Destroying Myths with the Power of Data
In watching and reading the news in 2020, most people believed that all companies were on the brink of failure. Companies are closing at alarming rates. The lack of consumer foot traffic was causing small businesses to fail. Controls that limit visits to retail outlets and other restraints were crippling the economy. In addition, the restrictions on leisure travel opportunities meant that all tourism companies were going out of business.
Looking at Google searches, the concern rose to a fever pitch with an unprecedented peak of global investigations that overshadowed normal behavior for the past five years.
Endless news stories of business disruption led to spikes in other related searches, which showed compounding concerns, including searches for business bankruptcy lawyers (up over 170%), business bankruptcies (plural being up over 150%), and variations in the size of business and filing under consideration.
These signals created the illusion that the global economy was in free fall and that all businesses were at risk of failing. This anxiety built for many in the finance profession to be concerned in two ideas:
- Business bankruptcy was increasing during the COVID crisis
- Business bankruptcy was approaching a bubble
Dun & Bradstreet has access to the barometer of company creation and bankruptcies and has continued to monitor the situation and found that commercial bankruptcies were down compared to 2019 for full-year 2020 and continue to be even lower in the same period for 2021. This decline in commercial bankruptcy is likely the result of three primary factors:
- Government stimulus offsetting the disruption caused by policies to protect the public from the spread of the COVID virus
- Corporate benevolence in the form of deferment, deferral, and forgiveness of terms during a global pandemic
- Global consumer engagement in supporting the economy through alternative spending habits and market engagements
The global governments invested in the marketplace through unprecedented global stimulus, including the US support of enhanced and extended unemployment, funding from the Small Business Administration (SBA) in support of business and employees with the Payment Protection Program, and COVID-based relief funding in support of cities via grants and other initiatives. This pattern of public sector supplemental spending was repeated worldwide as governments supported the survival of the economy while restricting certain activities to stop the spread of the COVID virus.
Corporate entities are actively supporting each other with the suspension of collections, extension of terms, or alternative exchanges to enable the long-term sustainability of the economy. These actions were captured in the market under the label of "Do Good" and took many forms. Each of them intended to support all participants through the disruption facing all companies globally.
Consumers were the third leg of the stool that sustained the commercial prospects of companies worldwide. The average consumer experienced an increase in savings due to the dual effect of limited spending options and increased support from government spending. This double impact was seen on consumer spending habits, from runs on personal hygiene products to an unprecedented demand on car sales. Some of these sales were a function of consumers moving from environments that were perceived as high risks, such as public transportation. Still, others were opportunistic spending as resources were redistributed from travel and leisure to consumables in 2020 and into 2021.
This trifecta of anomalies created an environment where finance professionals were challenged with understanding where real risk existed in the marketplace. Dun & Bradstreet’s observation of bankruptcy has shown that the overall pattern of bankruptcy in the US has shifted. While the net number of defaults moved down, some segments saw practices consistent or even higher than historical periods.
The review of bankruptcy by industry segment for the past three years shows that the services industry are on the rise in 2021, achieving the 2019 full-year results in just the first five months of 2021 as a business return to more normal operations, and the scaffolding to sustain the economy through the uncertainty is removed. Services include companies that do not transfer tangible products (such as hotels, repair services, accounting and legal services, and consulting firms).
During 2020, retail businesses saw an increase in opportunistic bankruptcy filings as companies merged and expensive leasing options were vacated in favor of-commerce. Alternatively, these bankruptcies were used as an opportunity to reset looming debt obligations under the cover of consumer purchase disruption that resulted from COVID.
With retail being consistent from 2019 to 2020 in bankruptcy filings, the perception was that bankruptcy rates might have been higher than they were. Part of this is because the number of locations, unique addresses impacted by a bankruptcy filing were substantially higher in 2020 than in either 2019 full year or 2021 so far.
As retailers filed for bankruptcy and shifted from a physical presence to a digital platform, they impacted each city around the country where they had a storefront. These local closures made bankruptcies feel closer to home and more tangible than in years past. Seeing this helped reinforce the perception that there might be a more significant challenge in the economy than the reality.
Construction and manufacturing are notable industries to watch as the cost of materials and labor shortages continue to be a challenge as companies emerge from a disrupted state in 2021.
While bankruptcy can serve many purposes, the assertion that the business bankruptcy activity was undertaken to support the restructuring of debt obligations is highlighted in the observance of the type of bankruptcy chapter selected. Chapter 7 liquidations saw a net decline in 2020 compared to 2019, while Chapter 11 debt restructures performed near the same level. Moreover, in 2021, Chapter 11 restructures have already outpaced the 2019 and 2020 total year numbers at the end of 5 months.
The pattern creates space to consider that companies are planning to continue operations post-pandemic and are looking to stabilize their finances in the most favorable way possible to support their recovery in the post-COVID economy.
The trend of leveraging Chapter 11 continues in 2021, with New York exceeding the number of Chapter 11 bankruptcy petitions in 2019 (281 petitions) in the first five months of 2021 (297 petitions). And this was after a consistent 2020 (270 petitions).
Looking ahead, Dun & Bradstreet is continuing to monitor the bankruptcy situation for our clients. We are currently projecting that bankruptcy rates will continue at the depressed level through 2021. But this does not mean every market and every industry will continue to experience lower than historically patterned bankruptcy rates.
With our surveillance of over 35 million active U.S. businesses, we see indicators of increased concerns with larger firms in general and companies located in the New England area.
We have built robust prediction models that have performed exceptionally well at predicting bankruptcy both before, during, and as we emerge from bankruptcy. Each portfolio is different, and we are available to show you where the pockets of risk may exist in your portfolio of clients, suppliers, or even prospects.
Reach out to us to start a conversation on your partner portfolio review today to understand how your business partners stack up and prepare your company to thrive in this new normal.
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