Comment: The funding is there, but where is the lending?

Gareth Mackie
Gareth Mackie
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Unveiled to great fanfare last year, the £80 billion Funding for Lending scheme (FLS) would appear to be having little impact in persuading cash-strapped firms to take up the cheap loans on offer.

The Bank of England, which teamed up with the Treasury to launch the FLS in August, admitted yesterday that net lending to businesses shrank by £2.1 billion last month, following a contraction of £2.5bn in November. This is despite banks and building societies being given access to cheap funding, with the proviso that they pass on the benefits to customers.

While homebuyers have risen to the challenge, taking mortgage approvals to their highest level in almost a year, businesses seem to be more keen on paying down their existing borrowings than adding to their debt piles. The Bank has noted that a lack of confidence is weighing on companies’ appetite for credit, although its agents say that some lenders foresee a “slight” increase in lending to SMEs this year.

The jury is still out on the effectiveness of the FLS when it comes to business lending, but there is little doubt that the scheme has helped the mortgage market. Lenders approved 55,785 new home loans in December, up 6 per cent from a year earlier, with the total value rising 10.4 per cent to £8bn. With credit easier to come by, banks have been able to offer higher loan-to-value mortgages, which in turn means first-time buyers don’t have to stump up such sizeable deposits.

The dichotomy between household and business lending is stark, but it’s not surprising that firms aren’t rushing to load up on yet more debt. Fears are mounting that the economy is heading for an unprecedented triple-dip recession following a worse-than-expected 0.3 per cent contraction in GDP in the final quarter of 2012, so it’s no wonder that confidence is fragile.

Banks insist that they are willing to lend, but we’re told that demand just isn’t there. Larger companies in need of extra capital have the option of turning to the bond markets, while smaller firms are looking at alternative avenues such as invoice financing.

The calls for Vince Cable to get his £1bn Business Bank up and running are now growing in volume. The Business Secretary has promised that the bank, which has former Bank of Scotland chief Sir Peter Burt at the head of its advisory board, will “fill a vacuum” and help small firms access medium- to long-term credit.

As the FLS has so far failed to live up to its promise, the pressure for Cable to deliver the goods is rising.

Mario fails to work his magic for Nintendo

Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, may have taken comfort from this month’s rise in economic sentiment across the eurozone, but the popularity of his namesake at Nintendo seems to be waning.

The Japanese videogame maker has predicted a second year of operating losses as sales of its latest Wii U console lose momentum. With gamers switching their attention to smartphones and tablet computers, the firm now expects to sell four million units by the end of March, down from its previous forecast of 5.5 million.

Nintendo began life in 1889 making playing cards, and in recent years has reinvented the games industry by launching gadgets with touchscreens, 3D displays and movement controls. But it has so far refused to allow Super Mario to appear on rival machines such as smartphones.

It’s not game over yet, but a change of strategy may be needed to fight off the competition.