The main messages from the latest insolvency figures, published for Q4 2019 by the Insolvency Service at the end of January, were that in 2019 underlying company insolvencies increased to their highest annual level since 2013 driven by a by 8.2% increase in CVLs (Creditors’ Voluntary Liquidations) which were at their highest level since 2009 and by a 24.0% increase in administrations, their highest level since 2013.
Construction, the wholesale and retail trade and accommodation and food services suffered the most, as they had been doing all year.
Begbies Traynor’s Red Flag update published last week also piled on the misery, with findings that a record 494,000 UK businesses are now in ‘significant financial distress’ with property, support services, construction and retail businesses suffering the most. These figures were the highest-ever since the company began reporting its Red Flag research 16 years ago.
Julie Palmer, partner at Begbies Traynor, said: “Currently, we do not know if the failing performance within some sectors is due to short term confidence issues, or more fundamental economic and structural issues.”
But, arguably, the worst insolvency figures could yet be to come.
Bellicose politicians and European stagnation
On Friday night the UK formally left the EU. While this has established a level of political certainty, for business the economic uncertainty continues for at least ten months before our trading relationship with EU has been negotiated.
The negotiation timetable helps us know when we might have certainty about our trading relationship. The first being the end of June as the last day by which any extension to the 11 month transition period can be sought although as things stand the PM has ruled that out. Without an extension the deadline for a Brexit trade deal is the 26th November as the last date for it to be presented to the European Parliament if it is to be ratified by the end of the year.
Notwithstanding the uncertainty of its trading relationship with the EU, the UK can now begin negotiating its own trade deals with other countries.
But whoever heard of a trade deal being formalised so quickly?
Furthermore, this will all take place in the context of stalling economic growth in the EU, particularly in France and Germany as revealed last week:
“Gross domestic product (GDP) in the currency bloc rose by just 0.1% in the fourth quarter of 2019 from the previous quarter, according to the EU statistics agency Eurostat.”
Stock markets were also dropping dramatically, which has been attributed largely to the spread of Coronavirus that has led to a lockdown of much of China.
All this, without taking into account changing consumer behaviour and confidence, partly due to increasing debt levels and to environmental concerns. Perhaps, given the 6% annual increase in personal insolvency figures over 2018, now at its highest level since 2010, there is also a degree of job uncertainty. In retail, for example, almost 10,000 jobs have been lost since the start of the year and 57,000 went in 2019, according to the Retail Gazette.
The Prime Minister and foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, seem set on taking a very hard line ahead of negotiations with the EU. While there are some that take the view that in negotiations it is best to start off taking as hard a line as possible then softening as they progress, given that the remaining countries in the EU clearly have their own problems that they will be seeking to solve the words “rock and hard place” spring to mind.
So, there is a distinct possibility of a hard Brexit, one without a deal although message spin is likely. If this is the case then the uncertainty for business will continue beyond the end of the year until a new normal is established.
We therefore endorse the advice of Eleanor Temple, chair of R3 (the insolvency and recue industry body) in Yorkshire:
“These insolvency figures should be a wake-up call to any director of a company which is finding it hard going at the moment. Anyone in this position should look to take objective advice from a qualified, professional source, to decide the best path forward – and the earlier this is done, the better.”