2. SME finance in COVID-19 recovery packages: Assessment and implications

Many countries around the world have launched recovery packages in order to help their economies return to economic growth and face the major challenges of the future with greater resilience. These packages vary greatly in format, type of support and size across countries. Given their magnitude, it is relevant to understand how these packages can contribute to helping SMEs and entrepreneurs meet their financing and investment challenges.

Through this lens, the chapter seeks to assess explicit SME related policies in their number and expenditure in recovery packages. It aims to understand the extent to which these packages can be a vehicle to enhance SME access to diverse financing instruments and sources. The assessment is based on an analysis of different databases that track the diverse policies announced since the start of the pandemic. The focus of the chapter is largely on measures at national level.

Findings show that, although there is large heterogeneity in their design, recovery packages have, in general, a relatively modest explicit SME orientation. An analysis building on several sources shows that the share of SME-related polices in recovery packages was 4.07% as a share of the number of policies, and 2.21% as a share of the amount of funding. To put this into perspective, the share of SME-oriented policies in rescue packages was 17.25% in terms of the number of policies, and 25.51% as a share of the amount of public funding invested.

Another significant finding is that, contrary to crisis measures, recovery packages focus significantly on start-ups. Start-up related policies account for 23.53% of SME-related policies in recovery packages, compared to just 2.22% in rescue packages. Conversely, the share of policies focusing on the self-employed is much lower in the recovery phase than in the rescue phase.

The report also assesses the type of financial instruments used to channel support to SMEs in recovery plans. The use and design of debt instruments for SME liquidity support in recovery packages varies across countries. While some loan schemes target viable firms, others aim to reach underserved companies owned by vulnerable groups. Similarly, although a large number of SME guarantee schemes were extended until the end of 2021 and beyond, their coverage varies.

The decreased attention to SMEs in the recovery packages is also evident in liquidity support. Efforts to boost SME liquidity through debt, grants and deferral instruments carry less weight in the recovery packages (5.78%) compared to crisis measures (30.73%) in terms of number of policies.

In general, and in particular at the outset of the crisis, rescue measures did not mobilise alternative sources and instruments of finance for SMEs. In the recovery, this situation broadly persists, indicating that these packages are not likely to be a key mechanism to kick-start improvements in the uptake of alternative financing for SMEs, which had gained significant ground in the run-up to the COVID-19 crisis, but which suffered in 2020 and 2021.

Despite the limited use of alternative finance policies in the recovery packages for SMEs, alternative finance instruments that are present include factoring, leasing and hire purchases, trade finance, and equity and quasi-equity tools. The recovery strategies also include regulatory changes in order to foster the use of such instruments.

Going forward, governments may wish to consider other mechanisms to foster diversification of SME finance instruments, including Fintech, which can help SMEs thrive in a post-pandemic recovery likely to be characterised by continued high levels of SME debt and challenges in risk assessment for certain types of firms and sectors.

There may also be a need to take additional measures to address the challenges of SME insolvency. Some recovery packages do include policies on insolvency, but these instruments are even less present than liquidity measures (debt, deferral, grants) and alternative finance. Insolvency measures include debt restructuring solutions, as well as improvements in the capacity of insolvency systems.

In terms of channelling support, banks continue to be an important partner in the deployment of recovery packages, along with digital platforms, given their effectiveness in reaching a broader range of beneficiaries.

Looking at policy domains in the recovery packages, innovation is the policy area with the highest number of SME-related policies, although digitalisation receives the highest volume of financial support among explicit SME-related policies.

Despite the high priority governments and business attach to the issues of greening and sustainability, these are clearly the areas where explicit SME-related policies are least prevalent in terms of number and financial value of policies. According the analysis of policy trackers, the value of SME-related policies on greening against the total value of greening policies appears to be particularly low (2.44%), although databases focused on European recovery plans show a higher share of approximately 5% (OECD, 2021[1]). While SMEs can benefit from generic (not SME-targeted) greening measures in recovery packages, the limited explicit emphasis on SMEs in this central policy area calls for further reflection on additional measures to ensure that SMEs are equipped to finance actions related to reducing their carbon footprint and contributing to sustainability objectives.

SMEs and entrepreneurs have been hard hit by the economic impacts of the pandemic. They are strongly represented in the sectors most affected by the crisis, they often lack the cash reserves to weather economic downturns and generally have been less able to adopt the technologies and working methods to adjust to the new circumstances.

At the start of the pandemic, governments responded swiftly and robustly to support SMEs and entrepreneurs to avoid a liquidity crisis, through a combination of loans, loan guarantees and grants, as well as deferral of payments and job retention schemes. While these measures helped to avoid an increase in SME bankruptcies, their focus on debt finance also contributed to rising SME debt levels in a number of countries, and made the already existing need for a diversification of SME finance more manifest. The developments in SME finance in 2020, as well as policy support measures, are discussed in Chapter 1. Rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and the emergence of new variants in the second half of 2021 led to new containment measures in various countries, and the extension or re-introduction of rescue measures to support SMEs and other businesses.

As the pandemic continued in 2020 and 2021 governments increasingly focused on support for recovery, in addition to rescue and liquidity. In the earlier days of the pandemic, this took the form of a gradual increase in the inclusion of structural support measures, focused particularly on digitalisation in the policy mix (OECD, 2020[2]). Since June 2020, and in particular in the first half of 2021 (OECD, 2021[3]), a large number of OECD countries launched recovery packages that aim to pave the way for recovery (OECD, 2021[4]). These recovery packages vary in size, focus and timing, but they all include investments in infrastructure, greening, digitalisation, innovation and skills.

This chapter focuses on how these recovery packages address the financing challenges faced by SMEs - with respect to the ongoing impacts of the pandemic on their liquidity and solvency position, the instruments used to channel support and the investments needed to strengthening resilience for the future. It examines in particular the following aspects of recovery packages:

  • Their potential to address SME financing needs, including those that emerged during the pandemic;

  • The extent to which the packages might influence the evolution of SME finance markets over the longer term, including diversification of SME financing instruments and sources;

  • How these packages may contribute to meeting SME financing needs for investments in digitalisation, greening, innovation and skills.

The chapter first provides an overview of the different recovery packages that have been launched in OECD and Scoreboard countries, examining the extent to which they include an SME focus. Then, the chapter discusses the type of SME finance instruments and sources the packages use to channel support, against the backdrop of developments and challenges in SME finance that have been discussed in previous Scoreboard editions. Finally, the chapter explores how the recovery packages support SME finance needs in four key policy areas: greening, digitalisation, skills and innovation.

From June 2020 onwards, various OECD countries launched recovery packages to counter the impact of COVID-19. Recovery packages differ from the rescue measures launched immediately after the outbreak of the pandemic, which largely aimed to avoid a liquidity crisis. Recovery packages aim to strengthen structural and sustainable growth and resilience through short-term measures (such as fostering demand via income support measures, vouchers and tax rebate schemes) and longer-term measures (structural policies with a focus on digitalisation, greening, skills, innovation and infrastructure investments). However, in practice, the distinction between rescue and recovery support is not so easily made. Some countries include aspects of rescue and liquidity support in their recovery packages, or had included structural policy support measures as part of their initial rescue support, while others continue to operate rescue support in parallel to the recovery packages. Some countries reintroduced or extended rescue measures over the course of 2021 in response to a resurgence of the pandemic, in parallel with the recovery packages introduced. Finally, some countries have not launched a comprehensive stand-alone recovery package, but introduced a series of recovery measures over the course of the pandemic.

Table 2.1 provides an overview of the timing, size and focus of the recovery plans introduced in OECD countries.

As Table 2.1 shows, many of the recovery plans have similar objectives, for instance in the areas of digitalisation, skills, greening, innovation and investment. However, within those broad areas, their focus varies significantly. In non-EU OECD countries, the emphasis in recovery packages is on skills and infrastructure, whereas recovery packages of EU countries include a strong focus on greening and digitalisation, in line with European Commission requirements that these should amount to at least 37% and 20% of recovery packages respectively. In Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Luxembourg (all countries that receive a relatively small amount of recovery and resilience support from the EU in relation to their GDP), virtually all funding goes towards green and digital measures. Countries that receive larger amounts presented more diverse plans with higher ‘other’ (non-green and non-digital) shares of spending (Bruegel, 2021[43]). In Austria, Germany, and Lithuania, the share of spending on digitalisation is highest among the policy mix, whereas in Belgium, Denmark, France, and Luxembourg the share of green spending ranks highest. In absolute terms France, Germany, Italy, and Spain spend most on digital, and France, Italy, Poland, and Spain on greening. Non-EU countries that put strong emphasis on greening as a share of recovery packages include Japan, Korea, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey, whereas in Australia and the United States the share is below 10% (UNDP - Nature, Climate and Energy, 2021[44]).

Furthermore, the format and types of support of the recovery packages differ. For example, the recovery plans of EU countries often build on the Next Generation European Union fund (NGEU), agreed upon in July 2020 (European Commission, 2021[45]). The deal included an allocation by country of grants and loans of the total of EUR 806.9 billion, with only few countries making use of the loan element in NGEU in practice. In addition, some EU countries hit by new coronavirus outbreaks in late March and April 2021 approved supplementary budgets or extended fiscal support for businesses, affected workers, and the health care system (France, Germany, Italy). Moreover, although during 2021 various countries were phasing out liquidity support programs for businesses, these have been extended or re-introduced in several countries (for instance, Italy, Portugal) in response to the resurgence of the pandemic late 2021 (The New York Times, 2021[46]).

In other countries, the packages were launched through large self-standing initiatives (United States) and supplementary budgets (Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea, United Kingdom) with a greater variety in focus. In some of these countries (such as Australia, Korea and Japan), emergency support was extended or intensified in response to renewed lockdowns, whereas in others (New Zealand, United Kingdom), rescue support was gradually phased out.

A key difference among the recovery packages is size, as illustrated in Table 1. The July 2021 IMF Economic Outlook and the December 2021 OECD Economic Outlook document differences in the pace of economic recovery across countries, often in line with their level of resources. For example, higher-income countries continue to provide fiscal support to their economies, with fiscal measures announced to fight the pandemic estimated at USD 16.5 trillion as of early July 2021. Whereas USD 4.6 trillion of advanced economies’ pandemic-related revenue and expenditure measures were still to be utilised in 2021 and beyond, most measures in emerging market economies and low-income developing countries expired in 2020 (IMF, 2021[47]).

SMEs were hard hit by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the SME focused policy response was unprecedented. Measures were directed in particular towards avoiding a liquidity crisis among SMEs by providing deferral of payments, support for wage payments, loans, loan guarantees and grants. The World Bank has counted a staggering 1 600 SME-oriented support measures launched during the pandemic world-wide, with an emphasis on debt finance, employment support and tax measures (World Bank, n.d.[48]). By July 2020, McKinsey calculated on the basis of IMF data that support to SMEs in 50 countries amounted to USD 1.2 trillion (10% of total fiscal policy support provided), 83% of which consisted of loans and loan guarantees (McKinsey & Company, 2020[49]).

This strong SME orientation in the rescue phase of the policy response to the pandemic was confirmed by two OECD surveys on financing support programmes for businesses during the crisis conducted in 2020. The first survey in April 2020 (with responses from 32 OECD countries) showed that 55 out of 98 policy measures identified were directed towards SMEs (56%) (OECD, 2020[50]). In a second wave of the survey, held in December 2020 with responses from 21 countries, that figure dropped to 46 out of 117 measures (39%) (OECD, 2021[51]). Box 2.1 explains the sources and methodology used to identify the SME orientation of policy measures.

While SMEs took the centre stage in rescue support, this shifted in the recovery phase. Countries continued to include policies that aim to support the recovery and resilience of SMEs through more targeted measures for SMEs, examples of which are discussed in the Key policy objectives in recovery plans: the SME dimension section. However, the emphasis in recovery packages on measures and budgets with an explicit SME orientation declined – even though emergency support measures remained in place in various countries when lockdowns and restrictions continued. This shift can be explained in part by the fact that with reopening of economies, the need for SME focused emergency support declined, and that countries increasingly became concerned about the negative effects of long-term liquidity support. Furthermore, the focus in recovery packages on structural and future-oriented policy objectives gave a more prominent place to more horizontal measures, such as for digital infrastructure or innovation – which can also benefit SMEs. Finally, in some cases, rescue policies had a longer-term horizon and impact, and therefore it was not necessary to include these policies again in recovery plans.

The shift in focus from rescue measures to recovery packages is shown in Table 2.2 and Table 2.3 which make use of data from the Global Recovery Observatory (O’Callaghan, 2020[52]) (Table 2.2), the Bruegel think tank (Bruegel, 2021[43]) and the Green Recovery Tracker (Wuppertal Institute, E3G, 2021[54]) (Table 2.3). Table 2.2 shows that of the total number of policies in the database by October 2021, 1033 (13.62%) were SME-related. In terms of the value of support, SME-related policies account for USD 3,942 billion (20.21%). The share of SME-related policies in the total number of rescue policies as of October 2021 was 17.25%; the share in the value of SME relevant support was even higher: almost 25.51%. However, the share of SME relevant recovery policies is significantly lower: 4.07% as a share of the number of policies, and 2.21% as a share of the amount of funding.

This reflects two developments. Not only were a large number of policies in the rescue phase focused on SMEs, they also often included relatively high budgets compared to other policy types such as loans and loan guarantees. In the recovery phase, a lesser focus on SMEs can be observed, using instruments that on average had smaller budgets than non-SME-related policies. In absolute terms, spending on SME-related policies dropped from USD 3 862.02 billion in the rescue packages to USD 78.15 billion in recovery packages.

Table 2.3 shows the results from a similar analysis on recovery packages in Europe (Bruegel, 2021[43]) (Wuppertal Institute, E3G, 2021[54]). The share of SME-related policies by value is higher in European recovery packages, ranging from approximately 2.29% and 4.65% (compared to 2.21% globally), although these funds are concentrated in a smaller number of policies.

A relevant distinction is on which types of SMEs the support packages focus: on existing SMEs, on new SMEs and start-ups, on the self-employed and/or on types of entrepreneurs. Out of the 1 033 policies identified as SME-relevant, the vast majority (55.37% by numbers, 92.03% by funding) focus on existing SMEs, followed by self-employed (14.81% by number and 12.55% by funding). Start-ups and new ventures account for 3.97% in the number of policies and 0.55% in funding, and entrepreneurs 8.52% and 1.8% respectively (Table 2.4).

The table also documents the changing share of SME-related policies for different types of SMEs in the rescue versus recovery packages. It shows that recovery packages focus more on start-up oriented policies than previous crisis measures. Start-up related policies accounted for 23.53% of the number of SME-related policies in the recovery packages, compared to 2.22% in the rescue packages. Conversely, the share of policies focusing on the self-employed is much lower in the recovery phase. For policies related to types of entrepreneur, the share increased from 7.51% in rescue packages to 20% for recovery packages, with an even stronger increase by share of value, although their number and value in absolute terms declined.

The Bruegel database on recovery packages in the EU confirms the significant share of start-up oriented policies in the recovery packages (over 30% of SME-related policies), and the very low share of policies for the self-employed in recovery packages (less than 2% of SME-related policies) (Table 2.5).

The 2020 special edition of the Scoreboard noted the need to preserve the progress made in financial diversification for SMEs documented in recent years, in light of the strong emphasis on credit in crisis measures. This section assesses the extent to which recovery packages can contribute to this objective.

As countries strive for recovery, SME liquidity needs remain significant. As noted in the OECD in-depth analysis of one year of SME policy responses to COVID-19, the provision of liquidity was key in the rescue aid to SMEs from the start of the pandemic, and was largely successful in avoiding a wave of SME bankruptcies (OECD, 2021[3]). However, especially in countries where lockdowns were introduced in 2021, liquidity remains a challenge for recovery. For instance, a study conducted by Euler Hermes finds that the support provided by governments reduced the number of SMEs insolvencies by more than 8000 in Germany, France and the United Kingdom. However, the risk of insolvency in a sample of 525 000 SMEs is still present in 7% of SMEs in Germany, 12% in France and 15% in the United Kingdom. This is slightly lower than pre-pandemic levels, indicating the impact of government support in avoiding a wave of bankruptcies (Euler Hermes, 2021[55]). In addition, the emergence of new variants and the continued uncertainty about the strength of the recovery in some sectors has pressed governments around the world to continue to provide financial support to businesses. In 2021, many SMEs continued to be in a very vulnerable position. In addition to continuing to drain funds given market uncertainty, low demand and rising inflation, they also generally face a risk of insolvency caused by the extensive use of debt support through the banking system in the first phases of the pandemic. In the rescue phase, the established relationship between banks and SMEs allowed policymakers to reach a large number of SMEs swiftly. On the other hand, an overreliance of the policy response to the pandemic on traditional financing, as well as the pro-cyclical nature of early stage equity finance, contributed to an increase in SME indebtedness.

Against this backdrop, this section examines the extent to which the recovery packages mobilise different financing instruments and policy tools for SMEs, and assesses how they can contribute to tackling SME short- and long-term finance needs in the recovery, as well as the reduction of SME reliance on debt.

Looking at the different debt instruments to enhance liquidity of SMEs in the recovery packages, there is some heterogeneity in their use. For example, some loan schemes target viable firms, while others aim to target companies owned by vulnerable groups. Similarly, although a large bulk of guarantee schemes were extended until the end of 2021, the extent of the coverage that benefit SMEs varies. Furthermore, intangible based finance is included in several recovery packages.

Considering the reliance of SMEs on debt finance, loan schemes continue to be present in the recovery mix. While in the rescue phase, the aim was to distribute support quickly and ensure large uptake and coverage, the eligibility criteria to receive support was broad. However, given the increasing risk of over indebtedness, eligibility criteria tend to be more stringent and narrow in the recovery schemes, where the aim is to target viable but illiquid businesses.

In Australia, for example, the SME Recovery Loan Scheme launched in May 2021 is only open to companies that passed the so-called Decline in Turnover Test. The aim of the test is to evaluate viability prior to the COVID-19 crisis and ensure that beneficiary companies had a decline in turnover caused solely by the pandemic. To pass the test a company must have a decline of 15%, 30% or 50% in a quarter in 2020 compared to the same quarter in 2019 (Australian Government - Taxation Office, 2020[56]).

In the United Kingdom, the Recovery Loan Scheme (RLS) launched in March 2021 requires the business to not be in collective insolvency proceedings, and to show it would be viable if it were not for the pandemic. The scheme also considers lending provided by previous schemes (Bounce Back Loan Scheme, or Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme) and can limit the amount borrowed under the RLS (British Business Bank, 2021[57]). The SME needs to have a borrower proposal which has to be considered viable by the lender. The scheme also require borrowers to pay fees and interest from the beginning (although interest rates will not be high as the scheme benefit from an 80% state guarantee) (Ashurst, 2021[58]). The payment of interest from the outset can limit uptake; however, it ensures that the companies that take it have repayment capacity.

In Greece, in September 2021, the government announced that a portion of funding under the Recovery Fund Loan Scheme would benefit SMEs, providing them with low interest loans. However, eligible SMEs need to show that they merged, undertook an acquisition or have entered into long-term cooperation for at least five years (HMEPHΣIA, 2021[59]). This may direct resources towards business models that are in a more stable financial position with a higher repayment capacity.

Some schemes target firms that have not benefited from other support programmes or face greater barriers to access. For instance, in the United States, the extension of the Paycheck Protection Programme, announced in February 2021, takes a more targeted approach to reach under-banked businesses. It includes a special 14-day window in which only businesses with fewer than 20 employees can apply and have a revised loan formula, which allows more money to flow to sole proprietors, independent contractors and self-employed people (of which 70% are owned by women and people of colour (Government of the United States of America, 2021[60])). From the USD 7 billion of the PPP extension, USD 1 billion was set aside for businesses without employees located in low and moderate income areas. Data from the SBA in March 2021 indicate that loans to minority-owned businesses were up by 20%, reaching an additional thousand minority-owned businesses each day. Loans to women owned businesses were up by 14%, reaching an additional of 600 women-owned business each day, and loans to small businesses in rural areas were up by 12% during the special 14-day window (CBS News, 2021[61]).

Similarly, the State Small Business Credit Initiative (SSBCI) was re-launched in March 2021 as part of the American Rescue Plan with USD 10 billion (US Department of the Treasury, 2021[62]), of which USD 1.5 billion was set aside specifically for socially and economically disadvantage businesses. The programme also allocates USD 308 million in funding specifically to rural southern states. The programme was originally launched in 2010 as a recovery strategy for the Great Financial Crisis. The current version of the programme has six times more funding than in 2010 and allocates three times more funding to rural southern states (Hope Policy Institute, 2021[63]). Another case in point is the San Francisco loan programme that provides working capital specifically to SMEs not reached by previous programmes, and recently created SMEs that do not have a credit history. The programme offers zero interest rate loans of up to USD 100 000, making it the largest SME loan programme offered in the city to date (California News Times, 2021[64]).

In Canada, the 2021 Budget provides CAD 80 million in 2021 and 2022 for the Community Futures Network of Canada and regional development agencies (Government of Canada - Department of Finance, 2021[65]). The Community Futures Network Canada provides support in the form of loans and training to small businesses in rural communities (Community Futures - Network of Canada, n.d.[66]).

Youth-led businesses were also greatly affected by the crisis. In order for help this vulnerable group around the world, the Youth Business International initiative launched the COVID-19 Rapid Response and Recovery Programme which collaborates with national authorities and SME organisations to help young entrepreneurs (aged 18 to 35 years), women and migrant entrepreneurs to recover from the crisis across 32 countries. In the Netherlands, for example, it collaborate with Qredits, a microfinance institution supported by the government to offer advice and training (Youth Business International, n.d.[67]).

Government guarantees continue to be important to ensure SMEs have the liquidity they need to recover from the crisis, thanks to their risk-mitigating and counter-cyclical nature. In addition, through the pandemic, credit guarantees have been effective in allocating public support towards viable firms that were most affected by the pandemic. An OECD study shows that in 2020, only a small share of companies that benefited from loan guarantees were in financial distress in 2019 (Demmou and Franco, 2021[68]). Likewise, a study from the European Investment Bank that linked policy support with firm characteristics, shows that firms that experienced larger sales losses (most of them SMEs) were the ones that benefited the most from the policy support (including subsidised or guaranteed credit), with no evidence that these firms were weak before the crisis (EIB, 2022[69]). Guarantee schemes therefore continue to be instrumental for an effective allocation of financial support for SMEs in the recovery. For example, the Pan-European Guarantee Fund has registered significant activity in 2021. From December 2020 to December 2021, 287 guarantee agreements were approved to support SMEs and mid-caps in the European Union (EIB, 2021[70]). With the objective to pool risk among member states, it offers harmonised support to SMEs across member states, avoiding an uneven distribution of support linked to government capacities. The target amount is EUR 25 billion with the aim to mobilise private funding reaching EUR 200 billion.

Individual countries have also extended their guarantees schemes to continue to benefit SMEs specifically. Most of these guarantees were established in 2020 and were set to expire in the first half of 2021. Acknowledging the importance to continue to provide liquidity, they were extended in most cases until the end of 2021, and in some cases to mid-2022 considering the emergence of COVID-19 variants and related restrictions. Table 2.6 provides information on guarantee extensions and guarantee coverage.

In the recovery phase, there are a number of countries increasing their guarantees to benefit specific sectors that are still facing challenges as a consequence of COVID-19 variants and related restrictions. For example, in Argentina, the Argentinian Guarantee Fund supports cultural SMEs and self-employed in the tourism sector, with 100% coverage. The support has a 0% rate in the first year and an 18% interest rate in the second year (Ministerio de Desarrollo Productivo, 2021[72]). In February 2021, the Danish alternative finance provider Reinvent, signed a guarantee agreement with the European Investment Fund to support SMEs in the cultural and creative sectors. The guarantee amount to up to EUR 26 million and supports SMEs in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. The support is distributed through bridge financing loans, minimum guarantees and content development loans (European Commission, 2021[73]). In March 2021, the Hungarian Foundation for enterprise promotion (Magyar Vállalkozásfejlesztési Alapítvány) signed a guarantee agreement with the European Investment Fund to support SMEs in the cultural and creative sector with EUR 8.2 million (European Commission, 2021[73]).

With the emergence of COVID-19 variants, a number of financial packages have been re-introduced to help companies in sectors that needed to comply with restrictions in late 2021. For example, in France in January 2022, the government lowered the threshold for companies to claim public support to compensate for turnover losses; the policy particularly benefits companies in the tourism sector (Reuters, 2022[74]). Similarly, the Slovak Republic government restored the measures within the First Aid+ package in December 2021, to help companies in the gastronomy and tourism sector that suffered 40% or more decline in revenues in late 2021 (The Slovak Spectator, 2021[75]). In South Korea, the Finance Ministry announced in December 2021, a new stimulus package worth KRW 4.3 billion to support SMEs and the self-employed that face difficulties from the re-introduction of tougher COVID-19 measures (US News, 2021[76]). In the United Kingdom, a new grant scheme worth GBP 1 billion has been introduced to help SMEs affected by COVID-19 variant related restrictions in the leisure and hospitality sectors (HM Treasury, 2021[77]).

Intangible assets are assets that lack physical substance. It not only refers to key drivers for innovation, such as investments in R&D, patents or software, but also includes other types of assets that can be key for a firm’s success, such as databases, designs, managerial skills, and organization and distribution networks, among others (OECD, 2021[78]). Although SMEs and start-ups increasingly own a larger share of intangible assets, and multiple studies have shown the impact that these assets have in business growth and productivity, this does not translate into better access to debt financing (OECD, 2018[79]). Recovery plans attach large importance to the digitalisation of SMEs, the improvement of technological skills in employees and the enhancement of innovation in businesses (see Sections on Digitalisation, Skills, and Innovation). To help achieve these objectives, the recovery plans seek to foster an increased use of intangible assets in SMEs to drive productivity and economic growth. As such, the inclusion of intangible assets as collateral in the provision of finance is important as a complementary policy in the recovery strategy of SMEs and start-ups. For example, in Canada the 2021 budget presented in April 2021 aims to improve the Canada Small Business Financing Programme by expanding loan class eligibility to include lending against intangibles such as intellectual property and start-up assets and expenses. The maximum loan amount was also expanded from CAD 350,000 to CAD 500,000. Similarly, in Singapore, the IP Strategy 2030, published in April 2021, aims at strengthening IP financing schemes for businesses and supporting IP-rich companies based in Singapore (Brassell and Boschmans, forthcoming[80]). Yet liquidity support for SMEs through debt, grants and deferrals carries less weight in recovery packages than in crisis measures.

This section examines the weight in terms of number of policies and financial value of liquidity support instruments in recovery packages. In a context of significant continued SME liquidity concerns, the recovery packages can be assessed by looking at financial commitments to proxy the weight that governments give to different finance instruments in each phase of the pandemic. To do so, data on COVID-19 related policies and fiscal spending from the Global Recovery Observatory (O’Callaghan, 2020[52]) was analysed through the methodology explained in Box 2.1.

Table 2.7 shows SME-related policies by type of instrument (debt, deferral and grants) in both rescue and recovery packages (and in total), in terms of number of policies and financial value in USD billion. When looking at the aggregate of these three instruments, the results show that there is a large share of SME-related policies to support liquidity, both in terms of number of policies and value. However, when comparing rescue and recovery packages, liquidity support was more significant in rescue than in recovery: 30.73% versus 5.78% respectively in terms of number of policies. In terms of financial value, the difference is also significant: out of USD 3 135.59 billion of SME related policies invested in liquidity, USD 3 101.05 billion were allocated to rescue support, while USD 31.87 billion are put forward for SME liquidity in recovery.

Looking at the type of instrument in the Global Recovery Observatory database, Table 2.7 shows that there is less frequency in the use of the selected instruments that benefit SMEs compared to other types of beneficiaries (which can include other firm sizes and households), despite the fact that SMEs were strongly impacted by the crisis. In terms of number of SME policies, between the three types of financial tools studied, there is a larger use of debt compared to grants and deferral tools. The share of debt was 39.04% versus 29.02% of deferral instruments and 15.64% of grants and subsidies. However when looking at the financial value invested through those instruments, deferral instruments have a slightly larger share of investment for SMEs 49.43% compared to 42.85% of debt instruments and 18.96% of grants. Looking at rescue and recovery packages, it is notable that all instruments are largely used in rescue and less in recovery, which can in part be explained by the short-term nature of liquidity support.

In the run-up to the COVID-19 crisis there were significant improvements in the development and uptake of alternative sources of finance for SMEs. However, in the initial stages of the pandemic, many alternative instruments remained out of reach for SMEs relative to debt. There are several explanations for this phenomenon. First, debt finance continues to be the preferred source of finance for SMEs, compared to other alternative sources. In addition, governments sought to leverage pre-existing relationships between SMEs and banks to channel their liquidity support swiftly, thereby contributing SME uptake of credit.

In this context, several types of alternative finance registered a large drop in 2020 (see Chapter 1) and some of these sources continue to present some difficulties in 2021; for example, factoring volumes declined by 6.6% globally in 2020 (FCI, 2021[81]), and even though levels rebounded in the first quarter of 2021 in some regions (FCI, 2021[82]), the growth is strongly linked to the recovery of commercial activities which have been affected by the emergence of COVID-19 variants late 2021. In Europe, the net percentage of SMEs reporting easier access to leasing and hire purchases decreased from 12% to 3% between April and September 2020 (ECB, 2020[83]). Between April and September 2021, 20% of SMEs reported access to leasing (8 percentage points higher than in 2020) (ECB, 2021[84]); however, this share is lower than pre-crisis levels (24%) (ECB, 2020[85]). Global venture capital in early stages was also disrupted in 2020 but started to rebound in 2021, increasing by 92% y-o-y. Seed funding closed 2020 with a decline of 27% y-o-y, and early stage funding declined by 11% y-o-y (Crunchbase, 2021[86]) However, in 2021 early stage experienced a sharp increasing, rising by 100% y-o-y, while seed funding experienced weaker growth, increasing 56% y-o-y (Crunchbase, 2021[87]).

In the recovery, alternative financing instruments are of great importance for SMEs to thrive in the post-pandemic context. Not only do they offer more flexibility than traditional lending (in terms of time to access capital, requirements and expansion of capital limit), but they can also finance young and innovative SMEs and start-ups that have a limited credit history or riskier business models.

In addition, in a period when many SMEs are over-indebted, alternative finance instruments are very useful for SMEs, as they can provide working capital more easily to highly leveraged firms or firms that have experienced recent losses. The close monitoring that alternative finance providers do of the secured assets’ value and underlying collateral becomes very useful for SMEs to access capital in periods with large market uncertainty. This is more challenging for conventional lenders, as they usually do not rely on specific assets to support loans as opposed to alternative financiers that accept stocks or inventory, plant and machinery, property, or intangibles such as brands and intellectual property to secure loans (OECD, 2015[88]).

Furthermore, equity finance such as venture capital and business angel finance, can offer mentoring, business advice and access to networks, which can improve the success rate of start-ups and SMEs (OECD, 2016[89]). In addition, it can provide entrepreneurs with useful resources to better adapt to new business conditions and consumer behaviour changes as a result of the pandemic.

Recovery packages include a range of measures on alternative finance. Of the measures launched in 2021, some make use of instruments such as factoring, leasing and hire purchases, trade finance, and equity and quasi-equity tools. The recovery strategies also include regulatory changes in order to enhance such instruments, particularly in regard to equity and quasi-equity.

Factoring is a key instrument to enhance SME liquidity in the recovery. It allows businesses to sell their account receivables at a discount and helps them to maintain financial liquidity when they need it most. In July 2021 in India, the Factoring Regulation Act 2011 amendment was approved to increase the number of entities undertaking factoring activities and help SMEs deal with late payments by monetising their receivables in an easier way. During the lockdown restrictions, survey data showed that over 83,000 SMEs reported late payments as of July 2021. Factoring allows non-banking finance companies other than those whose principal business is factoring, to discount invoices. The regulation also seek to reduce time for registration of invoices, increasing the flow of credit and lowering its cost to SMEs (Financial Express, 2021[90]).

In Italy, in July 2021, the European Investment Bank and Intesa Sanpaolo signed an agreement to provide liquidity lines via factoring. The agreement unlock more than EUR 18 billion benefiting around 50 000 SMEs and 150 large corporates and mid-caps. The focus of the investment is to strengthen supply chains by financing working capital through reverse factoring. This instrument allow companies in supply chains to cash in their trade receivables in advance. The Pan-European Guarantee Fund is the instrument through which the EIB will channel support. Considering the amount of liquidity supplied to businesses, this is the largest operation supported by the guarantee fund in the European Union as a whole.

In the case of leasing, SME owners can acquire liquidity by providing the right to use an asset it owns in exchange for payments for a specified period. In the recovery, while the economy and consumer demand get back on track, leasing can enable businesses to have liquidity while they return to pre-pandemic level of operations. Romania and Spain have implemented some measures to boost leasing operations. In Romania, in February 2021, the Deutsche Leasing Romania and the EIB signed their first cooperation agreement to unlock EUR 370 million of private financing to provide cheaper leasing finance to SMEs, especially to increase finance for agricultural and equipment investment in rural areas. In Spain, in April 2021, the EU investment plan for Europe announced a EUR 50 million scheme to provide long-term financing through leasing facilities (European Commission, 2021[73]). As part of the Polish recovery package, a measure to provide SMEs with guarantees on financial leasing and leasing loans was presented in May 2021 for the European Commission approval. The investment will be of EUR 300 million and will be channelled through leasing companies. The measure will be financed with national resources but will benefit from a counter-guarantee by the Pan-European Guarantee Fund to cover part of the risk (European Commission, 2020[91]).

One of the most common forms of trade finance is short-term trade finance. Short-term finance products enable deferred payment over a period of less than one year. The COVID-19 crisis has affected significantly the supply of this type of finance, for example increasing the price of short-term financing for SMEs (International Chamber of Commerce, 2020[92]). Record demand for short-term products from Export Credit Agencies suggests that even though commercial lenders have sufficient liquidity to provide financing to exporters, the ongoing uncertainty in trade behaviour has weakened the risk appetite of private suppliers, limiting the availability of trade finance and requiring governments to act through Export Credit Agencies (OECD, 2021[93]).

To spur recovery, some Export Credit Agencies have expanded programmes in the form of export credit insurance or guarantees that can benefit SMEs specifically. For example, in Australia, the COVID-19 Export Capital Facility from Export Finance Australia provides assistance to SMEs through access to credit and financial relief. The agency was amended to remove limits on the number of times that it could provide support to any customer, streamlining SME access to financing (see Australia’s Country Profile). In January 2021, the French government announced support to strengthen the short-term reinsurance system with EUR 5 billion, allowing Bpifrance to maintain stable international trade of SMEs and mid-sized companies. The measure also enlarges the list of export countries. Additionally, measures to strengthen the insurance-prospect instrument (an instrument that helps target beneficiaries for the BpiFrance Assurance Export), and provides financial support to SMEs and mid-sized companies that buy export services are also part of the recovery strategy (Goodwin, 2021[94]). Similarly, the Croatian Recovery and Resilience Plan includes strengthening the guarantee fund for export credit to support exporter entrepreneurs and enhance SME internationalization (The Government of the Republic of Croatia, 2021[95]). As another case in point, in Bulgaria the United Bulgarian Bank (UBB) signed an agreement with the European Investment Fund in February 2021 for a new guarantee programme called the JEREMIE Trade Financing COVID-19 (JEREMIE stands for Joint European Resources for Micro, Small and Medium-sized enterprises). The programme will allow UBB to offer preferential pricing and lenient security requirements up to 50% of the reduced amount and refinancing of up to 30% of the loan amount (SME banking, 2021[96]).

Looking at the Global Recovery Observatory (O’Callaghan, 2020[52]), findings show that trade finance is not a common policy tool in the recovery packages proper. Of the total policies captured, only 11 were trade finance related, with only one policy targeting SMEs. This policy was a rescue policy by Denmark, which provides a liquidity guarantee for Denmark’s Export Credit of up to DKK 1.25 billion in new loans that target SME exporters.

The majority of generic trade finance policies found in the tracker were rescue policies from South Korea which provide guarantees, export insurance measures and export financing through loan extensions and interest payment suspensions.

Equity and in particular quasi-equity tools in recovery packages seek to fund SMEs in ways that are adapted to their needs :

  • Participative loans: This instrument refers to loans whose remuneration is linked to the firm’s performance. It can be linked to a firm’s sales, turnover or profits, and both interest rate and capital repayment can be contingent to the firm’s results (OECD, 2015[97]). For the recovery process, and while the economic environment remains uncertain, this instrument can be beneficial for firms as it reduces the burden of making fix payments to investors and ensures companies pay as much as they are able. Once the economy recovers however, investors are also able to receive larger returns. As part of France’s Relance package, EUR 14 billion were launched in the form of participating loans in early March 2021 (FirmFunding, 2021[98]) to support SMEs. The government support takes the form of a 30% guarantee to investors and banks that will refinance the loans. The maturity period is longer than traditional loans with eight years, a grace period of four years and the same period for amortization. This design provides an opportunity for eligible SMEs and mid-caps to have a considerable amount of time to recover from the crisis before they need to start repayment (at the beginning of the fifth year after acquiring the loan) (Daf-Mag.fr, 2021[99]) (Ministère de l'économie, des finances et de la relance, 2021[100]).

  • Subordinated bonds: These refer to unsecured bonds and offer the investor periodical interest payments and full redemption at maturity (OECD, 2015[97]). The France Relance Programme will have EUR 6 billion to provide to SMEs in subordinated bonds. The so-called “relance bonds” are distributed by equity investors, providing a 30% state guarantee and a 5 to 6% interest rate. For the recovery, this instrument is useful for firms as they will only need to pay the interest during an eight-year period and the full amount at the end of the eight years (FirmFunding, 2021[98]), providing them with significant amount of time to recover from the crisis.

  • Equity funds: Government investment in equity or quasi-equity funds were part of the rescue policy mix in several countries, as a way to provide liquidity to early-stage risky business models that otherwise could not find liquidity through debt.

    In the recovery period, the use of equity funds continues to be relevant. For instance, in March 2021, Australia’s government invested AUS 100 million to fund the Business Growth Fund (Government of Australia - The Treasury, 2020[101]). Four banks joined the investment with AUS 20 million each, bringing the total size of the fund to AUS 540 million considering previous investments. The objective of the recent investment is to increase the pool of “patient equity capital”. Patient capital allows SMEs to pay investors after a prolonged period (usually after 5 years). The fund aims to target viable SMEs, as they need to demonstrate three years of revenue growth before COVID-19 (InnovationAus, 2021[102]).

    In Italy, the SME asset fund was extended for the first half of 2021 with an endowment of EUR 1 billion, purchase bonds and debt securities from SMEs with a turnover between EUR 10 and 50 million, and that have made a capital increase of at least EUR 250 000 between 20 May and 30 June 2021 (White & Case, 2021[103]). In addition, the company needs to provide periodic statements to certify compliance with the conditions (Invitalia, 2021[104]).

    The Central Bank of Malaysia, under the 2022 budget, created the Business Recapitalisation Facility to strengthen capital structure of SMEs and help them manage their indebtedness levels. With a total amount of MYR 1 billion, the facility will provide equity or hybrid financing, the latter in partnership with third party equity financiers (Bank Negara Malaysia, 2021[105]).

    In the United Kingdom, in March 2021 the government announced a continuation of the Future Fund Initiative with an endowment of GBP 375 million to the renewed Future Fund: Breakthrough initiative (Growthbusiness.co.uk, 2021[106]). While the first version of the fund focused on innovative businesses in pre-revenue stages, the renewed version of the Fund aims to provide equity to scale-up tech companies. The scheme aims to achieve strong participation from the private sector, with matching state and private investments (British Business Bank, 2021[107]).

  • Forgivable loans: Some governments included in their rescue strategies loans that turn totally or partially into subsidies if the company complies with certain conditions. The recovery strategies includes an expansion of such measures. For instance, in December 2020, the Canada Emergence Business Account (CEBA) increased forgivable loans from CAD 40,000 to 60,000 and expanded the application deadline for the first half of 2021. If a business repays its loans by December 2022, up to a third of the loan is forgiven (Government of Canada - Department of Finance, 2021[65]). The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) in the United States forgave the principal of loans used for working capital for eight weeks if the business maintained pre-crisis employment levels. In its extension in January 2021, the process for writing off PPP loans was streamlined. Business owners requesting loans of USD 150 000 or less only need to attest on a one-page form that they used the funds for payroll and other eligible businesses expenses. This has resulted in 81% of the total PPP loan value forgiven, amounting to USD 645 billion, as of December 2021 (SBA, 2021[108]).

  • Debt for equity swaps: This is an instrument used by companies and shareholders to exchange debt for shares to resize debt and improve the capital position of the borrower. When the swap is made, debt is written off (reducing a company’s leverage) and in return the lender will have a share that once the business recovers is sold or floated. Considering the large number of companies looking to restructure their balance sheets, debt for equity swaps are relevant instruments for the recovery (Travers Smith, 2020[109]). For instance in the United Kingdom, debt for equity swaps are being proposed by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and Ownership at work to swap “bounce back” debt for employee ownership trusts. The “shares for debt recovery plan” outline the path to convert bounce back loans worth up to GBP 50 000 into employee equity. The private lenders will write off loans and claim a 100% state guarantee. According to the FSB this will have the dual effect of protecting viable businesses and jobs and boosting productivity (FSB - Federation of Small Businesses, 2021[110]) (Small Business Charter, n.d.[111]).

Notwithstanding the measures mentioned above, recent developments in capital markets suggest that equity markets provide fewer opportunities for SMEs than for large firms. This is the case as the number of IPOs and the number of listed companies have declined while the overall capitalisation of equity markets has been rising in a number of countries. This trend suggests a concentration in large firms and high barriers to entry for SMEs, given the high costs associated with going public (OECD, 2021[78]). As part of the recovery strategy, and with the aim to mobilise long-term savings accumulated during the pandemic, governments have changed regulatory frameworks to facilitate equity investment for SMEs. A case in point is the legislative changes that took place under the Capital Markets Recovery Package approved by the European Parliament in March 2021 (Clifford Chance, 2021[112]). One of the reforms approved aims at easing the process of issuing capital from SMEs and making it easier for investors to access SME information. Under the prospectus regulation of 2017, the European Parliament lays down the requirements for writing, approval and distribution of the prospectus when securities are offered. For SMEs especially, this implied high compliance costs given the large disclosure of information required. However, with the new “EU Recovery prospectus”, only “essential information is required for investors to make an informed investment decision” (Council of the European Union, 2020[113]). This new short-form prospectus is easier to produce by smaller issuers, easy to understand by retail investors and facilitates monitor by regulators, which allows for increasing the investor pool for SMEs while reducing compliance costs (Council of the European Union, 2020[113]). This reform is limited to the recovery phase and will apply until December 2022 after which it will be reviewed.

Another important reform approved by the European Union aims to improving the visibility of SMEs to investors. Under the regulation, banks and financial firms can access SME information by paying jointly for the provision of research and execution services for companies that have a market capitalisation of less than EUR 1 billion. Research is crucial to help small issuers connect with investors increasing the level of investment towards SMEs (Council of the European Union, 2020[114]).

New Zealand is another example where regulatory changes have been implemented to ease SME access to capital markets. In 2021, the Minister of Commerce and Consumer Affairs issued a financial product market license to Catalist Markets. This market is New Zealand’s stock exchange designed for SMEs. It provides alternative disclosure provisions and reporting requirements and reduces the compliance costs for SMEs(see New Zealand’s country profile).

Analysing the Global Recovery Observatory (O’Callaghan, 2020[52]), alternative sources of finance are not prevalent. There are in total 74 policies that promote alternative finance sources, while 1833 policies promote liquidity through debt, deferral and grants instruments (Table 2.8). Alternative finance also has the lowest share in terms of investment, with 33 percentage points less than the funds allocated to liquidity investment to SMEs through debt, grants and deferrals.

In addition, from the 74 policies on alternative finance, 39.19% are SME-related policies but they make up only 6.76% in terms of financial value. This suggests relatively small-scale programmes based on alternative finance compared to the number of policies put forward in that policy domain.

Furthermore, many of the policies documented in alternative finance for SMEs were part of rescue policies. 24 out of 29 policies are rescue, concentrating USD 15.06 billion of funding for SME-related policies on alternative finance. The small emphasis in number of policies and funding for SMEs through alternative finance, particularly in the recovery phase, suggests an area of opportunity going forward. This is not only relevant to avoid the risk of reversing the trend of diversification of SME financing sources, but also because of the effectiveness that alternative finance can have compared to other types of support. Policy simulations show that from targeting liquidity support, equity and quasi-equity instruments can be over four times more effective than other types of support (IMF, 2021[115]).

Debt overhang and insolvency are an increasing threat to recovery. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, governments provided liquidity to SMEs through grants and equity, but mainly relied on debt channels. This, in combination with the fact that several countries implemented temporal adjustments to insolvency regimes to protect companies from bankruptcy by pausing insolvency proceedings, or by preventing creditors from initiating insolvency procedures, for example, could increase the risk of a wave of insolvencies once such time-bound measures are phased out. According to Euler Hermes, global insolvencies are projected to rise by 15% in 2022, but this is still 4% lower compared to the pre-crisis figures (Euler Hermes, 2021[116]).

Some of the measures to counter insolvency that have been implemented so far in recovery packages include insolvency and debt restructuring tools, dedicated out of court restructuring mechanisms, and simplified reorganisation for SMEs. In the Netherlands, for example, the Time Out Arrangement (TOA) scheme offers restructuring loans to entrepreneurs with the prerequisite of having creditors’ agreement and a restructuring plan describing financial feasibility and viable start. The TOA credit amounts to a maximum of EUR 100 000 which can be used for working capital or necessary assets to restart the business (Qredits, 2021[117]). In Singapore, the Simplified Insolvency Programme was launched to smooth the way for SMEs to restructure. The programme includes one application for the High Court, instead of two (which was common previously), automatic moratorium, and creditor approval threshold lowered from three quarters to two thirds. The Irish Recovery and Resilience Plan proposes the Small Companies Administrative Rescue Process (SCARP). The process provides options to viable but illiquid SMEs to simulate the “examinership process”, reducing court oversight, improving efficiency and reducing timeframe of restructuring procedures. In Q4 2021, the Irish government passed the Rescue Process for Small and Micro companies Act, which allows businesses to appoint insolvency professionals to oversee the administrative rescue process, determine whether the company can survive and prepare a rescue plan. In the meantime, it gives companies legal protection against creditors (Irish Times, 2022[118]).

In Spain, the Recovery and Resilience Plan includes support for SMEs to restructure their debt. Three main measures were approved, the possibility to: i) defer the amortization period up to 12 years, ii) convert the loan into a participative loan, iii) negotiate a reduction of the total debt that benefits from a state guarantee. While the company can request the first measure, the last two measures are decided by the bank, which considers, among other criteria, a fall in revenue of minimum 30% in 2020. When the bank agrees on the reduction of the debt, the bank will request the government to transfer the remaining amount of the debt under the guarantee. For that purpose, the government announced an investment of EUR 3 billion (El Païs Economía, 2021[119]).

The recovery also calls for strengthening the capacity of insolvency systems to effectively manage and process the volume of the upcoming wave of restructuring procedures. In Portugal, the Recovery and Resilience plan proposes the creation of an integrated Insolvency Platform that aims to dematerialise processes and reduce the administrative burden to SMEs. It proposes also to modernise the Judicial System and undertake a review of the legal framework for insolvency. A similar objective is proposed in the Croatian Recovery and Resilience Plan, where HRK 20 million will be invested to the improvement of the bankruptcy framework. The investment includes IT tools to improve the methodology of data collection on restructuring, insolvency and debt repayment procedures allowing for better monitoring. The investment will also automate some parts of the proceedings, reducing timeframes, and predict duration of the process and costs. Fees will be able to be paid electronically.

Information from the Global Recovery Observatory (O’Callaghan, 2020[52]) shows that insolvency policies have not been significantly used when compared to other policy domains. Only 5 policies were registered as SME-related insolvency policies and 9 policies target other types of businesses. This suggests a limited response compared to the projections of rising number of insolvencies in most economies, and the larger risk among SMEs, calling for increasing attention going forward.

Looking into rescue and recovery policy categorisation, none of the SME insolvency policies is recovery; all of them are rescue policies. This can be explained by the short-term nature of most insolvency measures that aimed to temporarily change bankruptcy legal procedures. However, long-term insolvency measures will be needed to respond to SME needs. These measures can include the reduction of the administrative burden of insolvency procedures, or measures that could support “second chance entrepreneurship” to allow bona fide entrepreneurs to restart, which will increasingly become a priority for policy makers to incentivize business dynamism (OECD, 2021[3]).

Since the COVID-19 crisis started, the banking system has been the preferred transmission mechanism for governmental support. Central banks instituted several policies to improve lending conditions and channel liquidity to the economy through banks. Monetary policy included a significant decrease in interest rates, generally reaching values close to zero in most advanced economies, and a large expansion of asset purchase schemes1, to encourage lending. Regulatory policy involved changes in the supervisory requirements, by easing collateral standards, relaxing capital requirements, and suspending dividend payments (Group of thirty, 2020[120]). Additionally, lending was further incentivised by government guarantees to values close to 100% in various advanced economies. Survey results on government crisis financing programmes for businesses, conducted in June 2020 by the OECD Committee on Financial Markets, show that indeed bank channels were used in almost half (48%) of the policies used to tackle the crisis (OECD, 2020[50]).

In the recovery, banks continue to be an important channel of support for SMEs, in part evidenced by the significant expansion of loan guarantees in 2021 and 2022 (Table 6: Guarantee Extensions to support SMEs). However, their role in the recovery has also included other aspects beyond channelling support. In some recovery loan schemes, banks are helping governments target support to viable businesses, potentially increasing the effectiveness of resource allocation. For example in the United Kingdom, through the Recovery Loan Scheme, borrowers need to present a borrowing plan to lenders in order to prove the viability of their businesses and their repayment capacity in the future. It is at the banks’ discretion to lend based on the assessment of the borrowing plan (British Business Bank, 2021[57]).

Another aspect of banks’ role in the recovery is in supporting the creation of new instruments to help over-indebted companies (Oliver Wyman, 2021[121]). The Spanish Recovery and Resilience Plan empowers banks to decide whether borrowers can convert their existing loans into participative loans, which allow companies to repay according to their business performance, or whether borrowers can benefit from state guarantees for part of their debt (El Païs Economía, 2021[119]).

In the rescue phase, some countries that had digital delivery systems were able to channel support through platforms in an effective manner. Notably, in Switzerland and Korea support was effectively channelled through easy-to-use digital portals (OECD, 2021[3]). In the recovery, governments are increasingly implementing digital infrastructures or channelling support through existing digital platforms to ensure effectiveness in delivery. For example, in Malaysia, the Ministry of Finance launched the National Supply Chain Finance Platform called “JanaNiaga” in July 2021. With an endowment of MYR 300 million and an expected growth of MYR 1.2 billion, the platform aim to benefit SMEs by providing very low interest rate loans (3.5% per annum). The platform will also decrease considerably the amount of time to access to finance, as SMEs apply online and receive approval within 24 hours.

Another case in point is the investment made by the European Investment Fund, the Amsterdam Trade Bank and BNP Paribas in January 2021. EUR 40 million was the endowment to the Creditshelf Platform to provide debt finance to German SMEs. In July 2021, the endowment was extended to EUR 60 million after the success in delivering loans to SMEs without compromising credit criteria.

Digital platforms are also used as a way to incentivise private financing from retail investors. For instance, the Lithuanian National Development Institution for Investment and Business Guarantees allocated EUR 10 million to the measure “Raspberry”. The state funds will be channelled through crowdfunding platforms in the form of debt. The loans are funded up to 40% by the state with a ceiling of EUR 10 000 per company, while the remaining 60% needs to be raised from retail investors. Another case in point is the emerging crowdfunding ecosystem in Turkey. With equity-based crowdfunding legalised in 2017 and debt-crowdfunding in 2020, the government foresees significant potential for early stage ventures and start-ups to access finance from a multitude of investors with less administrative burden. As of November 2021, five companies obtained a licence to operate as equity-based crowdfunding platforms and as of December 2021, 15 campaigns were conducted and funded successfully (see Country Profile of Turkey).

The unprecedented support provided to the corporate sector to face liquidity challenges has impacted the health of public finances. For this reason, recovery strategies have placed more emphasis on incentivising private funds not only as a distribution channel, but also as a tool to mobilise long-term savings from private investors and the private sector’s knowledge and expertise at the service of SMEs. For example, in France, the participative loans and subordinated bonds from the France Relance Plan is distributed by banks, but is backed mainly by institutional investors. Banks keep 10% of the debt, while the remaining 90% is transferred to the fund “Prêts Participatifs Relance” which is supported by 18 insurer companies, several banking groups and the Caisse des Dépôts et des Consignations. The part transferred to the fund supported by private investors benefits from a state guarantee of up to 30%, which has helped to mobilise EUR 11 billion from institutional investors in the first round (Fédération Bancaire Française, 2021[122]). Asset managers selected by the French Insurance Federation manage the fund (French Insurance Federation, 2021[123]). Another case in point is New Zealand’s recently created Fund of Funds (2020), where the Government committed more than USD 150 million in early stage venture capital and was matched by USD 420 million of private capital as of December 2021 (Business Desk, 2021[124]).

The Singapore Situation Fund for Start-ups where the government co-invests and catalyse private investments and expertise to support high-potential start-ups facing cash flow or fundraising problems. In June 2021, the Economic Development Board and Enterprise Singapore announced that the fund raised SDG 216 million with more than half of the funds being from private investors (The Business Times, 2021[125]).

In the United Kingdom, the London Stock Exchange is building a GBP 300 million SME investment fund to help SMEs that continue to be challenged by the pandemic. The fund will include the participation of three large asset manager companies to oversee three strands of investment: private equity, listed small-cap companies and venture capital. The idea of the fund is to mobilise seed capital from large companies that have seen their businesses grow after the pandemic, such as supermarkets and online retailers (Growthbusiness.co.uk, 2021[106]).

The G20/OECD High-Level Principles on SME Financing call for the enhancement of SME financial skills and strategic vision. In the context of recovery, the improvement of financial skills through the provision of non-financial services can help SMEs to strengthen their ability to allocate financial resources appropriately. It can also impact on the health of the financial system through improved loan repayments. Randomised control trials conducted by International Labour Organization on 5000 Indonesians SMEs found that 46% of SMEs in the treatment group included cash flow analysis to record financial transactions, which impacted positively on loan repayments (late loan payment was reduced by 7.2%). Subgroups of treated SMEs also saw an increase in revenue by approximately IDR 22 331 million (USD 1595) at the 1% significance level (Government of France, 2021[17]).

The importance of blending financial and non-financial services was already recognised in previous editions of the OECD financing Scoreboard. In the 2018 edition, 27 Scoreboard countries reported that they had a non-financial support tool in place as part of their policy range for SME finance (OECD, 2018[126]).

Non-financial services in the form of advice, consultancy, and education have been provided as part of the policy mix to help SMEs navigate the crisis. A survey conducted by the Montreal Group that explored the support provided by member state-owned banks during the COVID-19 pandemic shows that the provision of non-financial services was a crucial part of the help to SMEs. Members’ responses show how the need for information on cash flow management, available financial aid, re-adaptation of business models, and relaunching of activities became more pressing for SMEs as a consequence of the COVID-19 crisis. To provide the support SMEs needed, state banks that did not have a long-lasting portfolio dedicated to non-financial services readapted their business model and explored channels to deliver such services to their small clients (The Montreal Group, 2021[127]).

In the recovery phase, non-financial services are even more crucial. Not only can they help SMEs allocate more effectively the financial resources they receive from government support but they directly impact on SME resilience by building skills to face adverse business environments. In this regard, as part of the recovery strategy, countries are combining the provision of finance with the offer of non-financial services such as education and training for entrepreneurs to adapt to the post-COVID. The United Kingdom’s 2021 Budget includes the launch of two new schemes to boost SMEs’ productivity by improving their management and digital skills. The Help to Grow: Management and the Help to Grow: Digital schemes will benefit 100 000 SMEs. The Help to Grow: Management initiative provides sessions designed by world-class business schools to senior managers, 90% funded by the government. The objective is not only to improve the management skills of senior managers but also to produce a growth plan for their business and build resilience to future shocks (Small Business Charter, n.d.[128]). Another example is the Lithuanian Accelerator 2 programme that combines acceleration services with the provision of funding (see Box 2.2).

This section examines how support in recovery packages corresponds to financial needs that SMEs face to “build back better” in the key policy areas of digitalisation, greening, skills and innovation. As mentioned earlier, recovery packages seek to foster greater economic resilience by addressing major medium- to long-term policy challenges through the provision of investments and non-financial support. To gain further insight into the distribution of resources targeted to SMEs in recovery packages across policy domains, Table 2.9 shows explicit SME-related policies in greening, digitalisation, skills and innovation, in both rescue and recovery packages (and in total). Innovation is the policy area with most SME-related policies. Digitalisation is the area where SME-related policies are least prevalent in absolute numbers, although by value this policy domain ranks second. The share of SME-related policies in the total number of policies by policy area is significantly higher than the share in value, suggesting that the average value of SME-oriented policies is relatively small. Finally, the table documents that the share of SME-related policies (by number and by value) is considerably lower in recovery packages than in rescue packages in all four policy domains, and in particular for greening.

The various recovery packages include SME-related policy initiatives to support greening. They include both grant and loan elements, and focus on eco-innovation and start-ups, as well as the wider greening of business processes, including energy saving, the circular economy and hydrogen. Box 2.3 provides examples of green SME-related policies in recovery packages.

There are important implications for SME financing needs from greening targets, and in particular the ambition to reach net zero by mid-century. Various estimates (Trinomics, 2019[137]) exist on the investment needed for reaching green ambitions in general. However, no data are available that specifically focus on the investment costs for SMEs to reach net zero. Given the fact that on aggregate they contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions (50-70% in business sector emissions and 10-30% of energy consumption (OECD, 2021[1]), it is likely that SMEs will need to invest significantly to reach net zero.

As indicated in Table 9, the share of greening spending that focuses on SMEs is, however, modest, representing USD 38.2 billion and amounting to 4.84% of the total number and 2.44% of the value of policies. Looking at recovery packages only, the share of SME-related policies in total greening policies is 2.88% in the number of policies and 1.77% in value.

This limited emphasis on SMEs in greening support within recovery packages is confirmed by other data. For instance, the OECD Green Recovery Database (OECD, 2021[53]) provides a similar picture, with the share of SME oriented policies and amounting to 4.2% (OECD, 2021[1])of total policies. However, the Green Recovery Tracker from the German Wuppertal Institute (looking at policies with an expected positive or very positive green impact) shows a higher share of SME-related policies, both in number of policies (4.9%) and value (5.1%) (Wuppertal Institute, E3G, 2021[54]).

Given the specific circumstances of smaller companies, an important challenge is to ensure that financial support is provided according to their needs. As a report on private investment in climate adaptation suggests, ‘the problem is that existing direct instruments as well as international donors are more suited to supporting large companies (CAN - Climate Action Network, 2013[138]).’ The new OECD Platform on Financing SMEs for Sustainability aims to help bridge the gap for SMEs.

The various recovery plans include policies to support SME digitalisation, including both grant and loan elements and non-financial support (see Box 2.4).

The pandemic provided a boost for SME digitalisation, especially in the adoption of e-commerce and teleworking practices. However, SMEs continue to lag behind larger firms in the adoption of digital technologies, especially those of a more advanced nature, which reflects – among other issues –underinvestment by SMEs (OECD, 2021[141]).

Estimates of the investment needs for SME digitalisation can be derived by examining how current investment levels relate to targets set by policies Table 2.10 (Deloitte, 2021[142]). For instance, the European Union set the following targets with respect to SME digitalisation: i) raising the share of SMEs with basic digital intensity from 60% (2019) to 90% in 2030, and ii) raising the share of cloud/AI/big data users from 18% (2020) to 75% in 2030. Current investment in SME digitalisation in the EU27 according to the European Investment Bank amounts to EUR 57 billion per annum (2018, projected to rise to EUR 65 billion by 2022) (European Commission, 2019[143]), which according to the targets formulated would require a significant increase. Table 2.10 identifies 26 SME-related policies on digital (9.4% of total digitalisation policies) amounting to USD 56.98 billion (8.47%). The share in recovery packages alone is 6.58% by number of policies and 7.68% by value. Interestingly, the share both in number of policies (29.41%) and value (22.72%) of SME-related policies on digitalisation was significantly higher during the rescue phase, suggesting that during the rescue phase there was a stronger emphasis on SMEs for structural as well as crisis policies.

A study by (Deloitte, 2021[142]) provides further background on investment in SME digitalisation in European recovery plans. According to the study, digital spending in recovery packages amounts to EUR 154 billion (27% of total RP spending in 20 member states), with support for SME digitalisation in 20 plans amounting to EUR 40 billion for digital and greater cloud use (26% of total digital expenditure). Table 2.10 shows the investment in selected European countries. Support for basic SME digitalisation in the recovery packages is higher than for more advanced digital applications such as cloud and Artificial Intelligence.

The recovery packages include various measures to support SME skills development, many including a grant element, and often with a focus on digital skills and management skills (see Box 2.5).

As indicated in Table 2.9, there are 46 (8%) SME-related skills policies in the rescue and recovery packages combined, reaching USD 21.93 billion (3.04% of total spending on skills). While the share of the number of SME-related skills policies in total skills policies decreased from 8.76% in rescue packages to 7.10% in recovery packages, by value the share actually increased (from 2.16% to 4.20%).

It is clear that skills development (from entrepreneurial skills to management and vocational skills for entrepreneurs and their employees) is of essential importance for SME productivity growth. Before the pandemic, skills shortages ranked high among the concerns of SMEs, according to various surveys. Similarly, to enable their recovery and resilience, strengthening SME skills is important, including for dealing with challenges regarding digitalisation and greening as well as more generally in transforming business models and working methods for the post-pandemic economy. Skills shortages are flagged by SMEs as a main concern in the recovery (SMEUnited, 2021[145]).

Estimates of the economic costs of the skills gap underline this importance. A 2018 report by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute suggests that between 2018 and 2028 the economic impact of the skills gap may amount to USD 2.5 trillion in the US manufacturing sector alone (Deloitte, 2018[146]). According to the European Commission a ‘massive investment in skills is needed’ to reach the targets set, including through the recovery plans but also through the European Social Fund (EUR 61.5 billion), Erasmus (EUR 16.2 billion) and InvestEU (EUR 4.9 billion) (European Commission, 2021[147]).

The recovery packages include a variety of policies that aim to support SME innovation. These policies often focus on innovative start-ups but also include examples of wider innovation support of relevance to SMEs. Various innovation policies aim to support vaccine development and other COVID-19 related innovation. Box 2.6 provides examples of such policies.

As shown in Table 2.9, SME-related innovation policies in rescue and recovery packages combined number 70 (16.32%), amounting to USD 74.38 billion (10.75%). However, the share of SME-related innovation policies in total innovation policies in recovery packages amount to 12.20% (number of policies) and 8.87% (value). This is considerably lower than their share in rescue packages (24.82% and 14.83% respectively), suggesting that like for digital policies, there was a stronger SME focus on structural policies during the rescue phase than the recovery phase.

Since July 2020, the policy response to COVID-19 has shifted from rescue measures through provision of liquidity to measures that support recovery and resilience, including for SMEs, although the resurgence of the pandemic in 2021 led to renewed emphasis on rescue support alongside recovery. Many countries within and outside the OECD have put in place recovery packages that provide investment in infrastructure, greening, digitalisation, skills and innovation, although the timing, size and focus of these packages varies.

From the perspective of SME finance, these packages include a number of important measures that enhance the access to finance for SMEs and entrepreneurs. Debt finance instruments continue to take centre stage, although the use and design of these instruments for SME liquidity support in recovery packages vary across countries.

In general, rescue measures have not mobilised alternative sources of finance for SMEs in a significant way, particularly at the outset of the crisis. In the recovery, this situation broadly persists, indicating that these packages are not likely to be a key mechanism to kick-start improvements in the uptake of alternative sources of finance for SMEs, which had gained significant ground in the run-up to the COVID-19 crisis. This suggests that going forward, governments’ consideration of other mechanisms to foster diversification of SME finance instruments, including Fintech, will be key to avoid SME over-reliance on debt and enable them to thrive, invest and grow in the post-pandemic recovery. The 2022 update of the G20/OECD High-Level Principles on SME Financing will support these efforts. There may also be a need to take additional measures to address the challenges of SME insolvency.

Where alternative finance instruments are present in recovery packages, they include factoring, leasing and hire purchases, trade finance and equity and quasi-equity tools.

Findings also show that although there is large diversity in their design, recovery packages generally have a relatively modest explicit SME orientation, and do not constitute a silver bullet to address the range of financing challenges SMEs continue to face. This is to some extent a reflection of the nature of recovery measures, which focus on strengthening the capacity for recovery in the broader economy. SMEs can also benefit from more generic measures such as digital infrastructure investments or support measures for the business population at large. However, it is important to ensure that recovery plans and accompanying measures take the circumstances and financing needs of SMEs sufficiently into account, in order to foster their recovery from the crisis, as well as to strengthen their capacity to invest in greening, digitalisation, skills and innovation.


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← 1. The European Central Bank through the European Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme bought assets with an overall envelop of EUR 750 billion and later enlarged to EUR 1 350 billion. The Federal Reserve in the United States purchased Treasury Securities and agency mortgage-backed securities of billions worth of dollars. Furthermore, from USD 600 billion in SME loans, the Fed purchased a stake of 95% of each SME loan (OECD, 2020[168]).

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