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SMEs turn to capital investment despite cautious sentiment

After a robust start to the year, 30% of SMEs have reported weaker revenue in March compared to 12  months earlier. Profitability has also diminished, with 27% of SMEs experiencing a loss, an increase from  22% the previous month.  

After a period of decline, concerns regarding inflation and interest rates have begun to trend upwards with  74% now concerned compared to 68% last month. Clearly there is growing apprehension among  businesses that the anticipated rate relief may not materialise as soon as hoped. 

Accordingly, many SMEs continue to adopt efficiency and cost-cutting measures, including discontinuing  unprofitable products/services (26%) and streamlining business operations (23%). 

The SME Sentiment Tracker is conducted by leading business market research firm Fifth Quadrant in  partnership with Ovation and tracks business sentiment across more than 400 small  and medium enterprises each month. 

Employee data is also weakening, with 19% of SMEs reporting fewer employees than 12 months earlier.  Consequently, the proportion of SMEs anticipating staff increases over the next three months has also  declined and only 20% of SMEs are currently seeking to fill positions, compared to 27% in January. 

Despite weakness across most key performance indicators, growth expectations remain robust, with 37%  of businesses targeting growth over the next 12 months. However, this marks a decline from the spike to  44% recorded last month. Notably, growth-oriented businesses are acutely aware of the numerous  challenges that could temper their growth expectations, with the economic outlook (42%) being the  primary concern, followed by changing customer behaviours (34%) and workforce productivity issues  (19%). 

Despite ongoing caution, SMEs are maintaining their investment in capital equipment, a trend anticipated  to continue as they seek to capitalise on tax concessions available before the financial year ends. 27% of  SMEs will increase their capital investment over the next 3 months up from 20% last month. This  illustrates a careful balance between managing costs and seizing opportunities to drive business growth. However, the demand for additional finance over the next three months has decreased to 12%, down  from 20% in December 2023. This trend suggests that most SMEs intend to rely on cash flow and existing  financial facilities for their investment needs, indicating a preference to minimise debt exposure until  interest rates decrease. 

Fifth Quadrant, Managing Director, James Organ said: “After a wave of optimism to start 2024, SME  sentiment is more measured this month with revenue declining and expectations regarding lower interest  rates being reevaluated. Weakness in employee data is also notable. Despite these challenges, a  significant portion remain growth-focused, cautiously balancing investments in capital equipment against  a backdrop of economic uncertainty and shifting customer behaviors”.

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Yajush Gupta

Yajush Gupta

Yajush is a journalist at Dynamic Business. He previously worked with Reuters as a business correspondent and holds a postgrad degree in print journalism.

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