PSA: very few businesses can afford to keep paying their staff without revenue

Apologies for treading into a space where I’m just another tech worker writing a public service announcement in a field I’m not an expert in (economists, either ignore me or hit me with your best links), but for people imploring small and medium-sized businesses to continue paying their staff while closed for lockdowns (or while those staff are out caring for children): they almost certainly can’t afford to.

In stable-ish economic situations, you can regard employers as having a huge amount of economic power relative to workers, although it can collapse very quickly even then (Enron was a house of cards, but they went from being one of the most valuable companies in America to bankrupt in under a month).

But here’s the thing: most businesses, especially small ones, do not keep months of cash around. They keep weeks of cash, or in some cases (more than you’d think), days of cash around, and rely on a mixture of revenue and loans to make their outgoing payments. Even many very large businesses rely on short term loans to make payroll (this is actually one place where Enron got into trouble, when they couldn’t renew the lines of credit they used for things like payroll). Being able to afford to make payroll, even once, without revenue is very much the exception even for what you think of as a successful, enviable, business.

Similarly, with regards to “pay your cleaner!”, people will only keep paying their household staff to stay home until they themselves are laid off, and then they will need to stop doing that, because like businesses, most individuals, even very well paid ones, also do not keep months of cash on hand. And likewise at the point where layoffs reach wealthy individuals, they will stop being able to support their local cafes or artesans or small businesses and so on, in fact a lot of them will be in bad trouble immediately (because their mortgages are sized to their incomes).

I don’t have a good solution to this, we will need to trust in the economic and public health advisers to governments to draw the right lines between short term economic shocks to save lives from COVID-19, and major economic collapses. Definitely pay your cleaner and support charities if you can afford to. But businesses aren’t going to save us for more than a week or so: many businesses will need to initiate major layoffs or go into bankruptcy without either renewed revenues or a bailout in the next few weeks.

Edited to add: it’s also not very intuitive if your usual model of a business is that it is venture-backed, ie, it has access to a bunch of cash that it does not have to repay in the short term, but a large number of businesses use debt and lines of credit instead. In these cases, inability to meet interest payments may result in creditors immediately sending your business into bankruptcy or administration even if you did make payroll. Layoffs are almost certain to follow swiftly. Yes, creditors could be generous here, but they are themselves hurting and have upstream pressure from their own lenders, etc.

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