By Daniel Hunter

The number of ‘zombie businesses’ — those only able to pay the interest on their debts — has fallen to 103,000 from a peak of 160,000 in November 2012, according to research by R3, the insolvency trade body.

Liz Bingham, president of R3, says: “A lot of attention has been given to so-called ‘zombie businesses’, who are amongst the chief beneficiaries of the relatively benign trading environment in the last few years.”

“While we have seen ‘zombie business’ numbers fall and stabilise, there hasn’t been a corresponding rise in corporate insolvencies. Encouragingly, many struggling businesses will have used the unexpected grace period between recession and recovery to put their house in order, allowing them to spring 'back to life'.”

“However, our research also shows thousands of businesses moving beyond ‘struggling but surviving’ into potentially dangerous territory.”

The research shows a record 166,000 businesses saying they are having to negotiate payment terms with creditors. 96,000 businesses say they would be unable to repay debts if there was a small increase in interest rates — the highest number of businesses in this position for over a year.

Liz Bingham adds: “Whereas ‘zombie businesses’ can keep going for the time being, businesses in these latter two situations are approaching crunch time.”

“It’s a positive that businesses are taking action and addressing their problems by talking to their creditors. But, unfortunately, successfully negotiating new payment terms that work for both the creditor and debtor isn’t always possible.”

Liz Bingham continues: “Whether or not there is an insolvency ‘spike’ still to come depends on the fortunes of those companies that are negotiating with their creditors or who would be unable to pay their debts if interest rates were to rise.”

“A genuine ‘spike’ in insolvencies may now be unlikely, but there could well be a prolonged period where corporate insolvency numbers are higher than where they might typically be, so long after a recession.”

The number of ‘zombie businesses’ — 103,000 — is equivalent to 6% of UK businesses with a turnover of over £50,000.

Corporate insolvencies ordinarily peak after recessions due to added creditor pressure and the initial strain of expansion. However, corporate insolvencies peaked during - rather than after - the last recession. A stuttering recovery, government support schemes, creditor forbearance, and low interest rates have helped keep otherwise unviable businesses ('zombie businesses') afloat.