Break Free from Servicing Debt and Invest in Growth

Britain lacks self confidence and suffers from inadequate education, risk averse bureaucrats and unimaginative politicians trapped in the Westminster bubble outside the real world.

Former CBI chief Lord Digby Jones identifies all these as obstacles to rejuvenating UK Plc in an extract from his book Fixing Britain. It’s a picture K2 recognises.

“Too much of Britain is focused on repaying debt and not on investment in growth,” he says. “Too many companies are servicing debt and existing for the benefit of the banks when they should be cramming down debt and pursuing a clear strategy.”

Lenders, more interested in loans being repaid than on growing their customers, are stifling businesses with potential by soaking up surplus cash to service and repay their loans.

In our view companies should return to being run for their shareholders and employees rather than for the benefit of lenders. Rescue advisers can help companies with debt restructure by renegotiating loans and interest, converting debt to equity or using a CVA to cram down debt.

We need to create a market-driven and investment culture, where profits are reinvested and appropriate tax incentives to encourage business investment.

The UK cannot compete as a low-cost manufacturer with countries like India or China and therefore businesses need to focus on high value goods and services requiring specialist knowledge to justify a premium. This is why high calibre education of young people and apprenticeships are needed.

First decline in household income for 30 years causes pain on the High Street

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported recently that in 2010 real household disposable income fell by 0.8%, its first drop since 1977.

A plethora of profit warnings from major high street retailers is therefore no surprise. JJB successfully agreed a new Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) for repaying debt, just two years after its last one. Oddbins’ attempts to agree a CVA were rejected which led to it going into administration.

Meanwhile travel company Thomas Cook announced a 6% fall in holiday bookings from the UK. Dixons announced that it was cutting capital expenditure by 25%. H Samuel and Ernest Jones, Argos and Comet all report falling sales. Mothercare is to close a third of its 373 UK stores and HMV has just sold Waterstones for £53 million to pay down some of its £170 million of debt.

Falling consumer confidence, the Government’s austerity measures and rising commodity prices have led to a steady erosion of disposable income. An April report indicated an increase in retail sales, up 0.2% on February’s, but this was attributed to non-store (internet) and small store sales and probably conceals a continued decline in High Street sales.

After a few years of expansion fuelled by debt, it is entirely logical that the marketplace is now facing a sharp contraction as consumers spend less money while they are concerned about their job security and repaying their huge levels of personal debt.

Many companies need to contract and reduce their cost base if they are to survive. For the High Street retailers this means concentrating on profitable stores and reviewing strategy.

Growth is likely to involve developing experience based retail outlets in dedicated shopping environments or direct sales such as online. The High Street has failed to reinvent itself and the recession has accelerated its decline.

The Current Conundrum Over Inflation and Interest Rates

The most recent inflation rates show that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) has risen to 4%, a surprise drop of 0.4% from February and the Retail Price Index (RPI) to 5.3%, also a fraction less than February’s 5.5%.

If times were normal these figures would nevertheless trigger a rise in the interest rate to 7 % to 8%, about 2.5% above the RPI.

However, times are still clearly not normal following the financial “tsunami” that was the 2008 Great Recession. Many businesses are still struggling to survive and grow in the face of reduced spending by consumers and clients and cope with soaring materials and commodity prices and volatile oil prices because of uncertainty over events in North Africa and the Middle East.

As a result the fear that an interest rate rise might push the economy back into a recession has led to interest rates being decoupled from inflation.  Inflation is a form of currency devaluation.  It means that every £1 buys less than it did when inflation was lower.  Interest rate rises help to correct this. 

I would argue that currently many businesses are operating with huge levels of debt and not doing all they could to reduce even though they can only survive because interest rates are currently so low.  But this current situation is only temporary.

While a viable business should be able to build a surplus of cash in this situation to provide itself with a cushion once interest rates start to rise again, a business in difficulty will not have this option. It therefore needs to think ahead and revamp the business model and restructure to survive and be ready for to what will happen when things are more “normal”.

Maghreb and Middle East Volatility Adds to Pressures on UK Business

Pressure on UK businesses is already intense as a result of the Government’s austerity measures designed to cut the UK budget deficit.

Already facing changes to NI payments, rising prices for raw materials as well as January’s increase in VAT from 17.5% to 20% and the dilemma of how much of these additional costs to pass on to consumers, now upheavals throughout North Africa and the Middle East are adding enormous uncertainty.  Oil prices have soared to their highest levels for two years, with impacts on all areas of the economy.

But it is not only oil prices that could add to business instability.  The UK is Egypt’s largest investor at around £10 billion, with around 900 UK companies involved, in

Tunisia exports from the UK in 2009 totalled £153 milliion, while imports were at £406 million, and trade with Libya is estimated to be worth £1.5 billion. British exports of goods to Libya were worth an estimated £1.29 billion in 2010.

The impacts will be felt on the UK travel industry, UK construction involved in building and infrastructure projects in Egypt and Tunisia but also on domestic services, for example Libyan-funded education in the UK of more than 6,000 students on undergraduate and postgraduate courses, worth an estimated £160 million.

I believe that, while businesses should try to hold their nerve, even those businesses that have survived so far without getting into difficulties might be wise to not only pay close attention to cash flow but also to revisit their business plans to put themselves in the best possible shape to be able to cope with the continuing uncertainty.

K2 believes the budget is positive for business and for those in difficulties

With the latest inflation figure showing an increase to 4.4% and a lower amount of tax collected in February, both announced the day before the budget was due, arguably the Chancellor had little room for manoeuvre.

There were some small comforts for smaller enterprises though the bulk of George Osborne’s measures are likely to benefit big corporations the most.

Cutting fuel duty by 1p per litre, and delaying a planned 4p per litre rise to April 2012 along with scrapping the fuel duty escalator was welcome particularly to hauliers, couriers and other companies that depend heavily on transport.

Keeping personal tax at its current level and increasing the personal tax allowance next year will also moderate any pressure on wage inflation, which is in any case not great given the current uncertainty over employment.

The money for apprenticeships, the new enterprise zones, the relaxation of planning laws and the new decision deadline should also make life easier for businesses.

However, I believe most of the budget’s measures are likely to benefit larger corporations, rather than the smaller, UK-focused businesses.

Overall this is a budget that doesn’t load yet more pressure on struggling businesses but the real concern among businesses is the prospect on interest rate rises which will squeeze those who are struggling to survive and precipitate a significant increase in the number of formal insolvencies.

Factoring and Invoice Discounting: Be Wary of Hidden Fees

Factoring and invoice discounting (borrowing money against invoices) can be a helpful tool for funding the working capital of a business.

While it used to be regarded as a means of borrowing by businesses in financial difficulties, it is now a common source of finance for managing cash flow and has the additional benefit of imposing discipline on the collection of outstanding sales invoices.

The service charge fee is pre-agreed with the finance provider and generally relates to the level of service provided. Fees for factoring are generally at a higher rate of between 0.8% and 3%, than for invoice discounting because the factoring service charge includes debt collection.

However, hidden in the small print are usually contingency fees that can be triggered by a default. These fees are sufficiently large to justify some lenders looking for reasons to trigger them.

There are many examples of companies in financial difficulties where the factor or invoice discount provider pull the plug on a facility and collects in the outstanding debts to recover funds loaned as well as their retaining the default and recovery fees.

Typical default fee are 10% of the ledger held plus recovery fees which are generally not specified. Such is the scope for earning fees that advisers to lenders might be persuaded to recommend the exercising of rights under a default knowing that they, as advisers, can be paid out of the recovery fee clause as well as repaying their lender client the loan and default fee.

Such self interested behaviour may swell the coffers of lenders but it doesn’t help preserve businesses or improve the reputation of the finance community.

HMRC Taking a Tougher Line on Debt Recovery

Evidence is emerging that HM Revenue and Customs is adopting a tougher approach to PAYE, VAT and tax arrears and increasingly using its powers of distraint to take over control of the goods, stock and assets of businesses.

In one example this week, just two hours after K2 was appointed by a company in difficulties, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) officers appeared at the premises and levied distraint on all the company’s assets and stock. There are similar stories from other turnaround and restructuring professionals.

The issue of a distraint notice (a C204 notice, also called a distress or walking possession notice), under HMRC powers allows it to take control of everything seized and while it does not necessarily remove property at that point, it means that the company cannot continue trading and is effectively put out of business because it is prevented from using its stock and cannot either sell or give away anything that has been distrained.  It normally has just five days to comply.

This walking possession is used rather like Winding Up Petitions (WUPs) when HMRC has exhausted attempts to communicate with the company.  Most companies are shocked when HMRC follows through with the actual action because it appears to come as a surprise, but when they review their correspondence they should not have been.

If the company does not pay or come up with alternative proposals, HMRC or an appointed agent can then take everything away for sale.

This hardline change of tactics comes after figures, published end of January, showed that the HMRC rejection rate for Time to Pay (TTP) arrangements had climbed from 2.7% in 2009 to 5.8% in 2010.

TTP is a very real solution for companies that cannot pay. While for the last two years HMRC has supported government policy of providing a light touch approach to businesses in difficulty, it is responsible for collecting arrears and not for saving businesses.

If a company receives a notice of intention to either wind up or distrain it should not delay in seeking the services of insolvency or turnaround advisers.

Will Project Merlin Make any Difference to Business Lending?

With so many companies in financial difficulties will many companies be able to take out further loans as a result of the new agreement known as Project Merlin?

The government last week announced that it had reached agreement with the UK’s four biggest banks to increase the amount of new lending to business in 2011 to a total £190 billion, of which £76 billion would be for small and medium sized businesses (SMEs). The SME portion is an increase of 15% on 2010.  

The lending to businesses will be on commercial terms that reflect the reduced number of lenders in the market. With bank base rates being so low, currently 0.5%, companies are being charged a huge premium with interest rates being set as 8 – 9% above the base rate. In addition, huge arrangement fees are also being applied, where fees representing 5 – 10% of the loan are not uncommon.

Many balance sheets are so decimated carrying huge liabilities to creditors such as HMRC, suppliers and asset based lenders (often at over value) that many businesses will not be able to justify a loan.

Business advisers, who see the effects of policy on the ground, say that one effect of Project Merlin will be for the banks to convert short term revolving facilities, such as overdrafts renewable daily, monthly or quarterly, into medium term loans. These will almost certainly be categorised as new loans in the quota reports but won’t actually represent additional, new funding. The banks continue to run rings around the politicians.

Converted loans are increasingly repayable on demand and therefore are being agreed on terms that allow the bank to keep all its options for essentially demanding immediate repayment.

Andrew Cave, of the Federation of Small Businesses, commented that the majority of small businesses were not seeking finance from the banks at the moment because the cost of existing and new borrowing is increasing and David Frost, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, also cast doubt on whether the agreement will make any difference because of what he called the banks’ poor and opaque decision-making and over-centralised processes, with a lack of good frontline relationship managers locally in the banks.

Latest Insolvency Figures Suggest that UK Business is Hanging on in There

Figures from the UK Insolvency Service just released on 4 February 2011 for the last quarter of 2010 (Q4) show a decline in compulsory and voluntary liquidations, continuing a downward trend.

The total number of compulsory liquidations and creditors’ voluntary liquidations for the quarter to 31 December 2010 was 3,955 in England and Wales, a decrease of 0.2% on the previous quarter and a decrease of 11.3% on the same period a year ago. 

However, closer examination of these numbers reveals that there were 1,200 compulsory liquidations, up 5.8% on the previous quarter but down 9.9% on the corresponding quarter of 2009, while 2,755 creditors’ voluntary liquidations (CVLs), are down 2.6% on the previous quarter and down 11.8% on the corresponding quarter of the 2009. 

Compulsory liquidations are therefore showing a very slight upward trend after the previous two quarters, when they were down 3.2% on the previous quarter and in Q2 were down 9.9%.

A more interesting and perhaps pertinent comparison is with the figures from the last recession.

Either directors are doing a fantastic job of restructuring their companies to remain profitable with positive cash flow, which is unlikely when the word is that advisers from the insolvency and restructuring professionals are not busy.

The other possibility is that “companies are just hanging on in there” with support from creditors, including HMRC and banks, adopting a very light touch on struggling companies.

Companies should bite the bullet and undergo restructuring to survive as viable businesses. Until then, they will continue to “hang on in there”.

Is it Realistic for Private Businesses to Employ more Staff in 2011?

The majority of businesses in the UK are defined as small and employ fewer than 50 people while only one per cent of UK companies employ more than 1000 people.

Small businesses would generally be defined as having fewer than 50 employees, assets worth less than £5 million and a turnover less than £5 million, yet they account for two thirds of the UK’s private sector.

The Government is pinning its hopes of recovery on dramatically and quickly reducing the country’s budget deficit with a combination of cutbacks, including making an estimated 330,000 people in the public sector redundant, a figure revised downwards in November 2010 from its estimate of 490,000 the previous June.

This revision, albeit in human terms still a large number of people, is based on its forecast for growth in the economy in 2011 of 2.1% for all of which it relies on the private sector – the majority of which is made up of small businesses.

Economists and politicians are both emphasising that the opportunities for growth lie largely in increasing exports on the grounds that there is a burgeoning middle class in the fastest growing economies, like China, India, Brazil and Russia (the BRICS) with a growing appetite for sophisticated technology and household products.

But while this might be an option for businesses involved in manufacture it does not help those many small businesses providing services and products to local businesses and consumers in the UK only.

The UK manufacturing sector currently accounts for 26% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the Government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) published a White Paper proposing to expand adult apprenticeships by up to 75,000 by 2014-15 and to set up a new £50 million Growth and Innovation Fund, with financial support to SMEs to co-fund the costs of training for lower skilled employees.

Help with skills training by 2014-15 is hardly much use in 2011 and in any event growth will depend on being able to both increase sales and availability of finance from the banks to fund the additional working capital needed to support them.