U.S. Small Businesses Are Holding Off the Debt Apocalypse. For Now.

Government relief programs and lenders’ forbearance have kept U.S. small businesses from defaulting on their debt en masse as revenue slumped during the pandemic crisis, according to a new analysis.

Among small firms nationwide, 18.3% of business payments were past due in January, a modest increase from 17.7% in February 2020, the Urban Institute said in a report using Dun & Bradstreet data. Somewhat more affected were two big cities on the coasts, New York and San Francisco, which saw increases of 2.5 and 4.3 percentage points, respectively.

U.S. Small Businesses Are Holding Off the Debt Apocalypse. For Now.

For now, businesses are sitting on enough cash to pay their bills. Cash balances were up as much as 41% at their peak in late August, as the federal Paycheck Protection Program pumped out forgivable loans to keep small firms afloat. Those balances were still up by 35% through late September, according to data from the JPMorgan Chase Institute. Meantime, business owners have cut their expenses, often by slashing payrolls, and many lenders and landlords have been lenient with rent and other bills.

Despite the relatively strong credit metrics, the future remains uncertain for a sector that employed almost half the country’s private workforce and was a growth engine of the economy before Covid-19 hit.

“Shrinking payroll, reducing physical space, and other accommodations are painful for small businesses and may constrain their ability to grow,” the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research group, said in its report. “It’s also unclear what will happen when creditors cease to offer flexibility for businesses on repayment of their built-up amounts owed.”

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