With the NZ election behind us and certainty of which party will maintain the lead in government, we move into a busy Christmas period. The wage subsidy is beginning to fall off. From September we are starting to see businesses having to stand on their own two feet once again.
From an industry standpoint of the economy what are we expecting to see for businesses over this time and into 2021?
As we all know the NZ government has injected massive amounts of cash into the NZ economy in a reasonable short time frame propping up a number of industries and supporting our job market. Because of this, unemployment figures continue to stay subdued with September quarter figures set at 5.3%. A large chunk of the unemployment is coming from a select few sectors that were heavily affected by the border closures and lockdowns (tourism, hospitality, accommodation, retail, entertainment).
One of the benefits of the lockdown has been that it has allowed households to save some funds over this time that has led to a bump in spending from these savings and funds normally used for overseas travel. This spending has been focused around big ticket items for around the house and domestic travel. Unfortunately, this type of spending is something that happens every few years as the big-ticket items typically last a number of years so while there will be an initial bump with the saving, it is not something that can realistically continue year on year.
From the business perspective, the low interest rates currently on offer from the banks have made access to funds easier along with the mortgage deferral scheme for those operators in need. The lower interest rates have also led to a bumper housing market across a number of regions that has a positive affect on the economy as homeowners feel equity rich. It is expected that the interest rates will remain low for the next few years to come.
Corporate insolvencies remain lower than 2019 & 2018 levels, with a drop in appointments in the lead up to the election which is typical.
Out of interest we ran the total insolvencies from the 2017 election vs the 2020 election, it seems hard to believe that from an economic standpoint there have been less insolvencies in 2020 than there were in 2017. Is the 2020 economy in a better position than the 2017 economy? Probably not, so the obvious answer is that the government assistance provided to date continues to prop up a number of businesses and individuals.
September and October saw a lift in the number of creditors initiating winding up proceedings against debtors. Of the 199 advertised in 2020, 113 have ended up with liquidators or receivers being appointed. You will note that in August, September and October there were no winding up applications advertised by the IRD which is common in the lead up to an election, along with the increased leniency they have shown as the result of Covid-19. We expect to see that backlog get remedied in the coming months.
The September drop off remains at odds with the projections generated by MBIE and discussed in our last article as personal insolvency figures across the board drop off. We expect to get the October figures mid-month.
McDonald Vague have a team of licenced insolvency practitioners with experience across corporate insolvencies and assisting individuals with alternative options to bankruptcy. We can assist with company compromises, liquidations, voluntary administration, and personal proposals.
In May 2020, non-essential services reopened for trading. New Zealand moved from Level 4 to Level 3 on 27 April 2020 and the drop down to Level 2 happened on 13 May 2020. The “new normal” at Level 1 started on 9 June 2020.
Because of the Government assistance that has been provided to businesses, we anticipate that the economic effects of the Lockdown will be seen over a longer period of time than in previous economic slowdowns. Many businesses experienced a surge in trading activity when they reopened at Level 3 and another spike in revenue at the start of Level 2 but few businesses have seen consistent revenue week on week since reopening.
The budget announcement was made on 14 May 2020 and further support measures for businesses were also announced in May 2020. Some economists are now predicting that the coming recession will be deeper, and the economic recovery will be longer, than Treasury’s current forecasts. Many SMEs that have been taking a “wait and see” approach are hoping that further Government financial support will continue to be made available and that that support will be enough to allow their revenue to return so that their businesses can survive in the medium term.
So how have New Zealand’s May 2020 company insolvency figures shaped up as the country moved down the alert levels?
There were 158 company insolvency appointments in May 2020, which is roughly 22% lower than the appointments in May 2019 (193) and May 2018 (204).
Insolvency appointments to May 2020 total 673, which is 17% fewer than 2019 (806) and 28% fewer than in 2018 (923).
The personal insolvency figures for May 2020 have not yet been released by the Government. In both May 2019 and May 2018, there was an increase in the number of personal insolvencies when compared to April and June of the same years.
Since the beginning of 2018, month on month, the proportion of people entering into the No Asset Procedure (for those with up to $50,000 in debt, no assets, and no ability to repay their debts) and those being made bankrupt has been fairly evenly split. If the corporate insolvency figures increase as predicted, we expect that bankruptcies will make up a larger proportion of the personal insolvencies going forward. We anticipate that corporate insolvency rates will increase before personal insolvency rates do, as many creditors do not call upon personal guarantees until after a company has failed.
The Government assistance for businesses announced to date has contributed to the low number of insolvencies in the year to date. Once that financial assistance has been depleted, most will feel the recession start to bite. In preparation, businesses should be evaluating their revenue forecasts and looking at reducing their overheads and streamlining their businesses so that they are in the best position they can be moving forward.
There will be opportunities ahead for those in a position to take advantage of them. Those that are not currently taking active steps to prepare for the future risk waiting too long.
In the last few weeks, we have seen an increase in the number of clients who are moving away from the “wait and see” approach and have decided to actively prepare for the months ahead. We are currently assisting clients in a number of different industries to address the vulnerabilities they are seeing in their businesses. The earlier these concerns are acknowledged and addressed, the more options businesses have to deal with these issues.
Are you likely to be forced to repay to a liquidator money previously received from a customer?
It has become relatively common for suppliers and others to be challenged by liquidators to repay funds that they have previously been paid.
Prior to the change of rules in late 2007, the contentious issue was determining what "the ordinary course of business" meant. The decisions surrounding liquidators' challenges did not discourage conventional or usual debt collection measures.
Since the McEntee Hire decision in August 2010 we have observed an increase in liquidators sending out letters seeking to challenge transactions.
It is disappointing that some liquidators seem to take an approach of challenging all payments made, rather than first considering whether there has been an actual preference to the creditor, any continuing business relationship (ie whether the contract was ongoing at the time of payment), industry practice (which may tolerate delays of payments), evidence and knowledge of credit concern, the nature of payments and trading history.
Consequently, we are sometimes asked to assist in reviewing Insolvent Transaction challenges taken by other liquidators.
As a result of such challenges, the Insolvent Transactions regime can be seen by suppliers in particular, to be at odds with prudent credit management. This is a conclusion that could be reached in light of the McEntee decision, but is that conclusion right?
We have also observed that suppliers are belatedly endeavouring to patch up holes in their procedures, in particular by late PPSR registrations of additional security rights to secure past indebtedness.
In our opinion, in some circumstances knowledge of a debtor's insolvency may be hard to avoid. It follows that the longer a debt goes unpaid the more likely it is that the supplier will be considered to be aware of the customer's inability to convert non-cash assets into cash, ie insolvency.
We consider that the consistent use of proper terms of trade, normal timely debt collection procedures, and asset protection mechanisms may protect a supplier from successful Insolvent Transaction challenges.
The regime therefore can be seen to encourage stricter credit terms and management, well defined trading terms and better security management. The mere fact of applying pressure to get payment does not in itself compel the conclusion that the payment is an Insolvent Transaction.
Insolvent Transactions regime
In an insolvent liquidation, unsecured creditors are treated equally and the company's assets are shared on a pro rata (or 'pari passu') basis. The term that is often used is to stop a creditor from 'stealing a march' on others. Where payments give individual creditors a preference, the regime enables a liquidator to set aside and claw back payments made within the two years before liquidation.
One feature of the current regime is the running account concept. This allows for the net effect of a series of invoices and payments in a "continuing business relationship" to be considered as one transaction. This is designed to stop liquidators challenging a series of payments to the same supplier, instead putting the focus on what the overall effect of the transactions was.
A continuing business relationship is established through a background of trading between the supplier and the customer. Factors such as the basis for the relationship, the business purpose and the character of the relationship, length of the relationship and frequency of transactions will usually be taken into account.
In McEntee Hire, it was agreed that a continuing business relationship existed, as McEntee had traded with its customer for over three years, with many sales and payments regularly in that period. However, the Court found that the continuing business relationship ended when McEntee issued a stop credit notice and referred the debt to a collection agency. It was noted that this was done four months after the last invoice for supply had been issued, and in circumstances where its policy in cases of suspected insolvency was to refer the debt to a collection agency.
McEntee argued that the stop credit notice was not the end of the continuing business relationship but more to "rebalance" and "preserve" the trading relationship, and did not reflect any concerns about the company's solvency. The liquidators successfully argued that payments were not being made to induce further supplies, and the relationship had shifted to one of pure debt collection.
We speculate that had the right to stop credit been with regard to a credit limit or other credit terms, and the referral to a debt collection agency been earlier and as a routine referral, the continuing business relationship may have endured.
An Insolvent Transaction claim is calculated in a number of ways; firstly where there is no running account, as a sum of payments, secondly when there is a running account, the net difference between the opening and closing balances and lastly, at the point of peak indebtedness - being the difference between the peak and the closing balance. This is illustrated as follows:-
|Month||Supply $||Payment $||Net Balance $|
In this example, a supplier commenced trading with a customer in 2010. By November 2011, the customer owed the supplier $30,000. Six months later the customer owed $40,000. In June 2012, the company is placed into liquidation owing the supplier $20,000. Using this example, a liquidator could argue peak indebtedness and say the supplier was preferred by $50,000. The liquidator cannot cherry- pick a transaction (eg the April 2012 $60,000 payment) when there is a running account, and ignore that the creditor continued to trade with the company as a result of the payments made. Australian authorities have said, however, that liquidators ought to cherry-pick a date of peak indebtedness that best suits the general body of creditors. Section 292(4B) of the Companies Act 1993 does not limit a liquidator's ability to do so.
Insolvent Transactions will be a contentious but necessary feature of insolvency law for the foreseeable future. Creditors should review trade terms, and ensure that they have policies and debt collection processes and procedures that minimise the ability for liquidators to claw back valuable funds.
This article is intended to provide general information and should not be construed as advice of any kind. Parties who require clarification on issues raised in this article should take their own advice.