SME Rating Dilemma

Small and medium-sized companies have difficulties communicating their creditworthiness credibly. Recognized credit rating agencies concentrate their services on companies that go through a committee-based rating process. The legal framework in Europe offers no alternative to this. Only those who meet all the requirements of the EU regulation on credit rating agencies can be recognized as a rating agency. These requirements provide for an assessment process for which analysts are responsible, which leads to a decision by a rating committee. The agency’s supervisory and control bodies must be filled accordingly. Recognized rating agencies must have at least two independent non-executive directors on their board, provide a review function, etc.

Only personalities with many years of professional experience, academic training and aptitude of character are considered as rating analysts. Analysts are not allowed to perform sales functions for the rating agency at the same time. It is therefore necessary to appoint additional employees who are responsible for business development. All these requirements mean that the operation of a recognized rating agency is associated with considerable costs. Accordingly, the supervisory authority responsible in the EU, the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA), requires the rating agency to have sufficient capital to ensure the agency’s continued existence. All of these requirements mean that the traditional rating process, as required by law, is too expensive for small and medium-sized companies.

The rating process is too expensive for small and medium-sized companies, as the financial requirements are much lower than in large corporations. That already results from the definition of small and medium-sized companies. The costs of the rating process must be put in relationship to a significantly smaller financing volume.

However, the rating process is not necessarily easier for small and medium-sized companies than for large companies. Sometimes the opposite is even true: large companies are often organized similarly as corporations, have diversified business activities and compete with comparable companies with their products.

Small and medium-sized companies, on the other hand, often have specialists who offer unique products for a relatively small market. Often these companies are “hidden champions” who occupy a niche market. Their special expertise protects them against competitors. Due to the specialization and special expertise, the best small and medium-sized companies in terms of creditworthiness are often not easy to identify. For rating agencies that work in accordance with the restrictions of the EU regulation on rating agencies, there is hardly any team of analysts who have the necessary specialist knowledge in all specialist areas.

Credit bureaus therefore intervene in the movement of goods with customers and suppliers. These collect data from court registers and other public sources. However, due to the applicable disclosure requirements in the EU, this data is of limited topicality. Ratings calculated using such data are correspondingly outdated. Ratings are often determined on the basis of annual financial statements from the year before last. In addition, small companies, which can include listed companies, are not required to disclose their income statements.

These adverse conditions limit the possibilities of developing suitable rating models for small and medium-sized companies on a purely mathematical-statistical basis using the statutory mandatory publications.

Only a rating agency that works on a model basis but acts on behalf of the company assessed can lead out of this dilemma. In this case, the company has the option of providing more up-to-date and comprehensive data specifically for the purpose of credit rating. The annual financial statements prescribed by accounting law have many addressees. There is also a dependency on the tax balance sheet. For these reasons, statutory annual financial statements are not ideal for creating ratings.

According to the EU regulation on rating agencies, ratings based on a scoring model are not subject to approval by the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA). Since these ratings are not subject to supervision, they may not be used for certain applications. This affects banks, insurance companies and other institutional investors.

The aspects mentioned illustrate the difficulties that small and medium-sized enterprises in the EU face when it comes to rating.

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