Government could be credit insurer of last resort, bosses say

Industry bosses’ group the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has called for the government to become the credit insurer of last resort.

Second in its ten-point plan issued this morning ahead of its annual conference, the CBI demands that the government counter the withdrawal of credit insurance. It suggests the public sector should consider a temporary measure of becoming an insurer of last resort, either by extending guarantees to credit insurers or providing direct cover to those unable to obtain cover commercially.

Richard Lambert, CBI Director-General, said: “We need to keep business working to safeguard jobs and we need to act now.”

In a letter to the prime minister, ahead of the pre-budget report, Lambert writes: “Over the past month or so another worrying trend has emerged, with trade credit insurance cover being withdrawn from some businesses. While this is understandable to some extent in the present circumstances, many of the businesses affected regard their credit practices as perfectly sound, and some CBI members have described the withdrawal as ‘apparently random’……The consequences for the economy, if this pattern were allowed to continue, would be dire”

The CBI’s ten suggestions range from unblocking the financial markets to tax cuts.

The CBI’s ten-point plan

1. Improving the flow of capital to business. UK authorities need to do all they can to help ‘unblock’ the financial markets and improve the flow of funds to businesses to prevent otherwise healthy firms going into administration. The Bank of England should consider whether it should create a scheme to improve liquidity in the commercial paper market similar to the US model.

2. Countering the withdrawal of trade credit insurance. Some firms are finding trade credit insurance cover being suddenly withdrawn as insurers are less prepared to insure small suppliers against the risk of a larger customer going bust. The government and/or Bank of England should consider as a matter of urgency whether the public sector should act as “insurer of the last resort” on temporary basis.

3. Preventing questions about ‘going concern’ status from reinforcing the downturn. Steps must be taken urgently to prevent the question of ‘going concern uncertainty’ getting out of hand. The FRC must develop further guidance for directors to convey general economic uncertainties in such a way as to avoid triggering heavy ‘going concern’ modifications to auditors’ reports.

4. Modest business tax cuts to ease cash flow problems:

* scrapping empty property rates. With firms demolishing property as they cannot afford to pay the rate, the Government should act swiftly to restore the regime to its pre-April 2008 position, and in the meantime implement an immediate 50% reduction as allowed for within current legislation.

* a temporary freeze on business rates. The usual practice of raising business rates in line with September’s RPI of 5% would be completely inappropriate in the current climate.

* delaying proposals for business rate supplements (other than for Crossrail), or at the very least making them subject to a business vote on every proposal, to avoid firms being required to pay extra taxes of up to £0.8bn a year.

5. Measures to support small and medium-sized firms including:

* A special low rate of employer NICs for qualifying SMEs, to apply for a time-limited period. Alternatively, SMEs could be given the option to delay paying their employer NICs bill for a year.

* Postponing the next rise in the small companies’ rate of corporation tax by another percentage point to 22% in April 2009, at an exchequer cost of some £0.5bn.

6. A time-limited fiscal stimulus focused on employment through a temporary reduction in employer National Insurance Contributions. For maximum impact we recommend a 1.8 percentage point cut to 11%, at an exchequer cost of £9bn. This would bring the employer rate into line with the employee rate.

7. Accelerating planned public capital spending programmes. Where cost effective and practicable to do so, budgeted capital spending should be brought forward, including the “Building Schools for the Future” rebuilding/refurbishment programme and planned expenditure on social housing. The creation of a new post of Chief Construction Officer would drive action across the government sector.

8. Supporting corporate pension provision by giving companies longer to smooth the costs of making good their pension deficits.

9. Improving the nation’s skills. SMEs should be given incentives to take on apprentices through targeted financial assistance, and fund the full economic costs of large firms ‘over-training’ to the benefit of their sector.

10. Supporting UK exports by offering time-limited support for both existing customers and the wider export community as companies face difficulties in accessing bank finance.