Large companies contribute disproportionately more to a country’s economic performance than smaller ones, according to a new EU-funded survey.

Bigger corporations are more productive, they pay higher wages, enjoy higher profits, and are more successful in international markets, said the report by European Firms in a Global Economy (EFIGE), an EU-funded project.

Therefore, a country's economic performance can be linked to its number of big corporations, says the survey, which was carried out under the supervision of Brussels-based think tank Bruegel.

This is one of the conclusions in EFIGE's new report, Breaking down the barriers to firm growth in Europe. The report systematically explores the interaction between firm and country characteristics through a survey of about 15,000 manufacturers in Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Differences in the firm size profile of different European countries are dramatic, according to EFIGE. Companies in Spain and Italy are, for example, on average 40% smaller than those in Germany.

According to the authors of the report, it is important to understand the roots of the differences as they are "key to improving the economic performance of Europe’s lagging economies."

The low-average firm size translates into a chronic lack of large firms. In Spain and Italy a mere 5% of manufacturing firms have more than 250 employees, compared to a much higher 11% in Germany. The average firm size in Spain and Italy is, respectively, 49.3 and 42.7 employees, compared to 76.4 on average in Germany.

Analysts say large companies are more innovative

In all the countries in the survey, the exporting firms are also found to be larger and do more research and development (R&D).

"This suggests that barriers to R&D and trade are the main culprits that slow down firm growth. Countries that face higher trade costs provide fewer opportunities for businesses to become large. And a relative absence of R&D spending puts a break on firm growth, leading to a size distribution skewed towards smaller firms," the report said.

Trade and innovation are not independent, but interact in significant ways. For example, a reduction in trade costs tends to stimulate innovation as it allows firms to become larger. This makes it easier for the firm to bear the fixed costs of R&D.

To identify the barriers to firm growth, the authors behind the report say a model is needed to analyse different factors such as trade costs, innovation costs and tax distortions.

For example, if trade was to be ignored, then the model would predict that both Spain and Italy have high innovation costs. But once trade is introduced, the model finds that the large proportion of small firms in Italy is mainly due to high innovation costs, whereas in Spain it is due to a combination of high trade and high innovation costs.

If Italy wants to reduce the barriers to business growth, the country should mainly focus on promoting innovation. In Spain the emphasis should also be on cutting trade costs and improving access to international markets.