For industries not normally put under high levels of regulation, the hospitality, retail and leisure sectors have felt the heavy hand of the government since Coronavirus restrictions were first introduced in the UK. This has sent the valuations for many businesses tumbling. However, this means now could be the time for private equity investment from those who have a handle on where restrictions, and government support, are heading and are prepared to weather the short-term storm.
What’s the outlook for reopening?
The government has set a target of getting the most vulnerable vaccinated by mid-February. Whilst some optimists think this could mean a return to normal by early March (when limited immunity from the first dose will start to take effect), a full reopening is unlikely then. The ultimate test for whether high street venues can reopen is whether cases, hospitalisations and deaths have come down, perhaps even close to zero. It will take some time for vaccinations to have this effect. Limited reopening might be expected in the spring, but a return to ‘normal’ shouldn’t be expected before the summer. Those premises which can survive will then likely reap the reward of pent up demand from a populace desperate for release.
What government support is available in the meantime?
The government has launched numerous schemes to aid this survival. The latest is a grant scheme for hospitality, retail, and leisure premises forced to close during the current national lockdown, worth up to £9,000 per property.
This follows loan schemes designed to provide cheap credit, including the Bounce-Back Loan Scheme, the Coronavirus Business Loan Scheme (CBILS) and the Coronavirus Large Business Loan Scheme (CLBILS). The loan schemes close to new applications on 31st March.
Furlough has also helped businesses retain staff and so avoid training and recruitment costs once restrictions are eased. The current furlough scheme ends on 30th April.
Alongside these wider measures, hospitality and leisure have benefitted from a 5% cut in VAT from 15th July 2020. This has now been extended until 31st March 2021. Hospitality, retail and leisure properties will also benefit from not having to pay business rates for the 2020/21 tax year.
With all these schemes soon coming to an end, what’s next?
The Treasury was hoping the need for business support would end in the spring, but this seems increasingly improbable as restrictions are unlikely to be lifted completely and we will see knock on effects of the crisis on spending through reduced income due to job losses.
Nevertheless, Sunak will hope to bring in less generous support, as he is increasingly showing a tendency to fiscal conservatism, as demonstrated by the fact that the November spending review saw a £10bn cut to non-Covid government expenditure. Thus, the March Budget will likely see a less generous replacement for the furlough scheme. This may be along the lines of the scrapped Winter Economy Plan, where workers were to be required to work at least part-time. There may also be an extension of loan schemes, depending on the severity of the restrictions still in place, as the government will want businesses to survive the home straight to reopening.
Large question marks remain over the likelihood of extensions to the VAT cut and the business rates relief. Sunak has spoken often about the need to repair the public finances. Any business rate relief extension for a short period would also be logistically complicated as it would require different rates to be applied for different parts of the 2021/22 tax year. Therefore, if the vaccination programme is on track, Sunak may make use of the Budget on 3rd March 2021 to start a return to a more normal fiscal programme, reining in his generosity to businesses.
In all, March will likely see a winding down of support from an anxious Chancellor, but some support is likely to be extended to avoid businesses going bust just before the storm passes.
Longer-term: the business rates review
Alongside these short-term measures, the government is conducting a fundamental review of business rates, due to conclude in spring 2021. The review is set to consider, among other things, how premises are valued for the charging of business rates, the effectiveness of business rates and alternatives to it, and who gets relief from business rates. The review is a chance for the government to level the playing field between online and high-street retailers as well as boost the long-term recovery from coronavirus across high-street sectors. However, with the main beneficiaries of business rates, local governments, already strapped for cash, the Treasury will be wary of giving too much away.
Great uncertainty, but also great opportunity, lie ahead for investors in hospitality, retail and leisure. As we head into the spring, savvy investors must consider the challenges presented to the sectors by policy in a way they might not have done previously; something which WA has the experience to help with.