LONDON The finance chiefs of Britain's biggest companies say their appetite for risk has returned, with a poll showing they believe access to bank lending will ease in 2014, enabling them to expand and hire more staff.
Britain's economy reported some of the fastest growth of any major industrialized economy in the first nine months of 2013. But the improvement was largely driven by consumers and the Bank of England has warned that exports and business investment need to strengthen if growth is to be sustained.
Central bank figures released on Friday showed that business lending had slumped in November - its biggest fall since comparable figures began in May 2011 - with a lack of lending to larger firms being behind the sharp drop.
But in an encouraging sign, the Deloitte survey of 122 chief financial officers found that bank borrowing was now the most attractive source of funding, the first time they have said that since the financial crisis began.
Some 57 percent of those surveyed said that, with credit easing and economic uncertainty retreating, now was a good time to take risk onto their balance sheets, the most positive response since the survey started six years ago.
"There has been a dramatic change," Ian Stewart, chief economist at Deloitte, told Reuters.
"If you compare how CFOs felt going into 2013, with how they feel about 2014, there has been a dramatic decline in perceptions of risk, particularly in relation to the euro zone, a big fall in the fears of recession and further improvements in credit availability."
Access to credit has been seen as a key impediment to economic recovery in Britain, with many banks holding off lending while they repaired their balance sheets after the financial downturn.
According to the Deloitte survey, the finance directors including those from 32 FTSE 100 companies and 41 FTSE 250 companies believe bank borrowing and equity issuance by corporations will increase markedly over the next year.
"If we were looking to deliver a CFO survey that would cheer up the Bank of England and Treasury, this probably would be it," Stewart said. "It vindicates the idea of a continued recovery and one that, crucially, big corporates are playing a much bigger role in."
Recent data has also shown signs of a strong recovery in Britain's housing market, with mortgage lender Nationwide reporting that prices were up by more than 8 percent on the year, the biggest increase since 2010.
With government critics starting to warn of a housing bubble, the Bank of England put the brakes on a scheme launched in August 2012 to help boost mortgage lending, choosing instead to direct its firepower towards helping companies to borrow.
The finance directors surveyed by Deloitte welcomed the stance taken by the Bank, with 49 percent saying the policies of new Governor Mark Carney had contributed to the growing confidence.
(Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)