According to REL's research, which examined the working capital management performance of 979 of the largest publicly-traded companies in the U.S., nearly half of all companies in the study showed evidence of year-end gamesmanship. These companies improved working capital performance by 10 percent in Q4 2011, adding $52bn to their balance sheets, or an average of $111m per company. But in Q1 of 2012, these same companies saw working capital rebound dramatically, worsening by 11 percent, or $53bn, an average of more than $113m per company.
REL's research found that companies which play year-end games with working capital can get quite creative in their cash flow management approaches. To boost receivables, they often increase incentives for sales staff and extend payment terms to get customers to buy more. At the same time they strong-arm other customers into paying early. On the payables side, they take a wide range of actions that put tremendous strain on their supplier relationships. In many cases, they suddenly start finding discrepancies in supplier invoices, or other excuses to delay payment. Some simply tell suppliers "the check's in the mail," even if it isn't, or delay receipt of goods they have already ordered. To reduce inventory, these companies sometimes take the dramatic step of shipping orders early, regardless of when the customer has asked for them. In addition, these companies often keep their factories running at full capacity whether they need to or not, so they can claim higher operational efficiency and effectiveness.
REL has been tracking the practice of year-end gamesmanship since 2005. Significant evidence of year-end gamesmanship was found in each year's working capital results, with the exception of 2008 and 2009. In these two years companies were struggling with the impact of the recession and many were left with significant excess inventory and uncollected receivables at year-end. REL experts had hoped to see evidence that during the recession companies had put procedures in place to eliminate year-end gamesmanship. But that does not appear to have happened. Instead, in 2010 and 2011 companies went back to the same practices they had pre-recession.
"Rather than develop a strategy to drive sustainable working capital improvements, these companies play the same games each year, trying to pretty up their balance sheets to impress analysts and investors," said REL Principal Michael Rellihan. "But like a rubber band stretched too far, they snap right back, and by the end of Q1 these companies are worse off than when they started. Their bad business practices may make them look good in the short term, but they have a negative impact on the long term bottom line."
REL's research also offered recommendations for how companies can avoid the trap of year-end gamesmanship and instead focus on sustainable working capital improvements. REL recommended that senior leadership make it clear that short-term practices designed to improve working capital performance will no longer be tolerated, and use an audit committee to monitor and track performance. Working capital management should be made a continuous process. Compensation structures should be realigned so that sales staff are rewarded based on the profitability of their sales, and not just the revenue they generate. Finally, rolling targets should be used for working capital metrics, to discourage short-term thinking and encourage sustainable improvements.
The research, with free registration, is available, click here.
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