By the time you read this, the national lockdown will have begun. We've been through economic recessions before, but this is uncharted territory. Typical recommendations for surviving tough times, like containing costs and managing working capital more efficiently, simply won't cut it. In the face of plummeting sales and limited cash reserves, the survival of many SMEs will hinge on financing activities.
So what's available?
• Repayment deferments from Standard Bank and Nedbank.
• Tax subsidies of up to R500 per month for employees earnings less than R6,500.
• Accelerated disbursements from the Employment Tax Incentive scheme (ETI).
• Partial deferments for PAYE and provisional corporate income tax.
• R200 million from the Department of Tourism.
• R3 billion from the Industrial Development Corporation.
• R2.5 billion from the Department of Small Business Development (DSBD).
The rapid response from both the public and private sector is commendable. However, while every bit helps, I expect the collective impact to be limited:
• Unless other banks follow suite, many SMEs won't qualify for banking relief.
• The employee tax subsidies will barely make an operating cost dent.
• Many entrepreneurs aren't aware of the ETI or aren't using it.
• Partial tax deferments won't make a significant operating cost difference.
• Tourism and industrial subsidies will only benefit a few sectors.
In theory, the funding from the DSBD offers the greatest hope for broad-based SME assistance. However, the DSBD has a long history of unrivalled incompetence. Case in point: the website set up exclusively for the fund has been intermittently down (and is unavailable as of this writing).
(IT ineptitude appears to be a running theme with the DSBD since their own website has also been periodically inaccessible. It also contains obsolete information, since initiatives like the Black Business Supplier Development Programme and Co-operative Incentive Scheme were suspended years ago. And the Facebook link for the DSBD on the national government website actually points to an imposter).
According to a DSBD media statement, emergency funds will be allocated to three distinct segments:
1. SMEs who supply hygiene or medical products directly relevant to COVID-19.
2. Deferments for SMEs funded by the Small Enterprise Finance Agency (SEFA).
3. SMEs that are in distress as a direct result of COVID-19.
Clearly the third of these will have the broadest relevance, but the DSBD has yet to publish much information about it. In fact, according to my contacts within the department, a number of critical details have yet to be finalised. This is what I have been able to piece together so far:
• The funding will be structured as a low interest loan (prime less 5%).
• Funding limits will be based on applicants' turnover.
• Applicants will need to submit an online form and supporting documentation.
• Applications will be processed by a SEFA task force.
• The task force consists of a dozen people working remotely from home.
• The DSBD's turnaround target is 7 working days.
If this is true, then it is very unlikely that many SMEs will benefit from the fund (or benefit soon enough to make a difference).
A single task team member won't process more than a few dozen applications per day (and even that is an incredibly optimistic estimate if the track record of the DSBD and SEFA for other funding programs is anything to go by). Unless the DSBD dramatically scales their processing capacity, it will be impossible for them to keep pace with the inevitable tsunami of applications.
Officially, the fund will not limited to black-owned SMEs as some have speculated. However, there is circumstantial evidence that this was the DSBD's original intent. This, coupled with the DSBD's heavy bias towards startups, informal enterprises, as well as rural, youth, and women entrepreneurs, leads me to suspect that applications for relief funding won't be assessed equitably.