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'Zombies' are a major drag on the UK economy - KPMG analysis

'Zombies' are a major drag on the UK economy

New analysis from KPMG UK finds the rising prominence of so-called ‘zombie firms’ is threatening to cause a significant drag-effect on the UK economy.


Also on

  • So-called zombie firms are limiting domestic productivity growth and threaten to exacerbate future economic downturns
  • Up to 8% of private UK companies show zombie-like symptoms
  • Listed companies in the automobile, utilities and energy sectors are worst affected
  • Among private companies, zombies in the travel and leisure, real estate, financial and professional services industries also prevalent

New analysis from KPMG UK finds the rising prominence of so-called ‘zombie firms’ – companies under sustained financial strain - is threatening to cause a significant drag-effect on the UK economy. 

A look at the last three annual accounts of listed UK companies (FTSE and AIM) reveals that 8% of UK companies currently display zombie-like symptoms. But based on the latest data from 2018, and taking account of the recent increase in BoE interest rates, the share of zombie companies spanning the whole of UK plc could be as high as 14%. 

KPMG’s analysis also focused on the prevalence of zombie firms by sector, highlighting the high risk of contagion for lenders exposed to the worst-affected industries.

Through a detailed look into publicly traded accounts, it found that the highest concentration of zombie firms is in the energy (23%), automotive (17%) and utilities (15%) sectors. The fact that almost a quarter of energy businesses show zombie symptoms highlights the long investment horizon of the industry and is somewhat explained by the oil market only recently emerging from a significant downturn. While the automotive and utilities sectors face substantial levels of disruption as incumbent industry leaders face fierce competition from new technologies, trends and innovative start-ups.

Concentration of listed 'zombie firms' among UK sectors
Concentration of listed 'zombie firms' among UK sectors

Yael Selfin, Chief Economist at KPMG in the UK, said: “The threat that zombie companies pose to the wider economy is very real, regardless of what the post-Brexit environment looks like. Many unproductive businesses have been able to stumble on in recent times, generating just enough profits to continue trading but without the innovation, dynamism or investment necessary to sustain bottom-line growth. This has, and will continue to, create a drag on UK productivity, which continues to lag our peers in the G7 and much of Europe.

“If interest rates rise further, highly-leveraged businesses may soon find that borrowing will become more difficult to repay, and if the economy continues to stutter, these businesses will be left especially vulnerable to adverse market forces or a tightening of liquidity – as will the lenders they rely on.”

Of the circa 21,000 private companies that KPMG analysed, 60% display one or more of the symptoms associated with zombies, while just 8% display three or more. The worst affected industries are travel and leisure (12%), real estate (11%), financial services (10%) and professional services (10%). 

A number of wider-economic factors are causing this; travel and leisure businesses are being hit by reduced discretionary consumer spending appetite; retail landlords are finding income and asset value pressure due to the demise of high-street names; financial and professional services companies are being impacted by on-going economic uncertainty.

Concentration of private company zombie firms across UK sectors
Concentration of private company zombie firms across UK sectors

Blair Nimmo, Head of Restructuring at KPMG in the UK, commented: “For the past decade, zombies have been allowed to sleep walk largely undisturbed, thanks to an extraordinary monetary and political environment, coupled with lenders exhibiting greater creditor forbearance to struggling companies in their portfolios.

“The uncomfortable truth, however, is this environment is unlikely to persist indefinitely. In the event of a liquidity squeeze, many of these underperforming businesses would fail – and if this happens, the potential for contagion is very real, creating broader challenges for an economy already struggling to deal with a plethora of issues. 

“The good news is that prognosis doesn’t have to be terminal – but, as with many things in life, acting sooner rather than later provides more options and can improve the chances of recovery. Urgent dialogue is required between regulators, banks and businesses in order to minimise the ongoing drag that these companies have on the economy, and to mitigate against potential risks in the event of an economic downturn.”




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About the research:

Using a third-party financial database of over 2.3m companies based in the UK, KPMG UK Economics first filtered to build the sample size using the following criteria; based in the United Kingdom (not Ireland or Overseas Territories); turnover above £10.2m for each of the last three years; net assets greater than £5.1m for each of the last three years; removing subsidiaries to prevent double-counting. This provided a sample of c. 21,000 companies. 

From this, KPMG reviewed a number of financial metrics, setting up a range of flags; interest cover less than two (this was given additional weighting, such that a company with interest cover less than zero would collect three flags) for each of the last three years; turnover growth less than 1% for each of last three years; gross profit margin less than 5% for each of last three years; Net Profit Margin less than 3% for each of last three years; liquidity ratio less than one for each of last three years; net debt to EDITDA ratio greater than four; decreasing cash and cash equivalents in each of last three years.

About KPMG:

KPMG LLP, a UK limited liability partnership, operates from 22 offices across the UK with approximately 16,300 partners and staff.  The UK firm recorded a revenue of £2.338 billion in the year ended 30 September 2018. KPMG is a global network of professional firms providing Audit, Tax, and Advisory services. It operates in 154 countries and has 200,000 professionals working in member firms around the world. The independent member firms of the KPMG network are affiliated with KPMG International Cooperative ("KPMG International"), a Swiss entity.  Each KPMG firm is a legally distinct and separate entity and describes itself as such.

© 2020 KPMG LLP a UK limited liability partnership and a member firm of the KPMG global organisation of independent member firms affiliated with KPMG International Limited, a private English company limited by guarantee. All rights reserved.

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