UK companies facing COVID-19 “pincer movement”

21 April 2020

  • New data shows a spike in limited companies going out of business
  • This is coupled with a big decline in new start-ups
  • Loss of businesses has hit all regions and sectors since the start of March
  • Number of firms going out of business up 70 per cent compared to last year

New data suggests the UK economy is facing a worrying “pincer movement” due to the coronavirus pandemic, with a surge in limited companies going bust being mirrored by a drop in new firms setting up.

The analysis by the Enterprise Research Centre - which is run jointly Warwick Business School and Aston University - shows that 61,472 limited companies folded between the start of March and mid-April, with a parallel drop in the numbers of new firms registering with Companies House.

Comparing figures from March this year with the full month’s data from last March, the number of firms going out of business was 70 per cent higher than a year ago (up 21,206), while the number of new firms incorporated fell by 23 per cent (14,270 fewer).

It suggests the UK economy is losing existing firms at a faster pace than in recent years as well as seeing a big drop-off in new starts deterred by the uncertain outlook.

London saw the biggest absolute rise in numbers of company dissolutions in March, up by 6,431 compared to a year earlier, followed by the West Midlands (2,685), the North West (2,440) and the South East (2,357). The largest percentage rise was in Wales (up 140 per cent).

Going down: Dissolutions in the UK for March 2019 and March 2020

There were notable variations observed among sectors. While all sectors saw a rise in the number of dissolutions, transport was hardest hit with nearly three times more firms ceasing to trade (194 per cent). Real estate, wholesalers and information services also saw marked increases compared to March 2019.

Newer companies have borne the brunt of the collapse in economic activity, with 46 per cent of dissolving firms being less than three years-old.

The ERC researchers analysed data from the FAME database, which contains information on UK companies registered at Companies House, including approximately two million active firms.

They said that while coronavirus is likely to be a major factor in both the rise in company dissolutions and fall in new incorporations, it was important to note that winding down a limited company could take months, owing to the need of 75 per cent of shareholders by value to agree. The latest data therefore needs to be seen in the context of an economy that had already seen dampened growth from Brexit uncertainty.

The ERC is the UK’s leading independent research institute on growth, productivity and innovation in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Falling: The number of business incorporations in March 2019 compared to March 2020

Stephen Roper, Director of the Enterprise Research Centre and Professor of Entrepreneurship at Warwick Business School, said: “These stark figures clearly show a significant rise in the number of company dissolutions and a parallel fall in new firm incorporations in a time period that coincides with the arrival of COVID-19 in the UK.

“They suggest our economy is facing a pincer movement of sharply higher business closures and a concurrent lack of new businesses starting due to an understandable fear about what the future holds.

“The Chancellor has unveiled a substantive package of support for UK firms, but we know that many are struggling to access this assistance. If those shortcomings aren’t remedied fast, we’d expect to continue seeing a long, slow decline among the private-sector firms that support millions of jobs across the economy.

“In that context, rather than seeing a V-shaped rebound as some economists have predicted, we could instead see an L-shape dragged down by a net loss of companies over a long period.”

To read the full report 'Business Dynamism and COVID-19 - an early assessment' click here.

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