Will North American businesses remain resilient in the face of COVID-19 challenges? That answer is increasingly difficult to answer in the affirmative, as virus containment measures continue to negatively impact trade, consumer spending, industrial production, unemployment, corporate debt and supply chains.
According to the annual Payment Practices Barometer survey of businesses in the U.S., Mexico and Canada by trade credit insurer Atradius, companies are facing widespread cash and liquidity pressures. Survey data was collected this spring, and conditions have likely deteriorated further. News recently broke, for instance, that the coronavirus caused the U.S. economy to contract 32.9% in Q2, the worst contraction in modern history.
Needless to say, the bleak economic outlook puts businesses in an extremely tight spot, and it is likely insolvencies will rise dramatically, further exacerbating liquidity challenges among organizations in the supply chain. Some troubling signs of deteriorating payment practices and B2B customer credit risk captured in the survey include:
-Overdue payments have increased dramatically. Across the region, 43% of the total value of issued invoices remain unpaid by the due date, a sharp increase from the 25% reported last year.
-The value of invoices overdue by 90 days or more has doubled to 13%.
-Businesses write off 4% of the total value of outstanding invoices, up from 3% in 2019.
The increase in payment defaults is particularly alarming in the U.S., which saw a 72% year-over-year uptick compared to 2019, and in Canada, which saw an 86% increase. In Mexico, the amount of trade receivables firms have written off has doubled since last year.
These trends put a troubling burden on businesses, which end up having to spend more time, resources and funds chasing down overdue invoices. It also means working capital is tied up for longer than before, limiting businesses’ abilities to pay their own suppliers and make strategic investments. In short, rampant late payments cause a bad domino effect, spreading liquidity issues all throughout the supply chain.
UMSCA Firms Are Tightening Credit Controls
Faced with heightened B2B customer credit risk, many businesses across North America are tightening their credit control procedures, the Payment Practices Barometer found.
Firms typically rely on a mix of outsourced risk management, such as credit insurance, and internal tactics such as reducing risk concentrations and increasing debt collection resources. Notably, more than half of the region’s survey respondents plan on upping the efficiency of their debt collection processes through tactics such as payment reminders or outsourcing collections to an agency.
The Payment Practices Barometer also found that while credit-based B2B sales are on the rise across the region, the trend is slowing. Self-insurance against the risk of payment defaults also saw an increase – 66% of businesses rely on this tool compared to 22% last year.
The most prevalent methods of credit control vary by country:
-Many Canadian firms are planning on adjusting payment terms to better align with the credit capacity of customers – average payment terms are now 26 days, compared to 27 days in 2019. They also widely employ payment reminders and work to avoid concentrations of credit risk.
-In Mexico, a significant proportion of businesses employ credit insurance. Additional popular credit management tactics include suspending deliveries until outstanding invoices are paid, requesting payment on cash from B2B customers and requesting payment guarantees.
-U.S. firms focus more on credit management than their peers in the region. A large majority of U.S. businesses manage customer credit risk in-house through self-insurance. Requiring payment guarantees prior to sales and offering discounts for early payment are also widely used tactics.
UMSCA Businesses Remain Hopeful?
Despite the bleak economic outlook and all signs pointing to widespread liquidity issues, the majority of businesses surveyed in North America predicted growth in the coming months, their optimism rooted in the belief that banks will continue to provide credit to cushion the effects of poor cash flow.
But again, that was a few months ago, and business conditions are rapidly changing for the worse. Consumer sentiment, for instance, has fallen back almost as low as in the early days of the outbreak – optimism that COVID-19 will go away any time soon is now a distant memory.
The only thing that can be said for sure is that the business environment in North America is rife with uncertainty with no indication of sunnier skies in the near future. More than ever, businesses need to take a strategic approach to credit management that ensures adequate cash flows and a solid liquidity position.
Gordon Cessford is the president and regional director of North America for Atradius Trade Credit Insurance, Inc