9/2020 – Cashflow and monthly operating costs are key

After watching Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s announcement on the enhanced stimulus package for SMEs, my various chat groups came alive with all kinds of comments and opinions. In particular, one chat group which comprises experienced retired senior bankers, entrepreneurs and senior business journalists (all about the same age of 60 and above) stood out for its wisdom and sharp foresight.

When asked about potential SME casualties in this economic crisis, a senior banker commented, “TH… I went through four deep recessions/business cycles, ie, 1987,1997,2007/8, and now 2019/20. Same like you, and no wiser than my friends in this group.

“My gut feeling is that there will be more casualties this time around because the pandemic is world-wide. But like all recessions, the economy will turn around. It will not likely be a V-shaped recovery. We all have to tighten our belts, cut losses, and make sure we survive to enjoy the recovery.”

He is correct, as this recession is like no other. It is the first time that almost all economic activities have stopped in all the major countries in the world at the same time. There is a supply shock as the supply chain has been completely disrupted to a standstill.

There is demand shock as sales of most industries have fallen off the cliff to almost zero during lockdowns, and there is capital market shock as global stock markets crash.

Predicting the timing of the recovery is extremely difficult as we now have to deal with a virus pandemic with no solution in sight. Yes, a complete lockdown can flatten the curve but the risk of a re-occurrence of a new wave of infections is very high when the movement control order (MCO) is lifted. Economic activities have to resume, so we will have to practise some form of restricted MCO for the next six months.

And this affects business.

Sales will continue to be very soft as consumption drops due to lower consumer confidence, higher unemployment and reduced personal income, as widespread paycuts are implemented. As in most recessions, not all businesses will do badly. From experience, consumers tend to trade down, ie, purchase lower-priced alternatives to sustain their lifestyle. Hawker stalls will continue to do well, while higher-priced restaurants will suffer.

The logical conclusion for SME owners is to focus on surviving the next six months. Once the moratorium on your loans ends in October, will you still be standing with the ability to start repaying them? Will you have sufficient cash flow to participate in the economic recovery which will probably start in 2021?

Your survival strategy till October will have to focus on two key issues – cash flow and monthly operating costs.

Managing cash flow > Sufficient banking facilities – Since all your loans have been placed under a moratorium (meaning that you won’t need to repay them for the next six months) by your bank, you will need to check if the balance amount of banking facilities will allow you to trade normally.

If not, quickly apply to your bank for additional trading facilities. If you have spare cash, it might be wise to start paying down your loan when you can and not wait till the end of October.

  • Cash reserves – You will need to cover March and April losses from your cash reserves. Reduce your losses for the next five months through aggressive cost-cutting. Most businesses will face delayed collections so cash reserves, if available, will be most useful to cover cash-flow deficits.
  • Wage subsidy – Expect delays in your claims as the government will not be able to cope with the massive influx of applications. If approved, expect delayed payments of at least a month in your cash-flow planning. The wage subsidy is only for three months but you need to survive the next six months. So, plan accordingly.
  • Corporate tax – For companies that will definitely declare a loss in 2020, my advice is to write in to the Inland Revenue Board informing them that you will declare zero profits for the financial year-end 2020, and suspend all tax payments for future projected profits. There is no point loaning the money back to the government when you need it more to survive.
  • Deferred EPF payments – Just like bank loans, EPF payments have been deferred for six months when you will have to restructure your payments with the agreement of the EPF. Do not consider this as savings. It goes into accounts payable, interest-free of course.
  • Rental subsidy – The announced tax deduction for rental rebates of 30% for three months from April to June will be effective in encouraging private-sector landlords to implement only if double deduction is allowed. In times of need, business partners should help one another. This is how the Chinese business community has been built over the last 100 years in Malaysia.
  • Moratorium – This is probably the best Bank Negara strategy to help preserve cash-flow liquidity for businesses to continue trading. By allowing the banking system to prevent classifying non-payments after three months as non-performing loans (NPLs), businesses can breathe and continue trading for another six months. Individuals too have more cash in hand to offset the paycuts that will definitely happen. By end-October, Bank Negara must allow another restructuring of existing loans by another six months to businesses who will benefit from the economic recovery.

Reduce monthly operating expenses. The survival of your company depends on the amount of cash reserves you have to fund losses in March and April and also losses to be incurred from May to October. So, it is imperative that losses are kept to a minimum in the next five months.

Losses are calculated after deducting expenses from net sales. Net sales is gross sales less cost of sales. So, if net sales are down, expenses must come down proportionately, which in this case might not be possible for companies which suffer a big drop in sales.

While your sales revenue is dependent on external factors which are beyond your control, to a major extent, you are in control of your own expenses. For most service companies, payroll forms the biggest portion of the monthly expense. This is normally followed by rental or in some companies, advertising and promotion.

  • Rental – At the maximum, expect your landlord to give you a rebate of 30% from April to June. This means that you can factor into your expenses a reduction of 15% in rental payments for the next six months.
  • Advertising and promotion – It has been proven in the last recession that companies that continue advertising and conducting promotional activities will sell more than their competitors who stop completely. You are advised to work with your media suppliers to get more bang for the same budget. I am sure the media companies will support you, as they too need sales and have excess inventory to give away.
  • Office expenses, allowances and claims – Cut all the unnecessary frills that you can ill-afford. Not much but every penny counts. Spend some on healthcare, though, to look after the team.
  • Wages – I have stopped comparing with the Singapore government’s wage subsidy plan because our government does not have sufficient reserves.

With the latest proposed enhanced wage subsidy, it looks like SME owners must take matters into their own hands. Some companies will enjoy reasonable support of up to 30% subsidy on the wage expense, while some will only enjoy 5% to 10%.

Do remember that this is only for three months. Why the government is not exempting EPF payments for six months is beyond my understanding. This will only translate to a higher paycut across the board.

I have an investee company where the senior management has given the board of directors a revised sales forecast, with sales revenue dropping by 20% against the 2020 budget. But no corresponding reduction in expenses was given.

I have replied that this sales forecast might not be achievable and that we should start looking at reducing our expenses, mainly the payroll, which is a massive portion of it.

I would recommend a minimum 20% paycut across the board, freezing all intakes, probably retrenching a few positions deemed not necessary and linking the paycut to sales. If the sales for May to October drop by more than 50%, then the paycut will be more severe like 30%-40% for those who earn above RM4,000. However, if sales recover to its original budget then the salary will revert to its original amount.

Different companies will have to tailor different strategies, depending on the sales performance of the company up to October. For companies where payroll forms the bulk of expenses, detailed human resource requirements must be considered.

Where possible, the fixed salary cost should be changed to a variable cost, as a percentage of sales. This will help minimise losses to a great degree and at the same time save jobs and keep your key employees employed.

Some form of right-sizing is required now. Where possible, eliminate jobs to reduce 10% of your current payroll. Then undertake a paycut of 20% to make total savings of 30%. Then, submit for wage subsidies to the government if your company qualifies, which will probably save you another 5% to 10% of your existing payroll. With immediate savings of 35% to 40% from payroll deduction, you can take your chances with the remaining five months, of which April is already a complete loss for you.

Then my entrepreneur friend asked, “What if the employee does not accept a paycut?”. My answer: “Nobody can stop this employee from leaving the company on his own free will.”

At this moment of truth, SME owners’ only objective is to save the company from going bust. Minimise the losses so that you can stretch your reserves till October.

At the next moment of truth in October, SME owners will have to decide whether to continue or close their business. Don’t forget that you still have deferred EPF payments and the loans with interest to pay off. You can avoid bankruptcy if your business is still alive in October 2020.

From one battle-scarred entrepreneur to all the young entrepreneurs and SME owners out there: “Stay alive today to fight the next battle tomorrow. And you will win again.”

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