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Banks offer business loan relief as Australia closes doors

National

Banks will allow pandemic-hit small businesses to defer loan repayments for six months, as the government grapples with a massive hit to the economy and the nation shuts its doors to all non-residents and non-citizens from 9pm Friday.

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Australians and their direct family members will still be allowed in, but must self-quarantine for 14 days.

The national cabinet, which includes federal and state leaders, met today to discuss the ban on indoor gatherings of more than 100 people.

A cap of one person per four square metres for indoor gatherings has been recommended by chief medical officers.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said close contact risked spreading the virus among the most vulnerable.

“We have to slow the virus and that means there are circumstances where we will have to restrict the number of people that are in enclosed spaces,” he told 2GB radio.

“That is what we have to do to save lives.”

There will also be more clarity around cinemas, theatres, hospitality venues and those organising weddings and funerals.

Social distancing guidelines for public transport will also be discussed, as will additional support for indigenous communities and disability support recipients.

Loan repayment relief

Small businesses impacted by the coronavirus crisis will be able to defer their loan repayments for six months under a plan put forward by the banking industry.

“This is a multi-billion-dollar lifeline for small businesses when they need it most, to help keep the doors open and keep people in jobs,” Australian Banking Association chief executive Anna Bligh said on Friday.

“All that a business has to do is register their need with their bank,” Bligh said.

Friday’s announcement follows the Reserve Bank cutting the interest rate to a record-low of 0.25 per cent in an historic suite of measures to offset a likely loss of jobs and income during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Australia’s small businesses collectively have $100 billion in loans and this bailout could put up to $8 billion back in their pockets, Bligh said.

NAB said its personal customers will be able to pause home loan repayments for up to six months, including a three-month checkpoint.

For a customer with a typical home loan of $400,000, this will mean access to an additional $11,006 over six months, or $1,834 per month.

NAB’s business customers will be able to freeze principal and interest repayments for up to six months on a range of business loans, including floating and variable rates, and equipment finance loans.

The bank, like CBA, will not be passing on Thursday’s rate cut to variable home loan customers.

For depositors, NAB has introduced a 10-month term deposit rate of 1.75 per cent in recognition that this low interest rate environment is hurting savers.

CBA on Thursday cut its one-, two- and three-year fixed home loan rates by 70 basis points to 2.29 per cent but like the other big four is yet to reveal its plans on loan repayment freezes.

CBA said it would also cut rates on cash-linked small business loans and increase rates on 12-month term deposits to 1.7 per cent.

Small businesses need relief and “they can rest assured their banks have got their bank,” Bligh said.

There’s no set definition in the relief package over which businesses are eligible.

“We won’t be looking to draw arbitrary lines in the sand,” she said. “Banks know who their small businesses are.”

While small businesses are clearly in crisis, so far the banks haven’t heard that their mortgage customers are having trouble making loan payments, she said.

The bailout package was designed in consultation with the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.

Panic buying

Coles said demand was putting pressure on supply as shoppers continued to clear shelves.

Coles chief operations officer Matthew Swindells on Friday compared the scale of hoarding to festive seasons – but without the usual six months of lead-up planning.

“It’s not a problem of supply, it’s a problem of demand,” he told the Seven Network.

“We have done three Christmases in three consecutive weeks from a standing start.

“When you see that immediate lift in demand across a network as large as Coles, it punches a huge stock hole in our supply lines and it takes time to recover.”

Australia produces enough food for 75 million people, or three times its population, but shelves have been stripped bare as shoppers fear being locked down because of COVID-19.

Swindells said Coles had been working closely with governments to keep the supply chain open.

“There is no need to panic,” he said.

“Don’t stockpile and give us the time to turn the dials we have turned and get all the stock back onto the shelves.

“But it will take time and it will need cooperation between the Australian public and the retailers.”

The lack of supplies in cities across the nation has forced regional supermarkets to take extraordinary steps to keep essential items available for locals.

To counter busloads of “shopping tourists” cleaning out shelves, IGA Broadford – about 70 kilometres north of Melbourne – is checking identification and refusing entry to non-locals.

“Due to the current situation, we can only accommodate customers living in these areas,” read a notice posted on the store’s window.

Energy bills

Australia’s energy ministers will hold a teleconference on Friday to discuss stopping late fees for people unable to pay their bills because of the virus.

Australians struggling to pay power bills because of coronavirus are set to get a helping hand from energy giants.

Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor has asked energy companies to extend hardship policies to people impacted by COVID-19, such as those who have contracted it or whose business have taken a hit.

“They have assured me they will do exactly that,” he told ABC radio.

The meeting’s agenda will also cover ways of limiting the risk of infection within the energy workforce, ensuring supply continues and coordinating emergency management powers.

Taylor has also urged petrol stations to pass on savings to customers from a drop in oil prices.

“It’s crucial that we call out those petrol stations that are not doing the right thing and we don’t use them,” he said.

“$1.10 is a good benchmark – customers should be looking for that.”

The Australian Energy Council and Energy Networks Australia are also working to ensure the lights will stay on.

“Every part of the energy supply chain will face challenges, which is why we are ensuring we keep communicating between businesses, with government and importantly with customers,” Energy Networks Australia chief Andrew Dillon said.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce today defended his decision to stand down two-thirds of the airline’s workers in the face of the escalating COVID-19 pandemic.

The national carrier is standing down 20,000 workers after suspending all international flights and reducing domestic flights until the worst of the crisis passes.

But Qantas will allow workers to access long service leave early, and those who have exhausted their annual leave will be able to take up to four weeks in advance.

“This is the worst crisis the aviation industry has gone through. I know for the economy it’s probably going to be a lot worse than the GFC,” Joyce said.

“We’re not making people redundant and we’re trying this mechanism to make sure we can get through and survive and they have a job at the end of the day.”

Joyce, who’s Australia’s highest-paid chief executive, himself is also prepared to take no salary beyond the end of this financial year. He’s currently taking no pay.

“None of us are getting paid while this is going on,” he told ABC radio on Friday.

Joyce thinks Qantas may be able to get through the crisis without any redundancies.

But his also warned the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak would likely result in a “significant recession”, globally and domestically.

The airline made an $891 million profit in 2018/19 but, like its competitors, has been decimated by the spread of the virus and escalating lockdown measures.

Joyce is in discussions with supermarket giant Woolworths to redeploy some Qantas workers.

-with AAP

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