Budget 2020: Firms could collapse without emergency cash injection

By Simon Jack - Business editor
The hospitality sector has been particularly affected by the outbreak

This could be a mercifully short blog. The three things that business wants government to recognise as important in tomorrow's Budget are, in no particular order, cash, cash and cash.

Not that they want handouts - but what businesses of every size are struggling with is an issue that can kill off any business, no matter how healthy they were before the coronavirus hit. Cashflow.

It is no exaggeration to say that the economic landscape framing Chancellor Rishi Sunak's first Budget has been completely changed by the complex and, potentially grave, threats posed by the coronavirus itself and the changes to personal and business behaviour in response.

I will leave it to my economic and political colleagues to discuss the room for manoeuvre and the potential hit to public finances, the political realities and messaging around this Budget. But on the ground in the world of business, the pressing concern is having enough cash at hand to survive until public fear subsides and behaviour changes.

Let me give you a few examples.

A fast food retail chain that has more than 50 outlets and was comfortably profitable with money in the bank, and plans to expand, told me this week that it would not be paying its rent when next due. Otherwise, it could face bankruptcy in three weeks. Reduction in demand from customers wary of high-traffic venues, potential staff shortages, paying sick pay from day one with yet no way of avoiding rent, business rates, VAT = cash crunch. So the landlords can wait. What are the landlords going to do, boot us out? Unlikely.

A second: a rural venue that offers residential art courses popular with travellers from around the world. Large numbers of cancellations aren't covered by business insurance. This is common. Many "business interruption" policies only cover specified diseases. Covid-19 is, for the majority of policies, not one of them. Even if it was, the cover would only apply if the disease was found on the premises and they were ordered to close by a local authority. The cancellation by the newly-reluctant traveller = not covered.

Those are on top of countless other businesses who rely on consumer confidence, which has been walloped by the virus.

The stock market crash we saw over the last week made the headlines. But what did it mean? A stock market index is a measure of the aggregate value of companies' future earning potential. As such, it is a (not always accurate) early warning system of what markets are expecting for those companies. Markets can, and often do, provide reaction within hours to what they expect to happen months in the future.

For these reasons, what business is crying out for on Wednesday are practical measures to help ensure there is not too much month left at the end of the money.

1. A VAT holiday

VAT is a tax collected by business on behalf of the government, which they then send off to HM Revenue and Customs quarterly. Keeping that cash on hand for a few months would be a huge boost for business.

2. A business rates break

This is a perennial bugbear - after staff and rent, it's one of the biggest fixed costs for business. Governments have promised to review, reform and lower it for years. Business will be hoping that the current cash emergency will bring short-term breathing space and hopefully herald long-term meaningful reform.

3. A hardship fund of some kind

Making employees eligible for statutory sick pay from day one, rather than day four, will cost business real money. At the moment, that bill will land on the mat of businesses - on top of all the other pressures they are under. A government fund to help business bear that burden is seen by many as essential if workers are not forced to go to work in contravention of health advice. The government may also want to find a way to support those workers who don't count as employees, such as gig economy workers or the self-employed.

There are other measures that the chancellor will talk about tomorrow. He will no doubt reference the role of banks. Many have already announced mortgage and business loan deferment plans. This has been welcomed (and influenced) by the Bank of England.

This is obviously first and foremost a public health emergency, but for many businesses this is also a life-or-death moment.

What business and HM Treasury both agree on, is that this Budget comes at a "very timely moment". But not in a good way.

The future is important but right now - it can wait.