Funny money

10th Jun 20

June, and the focus for many businesspeople has shifted. Every company has had to get to grips with socially distanced working; massive changes to supply chains and customer habits; and uncertainty about the economy. Now, it’s all about “re-entry” from lockdown and the prospect of a recession lasting well into 2021.

In fact, most of the finance directors we’ve spoken to were focused on those elements right at the start in the pandemic. It’s not that they haven’t been worried about work colleagues and customers, or even their own families. But even when the cash runway is your prime financial responsibility, knowing how you’re going to emerge from the crisis is a pretty fundamental aspect of “going concern”.

Tamsin Ashmore, CFO at Ultima Business Solutions, summed up this attitude in the interview we published recently. “As a CFO you need both the technical and emotional sides,” she told us.

“Right now, my focus is technology that works and reviewing contracts; then cash runway; then the strategic issues. The world in Q3 is going to be very different from Q2, and on a completely different trajectory from the year just ended. So one of the most energising things you can do for a board in a time of stress is focus on the opportunities – to support creative solutions, because they’re desperately needed.”

In other words, make sure the money is sorted out because you can’t innovate when you’re bankrupt. While those soft (mostly HR and leadership) disciplines that FDs and CFOs have long developed are still vital, it’s also about hard cash – and the steely discipline of the stereotypical finance exec – to ensure we’re still around to make decisions in 2021

That’s slightly complicated by the way money is working right now. So it’s worth pausing to think about what options businesses have at a time when all the traditional rules of finance seem to have gone out of the window.

At the bottom layer, there’s your own assets, including cash. Clearly for those of you running companies where sales have dropped off a cliff, safeguarding what cash you do have has been a priority. That 13-week cashflow forecast now probably needs to be eight-week, with daily reforecasting – we still don’t know what’s going to be “unlocked-up”, when and for how long. ("Second spike" has become the new "double-dip".)

Above that, there are providers who can help turn assets into cash. In 2016 the amount of finance available through asset-based lending (ABL) to UK businesses reached a record high of £4.3bn, up 22% year on year, with a grand total of £20.7bn lent out against receivables and other assets. (ABL had got much more popular, of course, after the banks focused on secured lending for regulatory reasons.) After a blip, growth resumed and total advances at the end of December 2018 totalled £22.7bn.

We have data for Q1 2020 – with a grand total of about 10 days of lockdown. And the figures are grim. ABL was down 28% on the same period in 2019. We’ve seen providers swoop in to snap up overdue invoices – albeit at bargain rates, from companies struggling to access government support funding. And, anecdotally anyway, ABL providers have told us that since March there’s been virtually no new business written in several key markets.

Ouch. True, there have been some remarkable new finance deals agreed – mainly for businesses in sectors unaffected (or even boosted) by the strictures of lockdown. But with lenders having to make case-by-case decisions, make much tougher calls on valuations of any asset, and manage their own risk aggressively, FDs looking for finance might find this route tough for some time to come.

But there are higher levels in play, too. Lenders have provided 48,000 medium-sized businesses with the £9.6bn through the government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), plus more to sole traders and larger corporates with other guarantees.

But banks and other finance providers are still understandably wary. Yes, they’re accessing wholesale capital at historically low rates. But when we don’t even know when we’ll be able to pop out for a drink or have an in-person board meeting, evaluating borrower cash flows or the resale value of leased machinery is tough.

For backed and high-growth (well, formerly high-growth) businesses, the British Business Bank’s Future Fund is definitely worth a look. It seems tailor-made for PE-backed businesses. But there’s a catch: “The loans [matching new external investment] will have a minimum of 8% per annum (non-compounding) interest charge applied.” Ouch again.

In the US, the Fed has promised to buy corporate debt in eye-watering amounts, pushing (mostly big corporates) to issue bonds at record levels. And low – even negative – interest rates ought to open the door for businesses here to borrow much cheaper than at 8%. Add the fact that equity values have remained remarkably robust (more so in the US, where the sound of the Fed’s money printer going “brrrr” has spawned many memes), and capital ought not to be hard to find.

It’s the prospect of a deep, even if it’s brisk, recession that changes the calculations. Add Covid-19 to what was already a highly unusual financial market and monetary enviornment, as-yet unrecovered from the global financial crisis, and it's no wonder we're all trying to get our heads around funny money. The CBI’s latest webcast on business finance (it’s well worth a look) cited one source saying there could be £97bn to £107bn of unsustainable debt by March 2021. That’s bad for macro-economic reasons, and radically shifts your likely finance options well into next year.

On the CBI webcast, ideas to address this included: “linking debts to future tax liabilities, so that repayments only begin when business is profitable again; providing grants to particular businesses and industries; or perhaps even returning to older funding models, such as the Industrial and Commercial Finance Corporation, which was set up after the Second World Way to provide money to SMEs (and later became 3i).” But those all require radical policymaking, and after a bold start, even Chancellor Rishi “Nerves of Steel” Sunak seems to be playing it safer now.

In short? Nobody really knows anything. Which brings us back to Tamsin Ashmore and her focus on securing the short term while keeping her colleagues focused on the big picture. It’s a lesson she learned as turnaround CFO at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant group. Ultimately the business went under. But her attitude seems, to us, to be faultless:

“If you push everyone into fighting the crisis, you’ll end up swallowed by it,” she said. “At Jamie’s, for example, we scenario-planned what we’d do if we got a big cash injection. Money no object! That changes the mindset. Same applies now: we need to look at what amazing things we can do for clients, not focus on falling budgets or late payment.”

So whatever capital is available, on whatever terms, for however long – never lose sight of how it might be used beyond just survival. Whether the money is funny or not, rebuilding the economy is a very serious, and very worthwhile, task.