Australian banks offer business loan relief, government readies coronavirus stimulus

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By Colin Packham and Swati Pandey

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian banks said on Friday they will defer loan repayments for small businesses impacted by coronavirus for six months, as the government prepared to dramatically expand its stimulus package to shelter the economy from the impact of the pandemic.

The spread of coronavirus around the world has threatened the viability of many companies, but small businesses with limited cash on hand are expected to bear the brunt of the collapse in consumer spending, risking massive job losses.

To help such customers through the crisis, Australia’s banks said they would defer loan repayments for small businesses for six months at a cost of A$8 billion ($4.7 billion).

“We want to get it out to as many businesses as quickly as possible so they can keep their doors open and keep employing Australians,” Anna Bligh, chief executive officer of the Australian Banking Association (ABA) told reporters in Sydney.

Australian banks have about A$100 billion worth of loans outstanding to small businesses, the ABA said.

The loan relief came as the government signaled it would announce further stimulus spending on the weekend, and as the number of coronavirus cases in the country rose about 20% from a day earlier to nearly 700, with seven deaths.

The size of the package is still be determined, but Australian media reported it could be worth around 3%-4% of Australia’s A$2 trillion economy, or up to A$80 billion.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg only last week announced stimulus spending worth A$17.6 billion to stop the country slipping into its first recession in nearly 30 years.

“The package is still being finalised – it will be unveiled over the weekend,” one government source told Reuters.

Frydenberg declined to comment on the size of the package, but said the new stimulus would target those most impacted by the flu-like virus.

“This second package is more about cushioning the blow for those Australians who may find themselves out of work,” Frydenberg told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Flagship carrier Qantas Airways Ltd (AX:), one of Australia’s largest employers, on Thursday told most of its 30,000 employees to take leave and ceased international services.

With unemployment rising, Australian internet searches for jobs with major supermarket chains has surged following announcements that grocers would hire thousands of workers to meet demand.

Searches for major supermarkets accounted for 8.8% of all queries on jobs website Indeed on Tuesday, four times higher than it was two days earlier and almost 500% higher than search activity during 2019.

“Supermarkets have become a lifeline for workers who are now either unemployed or who have experienced a fall in the number of hours they work,” said Callam Pickering, Indeed’s APAC economist.

The stimulus expected over the weekend will complement a A$100 billion package unveiled by the Reserve Bank of Australia and the government on Thursday.

The central bank’s stimulus includes quantitative easing and a three-year funding facility for at least A$90 billion to the country’s banks at a fixed rate of 0.25%.

In its first round of quantitative easing, the RBA said it would buy up to A$5 billion of local government bonds, with maturities between two years and eight year.

In a separate statement, the government said it would buy A$15 billion of residential mortgage-backed securities and other asset backed securities over the next 12 months.