Falling Confidence Among SMEs Supports Evidence of a Long L-Shaped Recession

Recently released insolvency figures show relatively little change year on year, suggesting that the debate about whether the recession would be a V-, U-, W-, or an L-shape Is now over.

It is four years since the economy collapsed and the evidence is piling up that it is flatlining. Whatever the technical definition for coming out of recession may be (ie two successive quarters of growth), a growth of 0.2% for the UK economy means it continues to bump along the bottom of an L-shaped economic decline, whether it is called a recession or not.

Had the recent decline followed the pattern of previous ones the numbers of insolvent companies would by now be climbing noticeably, as they are generally held to do when an economy is on the road to recovery.

However, the latest CBI quarterly survey shows a sharp decline in confidence among small and medium sized businesses, reporting flat domestic orders in Q3 and export orders down by 8%. They expected domestic orders to fall by another 4% in the final quarter, no growth in exports and were indicating intentions of reducing their stock holdings – hardly suggestive of any optimism there.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the just released quarterly insolvency figures is the noticeable increase in the number of Company Voluntary Arrangements (CVAs) relative to the numbers of companies in Administration as going concern formal insolvency procedures. Compared to the same quarter last year, CVAs rose by 29.6%, while Administrations rose by only 6.3% perhaps reflecting the adverse publicity over the use of Pre-Pack Administrations.

Many commentators are predicting a lot of insolvencies lining up for the end of Q4. Since a rise in insolvencies traditionally indicates the emergence from recession, perversely, this suggests that they are being optimistic rather than pessimistic.

But if the economy doesn’t recover and there is a rise in corporate insolvencies, this will be truly damaging for the UK. There is a huge difference between insolvency to restructure a business to prepare it for growth and insolvency to close it down.

Continuing low interest rates and no discernible evidence of banks or other creditors really piling on the pressure, nor any sign of the restructuring that normally indicates the bottom of a recession, plus the plummeting confidence of the country’s SMEs, suggest that the economy will bump along the bottom Japanese-style for the foreseeable future at best or will decline further at worst.

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