Let’s scale up, vary access to SME finance to boost Asia’s growth, cross-border trade

Published on Monday, 21 September 2015

Published by Stephen P. Groff on Monday, 21 September 2015

A vendor displays her merchandise at a market in Tanjung Pinang, Indonesia.
A vendor displays her merchandise at a market in Tanjung Pinang, Indonesia.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of Asian economies, but they need expanded access to finance and a more varied selection of financial products if they are to benefit from growing trade opportunities offered by the likes of the ASEAN Economic Community or the Eurasian Economic Union. SMEs account for an average of 96% of all enterprises in Asia and employ 62% of workers, yet only contribute 42% of the gross domestic product (GDP) in most countries in the region. At the same time, while SMEs are increasingly a part of complex supply chains, they could—and should—play a much bigger role in their national economies. SMEs have long struggled to get the funding they need to expand and grow, and this situation has been aggravated by the lingering effects of the global financial crisis, prompting banks and other lenders to focus on their core big borrowers. The introduction of Basel III—a new international regulatory framework for banks that strengthens bank risk management and capital requirements—could have the unintended consequence of further constraining SME lending. Bank loans to SMEs make up only 11.6% of regional GDP and 18.7% of total bank lending in Asia, while lending by non-bank financial institutions is smaller still. So what can we do? First, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, given that SMEs themselves come in all shapes. Rather, we need a range of different products suitable for different kinds of firms if they are to survive and thrive. Certainly, beefing up the policy and financial infrastructure helps. Credit bureaus, collateral registries, and credit guarantees can help SMEs access finance, particularly in low-income countries. ADB is supporting this – take Viet Nam, where a 2013 project is bolstering policy reform and SME planning frameworks. On the non-sovereign side, we have also approved unsecured loans for SME finance in the Kyrgyz Republic and Sri Lanka. In this area, we should also consider alternative financing modalities such as crowdfunding, asset-based financing, and cluster financing. Second, domestic SME development is only a part of the vision for the future in Asia, where the economic environment is rapidly changing. Growing regional integration and international trade present huge business opportunities for SMEs, and for the countries where they are located. For one, this will force small firms to transform their business models if they want to be globally competitive. We need to promote the internationalization of SMEs if we want developing Asia to avoid becoming mired in the middle-income trap. This means also ensuring trade finance and supply chain finance both for those firms already providing services or components for final exported products, and for those looking to do so. Global and regional initiatives like the G20 Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion, or specific programs for SMEs within APEC and ASEAN help enormously. Improved data also help everyone make informed decisions, and sharing best practices and practical experiences is likewise critical. Now it’s time for all of us to make the best possible use of all instruments in our national and regional tool boxes so SMEs in Asia can gain the access to the amount and kind of finance necessary to continue driving national economies, providing jobs, and becoming globally competitive.