In Canada’s Yukon, Paul McDonagh owns a hotel, tavern and lounge in Dawson City, the town at the heart of a late 19th century gold rush. With the coronavirus keeping tourists away and locals told to stay at home, revenue is down more than 50% and his business is hanging by a thread.
“I am expecting the whole summer is pretty much done,” said McDonagh, who employs 17 people, rising to about 23 during the main tourist season. “That’s going to kill me. I’ll have to close my doors.”
It shouldn’t have to be that way. Governments and central banks globally have pledged a dizzying $3 trillion — and counting — to offset the economic hit from the COVID-19 pandemic, including targeted aid for small to medium sized enterprises in the form of loans, direct payments and help covering salaries.
But in the rush to reassure, administrations have stumbled in the rollout of measures, leaving companies from catering to construction confused and increasingly anxious about accessing aid. There are questions about when money may arrive, in what form it may come, and how to sign up to receive it. Delays put many at risk of getting into serious difficulty or bankruptcy, dealing a further blow to a world economy hurtling toward recession, perhaps even a depression.
Take Canada, where the federal government announced a virus relief program for small firms on March 13, with loans of up to C$2 million ($1.4 million) available via the Business Development Bank of Canada. McDonagh contacted the BDC, but can’t get an answer on whether he qualifies due to uncertainty over the status of businesses that get most of their revenue from alcohol sales, as his does.
The lack of business clarity over government aid is a global phenomenon.
In South Korea, limits placed on emergency borrowing are seen as pitifully strict, while Germany’s trade and industry chamber has warned of an “unimaginable” wave of bankruptcies unless more help is given. In the U.K., the Scotch Whisky Association said on Monday that it was seeking “urgent assurances” from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government on aspects of its support package related to relief on business rates.
Even in Singapore, where many businesses say they are broadly happy at the delivery of help, there are grumblings over promised rebates on rents that have failed to materialize.
“There are still some gaping holes in the policy approaches,” Erik Nielsen, group chief economist at UniCredit, said in a note, even while lauding the arrival of “big government like we have never seen it before in peacetime.” Those inadequate responses could impact companies and the wider economy, he said, especially in Italy, a virus epicenter.
Gabriele Buia, chairman of Italian builders association Ance and a fourth generation builder from Parma, said his industry has always been overwhelmed by bureaucracy, but in the last few weeks there has been extra disarray.
Most builders were unable to guarantee safety for their workers so stopped all activity awaiting government instructions. The government granted permission to keep operating for those working on public infrastructure only, without taking sufficient account of the impact of closure of suppliers, “creating disorientation.” Buia too is seeking clarification.
Speed of delivery is another common complaint. One business owner in the U.K. has had no money coming in for a month and needs to meet payroll in April, but from what he has heard government money won’t be available until the end of next month.
German restaurant chain Vapiano SE, with roughly 3,800 employees, began insolvency proceedings on Friday after it was forced to close its doors and revenue came to a halt. The company said it wasn’t able to access a special business loan facility for companies, and urged the government to hasten other measures.
In the U.S., clothing stores and other small businesses that are the engine of the economy are in trouble, and while state help is coming, it’s too slow and insufficient for many.
Jacqui Ma and Jack Wilson work 6,000 miles (9,660 km) apart, but they share confusion over accessing government aid to help them through the turmoil.
London-based Ma, the founder of Goodordering, a designer of bags and cycling accessories, was hit by a twin supply and demand crisis as factory shutdowns in China left her with stock shortages and her sales declined 70%. She contacted her bank about a government-backed loan of £10,000 ($11,800) to cover her manufacturing and warehouse bills, but was unable to tap any funds. Her bank manager advised her to hold off for a week and see if further U.K. aid is announced.
Help “is kind of fictional unless there’s a relatively easy way to access it,” she said.
In Hong Kong, Wilson launched a sales consultancy business in February after more than 20 years working in financial services. He says the territory isn’t being proactive about engaging with business to offer help.
“I would definitely like more support from the government and I don’t feel I am getting it,” he said.
Hong Kong’s government used its recent budget to target support to smaller businesses through low-interest loans to a ceiling of HK$2 million ($258,000), and extended subsidies on electricity, water and sewage bills.
Not every small business in the finance hub is feeling that support. “The chat among fellow start ups is they are just not hearing about the application of that,” said Wilson.
Still, governments are responding to unprecedented events in real time, and increasing the scope of help available as gaps become clear.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government on Monday unveiled a 750 billion-euro ($813 billion) package to ameliorate the impact on the German economy, including a 50 billion-euro liquidity fund for self-employed workers. In contrast, U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak played down the prospect of immediate help for the self-employed, saying on Tuesday that a targeted solution will take time to put in place.
In France, meanwhile, President Emmanuel Macron’s government has eased the process of getting tax deferrals and made state support for loans available online. It has also sought to improve communication, with the budget minister taking questions from businesses in a live chat on Twitter, alongside a radio and TV blitz.
In China’s eastern province of Zhejiang, where the private sector contributes 65% to economic output, a state system of local “grid management” has ensured that companies are contacted to inform them of government support. A Zhejiang-based packaging manufacturer was able to secure a 10 million yuan loan ($1.4 million) for one year at a rate lower than the benchmark, according to the company’s chairwoman.
Unwilling to Lend
But not everyone is so lucky. There are complaints that banks have been assigned loan targets and worry about the risks of lending money to smaller businesses. A Beijing-based owner of a toy rental and subscription service said the company has consulted several commercial banks but was told it is not possible to get loans based on credit records.
In South Korea, which has been lauded for its handling of the virus outbreak, government measures targeting aid for businesses are woefully insufficient, according to Olive Lee, financial manager at Shinsung J&T Co. Ltd, a textile manufacturing company based in Seoul and with offices in China and New York. “None of them are helpful,” she said.
Others are enduring endless paperwork or a deafening silence from those supposed to be in the know.
James Hart, director of IT support firm Purple Computing in the southwestern English city of Bristol, spent 7 hours queuing on the phone to apply for a business interruption loan with HSBC Holdings Plc, before eventually giving up.
“I’ll be dreaming of the hold music tonight,” he said.
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