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Canadian small businesses show signs of fatigue as confidence wanes: CIBC

Small businesses that outperform are adopting to today's new reality by becoming more export-oriented

TORONTO, Oct. 10, 2017 /CNW/ - Nine years into the economic cycle, small and medium-sized businesses are not only showing signs of fatigue and reporting lower confidence, they are also facing several potential headwinds, finds a new CIBC Capital Markets report.

"Small and medium-sized enterprises were the pioneers of the economic recovery, able to generate jobs at a pace faster than managed by larger corporations. But the cycle is maturing, and SMEs are showing some signs of fatigue," says CIBC Deputy Chief Economist Benjamin Tal, who authored the report, Canadian SMEs – The Cycle and Beyond. "External shocks such as higher interest rates, a stronger Canadian dollar, rising minimum wages and potential tax policy changes will further test the durability of this critical segment of the Canadian economy. Are they up to the task?"

With healthy cash positions and debt levels, and business investment in positive territory, large corporations are now outpacing SMEs in job creation. While there are no major red flags for corporate Canada, the report says a closer look reveals early signs of fragility.

Profit margins, at just under 7 per cent, are consistent with numbers posted in the second half of the past two expansions, but this time, margins have been helped by lower unit labour costs, reflecting in part wages that are remaining tame for deeper into the cycle than textbook models predict.

Already, SMEs are telling us that the euphoric 4-per cent-plus GDP growth is not going to last, Mr. Tal says.

Their "confidence took a nosedive in the past few months, paving the way to a much softer economic reading in the second half of the year. And that reduced confidence is visible in the hiring momentum in the SME space," with SME hiring slowing down and its share in employment falling, the report says.

"Over the past two years the pace of job creation by SMEs was half of that seen among large corporations," says Mr. Tal.

Despite the challenges, the exit rate among SMEs has been trending downward, suggesting that businesses are surviving for longer. The report also noted the number of new business entrants has also been on the decline, and the average age of SMEs is rising.

However, the younger a business is, the faster it tends to grow, the report says.

"The rising average age of SMEs is working to reduce the dynamism and growth potential of the entire sector, regardless of where we are in the cycle," Mr. Tal says.

The secrets to SME success

The report examined SMEs with above-average revenue growth over the past five years to uncover what leads to success and found three key trends:  

  • Outsourcing – small firms that receive outsourced work from other companies grow their revenues, on average, 45 per cent faster than firms without outsourcing work;
  • Export orientation – export-oriented firms see their revenue rise 50 per cent faster than non-exporting firms; and,
  • Market flexibility – companies with an increased number of services and product saw on average stronger revenue growth and, by sector, service-oriented SMEs outperformed, including firms in finance information and recreation.

For more than half of SMEs, the nature of their business has changed over the past five years, with increased export-orientation and growing product or service line playing an important role in that change, the report says.

"This finding suggests that small business owners are able to adjust to an evolving marketplace by shifting products or services," says Mr. Tal.  "At the end of the day, the key to success is the business model and the ability to adapt to changing market conditions."

The report also notes that success in business does not hinge on the owner's motivation for launching their business, such as being laid off and needing to find work, or being passionate about a business idea.

"Interestingly, we found no performance difference between SMEs that were created due to negative economic circumstances and companies that were established by the entrepreneur's choice to become self-employed," Mr. Tal says.

About CIBC
CIBC is a leading Canadian-based global financial institution with 11 million personal banking, business, public sector and institutional clients. Across Personal and Small Business Banking, Commercial Banking and Wealth Management, and Capital Markets businesses, CIBC offers a full range of advice, solutions and services through its leading digital banking network, and locations across Canada,  in the United States and around the world. CIBC Capital Markets provides integrated global markets products and services, investment banking advisory and execution, corporate banking and top-ranked research to corporate, government and institutional clients around the world. Visit for more information on CIBC and CIBC Capital Markets. Ongoing news releases and more information about CIBC can be found at

SOURCE CIBC - Economic Research

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