Well, companies might ask Greece. In a purely commercial sense, however, stubbornly low interest rates over the last few years have resulted in a significant rise in levels of corporate debt. When it comes to the precepts of good cash-flow management, it almost seems as though the Great Recession has taught us nothing.
In the wake of the financial crisis of 2007-2008, companies were said to be hoarding cash, often at the expense of making new investments and hiring workers. At first glance, that trend would appear still to be in effect. According to the REL survey, which scrutinized the working capital performance of just under 1,000 of the biggest public companies in North America, cash on hand has grown by 74 percent since 2007. And it continued to increase in 2014.
In the context of an expanding economy, though, the picture isn’t so rosy. Revenues have increased 39 percent over that same period, REL says, but cash on hand as a percent of revenue is up by just 2 percent. Meanwhile, debt has increased at an “alarming” rate, to the tune of 62 percent.
Not coincidentally, the federal funds rate plummeted from 5 percent to 0.09 percent during that period, tempting companies with the promise of cheap money. But rather than sink it into long-term investments and devoting themselves to better working-capital management, companies have rewarded shareholders with higher dividends, bought back their own stock or gone shopping for merger or acquisition opportunities. That’s a relatively non-productive use of limited funds, at least from the standpoint of individual organizations and capital optimization.
During this time, REL finds, companies have done a poor job of managing working capital. The cash conversion cycle (CCC), which measures how long it takes for a dollar invested in procurement and the production of goods to be transformed back into cash from the customer, has seen little improvement since 2007, according to Derrick Steiner, senior manager with REL. To be precise, it dropped by a single day between 2007 and 2014 – from 34 days to 33. What’s more, the survey says, only 30 companies even mentioned the CCC in their comments on first-quarter 2015 earnings.
“We’re not saying that all debt is bad,” Steiner stresses. “The CCC won’t be able to provide you with every penny that you need.” But there’s a limit as to how much debt a company can sustain, regardless of how low interest rates might be.
Many companies in the REL survey are “taking the easy road and simply borrowing,” says Steiner. “Why invest time and resources trying to improve my processes when I can go out easily to market and borrow, get additional cash and use it appropriately?”
This mountain of cash serves as a disincentive for the chief financial officer to take a hard look at the company’s working-capital management practices. One area that’s particularly ripe for improvement is supplier relationships. Steiner says there has been virtually no change in days payable outstanding (DPO), the time it takes for a company pay its suppliers. The number has gone from 45 days in 2007 to its present span of 46.4 days.
REL believes companies could tap into $1tr of cash by addressing DPO – specifically, lengthening the time in which they pay their bills. That pot of money is equivalent to 6 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.
Top performers have shown the way. According to REL, their CCC is seven times shorter than typical companies. They hold less than half the inventory (22.2 days versus 50.7 days), collect from customers more than two weeks faster (24.8 days versus 42.6 days), and pay suppliers 40 percent slower (55.4 percent versus 39.5 days).
Viewed from another perspective, the practices of top performers can appear opportunistic, if not heartless. How can they ensure the viability of key suppliers if they drag out the payment of their bills (all the while pressuring their own customers to pay up more quickly)?
Steiner acknowledges that the financial health of suppliers needs to be considered. He recommends that companies segment their suppliers into three groups – strategic, non-strategic and sensitive – and treat them accordingly. Buyers should take care not to alienate or jeopardize those suppliers that contribute the most vital raw materials or components, or represent the lion’s share of a company’s spend.
Steiner doesn’t endorse the actions of large companies that might suddenly place all of their suppliers on, say, 120-day payment terms. “They’re simply pushing their weight around,” he says. It’s especially important not to squeeze smaller suppliers that can’t obtain attractive financing. He says companies should establish payment baselines based on supplier size and financial health, industry, geographic region and spend category. The goal should be to achieve “market conformity.”
Even the best companies find it difficult to sustain the improvements that they might have made. Only 10 percent of those surveyed bettered their CCC each year for the past three years. Broaden the period to seven years, and the share is less than a single percent – just five companies. Many focused on cash management during the financial crisis, but their efforts were eroded by a subsequent “firefighting” attitude that emphasized the amassing of cash by the easiest means – in other words, borrowing it.
Interest rates won’t stay low forever, of course, so companies that haven’t turned their attention to working-capital management had better start now. “There are going to be some long-term impacts,” says Steiner, “but it’s quite shocking how short-term [in attitude] leadership can be in dealing with these things.”