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Banks, Lenders & Investors Cash Flow & Forecasting Finance Insolvency

Monthly global outlook – the Bears are gathering for a global economic slowdown but will it be a crash?

Global economic slowdown - or tsunami?While the “B” word is the focus of attention in UK and cited as the cause of low productivity and a UK economic slowdown, there is a growing body of evidence outside UK that is indicating a global economic slowdown although few are yet predicting a crash.
According to the Independent’s economics writer Hamish McRae: “The European economy has pretty much ground to a halt – and this has very little to do with Brexit. If, however, the Brexit negotiations go badly, then the sky darkens – and not just across Europe.”
Certainly, the prospects across the world are looking gloomier.
Recessions tend to be cyclical and come at 10-year intervals, and it is now a decade since the global Financial Crash of 2008.
Arguably, much more important than Brexit is the fact that ten years on Central Bank intervention continues, there are enduring low interest rates and that many nations are still on emergency monetary policies. And there is now a huge mountain of debt that everyone seems to ignore.
US Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman is one of those predicting that there will be a recession in America by the time Donald Trump comes up for re-election at the end of next year.
The second half data from 2018 suggests that global growth has peaked and reported the onset of falling demand for goods and declining factory output in China, Germany, Japan and South Korea, to name a few of the countries particularly dependent on global trade.
In Davos last month IMF managing director, Christine Lagarde, warned that the risks of a sharper decline in activity had increased. Earlier this month came a report from the WTO (World Trade Organisation) that its quarterly indicator of world merchandise trade had slumped to its lowest reading in nine years.
Several Central banks, including the ECB (European Central Bank) and the Chinese have been trying to stimulate growth and investment.
You may remember that both Paul Krugman and Kenneth Rogoff, who is professor of economics and public policy at Harvard University, predicted the 2008 financial meltdown although they were ignored at the time.
However, interest rates remain at rock bottom and debt has been creeping up. As Krugman says, “we came into the last crisis with interest rates well above zero, we came into the last crisis with debt substantially lower than it is now … and we came into the last crisis with substantially better leadership …”
Herein lies the problem.
The world has changed, perhaps as a result of ten years continuing pain since of 2008 and little prospects of respite in the future.  We have seen a rise in protectionism and “populist” movements, most notably in Italy, in Eastern Europe and in Trump’s America, in his sanctions threatened against China, and in tensions between the US and Mexico.
If, as Krugman predicts and Rogoff warn, another economic crisis is looming it is unlikely that we will see the same, co-ordinated government action as was made by the G20 in 2008 that staved off a complete economic meltdown. Although this time there is little left in the tank, especially given the low rates of interest and huge levels of national debt. I see the seeds of huge interest rate rises.
To quote Rogoff in a recent article in the Guardian: “Crisis management cannot be run on autopilot, and the safety of the financial system depends critically on the competence of the people managing it…. The bad news is that crisis management involves the entire government, not just the monetary authority. And here there is ample room for doubt.”

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Business Development & Marketing Cash Flow & Forecasting Insolvency Turnaround

How to make failure your first step towards business success

failure is just one step on the road to successNone of us is perfect.  Perhaps that is why we admire so-called successful people so much.
But behind almost every business success lies a series of failures. Just ask Thomas Edison, inventor of the electric lightbulb, or Richard Branson, who has made no secret of his past business failures, or even Luke Johnson, investor in and chairman of the recently-failed Patisserie Valerie and business blogger who has written extensively about failure and pertinently for him how to spot and prevent it.
Edison said of previously unsuccessful attempts at his invention: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
He also said: “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up.” This along with learning the lessons from failure is the key to understanding how successful people approach failure.
Failure would be better rebranded as a trial and error approach to achieving goals where essentially each instance of failure is primarily a learning experience. Each failure simply requires humility that recognises our fallibility and a degree of honesty, thought and a willingness to learn.

Converting failure to success is all about attitude

A business failure can be a devastating experience but the worst things you can do are wallow in self-pity, sink into a depression, give up or, even worse, blame others. These characterise the behaviour of a victim.
There are plenty of business gurus with advice about dealing with failure, and most will start with advising you to accept that you may have been to blame, but the key is to move on by analysing what, precisely, went wrong and to then try again, differently. Trial and error.
Firstly, you should resist the urge to repeat past mistakes by trying the same thing again, only bigger or cheaper. For example, if your customers aren’t buying your products or services you need to give careful thought to whether your business offers something they want, in the way they can buy it, rather than something you thought was a great idea but they don’t want or don’t know about. How much market research did you actually do?
Secondly, how competent are you at running a business?  Did you have a business plan? Did you regularly check cash flow, produce management accounts and so on?  Did you put in place robust credit control and other processes? We cannot all be good at everything so if you feel you do not understand any of these subjects properly you should have the humility to get in expert help and be willing to act on it.
Were you sufficiently passionate and committed to your business? It may have seemed like a sure fire way to make a lot of money, but that, on its own, is no guarantee of success.  It is also important to be emotionally invested in what you are doing and committed to making it work.
There are plenty of inspiring examples of people who have become successful after multiple failures but what they all have in common is an ability to be honest with themselves and to learn from others, to be passionate about their idea and to never give up.

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Business Development & Marketing Cash Flow & Forecasting Finance General

Is outsourcing a blessing or a curse for SMEs?

outsourcing can reduce office chaosAccording to the GMB union the Government’s use of outsourcing has increased since the collapse into insolvency of the firm Carillion at the start of 2018, pushing the value of contracts up by 53%.
Whether the increasing use of outsourcing is a good or a bad thing depends on many factors.
For those sub-contractors and suppliers to Carillion who either lost contracts, money or work, it clearly was not a good thing as they await the outcome of investigations by Insolvency Practitioners to see whether there will ever be any recompense.
Pertinently for those owed money when a company enters an insolvency process, its employees are paid in priority or by the government if there aren’t sufficient funds, whereas its sub-contractors are treated as unsecured creditors and rarely paid anything like the amount they are owed.
But many SMEs depend for at least some, if not all, of their revenue on providing various outsourced services to their clients, from IT support and website building, to supplying parts or labour as part of a supply chain in construction, engineering and elsewhere.
Many self-employed people also provide services, from book keeping to marketing services.
The problems come when the buyer of the services is less than prompt about paying, often much later than in the terms and conditions, or perhaps they put pressure on suppliers to do work either for free or at extremely low cost, offering the “carrot” of more work or exposure that will be good for their business and result in further work.
Many self-employed people report, however, that the “carrot” fails to materialise and that in fact it puts a downward pressure on people and businesses offering services in their sector.
There is no doubt, though, that for those SMEs with the right skills and offering, and especially where there is a skill shortage, outsourcing can benefit both parties.

How to maximise the outsourcing benefits and minimise the risks

While using outsourced skills can improve a business’ output and reputation while minimising costs or at least avoiding employee liabilities, there are some pitfalls to be wary of.
The main ones involve not having the skills and owning intellectual property in-house which can expose you to supply and demand costs when business is growing. This is common in the construction and IT industries.
There is also the potential for the leak of sensitive information by people who are likely to have less loyalty to the business than those who are directly employed.
Another common problem is a lack of clarity about roles and contractual obligations.
Consistent quality of the work being provided and also adherence to deadlines may also be a problem.
At the initial stages of choosing a business to which to outsource a function or task, therefore, there needs to be very clear and detailed discussion of all the above issues with clear contractual obligations underpinned by deadlines with processes laid down for quality control and confidentiality together with penalty clauses should the provider fail to meet them.
By the same token, there should be a clear agreement on payment amounts and dates.
All of these should be included in a written agreement and signed by both parties as a contract which most likely will only ever be referred to when disagreements arise.
Both parties, those offering outsourced services and those buying them, can benefit from the transaction, but only if there is transparency with safeguards in place as well as honesty and integrity.

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Business Development & Marketing Cash Flow & Forecasting General

Are your staff loyal? Retaining valuable staff depends on how you treat them!

valuable staff should be well treatedIn a mature economy with an ageing population and amid rapidly-changing technology, businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to find the skilled staff that they need.
This makes it a buyers’ market for job seekers and the evidence for this has been mounting particularly in sectors such as construction, engineering, manufacturing and IT where wages are rising significantly above inflation.
In December a report from Barclays showed that only 6% of people aged between 16 and 23 wanted to work in manufacturing and official figures have also shown that workers are switching jobs in record numbers.
A BCC (British Chambers of Commerce) report based on a survey of 6000 businesses in January revealed that four fifths of employers in manufacturing reported difficulties in finding the right workers and in the services sector, which makes up nearly 80% of the economy, seven in 10 said they had struggled to recruit.

Persuading valuable staff to stay with your business

At the moment UK employment is at its highest level ever and depending on proposed Government changes to immigration rules, it may become more costly, and difficult, to recruit from overseas.
Projections for 2019 suggest that businesses will have to increase rewards and perks to secure and retain valuable staff and will have to become more ethical. Alternative work conditions, such as remote working may also be on the rise.
What do workers value?
First and foremost, they want to feel valued and respected and to be involved in the progress of the business for which they are working.
While adequate remuneration is a part of this, so, too is the possibility of progressing within the business so listening to their ideas is key as is offering training, particularly if parts of the business process can be automated.  The introduction of AI should not be seen as a threat but can be used as an opportunity to offer upskilling to at least some of those who may be affected.
There has also been a lot of emphasis on the disparity between women’s pay when compared with men’s and the pressure to show female employees that they are an equally valuable part of the team with the same prospects and opportunities is becoming increasingly important.
Employee wellbeing, too, is moving up the agenda.  38% of workers say they have suffered from work-related stress. While pressure can be a positive motivator for improving productivity, when it becomes stress it can lead to mental health problems.
A clearly laid-out set of policies on mental and physical health should be a part of every employee handbook and should be acted upon if the need arises.
Being part of an ethical company that is not afraid to publicise the fact can also be important.
Businesses can benefit from being more innovative in the way they support and reward staff and should look beyond their current policies for ideas.
This more than simply paying high wages, it is your actions and behaviour as a manager and leader that are also key for staff when considering if they should stay.
There are a number of quotes about valuing staff, I like this one by Richard Branson: “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”

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Accounting & Bookkeeping Cash Flow & Forecasting Factoring, Invoice Discounting & Asset Finance Finance Insolvency

How can SMEs manage credit control and late payment effectively?

Prompt Payment Code: late payment penalty?There is no doubt that getting invoices paid on time can make a significant difference to SMEs’ cash flow and the lack of cash due to late payment can make or break a business.
Clearly, there are cash flow advantages for those late payers who string out paying their invoices for as long as possible, while the opposite is true for those waiting on the receiving end, often SMEs.
Towards the end of last year Xero Small Business Insights calculated that the average British small business is owed £24,841 in late payments on any given day.  It is clear that Government initiatives, such as getting businesses to sign up to its Prompt Payment Code, are proving less than effective. A year after the appointment of Paul Uppal, the small business commissioner, it was announced that his service had recovered just £2.1m in unpaid invoices on behalf of small companies. Pitiful!
All this has prompted the Government’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee to call, yet again, for firms to sign up to the Prompt Payment Code and for the Small Business Commissioner to be given the power to fine companies that pay late. It says large firms should be legally forced to pay their small suppliers within 30 days.
In January Mr Uppal announced a traffic light warning system to be used to name and shame large firms that fail to pay their suppliers on time.
Will this strike terror into the hearts of persistent late payers and force a change of behaviour? I think not, although making it a criminal offence for directors would work, as currently is the case for HMRC’s Security Demands.

Do SMEs do enough to protect themselves from late payment problems?

Annual research by Bacs Payment Schemes showed that in 2018 small businesses in the UK faced a bill of £6.7bn to collect money they are owed by other companies, up from £2.6bn in 2017.
It is a problem that the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses) estimates is the reason for the collapse of around 50,000 businesses a year.
Some, however, would argue that SMEs should take more responsibility for and be more aggressive in recovering monies owed for the work they have done in good faith, but it’s hardly a level playing field. The cost of money claims through the courts is now horrendous.
Of course, a well-managed business should have a robust credit control system in place, which sets clear expectations from the moment it contracts for work, including a stated agreement with the client that invoice payment will be due within a defined number of days, usually 30.  It is wise to also credit check all new customers. It is also wise to check payment is scheduled for payment before it is actually due; this deals with most excuses in advance.
Payment should be made as easy as possible with online banking details and address for postal payments included on all invoices. If it is feasible perhaps a small discount could be offered to those who pay early or within a stated time period. A supplier to one of my manufacturing companies offers 90 day payment terms with a 40% discount if payment is made within 30 days. That’s my margin so late payment is painful.
The credit control system should also have clear, robust procedures for following up on late payers, from sending out reminder letters that make it clear that failure to pay will likely incur significant costs and disruption such as suspension of the account.
However, even with a robust system in place, and one on which the business acts, there may still be late payment problems and SMEs can use such services as factoring, where another company takes on responsibility for collecting and chasing invoices, or invoice discounting, where, again, another company takes on the task of chasing invoices but with the SME having ultimate control.
In both cases, however, these are fee-paying services, effectively “lending” money up front to the SME at less than the full value of the outstanding invoices. If you use such services do be aware that many have a recourse clause so make sure to check if you remain liable or have to reimburse the lender.
While borrowing against book debts might improve an SME’s cash flow, it comes at a price and often with hidden additional costs and conditions in the small print. This is where an independent broker, not an online one, is a useful ally when looking for book debt finance.
Another option is to take out credit insurance although this normally only pays out in the event of your customer going bust and doesn’t solve the late payment problem.
Why should a business have to pay extra/ lose part of its revenue in order to recover money promptly for work it has done in good faith?
What is needed is robust, effective legislation, and follow-up action, with sufficient teeth to eradicate this persistent problem once and for all.
A free guide to debt collection for SMEs is available for download at:
https://www.onlineturnaroundguru.com/p/getting-paid-on-time

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Business Development & Marketing General Interim Management & Executive Support

Is your business barely managing and if so why?

Business barely managing in stormEvidence suggests that many UK businesses are barely managing when compared to foreign-owned businesses of equivalent size operating in the UK.
At the moment it is easy to blame everything on the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the UK’s negotiations to leave the EU, especially as political positions remain entrenched and seemingly irreconcilable with just 40 or so days to go before the deadline.
As the most recent productivity figures from the ONS (Office for National Statistics) showed, productivity and output per hour fell to their weakest in two years at the end of 2018, prompting FSB (Federation of Small Businesses) Chairman, Mike Cherry, to opine: “”Productivity data demonstrates exactly what a prolonged period of uncertainty does to an economy. Small business confidence has dropped to its lowest point since the financial crash, with four in ten firms expecting their performance to worsen.”
Of course, Brexit has prompted more businesses to divert their attention to do such things as stockpiling raw materials or components to mitigate any potential supply chain disruption, and of course, investors have been holding onto their money during this period of uncertainty.
It has also been suggested that another inhibitor to SME growth and scaling up has been what is known as the Seven-year Rule, whereby tax breaks for investors, made through tax-efficient venture capital trusts or via the enterprise investment scheme (EIS), are only accessible to companies for seven years after they make their first sale. This, it is argued, makes it harder for SMEs to access the finance they need to scale up.

Is business barely managing a “British Disease”?

However, in this context I would argue Brexit is a distraction and a convenient excuse for poor productivity and that the answer lies in the way UK businesses value, or actually don’t value, their people.  This is backed up by plenty of research from many sources.
According to the Guardian business and economics opinion writer Philip Inman there is a significant difference in productivity between the way foreign-owned businesses in the UK and UK-owned ones are run.
According to ONS figures foreign-owned businesses make up one in four of large UK-based businesses and are twice as productive as their domestically-owned equivalents. When it comes to medium-sized companies the foreign owned ones are about three times as productive.
Why should that be?
There is, argues Inman, plenty of evidence that the foreign-owned UK businesses pay attention to two things that affect productivity: processes and structure.  The ONS has found that there is a positive link between attention to these two and productivity.
Other researchers have argued that UK businesses do not value or pay enough attention to good middle-tier management, especially in family-owned firms that have been running for more than three generations.
Middle managers often have little management training or support and this leads to a lack of confidence among both senior managers and workers that their ideas are valued and suggestions acted upon.
UK businesses of all sizes clearly need to pay more attention to their people skills and competence, their processes and structure, especially once they find themselves cast adrift on post-Brexit competitive waters.

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Banks, Lenders & Investors Business Development & Marketing Cash Flow & Forecasting Finance

What’s ahead for the retail sector in 2019? – February sector focus

retail vanishing from high streets?It has been obvious for some time that the High Street is undergoing massive changes as online shopping gains a growing share of the retail pie.
Not a week goes by without another announcement of a “big name” closure or restructure and the New Year has been no different after mediocre Christmas sales with Hardy Amies and HMV falling into administration for a second time, Patisserie Valerie and Odd Bins filing for insolvency and Marks & Spencer announcing further store closures as part of its ongoing restructuring.
The figures make gloomy reading.
Deloitte says it has been instructed by more than 20 struggling high street chains in the past two months to assess whether they are eligible for restructuring their debts and lease obligations, according to the Sunday Times.
Towards the end of January the Guardian carried out a survey of the decimation that has beset High Streets in 88 major town centres in England and Wales and found that they have lost 8% of their shops on average since 2013.
Some have fared worse than others with Stoke on Trent topping the list with a loss of 23% of its 415 stores in five years.
Clothing and restaurant chains have fared worst, according to the research, but, surprisingly perhaps, charity shops have also been hit.
By contrast it also revealed that “a thousand extra hair and beauty salons have sprung up in our town centres”. Also, convenience stores and independent supermarkets have also grown in almost all town centres.

The stresses and strains on the retail sector

In common with other businesses, but arguably having more impact on SMEs, retail has had to contend with rising minimum wages and pension contributions for staff.
But added pressure has come from the high cost of rent and of town centre business rates, both of which the online retailers escape. Online retail now accounts for 20% of consumer retail spending, which adds to the pressure on High Street retailers as consumer buying habits change. This 20% figure when compared with 8% of shop closures would suggest there are many more closures to come.
At the moment, there are signs that worry about the future of jobs and the unknown impact of Brexit is currently putting a dampener on consumer spending and confidence.

Is there any light in 2019 at the end of the High Street retail tunnel?

Certainly, the Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley seems to think so, as do some others.
HMV has just been purchased by a Canadian business, Sunrise Records, although 27 stores will be closed as part of the deal.
Mike Ashley has purchased a share in House of Fraser stores and Evans Cycles to add to his growing portfolio and has recently had some success in renegotiating rents with landlords in some shopping centres, saving some House of Fraser stores that had been under threat. He is also laying siege on Debenhams hoping to pick up another High Street trophy.
Ashley has been vocal in calling for a complete rethink on business rates and for a 20% sales tax to be imposed on online retailers which would help justify his acquisition strategy.
Sir John Timpson has also called for business rates to be replaced with a sales tax operating in a similar way to VAT.
The MP Grant Shapps has also called for radical action to save the High Street, including a reduction in business rates with which he claims the government has so far only “tinkered” with.
These calls have also been backed by Mike Cherry, chairman of the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses), adding “A healthy high street should be diverse – not just featuring retail but also hospitality, services like hairdressers as well as gyms and shared workspaces for the self-employed. High parking charges and a lack of spaces often put off shoppers from visiting town centres, instead favouring out-of-town retail parks with free parking.”.
To add weight to their argument the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) has said Britain has the second-highest property taxes in the world with business rates, council taxes and stamp duty making up £1 of every £8 collected by the Treasury.
In a sign of some movement in December it was announced that Nicky Morgan MP, chair of the Commons Treasury Select Committee, will hold a joint evidence session with the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee to agree the terms of a new inquiry into the business rates system.
The death of the High Street has been predicted for some years but there are signs that some people feel there is life there yet, subject to some radical rethinking and tax reform.

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Banks, Lenders & Investors Business Development & Marketing Cash Flow & Forecasting Finance Turnaround

The state of UK exporting – our February 2019 monthly Key Indicator

UK exporting on the rise?The health, or otherwise, of UK exporting is perhaps an obvious focus for my monthly Key Indicator as the deadline for the UK’s exit from the European Union moves inexorably closer.
Firstly, some positive news; according to the ONS (Office for National Statistics) the number of British firms trading internationally rose by almost 16,000 last year, an increase of 15,900 last year to 340,500, which now represents 14.3% of total non-financial businesses in the UK. Non-financial services made up 53.1% of Britain’s international traders.
On a trade mission to China in November which was focused on the food and drink industry, Government Minister David Rutley was reported to have said the sector’s exports had doubled in the last three years.
Meanwhile in December the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) reported that factory orders for exports had increased for the second month in a row. Production expanded in 15 out of 17 sub-sectors, led by food, drink, tobacco, mechanical engineering and chemicals.

Which countries are UK exporting’s largest trading partners?

Wikipedia has a useful list, showing that the top five of the UK’s trading partners are, in first place “non-EU partners”, then the EU as a whole, followed by Germany, The US and China. Japan comes in at number 17, India at 20 and Saudi Arabia at 23.
While Wikipedia’s information depends heavily on the knowledge and accuracy of its voluntary contributors, some of this is borne out by ONS information in a 2017 paper that also indicates that the UK is seeking to strengthen trade with non-EU countries like China, India, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
Nevertheless, the EU countries remained at the top of the list, according to the most recent ONS figures: “In 2016, the EU accounted for 48% of goods exports from the UK, while goods imports from the EU were worth more than imports from the rest of the world combined.”
According to the ONS, in 2016 Exports to the rest of the world were worth £284.1bn while to the EU it was £235.8bn which represents a decline in the share of UK exports of goods and services to the EU from 54% in 2000 to 43% in 2016.
The special relationship with the USA remained important, said the ONS paper, with UK exporting in surplus and valued at £100 billion, “more than twice as much as exports to any other country”.

So what of the future of UK exporting post Brexit?

There are inevitably many uncertainties about the future.
The Financial Times, for example, reported in mid-January that a Whitehall memo had revealed that Britain has so far failed to finalise most trade deals needed to replace the EU’s 40 existing agreements with leading non-EU economies.
Also, in contrast to the optimistic indicators above, the December 2018 IHS Markit’s industry survey on manufacturers reported that while only one in ten were expecting a contraction in the early months of 2019, less than half were expecting output to be higher over the year ahead.
The survey also reported that new export orders had slowed for a second consecutive month with fewer customers from overseas being interested in business, although the consumer goods sector was the one exception.
Perhaps the major factors that will determine UK’s future level of exports are the China/US trade war and China’s growth slowing. Certainly, many UK businesses are spending money on stockpiling parts, raw materials and goods to protect their just in time production processes and in doing so they are not investing in growth, which makes predictions for the future very difficult.
 

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Cash Flow & Forecasting Finance Insolvency Turnaround

Sharp rise in personal insolvencies in 2018 – what might it mean for your SME?

Personal insolvencies - counting the penniesClearly many individuals are finding it hard to cope with rising prices, low wages and ongoing austerity given the latest personal insolvency figures published by the Insolvency Service this week.
Personal insolvencies in 2018 totalled 115,299, a 16.2% rise on 2017 and the highest level since 2011, according to the Insolvency Service.  The majority of these were IVAs (Individual Voluntary Arrangements) which hit 71,034, a record level and an increase of 19.9% on 2017.
Company insolvencies also continued to rise; at 16,090 in 2018 they were their highest level since 2014. The majority, 63.9%, were CVLs (Creditors Voluntary Liquidations).
The top three business sectors for insolvencies were construction, wholesale and retail trade, accommodation and food services.

What does the rise in personal insolvencies mean for SMEs?

The knock on effect of personal insolvencies is consumers reining back on their spending, as they have clearly been doing for some time and most noticeably for retail over the Christmas period. Other types of business will also be impacted.
Given the dire warnings about prices depending on the outcome of Brexit, consumers’ confidence is looking unlikely to improve any time soon.  This is not helped by the week’s announcement by Tesco of a possible cut of 9,000 jobs and worries in parts of the country about the future of employment such as in the automotive industry and for SMEs within its supply chain.
It is also likely that the changes in retailing will continue with more High Street shops closing.
For SMEs, especially those dependent on consumer spending, the likelihood is that they will have to not only scrupulously manage their cash flow and planning but also ensure their invoices are paid on time. They may also be well advised to strengthen their marketing initiatives and those “extra services” that serve small, independent businesses so well by retaining loyal customers.
In these difficult circumstances, to borrow a well-known phrase, “every little helps”.