This story now seems to be false. Sunak and the Treasury’s “new action”, announced Thursday evening to support struggling British businesses, were not just an adjustment. It was a radical overhaul of a loan program with glaring defaults.
Yes, the lending banks were probably too slow and painful, but they weren’t the main way to buy money from thousands of businesses. Rather, they were trying to implement a wobbly and delicate whole of the creation of the Treasury.
Version two of the scheme looks much better, which is a relief. The main reform concerned the eligibility for the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, or Cbils, the part intended for small businesses.
When first released, these government-guaranteed interest-free loans could only be offered to companies that could not get financing in the normal way. Indicate the outrage of the borrower candidates who thought that Sunak had promised them ultra-cheap loans, but then discovered that the banks first pushed standard finance with interest and fees.
Under the renewed arrangement, all viable borrowers can switch directly to the juicier Cbils product. This could be a game-changer for solving the cash flow problems of sole proprietorships, but it’s worth asking how the Treasury miscalculated in the first place.
Supposedly, No. 11 wanted to limit the risk to the public purse, a noble intention at first glance because the government is grappling with 80% of any loss from a Cbils loan. But the requirement to assess companies’ eligibility for conventional financing meant that Cbils had no impact. As of Thursday evening, only £ 90 million in loans had been approved for 983 companies – barely scratching the surface.
A similar remark can be made on the contentious issue of personal guarantees on loans under £ 250,000. Some banks asked for guarantees at launch; some were not, or did so under different circumstances. No wonder borrowers are angry. But the banks themselves were confused because the Treasury hadn’t specified what it wanted. Friday issued a clear instruction not to ask for guarantees. It could have been given the first day.
Sunak also had to recognize that his original design had a large hole in the middle. Cbils loans were limited to companies with annual sales of £ 45 million or less, with other potential borrowers directed to the large business program overseen by the Bank of England. It didn’t work because medium-sized businesses thought they needed a credit rating, which most didn’t. Cbils has thus been extended, in fact, to companies with a turnover of £ 500 million, although they will pay interest on the loans.
Business groups applauded the Treasury for listening to the comments. They are polite. Many design flaws could certainly have been anticipated if the Treasury had better understood the way small businesses think and act.
Sunak, it must be said, deserves praise for its “leave” plan which will guarantee 80% of wages in the affected companies. This is a truly important – and necessarily costly – intervention that will save thousands of jobs.
Nor should we pretend that designing a loan program is easy. The current crisis, unlike the 2008 financial crisis, extends to almost the entire economy. And, to repeat, the banks still have to move. But it should also be noted: Cbils needed urgent improvement because its original design was poor.
Billionaires benefit from the leave. They don’t need more
The bill to support British companies during the crisis will be enormous. It could not be otherwise. The government is paying 80% of the wages of millions of workers across the UK to minimize job losses and ensure the economy is able to recover after the lockout is over.
There will always be business failures – indeed, destruction has already started on the main street with the collapse of Carluccio and Laura Ashley. The only certainty is that the action, in the form of the extensive leave program, will cost less than the long-term inaction.
However, not all beneficiaries are the same. When clothing retailer Arcadia put 14,500 workers on leave last week, Philip Green became an indirect recipient of the public purse. Or, strictly speaking, his Monaco-based wife Lady Green was lucky because she is the owner of the struggling fashion empire that includes Topshop, Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins.
To put it mildly, this is appalling. The Greens cashed in a £ 1.2 billion dividend from Arcadia in 2005, but are not required to pay the company a single cent under the circumstances. And there is no point in politely asking for a contribution. As we saw with the BHS pension plan, the Greens had to be chased by parliamentarians and watchdogs before agreeing to a payment of £ 363 million.
Unfortunately, there is little the government can do. It is virtually impossible to design a leave plan that does not apply equally to all businesses.
Ministers can take a hard line, however, when foreign-based billionaires seek help beyond the generous leave program. Virgin Atlantic, 51% owned by Richard Branson, is said to have asked for a £ 500m package of soft loans and credit guarantees. The answer to that must be simple: it’s your turn to put your hand in your pocket.
Over time, we must devote enormous resources to restarting the economy
There has never been a crisis like the current crisis. The appearance of the coronavirus paralyzed the advanced world, governments effectively shutting down economic and social life as we know it. Unemployment is now starting to soar as businesses run out of money amid forced closings, with early indications that unemployment in the United States and the United Kingdom may be beyond the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The job crisis is our fact, an exercise in protecting the health of a nation at the expense of material wealth. It is absolutely true that a compassionate society should take such an approach. But the impact of the foreclosure must not be overlooked: millions of people face unemployment and hardship.
Comparisons with World War II and the Great Depression are exaggerated. Rather than attempting to mobilize on a large scale, Covid-19 is defeated by suppressing the economy as much as possible. And, unlike the Depression, the hope remains that this crisis will prove to be shorter than any other serious economic downturn in history.
But two historical comparisons should be kept in mind: the need for a New Deal similar to that of Roosevelt in the 1930s, or the Marshall Plan of the 1940s, to restart economic activity once the economy had left hibernation.
When the dust finally settles on the emergency phase of the Covid-19 crisis – a moment hoped for sooner rather than later – the government must put as much weight behind the reopening of the economy as it did for the to close.
In the short term, support measures are welcome, despite the shortcomings that leave many without adequate financial assistance, the Conservative government temporarily abandoning political dogma dating back several decades.
Failure to support those who lose their jobs in this crisis will only cost Britain more in the long run, due to weaker economic growth and lost tax revenues.