Fund Schemes. The content is regularly updated as soon as details are confirmed by banks and lenders.

To view our services, or if you would like to receive regular updates by email, please click here.