Are you ready for a zombie attack? The dangers of sealing with technically insolvent companies

Companies that can only afford to pay the interest on their debt are a 'sleeping risk' that can stir at any time.

Many zombie companies – those that can only afford to pay the interest on their debt – would be the first to go to the wall in the event of a bank interest rate rise. And this, if you’re not ready for it, will affect your own business. You’ll not only find existing clients and suppliers going under, you’ll also find others being caught in the zombie net.

As recently as February 4th, Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, stated his belief that, “the next move in rates is up.” The main question is “when” and he’s not keen to answer that one, especially given the turmoil generated by things like the upcoming referendum and the plunging oil prices. But it will happen, sooner or later.

Low interest rates have enabled technically insolvent companies to continue trading while still meeting their obligations to banks, suppliers and customers, but most of them are essentially stagnating. While the number of zombie companies has fallen – from 154,000 in August 2014 to 69,000 in November 2015, this is hardly good news for you because it is likely that most of those who have disappeared will have been at the smaller end of the spectrum – businesses that failed as banks tightened their lending. This would mean that many of the remaining zombie companies are the medium to large companies, which might represent a substantial risk to your own organisation.

Are you consciously monitoring this sleeping risk? Do you know which of your customers and suppliers are susceptible to a rise in interest rates, whether they’re zombies or not?

While some might zero rate these companies, you really need to take a different view. They are substantial and viable businesses which are able to keep going, but you would do well to consider them as in the corporate equivalent of intensive care. You can help protect your company by monitoring them closely getting more than one independent point of view – perhaps through your peers who have current trading relationships with the same organisation. Credit reference and intelligence agencies are, of course, a useful and objective source of independent information too. They will apply sophisticated algorithms to a wide range of publicly and privately available data.

You can find a lot of information online, although it can be tedious to do so en masse, especially if you start trying to track companies through social media. A quicker source, if you can get access, is the aggregate of human assessments of a company’s behaviour, usually gained via customer surveys. You see it in a simple form when you purchase something online and see how others have rated the product and its supplier. They may have even commented. Unfortunately, you will always find a ‘gaming’ element where anonymous contributors seek to damage the reputation of a company or product. Some companies’ reputations are assessed using the Net Promoter Score – either run independently or audited if they run it themselves. This asks, “How likely is it that you would recommend [brand] to a friend or colleague?” The aggregate score is based on the number of zero to six scores (detractors) subtracted from the number of nine or 10 scores (promoters).

In times of uncertainty, it pays to have the absolute best intelligence on your customers and suppliers, especially those that are already in, or approaching, zombie status. You never know when that bank interest rate will creep up and force you into quickly changing your trading arrangement.

Craig Evans is the head of business development at Graydon.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.