Deteriorating payment times in construction threaten economic recovery

In a worrying sign, payment times are worsening in the construction sector, according to CreditorWatch’s latest Business Risk Review. This could have consequences for the broader economy and may indicate the fledgling economic recovery is under threat.

According to the January Business Risk Review, payment times in construction rose by 47 per cent year-on-year in January. On a monthly basis, construction firms are now on average 44 days late paying their bills, versus the December result of 35 days.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the commercial building sector is suffering, which is one of the main factors behind rising payment times across the construction industry. However, increasing payment times in construction are partly seasonal and encouragingly residential construction is booming thanks to government stimulus and low interest rates driving demand in the housing market.” said Mr Patrick Coghlan, CEO, CreditorWatch.

This is a concerning development and should this trend continue, it could cause a multiplier effect across the economy and impact demand in manufacturing, with potentially dire consequences for the many small businesses operating in this part of the market. The withdrawal of government stimulus in March could amplify this trend.

The January Business Risk Review also records 228 external administrations in January, which is the lowest the figure has been since 2018.

“Seasonally, administrations are typically down in January. This result is also due to the concession available to small businesses with debts of less than $1 million that allows them to appoint a restructuring practitioner to help them put in place a plan to work through their debts, rather than go into administration.” said Mr Harley Dale, Chief Economist, CreditorWatch. 

What are some of the most recent payment trends?

  • Health care and social assistance: payment times are up by a whopping 313 per cent for the year to January 2021. It’s assumed this is largely due to the all-encompassing focus on addressing the COVID-19 pandemic to the detriment of many other health services. Payment times worsened between December, when health care businesses were on average 50 days late paying their bills, and January, when this figure rose to 66 days. By contrast, in January 2020 health businesses were only 16 days late paying their bills.
  • Administrative and support services: year-on-year, payment times in this sector are up by 97 per cent. This reflects lack of demand for admin services as a result of the shift to working from home. However, there are signs this trend is reversing, with payment times consistently coming down over the last three month. Firms in this sector were 82 days late paying their bills in November, 72 days late in December and 67 days late in January. It’s hoped this trend will continue as businesses start to transition back to the office throughout 2021.
  • Transport, postal and warehousing: payment times rose by 68 per cent for the year to January 2021. This reflects bottlenecks in the supply chain as a result of border closures and the severe contraction in the airline sector. On a monthly basis, payment times in this sector deteriorated between December (42 days late) and January (47 days late). This could be due to border closures being reinstated due to the COVID outbreak in Sydney in December. Payment times have substantially improved since this sector recorded six straight months from June until November when firms were on average 90 days late paying bills across this period.
  • Wholesale trade: payment times are up by 74 per cent year-on-year for this sector. This is a reflection of COVID-induced disruptions to the supply chain having a flow-on effect for wholesale. This sector tends to follow trends in transport, so it’s no surprise payment times rose between December (businesses were 30 days late paying their bills on average) and January (businesses were 33 days late on average), although this could reflect the usual seasonal rise in January.
  • Financial and insurance services: while there’s no change year-on-year in terms of payment trends in this sector, there has been a marked improvement since September 2020, with payment times coming down each month since then. On average, businesses were 35 days late paying bills in December and 23 days late in January. This improvement can be attributed to rising demand for financial services as consumers seek to take out home loans or refinance, to take advantage of the low interest rate environment. Federal government stimulus has also been beneficial for this sector.
  • Accommodation and food services: payment times improved in this sector over the year to January 2021, falling by 37 per cent on average. There was a small deterioration between December (22 days) and January (26 days), which could be attributed to COVID-induced lockdowns and travel bans.

 

Industry

Number of days overdue
Jan-20Jan-21

Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing

2819

Mining

98

Manufacturing

2227

Electricity, Gas, Water and Waste Services

2323

Construction

3044

Wholesale Trade

1933

Retail

1715

Accommodation and Food Services

4126

Transport, Postal and Warehousing

2847

Information Media and Telecommunications

1512

Financial and Insurance Services

2323

Rental, Hiring and Real Estate Services

2830

Professional, Scientific and Technical Services

2545

Administrative and Support Services

3467

Public Administration and Safety

1714

Education and Training

1316

Health Care and Social Assistance

1666

Arts and Recreation Services

2231

Other Services

2427

 

What are some of the emerging trends in external administrations and court actions?

The number of external administrations collapsed not just in January, when there is always a seasonal decline, but across the year, with administrations falling by 52.6 per cent for the 12 months to January 2021. They were down month-on-month by 63 per cent.

This trend is also reflected across the major states:

  • NSW: administrations down by 46 per cent year-on-year and by 55 per cent month-on-month.
  • VIC: administrations down by 58 per cent year-on-year and by 59 per cent month-on-month.
  • QLD: administrations down by 60 per cent year-on-year and by 68 per cent month-on-month.

These figures are being artificially supported by federal government measures to give relief to companies that are trading while insolvent due to the pandemic. It’s expected the number of companies entering administration will rise and then normalise throughout 2021.

Similarly, court actions have dwindled into insignificancy, dropping by 44 per cent year-on-year and by 24 per cent in January. The monthly figure also represents the usual drop in court cases in January.

Arrears rates also fell consistently from mid-2020, a sign government support for businesses last year paid dividends. What remains to be seen is how businesses fare as they are weaned off government support such as JobKeeper. CreditorWatch data will provide an important insight into how small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) will perform subsequent to the end of government stimulus. Government support will still be there, but not to the same degree. What happens to SMEs from March onwards will provide an important barometer as to the health and recovery of the overall Australian economy.

What’s the outlook?

Overall, we anticipate the February Business Risk Review will start to reflect more normal trading conditions. Whilst there is potential for the number of companies going into administration and entering into court actions to rise, we do not anticipate this happening until later in the year – especially in light of the six-month delays on Credit Default Swaps and the limited adoption of new structure debt arrangements. Of course, unforeseen events could change this, but at this point, it appears the economy is not headed towards a cliff and there is less likelihood of a tsunami of failed businesses, although there will be some.

Data accurate as of February 1 2021. ASIC data subject to change.

-ENDS- 

Media Contacts:

Hayley Schubert
Sling & Stone
hayleyschubert@slingstone.com

 

Mitchy Koper
GM Communications and Marketing, CreditorWatch
mitchy.koper@creditorwatch.com.au

About CreditorWatch

CreditorWatch is a digital credit reporting agency, headquartered in Sydney. From sole traders through to ASX listed companies, more than 50,000 Australian businesses now use CreditorWatch to make affordable, informed credit decisions, avoid high-risk customers and ensure they get paid on time. CreditorWatch customers can easily search for and monitor the credit history, court actions, payment defaults and insolvency notices associated with any business entity in Australia (including sole traders, trusts and partnerships) giving them an incredibly accurate picture of the risk posed to their business.

The company was founded in 2011 and has offices in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Find out more at www.creditorwatch.com.au.

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