Asset Finance Connect’s head of equipment finance, John Rees, was joined by two senior CEOs – Odile De Saivre, CEO of Société Générale Equipment Finance and Bill Stephenson, CEO of PEAC Solutions – for the latest AFC webinar, sponsored by Acquis.
Nick Leader, CEO of Acquis, which operates in 16 European countries and the US, provided the headlines from the recent 2023 Acquis white paper – Opportunity in change: A market research report on SME business sentiment – compiled from information gathered from April to May 2023 from SME decision makers across Europe.
Opportunity in change: An Acquis market research report on SME business sentiment
The latest Acquis white paper “Opportunity in change: A market research report on SME business sentiment,” highlights that 32% of European SMEs plan to fund investment in new business assets through leasing.
As we progress through 2023, businesses are facing significant socio-economic challenges, and the longer-term effects of the pandemic persist. With the aim of gauging the resilience of the market and its path forward, Acquis conducted an international survey, with the following objectives:
1. Determining the scale and nature of challenges faced by SMEs in 2023 and beyond.
2. Identifying growth opportunities for SMEs and industry innovations.
3. Investigating businesses’ investment plans and priorities.
4. Assessing the growing importance of ESG and the transition towards sustainability.
During their research, Acquis conducted 1,250 interviews with SME decision makers across Europe (UK, France, Germany, Spain, Poland and BeNeLux) from a cross-section of sectors (IT, finance and insurance, manufacturing, medical, retail) within the SME market.
The report research was last conducted in 2021 during COVID, so it was interesting to see how the market was feeling two years on in a post-pandemic world, and look at how the European asset finance industry can address challenges and deliver opportunities for SMEs.
Key takeaways from the report focus on resilience and recovery:
46% of European businesses feel optimistic about their long-term future.
41% of European SMEs have changed their working model since early 2020.
46% of European SMEs see cost and pricing optimisations as their top growth opportunity.
51% of European SMEs will invest in assets or equipment in the next 12 months.
32% of European businesses are planning to fund investment through leasing.
66% of SMEs in Europe would consider subscription-based products.
Download the Acquis white paper to discover how the equipment finance market can support SMEs in 2023 and beyond.
Business confidence and market sentiment
The Acquis SME research found that business confidence and optimism had fallen from 62% in 2021 to 46% in 2023 amongst SMEs, which Acquis’s Nick Leader found surprising after a three-year period of economic turbulence and upheaval for the industry: “if we can survive that, we can survive anything!”
Although optimism had fallen to 46% in 2023, the neutral responses had increased from 6% to 26% highlighting a pragmatic return in the industry to ‘business as usual’.
SGEF’s Odile de Saivre is not surprised that clients are less confident about the future following COVID and a string of other major economic issues. SMEs, however, are still positive for the future, just not as positive as in pre-pandemic times.
During COVID there was a massive injection of funds from governments to help SMEs survive and this has enabled them to come out the other side of the pandemic stronger than before. Odile believes that SMEs have rebounded and want to move forward and see growth in the market by upgrading assets.
The optimism is still there, according to PEAC’s Stephenson, with those companies that survived COVID emerging leaner, but more confident, and in need of growth and assets, equipment and acquisitions.
Considering the effects of a turbulent pre-pandemic world, surprisingly both de Saivre and Stephenson have not witnessed an increase in insolvencies since COVID in Europe which echoes Leader’s thoughts on the UK. It seems to imply that surviving companies from COVID are stronger than before when faced with external challenges. This is also an indication of the ‘state support’ that was provided during the pandemic.
Being a counter-cyclical industry, optimism in the leasing sector goes hand-in-hand with higher inflation and increasing interest rates.
Stephenson highlights that rising interest rates are fantastic for the asset finance industry: “Leasing starts to flourish in a high interest rate environment.”
According to de Saivre it took clients time to adapt and understand a new market with increasing interest rates. SMEs had to learn how to adapt and understand how and where the market was going. While it was difficult to read the market in 2022, SMEs have learnt that high interest rates are here to stay.
SMEs were interviewed across a wide range of sectors for the 2023 Acquis Report. Varying levels of optimism were observed across different industry sectors, with various opportunities available across different sectors and countries.
- Medical and pharmaceutical: 56%
- Retail: 55%
- IT: 52%
- Agriculture: 44%
- Media and communications: 44%
- Charities: 41%
It was no surprise to the panel that the agriculture sector was less positive!
On the other hand, 56% of SMEs were optimistic for growth in the medical sector. Investment in medical equipment differs country-by-country on a case-by-case basis, e.g. in France, hospitals need to renew assets every seven years.
Growth opportunities and industry innovations
The asset finance industry is well placed to support SMEs with their growth opportunities. SGEF’s de Saivre highlighted that, while green assets and sustainability are a critical part of the leasing industry’s growth opportunities, green assets tend to be more expensive to buy with a large cost differential between older assets and greener assets, for example, ICE vehicles and EVs.
Green assets present a new era for the industry with a fresh set of challenges and questions surrounding uncertainty of the lifecycle of green equipment, asset management and residual values. As Stephenson notes, “it is harder to give a competitive financial solution when you don’t know what the future holds for RVs”.
If you want SMEs to invest in more expensive green assets, de Saivre believes that the investment gap needs to be reduced, hence we are seeing a lot of subsidies, and OEMs must look at cost to make the product more affordable. The industry needs to find new ways of financing, reducing costs and risk sharing.
Bill Stephenson sees that the green movement of financing assets that are more expensive but bring a more sustainable future is a natural progression in the industry, which is unfortunately being expedited by governments, subsidies and regulation which is making it harder to happen and extremely expensive.
The green transition is also driven by consumers who unfortunately are not moving to green assets as quickly as expected due to high costs and lack of infrastructure. For example, a joint survey of 11,565 drivers in June 2023 by Electrifying.com and The AA showed that consumer confidence in electric cars is falling, with a staggering 87% stating that electric cars are too expensive to purchase, while 66% said rising energy prices had put them off owning an electric car.
During COVID, supply issues led the industry to focus on the value of assets and the second life of assets and reusing assets (which goes hand-in-hand with ESG momentum). Looking at the whole lifecycle of an asset presents new opportunities to finance different assets or finance the same assets in different ways (with a focus on second life).
There are also growth opportunities for SMEs to move to sustainable assets using sustainable usage-based financing products such as subscription and second life leasing. In the Acquis Report, 60% of SMEs said they would try subscription-based products.
Pay-per-use products need three things, according to DLL’s Stephenson, in the video below.
The introduction of usage-based products would require the re-education of sales teams, who frequently default back to selling on interest rates. Along with such training, massive investment would be needed in the product, data and tech system.
According to SGEF’s de Saivre there would only be a demand for pay-per-use financing models if it was a cheaper option for SMEs, hence why we are not seeing a gigantic move in the market towards usage-based products.
Growing commitment to a sustainable future
ESG momentum is broadening with a universal transition towards ESG policies, but according to Odile de Saivre, leasing companies need to help clients with this transition.
Having an ESG policy sets the tone for a business as to what their intentions are towards the environment. The 2023 Acquis SME Report found that 95% of SMEs already have an ESG policy or are planning one in the future, with 80% having an ESG policy now or will have one within the next 12 months. Spain is ahead of other European markets, according to the Acquis research.
The market will naturally evolve towards this, according to Bill Stephenson, and SME clients who are at different points on the ESG journey will need help from their finance providers. Stephenson sees government interaction, regulation and subsidy as an unnatural contribution to the ESG transition, hence why governments are starting to pull back from their aggressive timelines.
For more information or to download the Acquis white paper – Opportunity in change: A market research report on SME business sentiment, please visit https://www.acquisinsurance.com/research-report-opportunity-in-change/