Impact of COVID set to burden the average SME with over £170K additional debt per year

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  Posted by: electime      17th February 2021

Research highlights a growing debt burden and redundancy ‘time bomb’ weighing heavily on the SME outlook for 2021 – but businesses project significant benefit from policies to stimulate demand and investment 

  • Half of SMEs have taken out some form of Covid-19 related loan, leaving an average additional debt burden of £173K per year once repayment begins – only 63 per cent are confident in their ability to repay
  • Half of SMEs that were profitable before the pandemic are not currently profitable, whilst a redundancy ‘time-bomb’ is on the horizon – a fifth of SMEs have made redundancies to date, but a quarter more will be forced to make cuts when the furlough scheme ends
  • The revenue hit for female-owned SMEs has been higher than for male-owned SMEs (-23 per cent in 2021 and -46 per cent over the last year for women; compared to -17 per cent in 2021 and -34 per cent in the last year for men)
  • 71 per cent of SMEs also support a cut to VAT to stimulate demand, with a cut to 12.5 per cent supporting an estimated 11 per cent extra profit and 13 per cent extra revenue

Ahead of the UK’s 2021 Budget and Economic Recovery Plan, new research from Sage, the market leader in cloud business management solutions, has revealed the tough conditions that will be facing small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) well into the second half of 2021. The research highlights how the latest lockdown has further divided the outlook of UK SMEs, with one-third worse off than November, one-third in a similar position and one-third better off.

Encouragingly, over half of SMEs believe they have become more efficient for the long-term as a result of the pandemic; but financial challenges continue to bite. The average revenue hit from lockdown during 2021 so far has been -20 per cent, compared to an average -41 per cent over the course of last year.

Over half of SMEs surveyed forecasted that if ‘business as usual’ resumed tomorrow, their productivity would have improved compared to a year ago – with a third recognising digital tools as the most impactful solution to improve efficiencies. There is a clear disparity between appetite and ability to invest for a more productive future – with the greatest priority for SMEs today being investment in technology. 71 per cent of SMEs are not currently in a position to invest at the level they would like to, 42 per cent aren’t able to invest at all. Measures that will drive growth by unlocking these investments, such as financial incentives for technology adoption by SMEs, are desperately needed.

Overall, the data suggests a raft of major challenges facing SMEs over the course of 2021, despite a potential loosening of restrictions over the spring and summer. However, policies to stimulate customer demand are predicted to have a significant positive effect. A VAT cut is supported by 71 per cent of SMEs, with a 12.5 per cent cut in VAT projected to support an additional 11 per cent profit and 13 per cent revenue for business who believe they will benefit. With the right measures in place, SMEs are determined to lead the economic recovery. The majority of businesses that are currently unprofitable expect to return to profit in the next twelve months.

As SMEs approach the beginning of Covid-19 loan repayment periods, polling reveals that just under half have taken out loans as a result of the pandemic, with the most popular forms of borrowing Government-backed loans (12 per cent), borrowing from friends and family (8 per cent) and private business loans from commercial lenders (8 per cent). However, only 63 per cent of businesses are currently confident in their ability to repay these loans. Redundancies among SMEs are also poised to increase dramatically within months, with over a quarter planning to make cuts in the near-term. On average, these businesses expect to reduce the size of their workforce by 19 per cent.

Paul Struthers, MD Sage UK and Ireland, said: “The worst economic crisis in three centuries has left a bleak outlook for SMEs. Instead of being a season of new beginnings, spring looks set to further slam the brakes on businesses as support schemes near their end and some loan repayments begin. With a redundancy ‘time bomb’ on the horizon, a significantly increased debt burden is also starting to weigh heavily on the shoulders of businesses desperately trying to recover and invest in their future.

“But the majority of SMEs can see green shoots through a cut in VAT to unlock untouched household spending, giving SMEs the financial breathing space they need and potentially saving many jobs and livelihoods. This is why Sage is calling for a cut to VAT for goods and services supplied by small and medium businesses throughout the spring and summer of 2021. SMEs will be the driving force behind our recovery – and the economy relies on their success.”

Other major findings from the study include:

  • Approximately a fifth of SMEs have made redundancies to date, but over a quarter intend to going forward.
  • Of the 33 per cent of SMEs who are now in a worse financial position, business confidence has worsened most in Wales (72 per cent) and the East Midlands (64 per cent). Yet, businesses in the North East have the second highest (36 per cent) improved positive outlook, following London (38 per cent). 
  • Once furlough and other support packages end, two-thirds of SMEs predict negative consequences such as cutting future hiring plans or cutting the hours of some employees.
  • The financial and insurances industry (38 per cent) has one of the highest rates for intending to be making redundancies when the furlough scheme ends.  The lowest is personal services (8 per cent). The transport and logistics industry expects to make the highest amount of redundancies (25 per cent as a percentage of total workforce), followed by hospitality at 24 per cent.
  • The hospitality industry has seen the greatest increase in the proportion of revenue they generate via online sales – +33 per cent – well above the average of +16 per cent among all sectors.

Methodology – Sage/ Portland SME Sentiment Tracker

A 12-minute online survey was conducted by Portland Communications. 1,119 UK adults were surveyed online in the United Kingdom. All respondents were “decision makers” or “owners” working in businesses employing fewer than 250 people. This sample was boosted to include a statistically significant number of SMEs that export and/or import products or services to the EU, SMEs with under 100 employees, and SMEs across regions in the UK. Portland Communications is a member of the British Polling Council. For more info or any questions, please e-mail: