Small-business owners trying to weather the coronavirus pandemic will face a financial blow that’s likely to be worse than what they experienced during the Great Recession more than a decade ago, says Karen G. Mills, senior fellow at Harvard Business School.
“This is going to be orders of magnitude worse than the financial crisis,” says Mills, who led the United States Small Business Administration from 2009 to 2013. “Many small businesses will not survive more than a month.”
Small businesses have been scaling down and temporarily closing as consumers stay home to stem the spread of the highly infectious virus, also known as COVID-19. Without incoming cash, many small businesses—especially restaurants and shops on American Main Streets—will soon need to cut staff or shut down for good.
“To many of these small businesses, daily cash flow is their lifeblood,” says Mills, who in recent days has been advising Congressional and business leaders about potential aid approaches. “Money in the door allows you to put money out the door.”
A cash crunch with no end in sight
The JPMorgan Chase Institute estimates (pdf) that the average small business has 27 days of cash in reserve, but Main Street businesses often have less than 20 days’ worth. While forecasts vary, many public health experts don’t expect the coronavirus outbreak to subside for at least eight weeks, assuming that social distancing and other mitigation efforts can slow the spread.
The most vulnerable businesses won’t last that long. They’ll need interest-free loans and other cash buffers to pay their workers and keep their storefronts while they wait out citywide lockdowns and school closures. After that, consumers might resume some of their spending habits, Mills says.
“If small businesses can stay solvent, then we have a greater chance for a recovery after the virus threat subsides,” she says.
The grim reality is sinking in. About 77 percent of small business owners say they’re “very worried” about the economic impact of COVID-19, according to a new National Small Business Association survey (pdf). Almost half of the 950 people surveyed said that customer demand was down, and one-third of respondents were experiencing supply chain disruptions. More than half expect the US to sink into a recession during the next 12 months, up from 14 percent in January.
The next wave of small business aid
Mills joined the Obama Administration and his National Economic Council in early 2009, and led efforts to help small businesses recover in the wake of the 2007-2008 recession. She has been drawing from that experience in recent weeks as she helps government officials explore ways to shore up the 30 million small businesses that provide almost half of the country’s jobs.