Regarding policies providing immediate liquidity to bussinesses in your country: How do you see the actual take-up of these support measures, also by small firms, self-employed and freelancers? To what extent do the measures in practice help mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19? How do you see the delivery and implementation by public agencies and other entities, taking into account the trade-off between quick delivery and deadweight losses or misallocation?
Crisis Response Monitoring Country comparison
A dedicated hardship fund of €2 billion was established for freelancers, one-person companies, professionals, and other small entrepreneurs, meant to cover personal living costs. A larger Corona-support fund also provides partial support for fixed costs such as rent or interest payments. The application for grants to cover fixed costs started on May 20 and entrepreneurs must have had a loss in revenue of at least 40% due to the pandemic to be eligible for support.
In a first phase (from March 27), the hardship fund provided rapid financial support of up to €1,000, where eligibility was based on previous income and other criteria. In this first phase there were 144,000 applications and €121 million were distributed (i.e., an average payment of €840 which indicates that virtually all applications were approved). The measure was criticized for excluding specific categories of persons and entrepreneurs and the government subsequently adjusted the eligibility criteria.
A second phase with less strict eligibility criteria (particularly the income ceiling) started on April 16. The fund now provides up to €2,000 per month for up to three months. Further adjustments to the hardship fund were announced in early May, aimed at increasing its flexibility and the accessibility for specific groups. For instance, applicants can now claim support for three months within a six-month window. Until the 15th of August, about €458 million were paid out. On October 7, the government announced that the hardship fund will be extended until mid-March 2021.
In addition, on April 3, the termination of rental agreements due to outstanding rent in April, May or June 2020 was temporarily suspended. For micro-enterprises with credit debts (as well as for private households), repayment and interest payments were automatically suspended for three months and the credit period extended by three months free of charge (Parliamentary Correspondence No 306 of 3 April 2020). The federal government agreed with the energy utilities and the regulator to secure the supply of electricity, gas, and district heating for private households, one-person companies, and small enterprises even in the event of late payment. These deferrals aim to relieve temporarily the liquidity situation.
Businesses that experience a significant drop in revenues may apply for a payment towards the fixed costs, such as rent, interest payments, license fees, et cet. For a drop of revenues between 40 to 60%, businesses may receive 25% of their fixed costs, for a drop between 60 and 80% they may receive 50% of their fixed costs, and they may receive 75% of their fixed costs if they experience a drop of 80% or more. In August 2020, about 7% of businesses stated that they received payments towards their fixed costs (Hölzl et al, 2020).
Akin to pandemic reactions in most OECD nations, Canada’s liquidity support to businesses involves monetary policy action, interventions in financial markets and direct support to employers. In March 2020, the Bank of Canada’s target interest rate was reduced by 150 basis points (the same reduction as the U.S. Federal Reserve’s Federal Funds Rate, but from a slightly higher initial value). A form of quantitative easing was commenced with the Bank purchasing not only provincial bonds but also corporate bonds and commercial paper. Programs were also introduced to purchase federal securities and government backed mortgage bonds in secondary markets. Further, the Bank of Canada and the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions introduced or eased a variety of credit and liquidity measures, allowing financial institutions to continue serving customers who might otherwise have experienced (more severe) liquidity constraints.
A variety of targeted, broad-based direct approaches were also undertaken to support businesses. On one front, normal financial interactions with government were relaxed in recognition of liquidity constraints. There was a one-time enhanced goods and services tax (GST, akin to a VAT) credit, and deferral of business (and personal) taxes, customs duties, and sales taxes. On a second front, established loan facilities expanded farm credit, business development and export development loans. Some new programs were also commenced. Of particular note are the following:
- Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA): Interest-free business loans of up to $40,000, with up to $10,000 forgivable with repayment by December 2022. Revised and expanded in October 2020.
- Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA): Potentially forgivable loans for landlords of small businesses.
- Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy (CERA): Grants to small businesses for rent. This is paired with the CECRA and requires landlord co-operation. Provinces participated in funding these programs and most also prevented tenant evictions (commercial and personal) during the crisis.
- Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy version 2 (CERA v2): In October 2020, the government announced appreciable revisions to the rent subsidy program for businesses, non-profits and charities that had suffered a revenue drop retroactive to September 27. This revised program paid funds directly to tenants and no longer required landlord co-operation. Many aspects of its operation and phase-out mirror the CEWS.
- Business Credit Availability Program (BCAP): Loans for small- or medium-sized employers.
- Large Employer Emergency Financing Facility (LEEFF): Short-term loans with a minimum value of $60 million.
Some have complained that these programs have been too complex, too slow, too late to start and/or too restricted. Given the various program requirements, some borrowers preferred to maintain credit relationships with established banks; others may have strategically delaying borrowing in light of shifting criteria for government programs and/or in search of better terms with banks.
- See Bank of Canada, “Table 1: Summary of Key Policy Measures,” Monetary Policy Report, April 2020, pp. 13–14, https://www.bankofcanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/mpr-2020-04-15.pdf; and CD Howe Institute, “COVID-19 Policy Measures by Country,” June 1, 2020, https://www.cdhowe.org/covid-19-policy-measures-country-0.
- See https://www.canada.ca/en/department-finance/news/2020/11/canada-emergency-rent-subsidy.html.
- See, for example, “Complexity, Slow Rollouts, and Too Many Strings Attached: A Midterm Review of the Business Bailout Programs,” The Globe and Mail, Oct. 23, 2020, pp. B1, B4–B5, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/business/article-complexity-slow-rollouts-and-too-many-strings-attached-a-midterm/.
The set of new measures implemented to support small firms and self-employed described above has been quite effective at mitigating the impact of the epidemic on firms. As for corporate failures, contrary to what many feared, the Bank of France indicates that they have fallen by 28.1% over a sliding one-year period. Admittedly, this drop is partly due to the impact of containment on the functioning of commercial jurisdictions and regulatory changes that temporarily modify the dates for declaring insolvencies. But it is also the result of record rates of access to credit by companies in connection with obtaining loans guaranteed by the State. In any event, since in normal times France has around 55,000 corporate insolvencies per year, there is a “backlog” of at least 15,000 defaults that will necessarily be made up in the coming months, not counting defaults due to the slowdown in activity.
To stabilize businesses, the federal government and some regional governments in Germany promptly established different emergency measures (see KPMG Global 2020 for details). On the one hand, these programs provide support to larger firms that have been directly affected by the shutdown by way of loans and credit guarantees: The state-owned development bank KfW supports firms by taking over credit risks from commercial banks as to make cheaper loans feasible; in addition, the federal government has set up an economic stabilization fund for the direct recapitalization of firms under certain conditions. On the other hand, these programs provide liquidity and income support to freelance workers and SMEs with up to 10 employees through timely lump-sum payments (PwC 2020).
Federal programs grant an operating subsidy for three months (provided as a lump-sum payment), ranging from EUR 9,000 for firms with up to 5 full-time equivalent workers to EUR 15,000 for firms with up to 10 full-time equivalent workers. State-level programs come on top, implying regional variation in these emergency measures within Germany. These payments are supposed to allow for the continuation of the business at least for three months and can be combined with short-time work for dependent employees. At the same time, access to basic income support without strict means testing was opened up for the target group of self-employed and freelance workers as they often do not have access to contribution-based unemployment insurance benefits.
However, observers point to the fact that some funds were exhausted relatively quickly and that some target groups were not reached at all. Despite the quick and significant policy response, it is also not yet clear to what extent these measures can effectively stabilize the economic situation of those affected. For example, while around 60 percent of the self-employed report a loss of income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, this figure is around 15 percent for dependent employees (Kritikos et al. 2020). In addition, there are some concerns that no appropriate screening of applications took place in the early days of implementing the support programs and that information was lacking on the proper use of funds provided. Finally, also cases of fraud behavior were reported and criminal charges have been filed (Deutscher Bundestag 2020c).
Additional support measures for affected businesses and self-employed are also part of new measures that have been introduced during the national (partial) lockdown in November. Notably, these measures are not only intended to cover operating expenses, but to some extent also include an entrepreneurial remuneration. For this purpose, these support measures are based on previous year’s turnover in November 2019 (or average turnover in 2019) and cover 75 percent of that amount (BMF 2020). However, the disbursement of these measures is slow and the application and implementation process is rather bureaucratic.
The Cura Italia intervention introduced social safety nets for self-employed and seasonal workers, two categories that generally do not have access to such benefits. These workers were expected to receive a 600-euro allowance for the month of March. The allowance was then extended for the months of April and May and raised to 1,000 euros for seasonal workers employed in tourism. The implementation of this measure was quite successful, although some delays in the payments were registered. The Social Security Administration (INPS) received 4.8 million requests for the allowance, 83% of them were accepted and processed. The payments for the month of March were issued Between April 14 and April 23 while the payment for the month of April will be delivered by the end of May.
Additionally, the government compensated shop owners by granting them tax credits to cover 60 percent of their March rent payment. The self-employed with mortgages can further ask to have their payments suspended for up to 18 months, conditional on their revenues falling by more than third.
Following the Liquidity decrees, small and medium firms (PMI) have access the Central Guarantee Fund. This Fund allows PMIs to take new loans with a maximum duration of six years (lately extended to 10 year); these loans will be 100% guaranteed by the Italian government for a maximum amount of 25,000 euros; further, the capital will not have to be repaid until 18 months after the loan has been disbursed. There are not yet official numbers on the take-up rate by Italian firms; according to a recent study (Boitani et al, 2020), the number of firms granted a loan was about 300,000 out of a potential pool of 2 million firms. An excessive bureaucracy in the loan application is one of the reasons for this low figure.
As noted above, at the peak of the crisis some 25% of self-employed have claimed the special welfare benefits (Tozo), which runs through the municipalities. Self-employed can claim the special welfare benefits from March, actual transfers have started in April. The government chose for quick delivery in the first installment of the Tozo, which was independent of wealth and partner income. There is no information on the extent to which these measures have mitigated the economic impact of COVID-19 on self-employed yet. The Tozo-scheme has been recently extended until July 1st 2021, though this renewed scheme is now subject to a partner income test and will be subject to a wealth test as of April 2021.
Small firms can also use the NOW for their employees, see also above. In addition, in selected sectors that are hit particularly hard, firms could get a one-time subsidy of 4 thousand euro (TOGS) to cover the fixed costs. In early June, about 200 thousand firms received the TOGS. This amounts to a total financial support of 800 million euro (Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy, 2020). Again, speed was considered to be of the essence. The TOGS was succeeded by the TVL in June, which also provides financial support for small to medium sized firms (<250 employees) in hard-hit sectors. The size of the TVL subsidy depends on the individual turnover loss as well as the share fixed costs of the sector. Furthermore, all firms can delay paying their taxes and many firms can also delay payments on their loans. There is no information on the extent to which these measures have mitigated the economic impact of COVID-19 on small firms yet.
There have been plenty of initiatives aimed at supporting the labour market (supply and demand sides). Exceptional support measures for include: (i) extraordinary support to maintain employment contracts (credit lines and simplified layoff rules); (ii) creation of an extraordinary training plan; (iii) a temporary exemption from payment of the social security contributions payable by the employer; (iv) an extraordinary financial incentive to support the normalisation of the company’s activity; and (v) a ban on dismissals. According to a report by the Bank of Portugal there is a non-linear relationship between the percentage of firms without liquidity to face the fixed costs and the number of days of reduced activity. This percentage is larger amongst large firms and firms within the restaurants and hotels industry. The simplified layoff rules help alleviate this problem. Under layoff the share of firms with liquidity issues from reduced activity is similar to the share that we would observe in normal circumstances. Therefore, it is expected that the implemented measures will help preserve firms’ solvency in the long term and avoid firm closures. As mentioned previously (Figure 1), as of May 27, 111,536 firms had applied for layoff (involving 1,332,114 workers, about ¼ of the active population in February 2020). Given the scale of the task, however, some concerns arise as financial support takes time to reach its recipients (Bank of Portugal, 2020).
The self-employed and the members of statutory bodies were also targeted by ALMP by being allowed to request support for reduced economic activity (from April 1). On May 8th, the income support eligibility conditions for self-employed and small business owners were enlarged in order to cover individuals not eligible for unemployment benefits. In Figure 2 we present the cumulative number of requests for financial support by the self-employed (from April 1) and by members of statutory bodies (from April 20). During April 186,000 self-employed and nearly 12,500 members of statutory bodies (of firms without registered employees) requested support.
During April the Office for National Statistics and the Bank of Portugal implemented a weekly short survey (Inquérito Rápido e Excepcional às Empresas) aimed at assessing the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on firm activity. The report from the last week of April shows that the group of microenterprises, with less than 10 employees, was the one with the largest share of firms that considered the simplified layoff the most relevant factor to explain the decrease in working hours.
- Although initially large employers complained about the ceiling that capped the maximum amount that an employer could receive through the anti-COVID-19 schemes, the ceiling was lifted relatively soon and there seem to be no major impediments in the schemes implemented.
- Although the problem of moral hazard and possible abuse of the schemes is relatively often discussed, the general approach is that help must come quickly. This may be justifiable also on the grounds of the argument that because the shock is exogenous and unexpected, the scope for moral hazard is somewhat limited. It is however too early to evaluate the deadweight losses relative to the respective counterfactuals.
- Self-employed are entitled to the support based on the decrease in their revenues (for the decrease from 20% to 39% the support is 180 EUR, for 40% to 59% decrease the support is 300 EUR, for 60% to 79% decrease the support is 420 EUR, and for a decrease of more than 80% the support is 540 EUR). As of June 2020, 40 thousand self-employed have been compensated with the average amount of 250 EUR in March and 474 EUR in April, 2020 (the compensations were paid in April and May respectively). Remarkably, as of May 2020 the year-on-year rate of closed licenses for self-employment did not increase compared to 2019. As of October 1, 2020, all the respective amounts were increased by 50%.
Different measures have been adopted to guarantee the liquidity and stability of firms and self-employed workers.
The government has introduced the possibility of tax payment deferrals for a period of six months, upon request, without interests. Additionally, firms and self-employed with no social security debts are allowed to defer Social Security debt payments due between April and June 2020 with 0.5% interest. Additional measures have been taken in order to align tax bases to the current situation. These measures are supposed to provide more than 15 billion euros in liquidity for firms. Firms that have received public loans are also allowed to postpone their repayment. Moreover, guarantees to facilitate access of loans to companies and self-employed have been already granted. A specific financing line of 400 million euros has been approved for firms and self-employed workers in the tourism, transport and hospitality sectors and specific measures for exporting firms have also been adopted.
Firms are exempted of social contributions for workers affected by ERTEs during this period (100% for SMEs, 75% for the other firms) and specific bonuses have been introduced in the tourism sector. As previously mentioned, self-employed workers can benefit from the moratorium on mortgage payments to offices/commercial premises from 1 to 3 months.
The short-time work policy, which is the key policy tool at this stage, was introduced very rapidly and efficiently. It was announced to be in effect from the day of announcement even though it would take a few weeks to get the proposal through parliament and set up the system (i.e. firms could apply retroactively). Applications could be submitted by early April but slightly more than half of the applications submitted at the time of writing pertain to working-time reductions starting in March. Access and application is streamlined through an on-line portal requiring very little information above a listing of the covered employees. Payments from the scheme came within days of the application for most firms. Figure 3 illustrates the application and approval (i.e. processing, as most will be approved) rates across time. By the end of April, more than 50,000 firms have applied for the short-time work subsidy, which can be compared to 2,104 firms filing for bankruptcy during the same period. The applications covered 490,000 workers. Application numbers corresponded to 15% of all firms and 9% of all workers in Sweden, suggesting that many small firms applied. Applications continued to increase during the spring and then leveled off. By early October, 70,000 applications were approved, covering 560,000 workers (i.e. 10 % of all workers) according to the responsible agency.
Because of the fairly mechanical approval of the applications, there is an obvious risk of fraud. There are, e.g., some anecdotal reports that employees are required to work more than allowed by the short-time work schemes while paid by the subsidies. There has been a discussion regarding whether subsidies should be accessible for profitable firms that pay out major dividends, which was possible initially but appear not to be any more after some adjustments by the responsible agency. In addition, there is an obvious risk that these policies are used by firms that in the end will not survive. But given the short-run nature of the policies, these seems as acceptable costs, at least at the early stage – but concerns could potentially be more severe in the longer run considering that the policy will be in effect throughout the year (at 60 percent work reduction). An unfortunate feature of the system is that it does not contain any guarantees for employment relationships to be maintained – the system can even be used while workers have received an advance notice of layoff.
Some measures are explicitly targeted at the small firms and freelance workers. Reduced payroll taxes are clearly of largest importance for small firms as it only covers the first 30 employees. Self-employed workers have been given additional opportunities to put their firms in hibernation in order to access unemployment insurance. Firms can use the short- time work scheme even if self-employed as long as the firm is incorporated, and many small firms seem to be among the applicants as noted above. The arts and sports support which also could cover many freelancers have, however, taken long to materialize and there is still considerable uncertainty as to who will receive funding; the budget is fixed and will be allocated among applications after individual assessment.
- Firms without collective agreements need to make individual arrangements with 70 percent of employees in order to access the scheme. This is mostly relevant for small firms.
- The numbers are from the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth.
- Note that employers that were funded or owned by central or local employers were not eligible to apply, a restriction that apply to more than 1/3 of all workers in the economy.
- After the end-of-the year, there will be a slightly less generous system in place (permanently) that grants firms access to short-time work under more restrictive conditions.
As mentioned in the last section “Orientation and targeting of adopted measures”, the amount of potential liquidity support through credit guarantees is large in Switzerland. However, as discussed, there is a substantial gap between the amount of credit support that firms and self-employed apply for and the amount they really claim. This reluctance to finally take up bridging loans could lead to some under-supply of liquidity and, relatedly, to some additional layoffs. The extent of this practical issue is hard to quantify.
Given the reluctance of firms to claim the loans, the issue of credit misallocation should be rather minor. There is a certain risk of deadweight losses and abuse of the credit scheme – it is argued, however, that screening should be at a good level due to the fact that it is the ‘home bank’ of the firm which is in charge of assessing the loan application. Moreover, ex-post screenings (and penalties for abuse) are being implemented in the design of the loan schemes.
The delivery and implementation of the different schemes by public agencies and other entities (banks) is seen positively by firms and self-employed according to reports in the media. Both, applications for short-time work (through unemployment insurance agencies) and applications for bridging loans (through banks), were designed to be simple and fast. The banks usually reached the target of assessing a loan application within 24 hours. The public agencies were struggling with the huge amount of short-time work applications but still usually managed to digest them without substantial delay and backlog. As for the extended use of the support scheme provided by the Income Compensation Act (EO), it has been reported that some eligible self-employed ended up touching very small daily allowances due to outdated income information recorded at the social security agency. But as well for this scheme, no broader complaints have been raised so far.
As documented in the last section “Orientation and targeting of adopted measures”, a large part of the extensions in the STW scheme and in income compensation have been re-enacted in view of the second wave of the Covid pandemic. Also, the government declared to prepare the legal base for a successor scheme similar to the Covid bridging loan guarantees and set up a “hardship support program” to support firms in industries that were heavily hit by the crisis (see last section). However, given the extended duration of the crisis fueled by the second wave and expectations of a difficult winter and spring time, it is not clear that this set of liquidity support measures is sufficient to avoid a larger wave of insolvencies in the next half year or so.
Data on insolvency incidence in Switzerland shows that the number of bankruptcies is in fact located below the normal levels as observed in the last years. Figure 5 documents that with the start of the crisis, the curve of insolvency cases follows a flatter trend than normal. The main reason for this lower incidence of bankruptcies is the backing through the mentioned set of Covid support measures for firms. Moreover, the Covid measures that came with the first wave included initially a temporary moratorium on debt enforcement which was later replaced by a prolonged duration of the debt enforcement process. The total of these measures has reduced insolvency incidence so far. However, this could change over the course of the crisis and with the stepwise termination of these extraordinary support measures. It is well possible that there will be a catch-up wave re-accelerating the incidence of bankruptcies in the close future. There are already first indications that in some areas and industries the number of insolvency cases started increasing substantially in October [KOF-ETH 2020b]. The next couple of months will show to which degree the set of Covid support measures only delayed the insolvency of less resilient firms and to which degree they really avoided crisis-driven bankruptcies. Depending on how big the share of each of these two outcomes is, we will observe a larger or smaller increase in the insolvency rate in the coming months.
Until the end of August, HMRC declared that 1.2 million firms had claimed support of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), representing 9.6 million jobs furloughed (Figure 11). According to the latest release from HMRC, firms with less than 50 employees represented 95% of all firms claiming support and 47% of the jobs covered. As of August, considering the official count of the population of firms as of 2019 by employment size, it is estimated that 38% of firms with less than 50 employees have asked support of CJRS and the same statistic climbs to 61% for larger firms. The furlough scheme has started phase out from the end of May and more significantly thereafter as shown by the furloughed worker count in Figure 12. Corroborating these numbers, since end of May ONS survey figures have consistently found businesses declaring that shares of their workforce had returned from furlough in the past 2 weeks (4.3% of workforce in the end of May and 5.1 % in the latest figures covering 24th August to 6th of September). The speed of return from furlough has been slightly faster for larger firms with 47% of furloughed workers having returned compared to 41% in smaller size businesses at the end of July. The March to September differences in vacancies growth for businesses employing less than 50 employees compared to larger firms of 11% and 40% respectively, shows that the recovery in vacancies has been stronger for smaller firms since July. According to the latest figures from ONS, in the beginning of September, 10.6% of businesses have responded to be at severe or moderate risk of insolvency, 47.9% at low risk and only 30.1% at no risk. Out of those answering to be at any risk of insolvency 40.1% have declared that the COVID crisis had contributed to the increase in their risk.
According to HMRC, the official number of applications received for the Coronavirus Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) was 2.7 million as of July 19 (Figure 13), corresponding to a value claimed of 7.8 billion pounds. The take up of the scheme has been high, as of August 31 it is estimated that 60% of the eligible population had taken part in the support scheme. Conditional of eligibility, men shown a higher take up than women 62% compared to 54%, and the take up among younger workers was as well higher (63%) than that of older workers (59%).
- Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) statistics: September 2020, HMRC
- Business Impact of COVID-19 Survey, 24 August – 6 September, ONS
- Business Impact of COVID-19 Survey, 24 August – 6 September, ONS. 11.4% of businesses interview were not sure about their insolvency risk.
- The SEISS had two trenches, the numbers reported represent the 1st trench. The 2nd trench started in the end of August and by September 24 had 2.2 million claims made.
- Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) Statistics: September 2020, HMRC
If a small or medium sized business received a loan under the Paycheck Protection Program and retained all its employees, the loan was forgiven. The original law stipulated that at least 75 percent of the loan must be used for employee compensation, but that share was subsequently reduced to 60 percent. This program was very popular and ran out of its initial $349 billion allocation in less than two weeks. The U.S. Congress replenished the fund with an additional $310 billion. The loans under the Paycheck Protection Program were available for businesses with 500 or fewer employees. One concern has been that relatively large organizations were better equipped to apply for loans, which private lenders administered, and that smaller businesses were underrepresented among those receiving funds. The Paycheck Protection Program closed on August 8.
Additionally, the federal government has helped provide liquidity to medium and large businesses by purchasing loans on favorable terms. For large businesses, the federal government has bought corporate bonds directly, and for medium-sized businesses purchased business loans from banks. In a recent controversial move, the Secretary of Treasury—over the objection of the chair of Federal Reserve Board—moved to end rather than extend several programs to assist businesses, despite the pandemic’s recent resurgence, which threatens the economic recovery.