COVID-19: a Swiss perspective

Jul 29, 2020

Michael Clohosey considers the economic impacts of COVID-19 based on a series of interviews with business executives in the Zurich region.

Switzerland shares some similarities with Ireland. Both are small countries with very open economies and punch above their weight on the global stage. Both economies also have a high reliance on the services sector, with the pharmaceutical/healthcare industry a large proportion of the industrial sector. Based in the Zurich area for almost ten years, I thought it would be interesting to share some perspective from this part of Europe, focusing on the impact of COVID-19 on businesses in Switzerland. I interviewed finance leaders from various industries, and this process provided some interesting perspectives on the current crisis and offered a view of its medium-term impact.

The type of industry in which businesses are active is the main determinant of the impact of COVID-19 in Switzerland. For example, one domestic electrical supply company involved in electrical installations for both commercial and residential property felt only a marginal impact on demand. Another company involved in the production of control devices for heating and ventilation systems, and which has a much larger global presence, is forecasting a slight decrease in demand in the medium-term. On the other hand, an international education company suffered an immediate, almost complete drop in revenue. Once countries started to impose restrictions and prohibit essential travel, this required enormous effort and collaboration from their external partners to ensure that their students abroad were safe and could find a way to get home. While facing a severe decline in revenue and an uncertain future, the firm needed to focus solely on the welfare of its customers stranded in locations like South Africa, China and Australia.

Business response

The logistical response of the Swiss Government, including the travel restrictions, is well-covered in other sources. I will instead focus on the Government’s economic response to the crisis, which was quite strong – even if it was not immediate. One must remember that Switzerland is not part of the EU and does not, therefore, have ready access to the financial safeguards and protection the EU provides. In total, the Swiss Government set aside more than €61 billion to support the economy. This will create a massive deficit in the national budget, but the amount that must be borrowed is significantly lower due to the Government’s large cash reserves. Some economists estimate that the debt to GDP ratio will increase from 26.7% in 2019 to approximately 34% in 2020, easily meeting the eurozone’s Maastricht criteria. The Government’s measures, which focused on different target groups, aimed to safeguard jobs, guarantee wages and support the self-employed. Measures were also taken in the field of culture and sport to prevent bankruptcies and to cushion the financial consequences. Furthermore, there were provisions to delay payment and temporarily waive late payment interest on social security contributions and various taxes.

Many businesses availed of this support, especially those in the travel and tourism trade. I know of many companies that eased their liquidity concerns by quickly accessing interest-free government loans of up to CHF 0.5 billion. Companies affected were also entitled to apply for what is termed “short-term working”. This was extremely helpful to the restaurant sector, from which employees were made temporarily redundant. Provided employees were still paid full salaries, employers received 80% of the cost from the Government. Rental payments remained privately managed. Some landlords were open to negotiation, especially where there were obvious financial difficulties on the tenant side. This flexibility to negotiate seemed to vary depending on whether the landlord was a private or commercial institution. Solutions found included deferral of rent payment. In an apparent contradiction, there appeared to be cases where landlords were more open to negotiating when they saw that the tenants were granted access to the Government’s interest-free business loans.

There were short- and medium-term impacts on business, including the supply chain. One company that supplies leather to Asia for shoe manufacture suffered a drop in production due to the difficulty in exporting raw materials. Ship cargo returning from Asia was almost non-existent, and any possible exports were therefore changed to air cargo. An educational travel company I spoke to needed to review agreements with all educational partners abroad due to the number of re-bookings where students sought to change school. As we see with the airline sector, re-bookings are preferable to cash refunds. However, this is cumbersome in the educational travel industry due to the number of actors involved. Some firms changed their business models. Third-level institutions, for example, were in the main very quick to react. They established management task forces and brought their curricula online. Online education is one of the fastest-growing global industries, and the pandemic has only increased its expansion.

Focus areas also changed in finance departments. The old maxim of “cash is king” was never as important as it is now. Companies that were not so well accustomed to short-term cash planning even hired external consultants to create 13-week cash forecasts. Fixed yearly budgets increasingly became rolling forecasts, with new scenario planning to account for the effects of the pandemic.

Seven insights from the COVID-19 crisis

A comprehensive review of organisations’ state of preparedness for such an unforeseen circumstance, their reactions to it, and the enforced planning for a new economic reality produced many new lessons. It also underlined the importance of established business principles.

  • Business agility: we saw the importance of agility in how quickly some educational establishments brought their curricula online. Many advanced education establishments are already planning to generate a greater share of revenue through e-delivery.
  • Securing the supply chain: it is very difficult to plan for an almost total transport shut-down. However, we saw in the example above of the shoe production company that alternative methods of transport can be put in place, albeit at a higher cost and risk. This same firm also discovered and used shoe manufacturers closer to the source of the raw material.
  • Strong partnerships: strong business relations, especially with suppliers and customers, are more important than ever in times of crisis. One company I interviewed closed one of its largest partnership deals through online meetings. This was mainly due to the trust already created.
  • Working from home: many firms, especially those in the financial services industry, have identified that productivity has not decreased while employees have worked from home. This has allowed them to offer it as an alternative for the future. In some cases, property leases can be reviewed due to the resultant decreased need for office space. It is therefore expected that the dynamics of cities like Zurich, which until now had large office space occupied by banks and financial institutions, will partially change in the future.
  • Discretionary travel: discretionary costs, especially travel, were already in focus before the lockdown. The fact that many businesses functioned quite well without travel has led to a further appraisal of its value.
  • Cash is king: the funds disclaimer says “past success does not guarantee future performance”. However, past success in the form of cash reserves can guarantee business survival in such times. Even more attention should be paid now to short- and medium-term cash planning.
  • Scenario planning in forecasting: we have seen how macro events can have a drastic impact. Businesses can increase their ability to respond by replacing traditional budgeting with frequently updated forecasting models, which include scenario planning for changes in the economic environment. The conventional practice of involving all departments for budgets or forecasts can be reviewed to facilitate the agility required. Responsibility for financial planning and forecasting cannot be delegated from the finance function.

A snapshot of the economic impact of the crisis

As Switzerland and Ireland are (at the time of writing) emerging from travel and business restrictions, I thought it helpful to review some key indicators of the financial impact of the recent upheaval. According to projections from the OECD’s latest economic outlook, similar to the world economy, Switzerland and Ireland are not expected to be at Q4 2019 levels of GDP until Q4 2021. This is projected for each of the two scenarios, which they estimate are equally probable. One scenario anticipates a second wave of infections with renewed lockdowns before the end of 2020. The other scenario anticipates the avoidance of another major outbreak. Refer to Table 1 for the historic percentage changes to real GDP and forecasted changes to real GDP based on economic projections for a single wave of infections.

Switzerland and Ireland are expected to suffer similar declines in GDP. This perhaps is logical, given that both economies are driven mainly by the services and pharmaceutical/healthcare sectors. Interestingly tourism, one of the most severely affected industries, is not a very significant part of total GDP; it represents approximately 3% in both countries. Table 1 shows that Switzerland and Ireland have recorded quite different increases in real GDP in the last 20 years. Switzerland’s growth rate has been very stable at an average of 2% per annum, and almost exactly replicates the growth rate of ‘advanced economies’. Ireland’s growth rates, on the other hand, have been higher and much more variable.

Putting recent lessons to work

It is not surprising that the global pandemic has impacted the economy in Switzerland as much as it has in Ireland and the rest of the world. People have changed their behaviours, both involuntarily and voluntarily. I have acquaintances who, up until the crisis, never purchased items online. I am sure that countless others in Ireland have just recently started shopping on their electronic devices.

The online education industry is booming. Businesses have been quick to change their supply chains and include alternatives. They have also altered their business models, which we see most markedly in the education sector. Perhaps the increased effective use of video communications tools like Zoom and Skype has brought the possibility of education for the masses to greater prominence.

The importance of classic principles, like strong partnerships based on trust and communication, has not diminished with decreased face-to-face contact. In fact, the opportunities for many more partnerships have actually increased in line with people’s confidence in, and use of, the internet. Global industry round-tables can be attended from one’s own home and without all the time and travel that was before deemed necessary. Amid the adverse effects of recent months, let us aspire in Switzerland, Ireland and elsewhere to consolidate and develop the positive aspects and put the lessons to work in our businesses.

Michael Clohosey FCA is a senior finance executive based in Switzerland.