Finances and funding during the COVID-19 crisis

Sep 30, 2020

David Lucas explains how businesses can access funding and trade through the COVID-19 crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted businesses throughout the country. Cash flow is scant, debt is mounting, and many companies have yet to resume trading in any meaningful way. Those that are trading again have returned to a desolate and unfamiliar environment. Shops and high streets are empty, many stores remain shuttered and, with further restrictions in the pipeline, dented consumer confidence in certain sectors looks unlikely to rebound fully until a vaccine is developed.

SME supports

Without access to significant cash reserves, liquidity and cashflow are critical concerns for many small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Fortunately, SMEs adversely affected by the COVID-19 crisis can access a range of Government supports. The schemes listed below have been well-received by business owners, but preparation is the key to a successful application.

SBCI COVID-19 Working Capital Scheme

This scheme offers loans from €25,000 to €1.5 million at a maximum of 4% interest to SMEs and small mid-cap enterprises. Applicants must meet at least one criterion related to the impact of COVID-19 on their business and one innovation criterion as per the European Investment Fund’s (EIF) standard conditions. No security is required on loans up to €500,000.

Future Growth Loan Scheme

This scheme aims to make up to €800 million in loans available for terms of seven to ten years to SMEs and small mid-cap businesses. Loans range from €25,000 to €3 million per eligible company, with loans up to €500,000 available without security. The initial maximum interest rate is capped at 4.5% for loans under €250,000 and 3.5% for loans more than or equal to €250,000 for the first six months. The rates after that are variable.

Sustaining Enterprise Fund

Support of up to €800,000 can be provided to eligible companies that have been negatively impacted by COVID-19. Funding will be provided for five years using repayable advances, grant aid, equity, or loan note, comprising a combination of repayable and up to 50% non-repayable support. Administration fees on repayable support will be 0% over the first six months and 4% per annum after that. Repayments will be due in years four and five.

Restart Grant Plus

Restart Grant Plus is an expansion of the Restart Grant scheme. It provides grants of €4,000 to €25,000 to businesses with 250 employees or less, turnover of less than €100,000 per employee, and a 25% reduction in turnover as a result of COVID-19.

Trading Online Voucher

Grants of up to €2,500 (with 10% co-funding from the business) are available to companies with ten employees or less seeking to build an online presence. The voucher is targeted at small businesses with little or no online presence, turnover of €2 million or less, and at least six months’ trading history.

Business Continuity Voucher

Businesses employing up to 50 staff are eligible to apply for a Business Continuity Voucher to the value of €2,500 towards third-party consultancy costs to assist with developing short- and long-term strategies to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pandemic Stabilisation and Recovery Fund (PSRF)

The PSRF is set up to invest in large- and medium-sized enterprises employing more than 250 employees or with annual turnover of over €50 million. Enterprises must be able to demonstrate their business was commercially viable prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that they can return to viability and contribute to the Irish economy. Investments are made on a commercial basis and they will seek a return for this and can invest across the capital structure, from equity to debt.

Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme

Businesses have also relied on the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS), which was replaced by the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS) in September. The main elements of the EWSS are as follows:

  • A €203 flat-rate subsidy per employee per week for businesses with a decrease in turnover of 30% or more;
  • Employers in all sectors may qualify, subject to meeting certain qualifying conditions; and
  • The EWSS will expire on 31 March 2021. The legislation, however, provides that it may be extended beyond that date.

Cashflow

The measures above can provide critical relief and cash support to businesses. However, there are other proactive and straightforward ways in which companies can meet their liquidity needs before repayment moratoriums expire in Q4.
Businesses can optimise by selling slow-moving stock to generate cash, for example. Also, debtor management might sound obvious, but assets can become tied up and the longer a debt remains unpaid, the less likely it is to materialise.

Debt funding

Many people talk about loan-to-value and property, but at the end of the day, cash repays debt. Property and asset values are significant from a security perspective, and the banks draw comfort from having this as security. However, in recent years, cashflow (and its recurring nature as the first port of call in servicing debt) has been increasingly analysed. Banks are not in the business of selling companies or property unless they have to, but they do need to see cash being generated to service the existing debt quantum.

In this volatile business landscape, SMEs may need to renegotiate covenants or restructure debt. Many businesses will find themselves over-leveraged and unable to make their debt repayments as they fall due. Banks expect this in cases where COVID-19 has hit businesses hard, but the key to success is open communication with the bank or funder.

Think of it as a partnership approach. Businesses must be extremely well-prepared as approaching a bank can be painstaking and time-consuming. That said, they do understand the position you are in; all business owner/managers want to be able to pay down debt and keep their businesses alive.

The standard suite of bank covenants comprises leverage (net debt/EBITDA), interest cover, and debt service cover ratio (DSCR), with the latter often proving the most difficult to manage. As a result of existing trading circumstances, all three may have been breached or be approaching a breach. The banks have provided moratoriums in many cases, but they will need to be looked at and renegotiated as they expire later in the year.

The amortisation or repayment profile on debt may also need to be readjusted to match the company’s ability to repay. COVID-19 has devastated many businesses, and some may never return to the same trading levels as before. This outcome would, therefore, require a re-calibration of amortisation; back-ending or reducing it may be the only option. Banks will likely begin to pursue ‘cash sweep’ mechanisms to reduce debt positions in a restructure. Cash sweeps can be administratively cumbersome but show the bank that you intend to work with them to pay down debt.

Meanwhile, businesses seeking access to further funding must become familiar with the various options available. Alternative lenders can be less onerous in terms of covenants. They tend to lend a little bit more than the traditional banks and offer increased flexibility, but they also charge higher interest, often as high as 7%.

Invoice discounting, where banks lend based on an entity’s debtor book, has also become a popular form of lending from a working capital perspective. It gives the lender increased security, as they have direct access to the debtor book. The facility limits can also grow concurrently with business growth.

Private equity

Equity is another potential option for SMEs in need of a capital injection. This route has become increasingly popular in recent years, as investors provide experience and growth potential as well as capital.
Many business owners are apprehensive about trading a piece of their business, but it is always better to own 70% of a thriving venture than 100% of a failing one.

Conclusion

Open communication is crucial at this uncertain time. Lenders understand the position many businesses are in and will expect requests to pay down debt at a slower rate, given that earning profiles may have changed. The key to success, however, is organisation and planning.


Seven tips for approaching a bank during a crisis

  1. Seek expert advice. A skilled and experienced adviser will know what the bank and its advisers want and will be able to communicate this effectively.
  2. Accept the situation. Look for the positives and work with the advice given to you to identify areas for improvement in the business. Listen to recommendations and have robust discussions about solutions.
  3. Be honest. A bank likes certainty and predictability. These are uncertain times, so work with the bank and do your best.
  4. Prepare a deliverable plan. Create a budget that is real and deliverable, with actions and assumptions clearly laid out. 
  5. Communicate. Deliver the information clearly and precisely to reduce the potential for misinterpretation and confusion. Don’t ignore the bank and hope that the problem will go away.
  6. Prepare. Talking to your bank can be a very confronting and stressful process. Be prepared for hard questions, and don’t take it personally.
  7. Have back-up plans. Speak to your adviser about alternatives in the market, be it a direct lender or private equity investment.

David Lucas FCA is Corporate Finance Partner at PKF O’Connor, Leddy & Holmes.