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Business risk climbs with falling invoice values in September

The September 2023 CreditorWatch Business Risk Index (BRI) indicates that while the contraction of Australian business activity may have eased slightly, it remains at a low point. 

The average value of business-to-business (B2B) invoices has decreased by 42% year-on-year, well below pre-COVID levels. Although there was a minor uptick in invoice value from August to September, aligning with increased forward orders reported by the NAB Business Survey, a full reversal of the declining trend is still a distant prospect. This is primarily due to persistently low consumer demand, a concern magnified in a high-inflation environment.

The average invoice value is a vital metric for assessing the health of Australian businesses, as it has ripple effects throughout the supply chain across various industries. CreditorWatch’s other crucial business indicators, including trade payment defaults, credit inquiries, and court actions, also reflect the challenging conditions that businesses are facing.

External administrations, which surged above pre-COVID levels since March of this year, eased in September, though it remains uncertain if the peak has been surpassed.

In terms of regional risk, Western Sydney is a significant outlier, with eight of the top 20 regions in Australia at the highest risk of business failure. At a state level, 16 of the 20 poorest-performing regions in New South Wales are also in Western Sydney. This region is particularly sensitive to interest rate changes due to relatively high levels of debt among both businesses and households, along with lower-than-average incomes. Consumers in Western Sydney are more likely to cut discretionary spending, which has adverse effects on businesses.

Key Business Risk Index insights for September:

The average value of Australian business invoices has dropped by 42% in the past 12 months.

B2B trade payment defaults continue to rise, with a 57% year-on-year increase, serving as a key predictor of future business failures.

External administrations decreased by 24% from August to September but remain unchanged year-on-year. It’s unclear if they have peaked.

Credit inquiries declined by 6% month-on-month but remained up 58% year-on-year.

Court actions increased by 6% over the last quarter but remained unchanged year-on-year.

CreditorWatch’s national business failure rate prediction for the next 12 months is an increase from the current rate of 4.54% to 5.76%.

Businesses in the food and beverage services sector remain the most at risk of payment defaults (6.8%), followed by Transport, Postal and Warehousing at 4.5%.

Unley in South Australia is the region with the lowest risk of business failure (among regions with more than 5,000 businesses), followed by Ballarat in Victoria and Norwood-Payneham-St Peters in South Australia.

Regions with the highest insolvency risk continue to be concentrated in Western Sydney and South-East Queensland, with Merrylands-Guildford (NSW) forecasting a default rate of 7.77% for the next year, followed by Canterbury (NSW) and Ormeau-Oxford (QLD).

CreditorWatch CEO, Patrick Coghlan, remains cautiously optimistic about easing inflation but acknowledges ongoing challenges. He states, “Rents, energy prices, and the cost of services are keeping inflation elevated, but it’s encouraging to see some other factors returning to normal. Nevertheless, we still predict an increase in the business failure rate over the next 12 months.”

CreditorWatch Chief Economist, Anneke Thompson, expects business conditions, particularly among small businesses sensitive to fluctuations in consumer spending, to remain subdued until at least mid-2024, when cuts to the cash rate are anticipated.

The average value of invoices, in particular, has shown a concerning downward trend, despite expectations of an increase in an inflationary environment.

B2B trade payment defaults, while slightly reduced in September, remain elevated. Stabilizing the cash rate is hoped to provide more certainty for future cash flow, enabling businesses to pay their invoices on time.

CreditorWatch’s business failure rate prediction foresees a sharp increase in the next 12 months due to the challenging operating environment. High interest rates, reduced consumer spending, and accumulating tax debts are contributing factors.

The best and worst regions and capital cities (with 5,000+ businesses) reveal that the Adelaide CBD is the only CBD to feature among the top 10 best-performing regions. Retail spending in Adelaide has held up better, attributed to households having lower average debt levels than their eastern seaboard counterparts, as well as more affordable rents.

This allows businesses in Adelaide to better weather drops in demand. Additionally, two regions in inner Adelaide, Unley and Norwood-Payneham-St Peters, are among the top 10 areas with the lowest risk of business failure.

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