This section explores the credit system for SMEs in Latin America to analyse the causes of the sector’s funding gap. It describes the history and current state of the region’s financial system, particularly the development of the business model in retail banking, the increased presence of foreign banks, the changes in net interest margins and dollarisation levels, and regulatory changes introduced in recent years. In addition, it examines how these elements affect the characteristics of finance for SMEs in the region.

Development and structure of the credit model for SMEs

The financial system in Latin America has gone through major changes over the past two decades. From the 1990s governments in the region began to introduce reforms to liberalise the financial sector, with less government involvement and greater private-sector participation. In particular there was a rise in foreign ownership and banking concentration. Concentration increased substantially in the 2000s, with the three largest banks increasing their average assets from 51% in 2000 to 71% in 2009. Major banks grew in importance in the region while the business model shifted from relationship banking to multi-service banking. Foreign banks have gradually increased their presence in Latin America, raising their share of assets to 31%, one of the highest rates in the world.7 This figure is far above the rates of foreign ownership in South Asia (8%) and the OECD countries (12%), but close to the rates in sub-Saharan Africa (28%) and Eastern Europe (28%). However, bank ownership varies hugely across the region, with almost all banks in Central America and the Caribbean being foreign-owned.

The changes in the Latin American banking system have affected the finance mechanisms for SMEs. The arrival of larger banks with a multi-service business model instilled the idea that, unlike smaller banks, which have more of a relationship model, large banks provide fewer resources to SMEs, since they would not be interested in doing business with these kinds of firms because of information problems, high fixed costs for relatively small transactions, and the impossibility of using the economies of scale that exist when lending to large firms. However, in recent years large banks in the region have shown a growing interest in providing services to SMEs, but their supply is still insufficient (Figure 3.3) (de la Torre et al., 2010).

Figure 3.3. Type of loans offered to SMEs by size of financial institution, 2011


Various studies on the presence of foreign banks in Latin America have examined their impact on efficiency and competition in the banking sector, stability, the import of external shocks and credit to SMEs. The studies generally show that these banks are operationally more efficient than domestic banks, with lower interest margins and overhead costs (Yeyati and Micco, 2007). In addition, several studies have found no significant difference in lending to SMEs between foreign banks and major domestic and public banks (de la Torre et al., 2010; Beck et al., 2011). However, there is mixed evidence regarding the relationship between foreign banks and lending to SMEs, or at least there is not such a positive correlation with lending to such firms. Foreign banks seem to be more reluctant to lend to small firms without clear information proving their solvency. When they do lend, they prefer providing short-term loans to larger companies (Berger et al., 2001; Mian, 2006 and Ferraro, 2011). While the presence of foreign banks helped bring stability during the crises of the late 1990s, lending by foreign banks fell sharply during the 2008 crisis, increasing the risk of shocks being imported from developed countries (Cetorelli and Goldberg, 2011; Gianetti and Laeven, 2012).

Despite considerable improvements in recent years, the Latin American credit model for SMEs is still faced with challenges both in the supply and demand of finance. From the point of view of supply, the current multi-service banking model, with methods based solely on the company’s solvency and not its projected profitability, has brought about an inflexible way of assessing and measuring risk, a low debt-recovery rate among financial institutions (due to the lack of information and transparency of balance sheets), lower economies of scale (due to the fixed costs of small transactions) and problems with selection methods, which have segmented the credit market. From the point of view of demand, SMEs are faced with various obstacles limiting their access to finance. These include technical requirements for obtaining a loan, collateral requirements, and high interest rates. Because of the nature of supply and demand for finance, commercial banks tend to lend very little to SMEs, which must therefore rely heavily on self-financing and resources from suppliers. So, although credit is available, bureaucracy, such as balance-sheet requirements (which often SMEs report incomplete) or collateral requirements make it hard to access. Financial institutions and financing mechanisms have a crucial role to play in breaking down these barriers and thus improving access to credit for SMEs, providing them with specific instruments and support in applying for and managing loans.

Net interest margins in Latin America

Net interest margins and other factors such as taxation on financial intermediation, market structure and risk determine how efficiently banks can use their resources for financial intermediation. Though there are large differences among countries, several Latin American countries have net interest margins that are among the highest in the world, higher than in OECD countries and other emerging regions (Figure 3.4). For example, Chile’s and Mexico’s margins are below the Eastern European average, while Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Guatemala have the highest margins among the countries analysed. High net interest margins can reduce the number of profitable investment projects and raise borrowing costs, so they can limit the availability of credit to businesses, especially SMEs.

Net interest margins in several Latin American countries rank among the highest in the world. By increasing the final cost of capital, in particular for SMEs, they have affected credit availability. 

Net interest margins cannot be explained only by the risk associated to loans in Latin America, since the percentage of non-performing loans has become one of the lowest in the world (World Bank, 2012a). Another factor behind the region’s high margins is the banks’ overhead costs8, which are among the highest in the world, hence the differences with other emerging economies. Reserve requirements and differences in rights of ownership also push margins up, albeit to a lesser extent (Gelos, 2009). To reduce these margins, it is necessary to stimulate competition and bank efficiency, reduce reserve requirements where they have no negative impact on financial stability and improve the legal environment. 

Figure 3.4. Net interest margin, 2009



Dollarisation refers to dollar-denominated debt, and it too has played a role in financing business in the region, especially medium-sized firms. Dollarisation increased in Latin America in the 1990s due to high inflation and large interest rate differentials (Rennhack and Nozaki, 2006; Fernández-Arias et al., 2006). Although macroeconomic stability and the introduction of floating exchange rates led to a decline in foreign-currency debt, many firms, often those with links to the export sector, continued to rely on this form of finance (Zettelmayer et al., 2010). In Peru and Bolivia, the dollarisation of loans for small businesses reached almost 30% and 50% respectively during the last decade (García-Escribano and Sosa, 2011). In addition to the lower cost of capital, foreign-currency loans tend to have longer maturities, which favours medium- and long-term investment. The higher maturity of loans made this mechanism more relevant for medium-sized firms, as is reflected in the rise in foreign loans to manufacturing and tourism firms in various countries in the region (Bodnár, 2009). Although it is an alternative form of credit, foreign-currency borrowing undermined the domestic development of other kinds of instruments for medium-sized firms. Since many medium-sized firms with access to foreign credit lack the financial infrastructure for foreign-exchange hedging, dollarisation has also increased the currency risk for firms using this mechanism.

Although dollarisation represents a borrowing option for some firms, reaching levels of 30% to 50% in some countries, the lack of financial infrastructure for hedging has resulted in a higher currency risk for some SMEs. 

International financial regulation and access to credit for SMEs

International financial regulation has been highlighted as a possible explaining factor for why the banking sector largely ignores SMEs (OECD, 2012a). Although Basel II9 is still being implemented in the region, its effects need evaluating, especially on lending practices for businesses. The gradual, delayed implementation of Basel II in Latin America has focused particularly on capital adjustments (de la Torre et al., 2012). By requiring larger provisions, the capital available for borrowing (personal or corporate) may have declined in some segments of commercial banking. However, previous financial crises endowed countries in the region with domestic regulations to tackle the problems associated with credit risk. But in several countries it is national rather than international regulations that have tended to damage the availability of credit to SMEs. 

New regulations for managing liquidity introduced as part of Basel III in 2009 in response to the international economic crisis seek to strengthen certain key measures to prevent the kind of liquidity problems that have come to the fore during the crisis, especially those related to capital requirements.10 The new regulation can generate two opposite effects on lending to SMEs: it can increase liquidity requirements for the banking sector and reclassify loans to small businesses with a lower risk level. As in other episodes of crisis, higher capital requirements can trigger commercial credit rationing or higher financing costs (OECD, 2012a; Elliot, 2010). Moreover, classifying loans to SMEs as retail banking could allow financial institutions to reduce the sector’s risk classification. This approach, unlike a corporate loan classification, can allow the risk premium charged to small businesses to be cut. The net effect on SMEs in the coming years will depend on these two factors, once the regulation has come into force.

Cuadro 3.1 Aplicación de las regulaciones de Basilea III en América Latina

Argentina Brasil Chile  Colombia México Perú
Coeficiente de solvencia (% de activos ponderados por riesgo) 8 11 8 9 8 10
Estándar Basilea I Basilea II Basilea I Basilea I Basilea II Basilea II
Autorización para modelos internos de Basilea II No No No
Facultad para exigir un coeficiente de solvencia superior a cada banco basado en evaluación regulatoria de riesgo

Fuente: De la Torre, Ize y Schmukler (2012).

Credit guarantee schemes allow SMEs to use low-risk assets (financial and non-financial) as collateral and can help downgrade the assessed risk, thus facilitating the provision of credit to such firms. The Basel III regulations allow guarantees to be used to reduce companies’ risk weight and therefore cut down the reserve capital requirements. This may be one of the most significant changes to finance for SMEs, since it encourages financial institutions to become involved in such programmes. National regulations can complement these schemes, allowing the use of mobile assets (e.g. machinery) as collateral. These possibilities open the door for targeted government intervention.