6. Access to finance (Dimension 3)

The regional average score for access to finance is 2.6, which is the same as for the 2018 assessment. All WB6 economies except Kosovo and Montenegro have made progress in the areas assessed under access to finance; however, it should be noted that due to differences in the assessment methodology, the economies’ scores are not directly comparable. The WB6 economies perform best in the sub-dimension on access to bank finance, and worst in the sub-dimension on access to alternative financing sources. Overall, Serbia remains the strongest performer in this dimension, followed by Montenegro and Albania. Bosnia and Herzegovina has made the biggest progress since the last assessment followed by Serbia and Albania. Figure 6.1 summarises the performance of the WB6 economies since the last assessment.

Progress on implementing the policy recommendations made in the Competitiveness Outlook (CO) 2018 has been limited (Table 6.1). Partial progress has been made in supporting alternative financing instruments.

A well-functioning financial system and a dynamic private sector are key catalysts for economic growth and competitiveness. Promoting better access to finance is crucial for supporting private sector development, as businesses must be able to access financing sources to start up, grow, diversify and expand. As small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are more vulnerable to disruptions in local markets, business networks, and global and local supply chains, ensuring access to finance for small businesses is key to helping them better withstand and endure severe economic shocks.

Globally, domestic credit lending to the private sector stagnated and became more stringent following the 2008 financial crisis. Moreover, typical bank financing options have proved more difficult for SMEs to attain than larger firms due to higher perceived lending risks. Although all lending schemes include some form of risk, SMEs suffer from increased financial challenges and intrinsic weaknesses including limited capital, an inability to pay high interest rates and credit deficiencies that make banks cautious to extend loans. Small businesses also typically have infrastructural and intrinsic weaknesses such as inadequate or non-existent business planning, accounting practices and bookkeeping, as well as a lack of awareness and knowledge about financing options and instruments, which limits their ability to access both traditional and alternative financing options.

Addressing the challenges and needs of the private sector in accessing finance will entail enabling a more hospitable environment for private sector lending by improving collateral and insolvency schemes, enhancing risk-mitigating services, and supporting banks in extending credit facilities to businesses without credit. A lack of progress in this area will limit the ability of private sector actors to create new employment opportunities, start new businesses, and generally contribute to economic growth and development. Access to finance has implications for several other policy areas assessed in this Competitiveness Outlook; however, it is particularly relevant for the following dimensions:

  • Chapter 3. Investment policy and promotion is relevant as green investment projects, like most infrastructure projects, provide unique advantages for investors looking for steady, long-term and inflation-linked income streams for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, irrespective of returns on other investments. Access to finance is particularly important in the area of public-private partnerships to ensure the adequate financing of green investment projects.

  • Chapter 9. State-owned enterprises should not be exempt from the application of general laws and regulations applicable to private companies, including notably competition rules and other market regulations. Concerning their access to finance, state-owned enterprises should not benefit from any direct or indirect state support – including implicit or explicit guarantees on commercial debt – that may confer a competitive advantage over private enterprises.

  • Chapter 12. Science, technology and innovation (STI) related businesses rely on funding from venture capital and business angel networks to support their high upfront costs. Access to finance is particularly important for innovative businesses as investors rarely target knowledge-intensive sectors and government financing of research and development remains low.

  • Chapter 13. Digital society is dependent on the ability of SMEs to implement better information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure. The digitalisation of SMEs can be costly and unfeasible without proper access to financing. Government financial support programmes for ICT adoption have had little impact in the region, and difficult bank guarantee processes make digitalisation challenging.

This chapter assesses policies related to access to finance in the WB6 economies through three broad sub-dimensions:

  1. 1. Sub-dimension 3.1: Access to bank finance focuses on the structure of the banking industry and the legislation facilitating access to finance. It also assesses the use of collateral and credit information and the availability of credit guarantees.

  2. 2. Sub-dimension 3.2: Access to alternative financing sources assesses the legal framework and the use of factoring, leasing, private equity, venture capital and business angel networks. It also examines the existence of crowdfunding and initial coin offerings for firms operating under blockchain technology.

  3. 3. Sub-dimension 3.3: Mobilisation of long-term financing focuses on the regulatory framework related to public-private partnerships (PPPs). It also looks at access to capital markets, which is composed of three sub-indicators: 1) institutional investors and asset management; 2) access to stock markets; and 3) access to bond markets.

Figure 6.2 shows how the sub-dimensions and their indicators make up the access to finance dimension assessment framework. The assessment was carried out by collecting qualitative data with the help of questionnaires filled out by governments, as well as face-to-face interviews undertaken with relevant non-government stakeholders. Alongside these qualitative inputs, quantitative data on certain indicators – provided by the economies’ statistical offices, relevant ministries and agencies, and other databases – formed an integral part of this assessment. For more information on the methodology see the Methodology and assessment process chapter.

The leaders of the WB6 economies endorsed the Common Regional Market (CRM) 2021-2024 Action Plan at the Berlin Process Summit held on 10 November 2020 in Sofia. The Action Plan is made up of targeted actions in four key areas: 1) a regional trade area; 2) a regional investment area; 3) a regional digital area; and 4) a regional industrial and innovation area (RCC, 2020[2]).

Within the goal of creating a regional trade area, the WB6 economies have committed to increasing the availability of long-term financing; expediting establishment and service supply enabled through “passporting” or a similar trade facilitation system; decreasing insurance-related costs of movement of people, goods and services in the region; and increasing the attractiveness of financial markets for investment. In terms of COVID-19 relief, the economies committed to enhancing regional co-ordination and co-operation on topics such as partial credit guarantees and the use of public financial institutions. The WB6 economies also agreed to work on upgrading the industrial base and innovation infrastructure by launching regional start-up and early-stage innovation support schemes, as well as blending public and private sector financing.

The regional trade and innovation areas of CRM 2021-24 Action Plan include several sections relevant to the access to finance sub-dimension of the CO2021: 1) financial services; 2) strengthening regional co-operation and co-ordination regarding the COVID-19 response as part of relief, recovery and resilience; and 3) regional innovation. See Box 6.6 for further information.

For this edition of the Competitiveness Outlook, two sub-dimensions from the 2018 cycle (sub-dimension 1 on policy, regulatory and institutional framework and sub-dimension 2 on access to bank finance) were merged under sub-dimension 1 on access to bank finance to better capture the regulatory framework and lending conditions. Two new indicators were also added under sub-dimension 2, crowdfunding and initial coin offerings. A new sub-dimension was also added on the mobilisation of long-term financing to gather more information on long-term financing tools and the capital markets.

Over the past decade, and prior to the crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, access to finance was a major concern in Western Balkan economies. In 2019, one in five firms identified access to finance as a major constraint to growing their business (World Bank, 2020[3]). The outcome indicators selected for this Competitiveness Outlook are designed to assess the performance of the Western Balkan economies in creating the conditions to facilitate access to finance.

Domestic credit to the private sector as a share of GDP has remained at similar levels, around 45-48%, since 2011 in the WB6 region, and reached the CEEC-111 average in 2018 (Figure 6.3). Kosovo and North Macedonia are the only WB6 economies that saw an increase between 2012 and 2019 of around 10.6 and 3.4 and percentage points, respectively; Albania recorded a decline of 6.4 percentage points. There is significant room to increase the level of financial intermediation in the region, for example the European Union (EU) average for domestic credit to the private sector was 86.6% of GDP in 2019 (100.5% in 2011).

Gross domestic savings in the region range from around 3% in Kosovo to 20% in North Macedonia. Despite a constant increase since 2011 in all Western Balkan economies except Albania (Figure 6.4), the regional average of around 10% is almost half the CEEC-11 and OECD averages of 26% in 2019. This indicates that most Western Balkan economies have room to further increase their internal financing. Low savings rates in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro undermine the ability of households and individuals to absorb the economic shock related to COVID-19. Low domestic savings have also led to challenges for authorities in terms of how they absorb external shocks.

There were positive signs until the COVID-19 outbreak regarding non-performing loans (NPLs), which can impinge on banks’ willingness and ability to provide credit in the Western Balkans, especially to innovative businesses or younger firms with no credit history (Thomadakis, 2016[5]). NPL levels reached the pre-financial crisis level (around 5% in the WB6) in quarter 3 of 2020, following a peak of around 15% in 2013 (Figure 6.5). This shows that the action plans on NPLs implemented in the last decade have helped improve shortcomings in the credit market (OECD, 2018[6]). The potential effects of COVID-19 on NPLs should be closely monitored in the post-pandemic phase.

Bank finance is a major source of external finance for businesses in the region, with banks accounting for between 66% and 92% of financial sector assets; however, obtaining credit is still a significant challenge for firms in WB6 economies. If banks effectively fulfil their role as intermediaries between owners and users of funds, they ensure the more efficient allocation of financial resources to support the private sector in accessing sufficient capital to operate, expand and innovate.

WB6 economies have made progress regarding asset registers since the last assessment (see Table 6.2). For example, half have improved the accessibility of their asset registers through online searching options and increased the availability of necessary documentation through new e-services. However, WB6 economies have regressed in terms of credit information services. While collateral requirement scores remain largely unchanged since the last assessment, and continue to be well above OECD averages for the majority of WB6 economies, credit enhancement and risk mitigation could not be scored during this assessment period due to the numerous temporary credit guarantee schemes and credit lines put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Establishing strong and stable banking industry regulations improves institutional supervision and risk management, which can help economies better withstand economic crises and lessen the effects of fiscal shocks. Strengthening the regulation, supervision and risk management of banks through safeguarding rules such as strong transparency, liquidity and capital bases improves the ability of an economy to absorb fiscal stresses and manage uncertainty.

Legal and regulatory frameworks in the banking industries of the regional economies are generally well developed, with all WB6 economies having recently amended their banking laws. Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina2, and Serbia have implemented measures to encourage local currency transactions, while North Macedonia has introduced additional requirements for banks to adequately assess credit risks arising from foreign currency lending (although this does not explicitly facilitate local currency lending). Kosovo and Montenegro are euroized economies, which excludes the need for special foreign exchange capital requirements or the mandatory disclosure of foreign exchange borrowing risk.

All WB6 economies show strong alignment to Basel II3 principles and are undertaking ongoing harmonisation efforts with Basel III4 requirements. Most WB6 economies have implemented revised liquidity coverage and leverage ratios in line with Basel III recommendations, while several have also employed the internal capital adequacy assessment process (ICAAP),5 introduced capital buffers and improved minimum capital requirements. However, implementation of the internal ratings-based approach (for credit risk)6 and the advanced measurement approach (for operational risk) are still lagging in most economies.

Real estate remains the most widely relied upon form of collateral in the region as it is typically the most valuable asset owned by individuals and firms. However, using land titles as collateral is sometimes difficult in emerging economies due to the absence of well-functioning and accurate land registries and cadastres.7 Verifiable and accessible registry systems give individuals and small businesses security by legally recognising and protecting their property, enabling them to use it as official collateral when seeking formal financing.

All WB6 economies have cadastral systems to register land and real estate and record value and ownership, as well as any existing pledges over the asset. In addition, Bosnia and Herzegovina is attempting to centralise and unify its currently misaligned system through a joint project with the World Bank, launched in March 2020. The project aims to support the development of a sustainable real estate registration system with harmonised land registry and cadastre records in urban areas of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) and Republika Srpska (RS).

While Albania, Kosovo and Serbia had previously low ratios of information searches to new registrations, all three economies have made progress in increasing the accessibility of their cadastres since the last assessment. In Albania, the Registry of Security Charges has been expanded to cover the entire territory and has made all documents required for applications of cadastre services available online through the e-Albanian portal. Meanwhile, Serbia has made its real estate cadastre available to all interested parties for online searching, with data updated on a daily basis. Kosovo has also launched an online module for mortgage registration and communication with banks and non-bank financial institutions that provide credit; however, it remains in the testing phase.

Small and growing businesses typically face challenges accessing finance due to limited information on the worthiness of their credit. Credit information services compile data on loan repayment and bankruptcy histories, among other things, to minimise information asymmetries between lenders and borrowers on default risks. Research has shown that information collected by bureaus and registries on credit history has a strong predictive influence on the likeliness of default, which greatly decreases risk for lenders (Kallberg and Udell, 2003[8]). Credit information services are either publicly owned and usually managed by the central bank, or privately owned and commonly established by financial institutions and associations.

No major changes concerning credit information services in the WB6 have occurred since 2017. All Western Balkan economies continue to have either a public or private credit information system in place, or both. North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina remain the only two WB6 economies to have both public and private credit bureaus. In Albania, where only a public credit registry exists, an attempt by the Association of Banks to expand the economy’s credit information services by establishing a private credit registry could not be finalised due to legal barriers.

The coverage of both public and private credit information services continues to vary across the region (Table 6.3). While the private credit bureaus of North Macedonia and Serbia have already reached full coverage, Bosnia and Herzegovina has increased private credit registry coverage to 14% from 10.4% since the last assessment. Unlike private structures, the data from public credit information systems enable officials to adapt policies and strategies to the needs of the population. All WB6 economies have increased the coverage of their public credit registries since the last assessment, with Albania marking a notable 17.3% increase in coverage, the highest in the region. However, fewer than 45% of the adult population is covered in Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia. In OECD economies, 66.2% of the adult population is covered by private and 24.5% by public credit information systems.

Collateral requirements for loan contracts is a common practice within financial institutions to lower interest rates for SMEs and mitigate risks stemming from other barriers, such as a lack of credit information However, collateral requirements remain high throughout WB6 economies, hindering the ability of small and growing businesses to access credit and secure loans. According to the World Bank Enterprises Survey from 2019, Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia demand collateral requirements on over 70% of loans, compared to the OECD average of 58% (Figure 6.6) (World Bank, 2020[3]). While loans requiring collateral in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are generally on par with the OECD average, only 41% of loans in Serbia require collateral (16% lower than the OECD average). However, all WB6 economies require a higher percentage of the loan in collateral than the OECD average, although Serbia requires only 13% more (Figure 6.6). All other WB6 economies require more than around 175% of the loan amount in collateral, with Kosovo imposing collateral of almost 270% of the total loan.

Although real estate remains the most common collateral for loans, most WB6 economies allow for the use of non-fixed assets such as movable assets and intangibles to secure loans. However, while most EU and OECD member states widely accept intangible assets as collateral under well-developed intellectual property structures, financial institutions in WB6 economies often opt out of using movable assets and prefer more traditional forms of collateral such as land. This may be because the economies’ legal frameworks do not always provide sufficient protection for difficult valuations, ownership issues, licensing and cross-licensing issues.

SMEs often face challenges in securing bank loans and accessing sufficient credit from the formal financial system due to perceived high risks such as insufficient collateral and credit information, which limits their ability to implement economically viable projects. Credit enhancement and risk mitigation measures such as credit guarantee schemes and credit insurance provide banks surety that they will recover the value of loans in cases of default, which improves the capacity of banks to lend to SMEs and thereby alleviates the financing constraints faced by SMEs.

The WB6 economies vary in terms of the development, scope and funding of risk mitigation and credit enhancement schemes, although generally such schemes continue to be absent from the credit support landscape. Kosovo has one of the most comprehensive credit guarantee schemes in the region through its Kosovo Credit Guarantee Fund (KCGF), which has increased lending by local financial institutions to micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs). The fund has enhanced opportunities in the industrial and agriculture sectors by covering up to 50% of the loan risk for MSMEs, which benefitted almost 3 500 businesses with EUR 75 million by the end of 2019. The KCGF follows good practice standards for credit guarantee schemes by clearly defining eligibility criteria for lending decisions in line with international lending institutions, and regularly monitoring the fund through robust ex post evaluation mechanisms. The KCGF became a self-sustainable organisation in 2020 and began targeting additional support at certain vulnerable markets. For example, it has provided women in business, young entrepreneurs, the manufacturing sector and the agricultural sector with additional guarantees, and foresees providing increased financing support for renewable energy projects.

Some economies continue to have solely donor-sponsored credit guarantee schemes instead of domestic structures. For example, Albania, in partnership with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), complemented its Italian-funded SME development programme, which guarantees loans of up to 60% of the loan amount, with the Albania Agrobusiness Support Facility, which backs 20% of loans for Albanian agribusinesses. Montenegro still lacks a credit guarantee scheme; however, its Investment Development Fund signed a EUR 75 million agreement with the European Investment Fund under the COSME Loan Guarantee8 programme in 2019 to improve SMEs’ access to finance.

The COVID-19 pandemic has compelled all WB6 economies to establish initial or supplementary national credit guarantee schemes to mitigate the impact of the crisis and increase the liquidity of SMEs (Table 6.4). Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina have launched new credit lines targeting SMEs, agribusinesses and manufacturing sectors, and established export and employment-oriented activities. In Montenegro, a new credit line for SMEs was established under the Investment Development Fund for up to EUR 3 million per business using a simplified procedure and low interest rate. The FBiH implemented a credit guarantee scheme worth over EUR 125 million through the FBiH Development Bank, while RS has expanded the competences of its existing guarantee fund to approve loans of up to approximately EUR 120 million.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Serbia have opened donor-based credit lines in partnership with institutions such as the EBRD, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the Council of Europe Development Bank (CEB) to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. For instance, Serbia has been supported with a EUR 210 million credit line by the EBRD to finance banks focused on SMEs that generate positive socio-economic impact, and EUR 50 million by the CEB for banks that have requested assistance for liquidity shortages.

  • Facilitate access to traditional bank financing. Although asset registration systems are in place in all WB6 economies, high collateral requirements impede the ability of small and growing businesses to access credit and secure loans. Fostering the use of intangible assets as collateral (while ensuring that international guidelines are followed, such as the OECD G20 principles) would ease small business access to traditional financing. Economies may also lower security interest for non-fixed assets to encourage the use of intangibles as collateral and provide incentives for businesses to expand. Moreover, one way could be to implement regulations with fixed thresholds.

  • Transition from temporary credit guarantee schemes to permanent structures, for those economies without existing mechanisms. The COVID-19 pandemic has compelled economies to take the first steps to initiate widespread credit guarantees and lines to both SMEs and large enterprises. By building upon the preliminary framework established during the pandemic these schemes can continue to play an important role in enabling the flow of credit to the productive sectors. Box 6.1 describes how OECD economies have supported businesses during the pandemic.

Economies need to develop more comprehensive financing options for businesses to support sustainable economic growth and boost the resilience of the financial sector. They should particularly target enterprises more likely to be under-served by the banking sector.

The WB6 average has improved its scores for all four comparable indicators since the last assessment (Table 6.5), with the most progress made in regulations on factoring and leasing policies. For instance, Montenegro and Kosovo both established specific regulations concerning factoring in 2018, while Republika Srpska adopted a new Law on Factoring in 2020. Four of the economies have also implemented comprehensive laws on leasing since the last assessment.

Factoring and leasing are alternative asset-based financing instruments that allow small businesses to access to finance when they struggle to meet banks’ collateral or credit history requirements. Unlike bank financing options, factoring enables immediate liquidity for SMEs in urgent need of cash flow to keep their businesses running or growing by bypassing traditional loan obligations that are typically inaccessible for SMEs. Due to the overall difficulty of SMEs in the region to fulfil high collateral and credit worthiness requirements, factoring and leasing can help growing businesses access asset-based financing and manage cash flow volatility.

Factoring and leasing services remain under the auspices of the central banks in each WB6 economy except North Macedonia, where it falls under the supervision of the Ministry of Finance, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where it falls under the entity agencies.9 In Serbia, the factoring law is under the auspices of the Ministry of Finance, while supervision is divided between the Ministry of Finance, which oversees factoring services performed by factoring companies, and the National Bank of Serbia, which oversees factoring services performed by banks. All WB6 economies possess legal frameworks to regulate factoring options except North Macedonia, which has no dedicated law on factoring. Montenegro and Kosovo, with assistance from the EBRD, developed dedicated laws on factoring in 2018 that cover general requirements for factoring and outline the legal treatment of factoring services. North Macedonia was also supported by the EBRD to draft amendments to existing legislation covering factoring in detail; however, the process has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Albanian Government has also put in place several incentives to promote the use of factoring. Despite this progress, factoring penetration remains insignificant in the region, at 1.6% of GDP compared to an average of 7.6% in EU countries (EUF, 2021[11]).

Leasing services are regulated under dedicated legislation in all economies. Legislation generally covers clear definitions and lessors’ ownership rights, as well as how the process should be instigated, the steps to follow and guidance on any required involvement of third parties. The vast majority of leasing profiles in most WB6 economies is concentrated on personal and working vehicles (over 70%), followed by machinery and equipment (roughly between 15% and 40% except in North Macedonia, where work equipment accounts for less than 1%).

Although leasing options remain severely underused in the region, despite functioning legal frameworks, the use of leasing services has grown substantially over the last few years. In Serbia, at the end of 2020 total leasing assets had increased by 66.8% since 2013, reaching approximately EUR 981 million. In North Macedonia, leasing assets increased by 24.4% between 2017 and 2019 to reach around EUR 165 million. Albania has also seen a rise in leasing volumes from around ALL 5.91 million (Albanian lek, around EUR 48 000) in 2015 to ALL 8.85 million (around EUR 72 000) in 2019. However, despite these improvements, leasing volumes remain below potential in the Western Balkans at less than 1% of GDP, compared to 1.7% of GDP on average in EU countries (OECD et al., 2019[1])

Private equity and venture capital investors offer a unique opportunity for SMEs to access alternative finance options. They are particularly relevant for SMEs focused on innovative projects or technology-based businesses with strong growth potential that often face challenges in accessing traditional banking sources. Private equity and venture capital funds can provide young firms with managerial expertise and network contacts and have the unique ability to provide SMEs with large sums of long-term financing for novel products, technology or projects that have a higher risk of return. As these types of business often require significant capital rapidly to cover start-up and manufacturing costs, private equity and venture capital funds allow SMEs to be strong competitors in the market.

Private equity and venture capital investments in WB6 economies are generally in the early stages of development. While private equity and venture capital markets are virtually non-existent in Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are more actively using the Enterprise Innovation Fund, which is a stand-alone venture capital fund covering the Western Balkans region (see Box 6.2). Although there is no regulatory framework in Kosovo and North Macedonia, the FBiH, RS, Montenegro and Serbia regulate some aspects of private equity and venture capital investments through general legislation, which is at varying stages of development. For instance, in Montenegro the 2018 Law on Investment Funds allows private equity and venture capital groups to be established as specialised investment funds, and provides basic provisions regarding rules on the methods for determining net asset values and detailed requirements for investors.

Serbia has made progress in providing a clear regulatory framework for private equity and venture capital investors under the Law on Alternative Investment Funds, which came into effect in May 2020, and by-laws enacted by the Securities Commission. The legislation covers the manner of investment and the instruments in which alternative investment funds may invest. It also covers restrictions, types and timeframes for member and shareholder subscriptions, restrictions on investment, calculation of subscriptions, and the determination of relevant costs.

Business angels, individuals with business or managerial experience who invest personal funds in enterprises at early and risky stages, are a crucial component of alternative financing sources as they provide first rounds of equity capital to SMEs (OECD, 2016[15]). Business angels are different from other types of alternative financing as they offer additional benefits to entrepreneurs and small businesses such as mentoring, business, advice and access to networks. These added benefits can be of significant help for innovative firms and start-ups and help to address financing gaps for activities and projects where traditional financing options have proven particularly difficult to attain.

Business angel networks are relatively active in Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia; however, as shown in Table 6.6, their financial contribution to the economy remains limited. The region recorded the highest number of investments (47) in 2018, representing a total value of EUR 4.6 million. North Macedonia is the only economy that recorded a constant decrease in terms of value between 2016 and 2019 (around 96%), while Montenegro recorded an increase of 2020% between 2017 and 2019. In 2019, Serbia recorded four business angel investments totalling EUR 310 000, breaking a gradually increasing trend between 2014 (EUR 1.8 million) and 2018 (EUR 2.5 million) (EBAN, 2017[16]).

In all WB6 economies where business angel networks are active, there are no initiatives to establish legal frameworks for defining and regulating business angels. Support for business angel investment was included in Serbia’s recently expired Development Strategy and Action Plan 2015-2020, but no measures have been developed since the previous assessment.

There continue to be no business angels operating in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania. While some small initiatives exist in Republika Srpska, such as the Innovation Centre Banja Luka, which is a full-time member of the European Business Angels Network (EBAN),10 no activity could be identified over the assessment period. For the most part there are no planned initiatives to expand or develop the business angel networks in either economy.

As a relatively new form of alternative financing, crowdfunding brings together vast networks of people through social media and platforms to connect entrepreneurs with interested investors from the general public, beyond those established through venture capitalists and private institutions. Crowdfunding offers funding without traditional rigorous and unfeasible financing prerequisites, and encourages innovative ideas and initiatives that might otherwise be impossible to realise when relying solely on traditional financing methods. In addition to being a strong marketing tool, crowdfunding platforms allow investors to provide entrepreneurs with insight and information on their ideas.

Crowdfunding continues to be in the early development stages in the region, with most economies reporting no activity in this regard. None of the WB6 economies have dedicated laws concerning crowdfunding, and Montenegro remains the only economy to regulate crowdfunding activities under general financial laws, albeit with several gaps in terms of coverage. However, the development of crowdfunding regulatory frameworks and initiatives to encourage this type of financing is under way in several economies.

The National Bank of Serbia is in the process of drafting a law on crowdfunding that would regulate the conditions and manner of providing group financial services in line with the European Commission’s regulation for crowdfunding service providers.11 Similarly, Montenegro is in the project phase of a potential dedicated crowdfunding law under the Danube Transnational Programme; however, no concrete date had been set at the time of drafting. Kosovo and North Macedonia are also developing initiatives to encourage crowdfunding. In co-operation with the EBRD, Kosovo is developing a donation/reward-based system to support start-ups, which is expected to be launched in 2021, and the Macedonian Stock Exchange has established co-operation with a foreign crowdfunding platform, Funderbeam, to promote and guide businesses and help them become suitable for listing on the stock exchange.

Policy makers have an interest in raising awareness and enhancing the uptake of initial coin offerings (ICOs) by SMEs and entrepreneurs as this may lead to overcoming longstanding size-related constraints in accessing markets and finance, higher productivity and more competitiveness (OECD, 2019[18]). More specifically, digital assets operating under the blockchain technology can offer SMEs easier access to finance and avoid cash flow issues through tools such as smart contracts that automatically enforce payment contracts, strong security benefits to protect small businesses, and resilient supply chains with transparent audit trails. ICOs, much like initial public offerings (IPOs, see below), can raise funds related to a specific project, company or asset; for example, companies looking to raise money to create a new coin, application or service may launch an ICO.

Albania has adopted dedicated legislation that specifically covers cryptocurrencies and the regulation of blockchain technology. Serbia has adopted a law governing digital assets (including virtual currencies and digital tokens) that is based on a technology-neutral approach, which means that the provisions of the law applies to all digital assets regardless of the underlying technology, including stable digital assets. Both economies have established or expanded their regulations since the last assessment, with competencies falling under their financial supervisory authorities, as well as the National Agency of Information Society in Albania. The laws in both economies regulate the issuance, purchase, selling, transfer and exchange of digital currencies. The Albanian law also regulates the financial infrastructure through which these currencies are transacted.

Albanian legislation also requires the publishing of a prospectus or white paper12 for security token offerings and ICOs, and provides a clear definition of the responsibilities of the issuer. It also provides additional protection for investors by stating that the Albanian Financial Security Authority has the power to impose administrative sanctions or send cases to prosecution for breaches of the Albanian penal code. The Serbian Law on Digital Assets regulates the initial offering of digital assets and the publishing of a white paper. It also prescribes the obligations for issuers in this process and establishes a supervision mechanism over the digital assets’ issuance. Both regulations are in line with the prevention of money laundering and terrorism financing FATF13 recommendations.

The central banks of Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Serbia have all issued public warnings on the risks associated with the use of cryptocurrencies. North Macedonia is the only WB6 economy to discourage the use of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. However, since 2019, when it entered the second phase of its Stabilisation and Association Agreement, residents of North Macedonia have been allowed to invest in foreign securities and foreign real estate, but they are still generally not allowed to open foreign bank accounts, except for some specific exceptions in accordance with the National Bank of the Republic of North Macedonia (NBRNM) by-law, which makes the legality of investment in crypto-assets unclear. No activity has been reported in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia regarding initial coin offerings based on blockchain technologies.

  • Support the market penetration of factoring and leasing. Although all WB6 economies already have a legal framework, there is room to increase the contribution of factoring and leasing to the economy. This could be done by increasing awareness-raising programmes and providing incentives to smaller firms.

  • Continue efforts to build a business environment with diverse financing sources. Given the limited success in attracting venture capital in the region, supporting crowdfunding by adopting dedicated legal frameworks could be a more feasible approach.

  • Consider reviewing business angel networks. A comprehensive assessment of existing business angel investments could help WB6 governments better capture the requirements and needs of business angel networks. Additional policy tools could be deployed to promote further interest in such networks, including tax incentives.

Policies to mobilise long-term savings and use them to finance infrastructure investment by long-term institutional investors can contribute to bridging the financing gap of such investments. This needs to be accompanied by the development of capital markets and appropriate financial instruments for encouraging both debt and equity financing. This section maps the legal and regulatory framework that enables governments to mobilise funds for infrastructure investments. It then assesses access to capital markets by exploring the availability of sources to mobilise long-term capital around the two main asset classes: bonds and equities.

Serbia is the most advanced economy in terms of access to capital markets (Table 6.7). All Western Balkan economies except Kosovo have achieved a similar level of development, with scores converging. Albania lags behind due to the nature of its security exchange market, and Kosovo’s performance is directly linked with the absence of a stock market in the economy.

Access to long-term financing is key to infrastructure investment. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, expected levels of public investment based on current trends would not have been sufficient to meet the projected infrastructure needs of the Western Balkans. Governments have a central role in driving recovery and provide the bulk of infrastructure investment, and it is crucial that they mobilise long-term capital for public infrastructure investment (OECD, 2020[19]). A well-established PPP regulatory framework harmonised with EU regulations14 can provide useful tools to bridge infrastructure investment gaps, while ensuring value for money without undermining fiscal sustainability.

Each WB6 economy has adopted a dedicated legal framework for PPP that enables private participation in infrastructure (PPI) projects. Montenegro was the last economy in the region to adopt a dedicated PPP law in December 2019. Albania and Montenegro’s regulatory frameworks are harmonised with the EU Concessions Directive,15 and although North Macedonia’s current law is not fully harmonised it respects the general principles of public procurement that cover transparency, equal treatment and non-discrimination. At the time of drafting, a new PPP law for North Macedonia was in the parliamentary validation process. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia the provisions of the EU Concessions Directive have not yet been transposed.

All WB6 economies have a specialised government entity that facilitates PPP programmes, but only Albania and Kosovo have a dedicated PPP unit with permanent staff that operates across sectors and establishes projects – the Concession Treatment Agency (ATRAKO) in Albania and the PPP Committee supported by the Central PPP Department in Kosovo. Both units are created under the authority of the ministries of finance.

According to an external assessment conducted by the World Bank (Table 6.8), which assesses four components of PPPs, the WB6 are performing close to CEEC-11 and OECD high-income economy averages. The region performs best regarding procurement, which concerns the activities and requirements for selecting a private partner, but there is room for improvement regarding the preparatory activities that take place prior to launching the procurement process for a PPP project.

Despite increasing PPI activity in the Western Balkans, a limited number of new contracts have been successfully concluded. In 2019, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo saw the first PPI transactions in five years, while Serbia had the highest investment amount in the region, with commitments of EUR 346 million in the first half of 2020.

Savings generally reflect the disposable income of households, general economic conditions and the rate of poverty. Savings in financial institutions reflect the income of households plus the level of trust in these institutions. The lower the rate, the lower the potential liquidity that could be used by institutional investors or asset management firms for potential local investments. Savings rates are generally low in the region (30%) compared to the CEEC-11 economies (54%). Household savings within financial institutions are even lower, at 11% compared to 33% in CEEC-11 economies (Table 6.9), which limits the liquidity in the market.  

All WB6 economies except Kosovo have a dedicated legal framework regulating institutional investors. In North Macedonia, the laws on securities and investment funds that govern institutional investors also regulate market manipulation and insider trading. However, they do not clearly govern voting rights, which allows for potential conflict of interest.

Montenegro made some progress in 2018 by amending the Law on Investment and the Law on Voluntary Pension Funds, which clarified conditions such as situations where institutional investors should exercise their voting rights, prevention of conflict of interest and transparency of fees. In May 2020, Albania adopted a dedicated Law on Capital Markets that regulates institutional investors.

In Serbia, the Law on Open-End Investment Funds Subject to Public Offering and the Law on Alternative Investment Funds regulate investment funds and clearly cover transparency of fees, and the Law on Capital Markets covers the prohibition rules of insider trading and market manipulation. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the regulatory framework falls under the entities’ competences. Both FBiH and RS have adopted dedicated legal frameworks on the securities market and investment funds. The legal framework is well-developed in RS and covers the conditions for institutional investors’ exercise of voting rights, conflict of interest, prohibitions related to insider trading and market manipulation. Conversely, the legal framework in the FBIH does not cover provisions such as the voting rights attached to the share held on behalf of clients, transparency of fees or prohibitions related to insider trading.

All WB6 economies except for Kosovo have established stock or securities exchanges. The stock exchanges of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia are open to the public. Albania has an operational privately owned securities exchange, the Albanian Securities Exchange (ALSE), which was created in 2017 and trades only government debt. The securities exchange started trading securities officially in February 2018, and up to October 2019 the turnover was EUR 23.2 million (around 0.2% of GDP).

Overall, the contribution of stock markets to financing the economy is limited across the region. The low level of activity and liquidity in the stock markets is a barrier for companies that might want to use it to raise new capital. In July 2020, the Belgrade Stock Exchange registered a total turnover of securities of RSD 2 795.4 million (Serbian dinar, ~EUR 23.7 million; around 0.06% of GDP), from which turnover of shares totalled RSD 133.9 million (~EUR 1.1 million; around 0.002% of GDP). In July 2020, the Macedonian Stock Exchange registered a total turnover of securities of MKD 382 million (Macedonian denar, ~EUR 600 000; 0.01% of GDP), from which turnover of shares totalled MKD 344 million.

Both stock exchanges have joined the EBRD-supported SEE Link (Box 6.3). Conversely, the Montenegro Stock Exchange withdrew its application submitted in 2016, and its market capitalisation remains illiquid, with a turnover ratio of 1% in 2019 vs. 3% in 2017.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, both entities have their own stock markets: the Sarajevo Stock Exchange (SASE) in the FBiH and the Banja Luka Stock Exchange (BLSE) in RS. Both stock exchanges joined the EBRD-supported SEE Link in 2017. In both entities, the contribution of capital markets to financing the economy is limited. In 2019, the SASE registered a total turnover of securities of BAM 144 million (Bosnian convertible mark, ~EUR 72 million), a 3.6% increase compared to 2018, from which the turnover of shares was BAM 136 million (~EUR 68 million; 94.4% of total securities). Over the same period, the BLSE registered a total turnover of securities of BAM 472 million (~EUR 236 million), an increase of 10.3% compared to 2018, from which the turnover of shares was BAM 76.6 million (~EUR 39.1million; 16.2% of total securities).

All WB6 economies with active stock markets have different listing rules for equity listings. In Montenegro, the law on capital market details how listed companies should submit their financial reports to the Capital Market Authority (CMA) on a quarterly basis. All submitted reports are publicly available on the CMA website. However, the stock market is static with no IPOs. Consequently, SMEs do not perceive it as a potential source of alternative financing (see Box 6.4 on raising awareness in OECD member states).

Regarding admission to trade, on the Belgrade Stock Exchange an issuing company may apply for one of three listing segments: prime listing, standard listing or smart listing. However, there has been only one IPO in recent decades, which involved shares of Fintel Energy being included as a prime listing. After the successful completion of the IPO, the company’s stocks started trading on 20 November 2018, representing an approximate total value of RSD 755 million.

Concerning the listing of companies in North Macedonia, the law clearly details requirements for issuers and lists flexible requirements for smaller companies. The listing rules of the Macedonian Stock Exchange defines four categories under the market that represent listed securities (super listing, exchange listing, mandatory listing and listings of small joint stock companies). Only one IPO has taken place since 2018 with a value of MKD 575 million (around EUR 9.3 million), but the secondary public offering (SPO) market was slightly more active. Since 2018 there have been two SPOs of shares, representing MKD 320 million (around EUR 5.2 million).

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the legal frameworks for capital markets are aligned in both entities. The listing procedures for companies operating in both entities are clearly defined in their respective laws on securities markets and are organised on the same regulatory principles; however, neither entity offers a separate market for low capitalisation firms.

All WB6 economies have a regulatory framework in place for bond markets, and their scope is heterogeneous. In Albania, there are no legal restrictions with respect to the offering of bonds to the public, but in practical terms the bond market consists only of bonds issued for corporate private placement. Kosovo presents a more restrictive approach than other WB6 economies for potential investors. Only the primary market of government bonds is available and only banks can invest in these bonds. Other non-financial corporates do not have access to the bond market.

As described above, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia have active stock markets, which de facto broadens the scope of their corporate bond markets. In 2018, Serbia had the biggest bond market in terms of value, followed by Bosnia and Herzegovina. Conversely, in North Macedonia and Montenegro the markets remained shallow, with two and one government bonds, respectively, listed in 2018 (Table 6.10).

  • Promote access to equity capital through the stock market. The low level of activity and liquidity in the stock market is a barrier for companies that could use it to raise new capital. To stimulate capital market development, WB6 governments could encourage listing state-owned enterprises, such as the example of the Ignitus Group in Lithuania (Box 6.5), to help obtain critical stock market size and visibility among international institutional investors. To increase the attractiveness of the domestic stock market, the WB6 governments could consider introducing a tax credit system for costs related to initial listings, as well as secondary equity offerings by already listed companies. Such a system would allow companies to deduct listings costs, including any advisory service costs, from the corporate income tax payable up to a certain amount.

  • Consider strengthening connectivity in the region. The lack of depth in the existing stock markets and the small market sizes are limiting the potential contribution of the stock markets to the development of businesses. Strengthening the use of the SEE Link could help to increase the liquidity of the markets in the long term and would provide more certainty and security to foreign investors.

Overall, the Western Balkan economies have made progress in improving access to finance. The assessment found that the legal and regulatory frameworks put in place perform relatively well, but that the region’s private sectors continue to suffer from high collateral requirements imposed by the banking industry, which dominates the financial sectors.

The region’s stock market and business angel networks have become slightly more active since the last assessment and the economies have made some progress in updating the legislative framework for institutional investors, crowdfunding and factoring. They have also increased asset registration.

Despite this progress, further efforts towards ensuring better access to finance will be crucial to support private sector development, especially in the post-COVID-19 recovery climate, and will likely entail the successful implementation of the recommendations set out in this chapter. The region still needs to adapt collateral requirements to the needs of businesses, while ensuring financial stability for banks. Moreover, despite an existing framework for alternative financing tools, such as factoring and leasing, WB6 governments need to take full advantage of these alternative tools.


[17] EBAN (2019), Statistics Compendium: European Early Stage Market Statistics, European Business Angels Network, https://www.eban.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/EBAN-Statistics-Compendium-2019.pdf.

[16] EBAN (2017), 2017 Annual EBAN Statistics Compendium, European Business Angels Network, http://www.eban.org/2017-annual-eban-statistics-compendium/.

[27] EBRD (2020), EBRD Board Report: Ignitus Group IPO, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, https://www.ebrd.com/what-we-do/project-information/board-documents/1395294375006/Ignitis_Grupe_IPO.pdf?blobnocache=true.

[26] EBRD (2020), Effectiveness and Efficiency of Debt Capital Markets – A Comparative Study, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, http://www.ebrd.com/documents/local-currency-and-cap.-markets/effectiveness-and-efficiency-of-debt-capital-markets-a-comparative-study.pdf.

[7] EC (2021), EU Candidate Countries’ & Potential Candidates’ Economic Quarterly (CCEQ) 1st Quarter 2021, European Commission, https://ec.europa.eu/info/publications/economic-and-financial-affairs-publications_en.

[11] EUF (2021), Total factoring volume (database), EU Federation for the Factoring and Commercial Finance Industry, https://euf.eu.com/total-factoring.html (accessed on  February 2021).

[28] Ignitis Group (2020), Press Release: Ignitis grupė completed the largest IPO in the Baltic States, https://ignitisgrupe.lt/lt/ignitis-grupe-ivykde-didziausia-baltijos-salyse-ipo.

[8] Kallberg, J. and G. Udell (2003), “Private business information exchange in the United States”, Credit Reporting Systems and the International Economy, pp. 203-228.

[25] National Plan for Financial Education (n.d.), National Plan for Financial Education homepage, https://www.todoscontam.pt/pt-pt (accessed on 26 May 2021).

[23] OECD (2020), Capital Market Review of Italy 2020: Creating Growth Opportunities for Italian Companies and Savers, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/corporate/ca/OECD-Capital-Market-Review-Italy.pdf.

[10] OECD (2020), COVID-19 Government Financing Support Programmes for Businesses, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/daf/fin/financial-markets/COVID-19-Government-Financing-Support-Programmes-for-Businesses.pdf.

[24] OECD (2020), OECD Capital Market Review of Portugal 2020: Mobilising Portuguese Capital Markets for Investment and Growth, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/corporate/OECD-Capital-Market-Review-Portugal.htm.

[19] OECD (2020), OECD Compendium of Policy Good Practices for Quality Infrastructure, OECD, Paris, http://www.oecd.org/finance/oecd-compendium-of-policy-good-practices-for-quality-infrastructure-investment.htm.

[18] OECD (2019), Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) for SME Financing, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/finance/ICOs-for-SME-Financing.pdf.

[6] OECD (2018), Competitiveness in South East Europe: A Policy Outlook 2018, Competitiveness and Private Sector Development, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264298576-en.

[15] OECD (2016), Financing SMEs and Entrepreneurs 2016: An OECD Scoreboard, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/fin_sme_ent-2016-en.

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[4] OECD et al. (2019), “Bankruptcy and second chance for SMEs (Dimension 2) in the Western Balkans and Turkey”, in SME Policy Index: Western Balkans and Turkey 2019: Assessing the Implementation of the Small Business Act for Europe, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/adc38abc-en.

[2] RCC (2020), Common Regional Market Action Plan, Regional Cooperation Council, https://www.rcc.int/docs/543/common-regional-market-action-plan.

[22] SEE LINK (2021), SEE LINK homepage, http://www.see-link.net/ (accessed on 15 May 2021).

[5] Thomadakis, A. (2016), “Determinants of credit constrained firms: evidence from Central and Eastern Europe region”, Oesterreichische Nationalbank Working Paper, Vol. 207.

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← 1. The Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC) are Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia.

← 2. This falls under the competence of both entities. In the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) and Republika Srpska (RS), the law on foreign exchange operations encourages local currency lending. Banks are not allowed to lend in foreign exchange to a resident, except to enable a resident legal person or entrepreneur to pay for imported goods and services. For the governance structure of Bosnia and Herzegovina please refer to (Scope and methodes)

← 3. Basel II is an international business standard developed prior to the 2008/09 crisis by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision. It requires financial institutions to maintain enough cash reserves to cover risks incurred by operations.

← 4. Basel III is a set of measures developed by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision in response to the 2008/09 crisis. It has been agreed internationally and aims for a more resilient banking system. It underpins the regulatory and supervisory framework and strengthens banks’ risk management.

← 5. The Internal Capital Adequacy Assessment Process (ICAAP) allows firms to assess their capital adequacy and requires them to have appropriate risk management techniques in place. For more information: https://www.bankingsupervision.europa.eu/ecb/pub/pdf/ssm.icaap_guide_201811.en.pdf.

← 6. Under ICAAP requirements a bank needs to have in place internal procedures and processes to ensure that it possesses adequate capital resources in the long term to cover all of its material risks. These processes and procedures together are known as the Internal Capital Adequacy and Assessment Process (ICAAP).

← 7. Cadastres are defined as a comprehensive register of the real estate or real property's metes and bounds of an economy.

← 8. For further information: https://ec.europa.eu/growth/access-to-finance/cosme-financial-instruments_en.

← 9. In FBiH, supervision over the performance of factoring activities is entrusted to the Banking Agency of the FBiH. In Republika Srpska supervision is divided, with the Banking Agency of Republika Srpska supervising banks performing factoring activities, and the Securities Commission supervising the factoring of companies and other factoring service providers, in accordance with the law.

← 10. EBAN is the pan-European representative for the early stage investor community gathering over 150 member organisations in more than 50 countries. For more information see: https://www.eban.org/.

← 11. EU Regulation 2020/1503 on European crowdfunding service providers for business adopted in October 2020

← 12. A white paper is created by the founders and/or developers to guide investors with charts and technically focused information on how to addresses and solve issues that might be encountered in the chain.

← 13. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) Recommendations. As amended October 2020. The FATF Recommendations set out a comprehensive and consistent framework of measures which countries should implement in order to combat money laundering and terrorist financing, as well as the financing of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. For further information see: https://www.fatf-gafi.org/publications/fatfrecommendations/documents/fatf-recommendations.html.

← 14. The analysis takes into account the EU Public Sector Directive 2014/24, EU Utilities Sector Directive 2014/25 and the EU Concessions Directive 2014/23.

← 15. Directive 2014/23/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 February 2014 on the award of concession contracts.

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