Global Finance presents its inaugural annual listing of the best global, regional and national banks that serve SMEs, for more than 60 countries and regions.
Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of the global economy. According to data from the World Bank, they represent approximately 90% of businesses worldwide, employ more than half the global workforce, and contribute about 40% to GDP. And the onset of Covid-19 hit SMEs hard, forcing them to reduce or cease operations.
Since the pandemic’s start, SMEs have turned to their governments and banking partners to help shepherd them through this period of unprecedented supply chain disruptions, liquidity crunch and labor shortages.
Simply surviving the pandemic will prove challenging for SMEs in developed, emerging and frontier economies. For example, the share of SMEs in developed markets that have negative equity rose by 6% between 2020 and 2021, threatening up to one in 10 SME jobs in those economies, according to the authors of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) discussion note Insolvency Prospects Among Small and Medium Enterprises in Advanced Economies: Assessment and Policy Options.
“This increase is similar to that seen in the five years after the global financial crisis, but it would occur over a much shorter period,” write the authors. “In a downside scenario with extended lockdowns and persistently weaker demand, the share of insolvent SMEs would rise by eight percentage points.”
In response, governments have responded by intervening in terms of loans, credit guarantees, payment moratoria and asset purchases, adding up to 11% of GDP by October 2020, IMF staff have estimated.
However, government funds are not limitless. As a result, countries face turning the stimulus tap off, or down severely, while trying to avoid a liquidity crisis among SMEs and aid their continued recovery.
Girding for a Tough Recovery
Financial access is a crucial constraint to SME growth and is the second-biggest obstacle facing SMEs in the emerging and frontier economies, note researchers from the World Bank. Nearly 65 million SMEs, or 40% of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in developing markets, face $5.2 trillion in unmet finance needs, note the researchers, citing a 2017 study by the International Finance Corporation. Businesses in the Asia Pacific region represent the largest portion of the gap (46%), followed by Latin America and the Caribbean (23%) and Central Asia (15%).
Throughout the pandemic, SMEs have taken several approaches to rein in their labor costs. Of the more than 2,500 SME owners worldwide surveyed by Harris Poll for Salesforces fifth annual Small and Medium Business Trends report, 43% offered flexible working arrangements, 35% reduced employee hours, 19% furloughed employees, 14% gave employees a zero-hour schedule and 12% laid off staff. On the bright side, 12% of those polled expanded employee benefits while the majority (58%) did not alter them. Moreover, only 29% of the respondents chose to reduce them.
Returning SMEs to their pre-pandemic health should not be the goal for governments and financial institutions. SMEs will need to generate 600 million new jobs by 2030 to absorb the growing global workforce. “Building back better” is not an option but a necessity.
Methodology: Behind the Rankings
The editors of Global Finance, with input from industry analysts, corporate executives and technology experts, selected the winners for the World’s Best SME Banks 2022 based on a set of objective and subjective factors. Editors consulted entries submitted by the banks as well as the results of independent research. Entries were not required.
Judges considered performance from April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021. Global Finance then applied a proprietary algorithm to shorten the list of contenders and arrive at a numerical score up to 100. The algorithm weights a range of criteria for relative importance, including knowledge of SME markets and their needs, breadth of products and services, market standing, and innovation.
Once the judges narrowed the field, they examined the final criteria, including the scope of global coverage, size and experience of staff, customer service, risk management, range of products and services, execution skills and use of technology. In the case of a tie, the judges lean toward local providers rather than global institutions. The panel also tends to favor private-sector banks over government-owned institutions. The winners are those banks and providers that best serve the specialized needs of SMEs.
WORLD’S BEST SME BANK
Under the high-stress conditions of pandemic, Singapore-headquartered United Overseas Bank (UOB) stepped up, earning accolades as the Global Finance Best SME Bank in the World 2022, for its support of its SME clients during these tumultuous times.
With more than 80 years of history, UOB leveraged the lessons it learned from navigating the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the global financial crisis of 2008. The bank began pandemic relief in February 2020 when it announced S$ 3 billion (US $2.2 billion) in relief assistance for its SME clients.
From December 2019 through June 2021, the bank also increased its gross loan portfolio to S$299 billion from S$269 billion, an 11% increase. It maintained a nonperforming loan ratio at 1.5%. Loans to SMEs represent 14% of the bank’s gross loan portfolio, while loans to large corporates and personal loans represent 53% and 33% of the portfolio, respectively.
Digital technology is key. “We have always seen digitalization as one of the key opportunities for growth,” says Group Commercial Banking head Eric Tham. “However, the pandemic accelerated our clients’ needs to digitalize operations and processes, especially in the last 18 months … The takeup of digitalization offerings from April 2020 to March 2021 jumped sixfold compared with a year earlier.”
UOB also offers SME clients digital tools to improve operational efficiency, such as the bank’s BizSmart program—a suite of cloud-based applications that handle back-office processes like payroll, accounting, inventory and resourcing. BizSmart also lets clients access a direct feed to their operating accounts, permitting reconciliation with a click of a mouse.
BEST SME BANK IN AFRICA
FNB is Africa’s SME bank of the year and is recognized for its notable innovation and handling of finance products and credit repayment modalities for SMEs across its sub-Saharan Africa portfolio.
The bank has operations in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia.
FNB is also recognized for offering needed relief, and enhancing capacity for SME companies in its markets, in the context of pandemic-induced difficulties.
During the period under review, FNB initiated Covid-19 relief programs in Namibia and Botswana. For Botswana, this was in addition to investing in Wi-Fi boosters for its Cash Plus agents, most of whom are SMEs. The bank also launched Mogwebi, an insurance program for SMEs, and “installment relief for SME customers’ commercial property finance, vehicle and asset finance and term loans.”
FNB also started allowing SME customers to apply for loans via its Ghanaian digital platforms. Collateral challenges still dog entrepreneurs across Africa; FNB Namibia partnered with the Development Bank of Namibia on a risk-sharing initiative aimed at alleviating these constraints.
In its largest market, South Africa, FNB offers a toolkit that assists businesses coping with Covid-19, as well as accounting, invoicing and payroll support.
BEST SME BANK IN Asia Pacific
Singapore-based United Overseas Bank (UOB) wins as the Best SME Bank in Asia Pacific 2022 for its imaginative support of SMEs during the pandemic. UOB has broadened its range of solutions and services, aggressively pursued digital transformation and focused on maximizing cross-border SME services. The bank notably saved many SMEs during the crisis by leveraging its long-term experience of serving smaller clients in Asia to understand their needs and their vulnerabilities.
In the past year and a half, UOB’s gross loans grew by 11%, to 299 billion Singapore dollars (about US $222 billion) by June 2021. Despite this aggressive portfolio growth, UOB’s nonperforming loan ratio remained stable at 1.5%. SME loans compose 14% of the bank’s total loan portfolio.
UOB rolled out a series of targeted initiatives, including digitalization strategies and solutions to immediate business challenges, to help established firms and startups across Asean. In addition, the bank made financing more accessible to small businesses via a data-analytics-powered credit underwriting engine, ensuring that quarantine rules did not hamper support.
Although government support has played a key role in supporting SMEs during Covid-19, creative support from banking partners has been critical. UOB has been a luminary in this area.
BEST SME BANK IN THE CARIBBEAN
During a year in which 74% of surveyed local companies closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and 26% of companies partially shut their doors, the Dominican Republic’s Banreservas acted as a role model for other regional banks, winning the inaugural title of Best SME Bank in the Caribbean through financial relief—working with the national government and leveraging the bank’s digital strategy and overall support for its SME clientele.
The bank works with the government and Fiduciaria Reservas in an initiative to let SMEs accelerate payment of invoices to companies that supply goods and services to the Dominican state.
To enable easier access to governmental relief measures, Banreservas also developed and deployed a new digital product based on existing client-card identification numbers augmented with new unique PIN numbers. More than 700,000 households could use these with point-of-sale systems at approximately 4,400 groceries, warehouses and department stores, without using a physical card.
The bank also held multiple loan fairs for micro, small and midsize enterprises (MSMEs) throughout the pandemic, in which the bank provided more than 4,400 loans totaling approximately $190 million in capital borrowed.
BEST SME BANK IN CENTRAL AMERICA
Operating throughout Central America, BAC Credomatic earned the title of Best SME Bank in Central America for its digitalization strategy, pandemic-related financial relief and financial education offerings.
Well along its digitalization road map before the global outbreak of Covid-19, the bank prioritized further digitalization to eliminate physical interactions where it could. It leveraged its existing investments in WhatsApp, webchats and chatbots to improve client self-service capabilities, which decreased call volumes—by 30% in Panama, for example—and resulted in 90% of all customer interactions and 60% of all monetary transactions happening digitally.
In Costa Rica, within the first few months of the pandemic, BAC Credomatic offered corporate clients bespoke relief packages and provided SMEs an option to delay payments for two months. The bank has administered programs that empower SMEs, provide financial education and push for further social responsibility. In Panama, BAC Credomatic has run similar programs and funded organizations for Covid-19 victim relief, as well as enacting financial education programs for women.
BEST SME BANK IN CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE
OTP Bank Group
The OTP Bank Group takes this year’s prize for Best SME Bank in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). The bank has maintained its role as a strategically important player in this region; and through its products and technology, it has helped small businesses in the region to grow.
The bank has been expanding its international footprint through both organic growth and successful acquisitions to become the fourth-largest banking group in CEE. Currently, OTP Bank operates in 11 countries via its subsidiaries. It is the market leader in Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro and a top-five local bank in Croatia, Slovenia, Albania and Moldova. The bank serves 18 million customers through 1,750 branches in the various regional markets. The bank also specializes in important industries in these regions, such as agriculture, trade, food and renewable energy.
OTP Bank offers a wide range of products to the SME segment in these countries, including working capital and investment. The bank has digitized its platforms to offer SMEs online banking services, as well as electronic invoicing and cash flow reports. The bank has also focused on developing a new internet bank and reengineered its loan processes to better serve its customers.
BEST SME BANK IN LATIN AMERICA
Banco do Brazil
Banco do Brasil is Brazil’s oldest bank and the second largest by assets in Latin America. In the SME realm, it has 12% of the domestic market—representing 2.6 million companies and 17% of the bank’s total business. Banco do Brasil serves SMEs with 7,000 service professionals, 215 SME-exclusive branches, 1,701 retail branches with dedicated SME services, and nearly 5,000 specialized service points. It also offers SMEs 396 business platforms and 449 entrepreneurial hubs.
Covid-19 support included $22.4 billion in loans to this borrower segment, benefitting roughly 395,000 clients. Loans provided working capital, payroll financing, advances on receivables and more. Loan extensions and grace periods were also offered.
Technology plays a significant role in Banco do Brasil’s operations, and never more than during the pandemic. Installment extension requests were processed via the bank’s Digital PJ mobile app, which in 2020 processed more than 1.05 billion transactions and interactions. These included consultations, chats and loan applications. In addition, the bank debuted technologies that enable microenterprises to open checking accounts digitally and access services including automatic deposits, withdrawals and cash transfers. Finally, the bank partners with the nonprofit Brazilian Micro and Small Business Support Service business-development organization to engender a sustainable environment for Brazilian SMEs and microenterprises.
BEST SME BANK IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Emirates NBD bills itself as the leading banking group in the Middle East and North Africa. It has an SME market share of 24% in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with approximately 65,500 SME accounts. SME products and services are provided throughout its 68 branches, including seven key business banking centers. The bank’s 100 SME business relationship managers offer SME customers a broad array of accounts, along with cash management, asset management, wealth management and trade finance services.
Emirates NBD has also built the E20. digital business bank specifically to grow market share by better supporting small-business customers through digital technology. A particular target of E20. is the more than 100,000 UAE microbusinesses that often go unserved because of minimum bank balance requirements. E20. enables SME customers to start, manage and expand their businesses. A small-business resource center is available, as are tools for accounting, cash flow, expense management, payroll, invoicing and collections. Analytics provide SMEs with insight into their customers and stakeholders.
BEST SME BANK IN NORTH AMERICA
Royal Bank of Canada
The Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) earned the title of Best SME Bank in North America for its service and support of business banking clients throughout a truly turbulent 2020 and 2021. The bank partnered with the Canadian government’s various programs, such as the Business Development of Canada Co-Lending Program, Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, and the Highly Affected Sectors Credit Availability Program, as well as RBC’s own Client Relief Program, to provide businesses with much-needed emergency liquidity. The bank’s investment in advanced technologies like machine learning also paid off.
RBC additionally took steps to support cultural entrepreneurs through its launch of its RBCxMusic initiatives, which provided stipends and promotional support for early-career musicians and recording artists.
BEST SME BANK IN WESTERN EUROPE
Barclays is named Best SME Bank in Western Europe. With £1.3 trillion (about $1.8 trillion) in total assets as of the 2020 annual report, it’s one of the largest foreign banks operating in continental Europe. The UK-based bank has created a £14 billion new lending fund to support SMEs and offers a range of services, including clinics and webinars, to help SMEs manage their operations. Barclays also has partnerships with a variety of vendors that provide SMEs with services like pensions and asset finance.
As SMEs have struggled with the pandemic, the Back to Business program, sponsored by Barclays in partnership with Cambridge University’s Judge Business School, opened to SMEs regardless of whether they have a preexisting relationship with the bank.
The bank supports startups through an accelerator program focusing on fintechs. Recently, the bank also established Eagle Labs to help entrepreneurs scale and grow their startups. By working with Barclays experts, these startups become better equipped to stimulate local economies.
Barclays has had a presence throughout Western Europe for about a century and provides support to SMEs in these countries. SMEs can take advantage of some advisory and accelerator programs and access other SME services such as financing opportunities.