Call for delay of pandemic debt until businesses become profitable

A study by Onward has found that around 20% of British businesses are only making enough profit to cover their debt interest payments.

High levels of corporate debt built up by companies during the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed 4.3% of firms into technical insolvency, the report estimates.

In the new research paper titled ‘Paying it forward’ by Onward. The paper argues that without action, the economic recovery will be hampered by the crippling levels of corporate debt that have built up since the start of the pandemic.
The report, which uses data from the ONS Business Impact of Covid-19 Survey alongside a large sample of firm-level data, finds that nearly one in twenty firms (4.3%) is likely to be pushed into technical insolvency due to the levels of debt they have already built up since March. If they can continue to meet their day-to-day commitments these firms will be able to continue operating, but if dissolved they wouldn’t have the assets to cover its liabilities. These firms employ an estimated 1.8 million workers.

In addition, the analysis finds that the number of firms in the UK who are “zombies” – meaning that their profits only just cover their debt interest payments – and in some cases cannot cover them at all – has risen sharply in the last six months since March, by up to 4%. This means that the total share of zombie firms in the UK economy is now 20%, representing one in five firms.

Things would have been considerably worse had the Treasury not acted to support firms through loans and the furlough scheme. Onward estimates that 12% of firms would have suffered a cash flow crisis, meaning that their working capital would have fallen below the resources needed to  continue trading, had they not had access to support from the Exchequer. This represents 350,000 firms who collectively employ 5 million people.

The report explores different ways to reduce the negative impact of growing corporate debt accumulation on the recovery and argues for a new scheme, New Start, under which HMRC would allow firms to pay down their government-issued debt over a long period, through a surcharge on taxable profits and shareholder salaries, rather than over the next few years when investment and growth are more of a priority than deveraging.

Under this arrangement, firms would only pay when they became profitable again, much like under the existing student loan system for tuition fees. This scheme allows loans to be paid back through taxes on profits would provide the economic flexibility and administrative efficiency needed to overcome this crisis, maximising taxpayer value for money at the same time.

Angus Groom, Onward Fellow and report author said “The Government’s loans schemes have been highly effective at helping firms through the worst of the crisis, but they represent a double-edged sword in that they have weighed down firms with debt just as we need them to invest to spur the recovery.”

“The Chancellor has so far appeared reluctant to consider restructuring the newly issued COVID debt. The New Start scheme gives the option to intelligently delay repayments only for those firms who need it. This can be rolled out as a scheme managed by HM Treasury and implemented and controlled by banks—all the while maximising taxpayer value for loans that the Government has already underwritten”