(Image: Adobe)

A web of red ink is spilling out across Australia, dormant but deadly. Companies that would normally have gone broke are instead operating, taking on debts they will never be able to pay back.

“Anybody you’re doing business with might be broke and you just don’t know it,” says John Winter, CEO of the Australian Restructuring Insolvency and Turnaround Association.

As the next graph shows, the number of companies that have gone broke this year in Australia is well below the historic norm. That is decidedly not because the economy is flourishing. Instead it is due to law changes — changes designed to prevent catastrophic collapse but which are now turning corrosive.

In March, the government changed the laws around companies going broke:

  • Previously, if a company owed you $2000 and wasn’t paying, you could make a statutory demand to have the bill paid, and if they did not pay, that company was wound up. Now the limit is $20,000
  • Previously companies had 21 days to respond to a statutory demand for debt. Now they can wait six months
  • Previously if you were the director of a company that continued trading while insolvent, you faced personal liability. Now you do not.

The point of these policy changes was to make sure good companies didn’t die because of a temporary hit to cashflow. But it has had a substantial side effect. There are dead companies walking. And when they go down they could take good companies with them, says Winter.

“The real issue … is if those businesses are still trading, they are racking up more debt, that debt is owed to other people — to other businesses — and when they finally fall over there will be even less for those creditors which has the snowball effect, it takes those other creditors down as well,” Winter said. “It is not even kicking the tin down the road, it’s creating a snowball.”

Earlier this year, the head of the corporate regulator said there would be too few liquidators in Australia to cope with the incoming surge of insolvencies.

Business runs on a network of “trade credit” — suppliers give them 30 days to pay their invoices. This delay in paying helps with cashflow in normal times. Offering trade credit is also good for suppliers — offering generous payment terms can help them win business without lowering prices, says Nicks Pilavidis, CEO of the Australian Institute of Credit Management.

“Small businesses are really powered by trade credit because they are able to obtain stock and supplies and equipment on extended payment terms and they don’t pay interest or charges for it,” said Pilavidis.

When businesses go broke, trade creditors usually don’t get paid. Bank loans are the priority for repayment, because they count as “secured debt”. Suppliers count as unsecured creditors, and according to ASIC data they can expect to get back less than 11 cents in every dollar they are owed. Businesses can insure that trade credit, but not all do. In a sign of what may be to come, earlier this year insurer QBE announced it would stop writing trade credit policies. It partially reversed the decision after an outcry.

Brad Walter of data company Equifax warns that companies exposed to a business that fails “are going to hurt”.

His firm’s data shows payment times are blowing out. 

“There has in fact been quite a significant increase in days beyond terms since March,” Mr Walters said, referring to delayed payment of invoices.

“We’ve seen that across all the states, Victoria in particular but right across the country. And we see that especially in some of the segments like arts and recreation.”

The flashpoint is coming soon.

In September, eligibility for JobKeeper gets tightened and bank loan deferrals cease for many. That’s when company collapses will pick up. The Australian Bureau of Statistics surveyed businesses in mid-July on how they expect to cope when those supports are removed. Of 1000 businesses surveyed, 10% said they would simply close. There are 2.4 million businesses in Australia, so if the survey is right, that would be 240,000 closures.

Not every business that closes involves unpaid debts, but law changes in 2020 mean more business than usual may leave unpaid bills behind them.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey