Small Talk: Here's how Osborne can make a big difference to the SMEs
Almost exactly a year ago today, George Osborne arrived at the Federation of Small Businesses annual dinner with an inspiring message. "I know that with the energy, creativity, innovation and courage of Britain's small businesses we can take on the forces of stagnation and win," the Chancellor of the Exchequer told his audience, inviting small and medium-sized enterprises to take the lead in driving economic recovery.
This week Mr Osborne has another chance to help SMEs do exactly that. While Wednesday's Budget will yet again paint a bleak macro picture – of growth forecasts missed and deficit targets exceeded – it is the detail of micro policy that most small businesses will study. They want to play their part, but they need help to do so.
The Chancellor's challenge is to focus on what he can do immediately for small businesses, rather than being blown off course by what he can't do.
The most obvious example of this is access to lending. It's no good Mr Osborne pretending that his pressure on the banks will somehow lead to more SMEs being able to borrow. The pressure on lenders to repair their balance sheets through deleveraging is far greater. The Bank of England's Funding for Lending may eventually make some difference at the margins, but there is precious little evidence of it doing so yet, at least in the SME sector.
As for the Business Bank championed by Vince Cable, it is a welcome addition that may, over the long term, become a useful source of finance (and competition to the high street banks). But with seed capital of £1bn – even after the leverage this funding will underpin – its impact in the here and now is going to be limited. To put the numbers in context, the total amount lent to small businesses by the established banks last year was £60bn.
That limited impact would also be true, by the way, of the regional business bank network championed last week by Labour. Its small business taskforce suggests a regional entity along German lines, where the "Sparkassen" savings banks provide more localised support to businesses. The system has much to be said for it, but Germany's version is more than 200 years old – building an equivalent network here will not help SMEs in the very short term.
If not access to lending, what could Mr Osborne offer small businesses? A freeze on business rates in April – we are currently expecting a 2.6 per cent increase – would be excellent. Or an extension of small business rates relief, which runs until 2014, is an alternative. The qualifying period could be extended, or the size of the qualifying thresholds raised.
A much more aggressive stance on public sector procurement, with a ban on commissioning companies that have not signed up to the Late Payments Code, would boost SME cash flows. An instruction to Ofgem to immediately ban energy companies trapping small businesses on expensive contracts through automatic rollover deals would be useful too.
An increase in entrepreneurs' relief on capital gains tax would incentivise growing businesses. Extending the national insurance contributions holiday to more small businesses would boost job creation. Reducing corporation tax rates for smaller companieswould free up cash for investment. An extension of the popular "Patent Box" scheme, so profits from a wider range of innovations qualify, would be another example. Above all, however, Mr Osborne must recognise that the biggest source of help is to be found close to home. Higher public sector infrastructure spending, on everything from roads to schools and hospitals, will have an immediate and dramatic effect.
Will DekelOil have AIM in the palm of its hand?
Look out for DekelOil, which makes its debut on the Alternative Investment Market today having raised £1.7m from investors. As the name suggests, it's in the oil business – but not the one with which most Aim investors are familiar. Rather, DekelOil owns 51 per cent of one of the largest palm oil projects in the Ivory Coast. Palm oil may not be as valuable as the black stuff, but it is hugely in demand, with consumer goods manufacturers using huge quantities of the stuff in everything from confectionery to cosmetics.
DekelOil needs cash to finance a new palm oil mill which will have the capacity to churn out 70,000 tons of produce from palm fruit, pictured, each year, though output next year is expected to be 50,000 tons. That represents £42m a year in sales.
The company's joint venture partner is the Siva Group, an established player in West African palm oil.
VCT funds are venturing into the market to get your cash
With less than three weeks to go until the end of the tax year, the promoters of venture capital trusts are stepping up their marketing efforts. VCTs, aimed at investors prepared to put money into the smallest businesses, offer a range of generous tax breaks, but only new shares get all of them, so managers launch a fresh crop of funds each year.
This year's funds are seeking close to £400m from investors, which would represent a substantial increase on last year's total fund-raising of £330m. So far the total raised is running at around £120m, so expect some frenetic attempts to win investors over in the run up to 5 April.
Some of those attempts may be in vain. Competition for investors' cash this year is hotter than ever, with several well-known VCT managers raising money for unusually large funds. Unicorn wants £43m from investors, while Amati hopes for £30m across two funds. Octopus and Hargreaves Hale are targeting £20m each.
Small Business Man of the Week: Guy Shropshire, founder, Love Beets
Our family farming business was 60 years old in 2012 and supplies 65 per cent of beetroot in the UK, but when I joined in 2009, I spotted a new opportunity. On a trip to the United States, I realised we had a chance we couldn't afford to miss to crack the American market.
"US consumers are very health conscious and there was a real gap in the market for an innovative beetroot product. You could only buy it raw or pickled, whereas our product is pre-prepared and infused over several weeks. My wife and I relocated to the US almost immediately and began knocking on potential stockists' doors.
"We'd done some research and had great feedback, but the first six months or so were very tough as we struggled to get by on very little money. But our leap of faith paid off and we began to secure some big contracts. We now have a nationwide deal with Whole foods and we're also selling to Costco.
"We did take a risk, but you can't not go for it if you believe in your product. the US market is five times larger so it's a huge opportunity. we're expecting sales of up to $10m (£6.7m) in the 2013-14 financial year.
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