Business is up heading into 2022, but so too are worries about paying off COVID debt


Published December 19, 2021 at 7:00 am

OTTAWA — The 40-strong team of workers at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business that takes calls from the association’s members has been hearing a lot about loans.

Federal loans, specifically.

As the clock ticked down to 2022, so too did the deadline for those businesses to repay federal pandemic loans under favourable financial conditions. And with it, worries from small businesses grew about how to pay off the emergency loans.

Then, two weeks before Christmas, a small present: Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said, as part of her economic and budget update, the deadline would be extended.

Now, the calls to the CFIB team have changed: How long do I have to repay, and what are the rules?

“And we don’t have an answer to that yet,” said CFIB president Dan Kelly.

“It’s very clear to me that this was an absolute last-minute addition to the fall economic update … given that there’s zero detail.”

Since its launch, the Canada Emergency Business Account has provided loans worth $48.4 billion to almost 886,000 companies, the largest portion of whom, at nearly 41 per cent, are in Ontario.

The government provided the money quickly so companies could use it on a variety of expenses, such as rent, hydro and payroll.

When the government first created the CEBA program at the onset of the pandemic, it set a repayment deadline of Dec. 31, 2022, for anyone who wanted to take advantage of zero interest and having a portion of the loan forgiven.

Kelly said the deadline made sense when it seemed the country would go into a lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19 and come out in a few weeks or months. 

But he said public health restrictions affecting businesses and non-profits have stretched as long as the pandemic, affecting their bottom lines. While restrictions have eased, the Omicron variant has injected renewed uncertainty about what might be coming.

“In fact, we’re urging the government to double down and increase their support of small and medium-sized firms,” Kelly said. “Depending on where things go, we may need an even bigger CEBA loan to help businesses get through.”

The CFIB had been pushing the federal government to roll back the repayment deadline to December 2024 to help more recipients take advantage of the zero-interest and forgiveness options. 

The recommendation was based on a survey of CFIB members that suggested they could take two more years to become profitable again.

Kelly said he thinks about half of small businesses may be in a position to start repaying their CEBA loan over the course of 2022. The other half may take longer for companies in the retail, hospitality, tourism and service sectors. 

“We need the details as to when these loans are going to be due so that businesses can start to plan,” Kelly said.

The topline data on the Canadian economy going into the new year, however, is largely positive.

The labour market by the end of the summer recouped all the losses from the onset of the pandemic last year and the unemployment rate in November was within 0.3 percentage points of the pre-pandemic level recorded in February 2020.

The economy has also grown to a point where Statistics Canada estimated that total economic activity was 0.5 per cent below pre-pandemic levels in October. November’s reading lands a day before Christmas Eve.

But underneath is some doubt. 

A Statistics Canada report last month found that 15.1 per cent of businesses expected to have “major challenges” repaying government aid over the next 12 months. 

The quarterly report on business conditions found that most businesses with debt worries were in high-contact service industries like accommodation, food services, arts and recreation that have yet to fully rebound from the economic downturn last year.

Missing the repayment deadline doesn’t mean the government will force a company to repay funds, regardless of their financial situation. Instead, a recipient would lose the ability to have a part of the loan forgiven, and start facing an annual interest rate of five per cent.

The CEBA loans are not the only debts small businesses are carrying. Kelly said surveys of his members suggest they have added, on average, $170,000 in debt through the pandemic. 

Some of it is unpaid rent, or unpaid bills to suppliers. Some of it is on credit cards that expose owners to higher rates of interest.

Combined, it’s why Kelly said he’s watching what happens over the course of 2022. Kelly said some business owners may look at their books and just turn in their keys if they don’t see a pathway back to profitability.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 19, 2021.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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