Half a million small businesses in financial distress

Earlier this week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published its latest Coronavirus indicators report for the UK economy. This covers responses from 5,036 businesses surveyed during the period 20 April to 3 May 2020. 

Given the lack of information on business performance, this is an important ongoing study that will enable policymakers to hopefully nuance their responses to supporting businesses as we hopefully begin to move out of the recession caused by the current pandemic. 

So what are the takeaways from this current survey? 

Given the constant bad news on the economy, it may be surprising to find that less than 1% of responding businesses indicated they had permanently ceased trading. In fact, 77% of UK businesses are still continuing to trade with the highest proportion found in England (78%) and the lowest in Northern Ireland (73%). 

In Wales, 76% of businesses are still trading during the current lockdown although a higher proportion are trading at a far lower turnover than prior to the lockdown, especially compared to the other three nations. The survey shows that 62% have seen a decrease in their turnover (vs 58% for the UK) with 27% losing half or more of their sales (vs 23% for the UK). 

For all businesses trading, 6% reported that their turnover had decreased to some extent compared with normal with a quarter of trading businesses reported their turnover had decreased by more than 50%.

Whilst 80 per cent of large businesses with more than 250 employees continue to trade, it is surprising that one in five have temporarily closed their business although this may be due to the higher proportion of these firms in sectors such as manufacturing and construction. 

Small firms with fewer than 250 employees have experienced a marginally higher decrease in turnover during the crisis although a greater proportion have lost more than half their sales. 

By sector, the highest levels of current activity are to be found in higher level professional services which is reflected in the ease of working from home for those employed in such businesses. In contrast, two sectors have been hit hard are accommodation and food service activities, and arts, entertainment and recreation where four out of five firms have temporarily closed or pausing their trading.

With one in five firms currently not operating, the question for both the UK and Welsh Governments is how to kickstart these two sectors which make up most of the tourism industry given that many businesses such as hotels, restaurants, music venues, pubs and other social economy businesses are likely to be the last to be allowed to open.

These two sectors have also, proportionately, the highest number of firms experiencing more than 50% decrease in turnover although more construction firms have experienced an overall decrease in turnover than those found in any other sector.   

As we know, the UK Government has introduced a range of different support mechanisms to help businesses during the current pandemic with the Job Retention Scheme (where employees are furloughed) being the most popular intervention (67% of firms) followed by deferment of VAT payments (57% of firms). 

Surprisingly, one in five businesses have not taken advantage of any of these initiatives and the lowest support seems to be for small business grant and loan schemes However, the Bounce Back loans aimed at increasing the flow of funding to smaller businesses was only released after this survey was undertaken and according to UK Finance, £8.4 billion has been paid to 268,173 businesses in the week since it was launched.

A higher proportion of Welsh firms have taken up every type of UK Government intervention over the last two months demonstrating that despite devolution, businesses in wales have relied more on the UK Treasury than Cardiff Bay in keeping their businesses afloat. 

Certainly, there will need to be greater co-operation between both governments going forward not only in developing a clear and unambiguous strategy for taking the Welsh economy out of the current situation but, more importantly, in ensuring that businesses are able to wean themselves off the support without any adverse effect.

Therefore, the ONS study shows that whilst the majority of businesses are still trading, their turnover has fallen during the Covid-19 crisis although this does vary by sector, size of firm and home nation. 

However, this decrease in sales has been supported by a range of different mechanisms from the UK Government, especially the job retention scheme which has reduced redundancies across the UK. With one or two sectors clearly being more vulnerable than the rest of the economy (and those being of particular importance to the tourism industry in Wales), the challenge for policymakers will be how to develop a  more nuanced approach to supporting businesses as we slowly emerge from the lockdown over the next few months. 

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