SMEs fear for future as rising costs and economic woes increase

The CEO of a specialist insurance provider for SMEs has said small businesses are now at “breaking point” as rising fuel and energy costs have many considering whether they are willing or able to continue to operate.

Alan Thomas, UK CEO at Simply Business, was speaking at the company issued its SME Insights Report which found that 70% of SME owners say that rising costs across the board are their biggest challenge this year.

“Many small business owners are at breaking point – feeling the crippling pressure of rising costs, energy and fuel prices, alongside their ongoing recovery from the economic impact of the pandemic,” he explained. “Our SME Insights Report is a clear indication that small business owners want and need government support, with three in five calling for a review or reduction of the energy price cap.

“In the meantime, whilst the energy price caps do not apply to businesses, owners are seeing their energy bills increase overall. The surging cost of fuel and energy, alongside the overall rising cost of living, will understandably see households cut back on non-essential spending. There is a domino effect in place. The impact to consumer purchasing behaviour will trickle through to the books of small business owners, at a time when SMEs need our support the most.”

Thomas continued: “The latest rate rise also came with a clear recession warning and poses a serious risk to many small businesses. Sole traders and microbusinesses will feel the pressure more than most. This all comes at a time when many are still in recovery mode. One in six believe they will never financially recover from the pandemic. As a result, two in five owners are calling for long-lasting financial support from the government to help them get back on their feet after Covid-19.

“Accounting for over 99% of all UK businesses and contributing trillions of pounds in turnover every year, small businesses sit at the heart of our communities and are vital to our economy. And while it’s encouraging that the majority remain optimistic about their businesses chances, it’s clear that owners need support to weather the pressure of rising costs.”

The survey of over 1,000 UK small businesses has revealed 49% of SMEs said that they are set to increase their prices in an attempt to offset increased expenditure. One in five (21%) intend to raise prices by 6-10%, and for almost one in 10 owners (7%), these increases could be as much as 20%.

As a result, three in five (59%) small business owners are calling on the government to review or reduce the energy price cap. One fifth (21%) state that the VAT cut needs to be reviewed or extended, and over one in 10 (12%) feel that the government should review or reduce national insurance.

Looking at wider challenges, the report also found that a fifth (22%) of SMEs state a lack of funds or access to credit could lead to closure this year.

The survey found three in five (62%) owners believe that the economy is set to worsen over the next six months. Despite this, many SME owners remain confident in their business’ ability to weather the storm.

Analysing the report, Jonathan Portes, professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London, said: “Apart from raising prices, the main response to these adverse pressures from businesses is likely to be to simply hunker down, reduce costs where possible, and get on with it: that is, to pause expansion plans and, for those with employees, to cut back on hiring, hoping that conditions will improve over the coming year. The crucial factor here is likely to be consumer confidence and consumer demand. This has clearly taken a severe hit in recent months but may recover if inflation reduces and real incomes return to growth.”

“What can the government do to help? Fuel and energy prices are by far the largest concern, and here the key drivers are global. However, UK conditions have been aggravated by both Brexit and the recent fall in the pound, which further pushes up energy prices, as well as by the operation of the energy market and the price cap.  Nor does the disconnect between the Prime Minister’s call for a ‘high wage, high productivity’ economy and the insistence that workers have to accept large cuts in real wages help to improve consumer and business confidence.  While UK businesses remain resilient in the face of further economic turmoil, they need and deserve a more coherent longer-term strategy for the UK economy.”