In the last Treasury Café post, “Cash Conversion Cycle – A Good Measure?”, we discussed one potential metric to evaluate our organization’s working capital proficiency.
Taking a step back from that post, we can consider the fact that working capital is many things:
· Well understood
· Always accounted for
· Strategically assessed
…not being among them!
What exactly is working capital? What are the differences in how working capital can be evaluated? How can working capital be financed?
We touch on the answers to these questions here.
What Is Working Capital?
According to Investopedia, Working Capital is “the cash a business requires for day-to-day operations, or, more specifically, for financing the conversion of raw materials into finished goods, which the company sells for payment.“
According to Wikipedia, Working Capital is “a financial metric which represents operating liquidity available to a business, organization or other entity”
Cash generation and usage, liquidity, and financing of operations are at the heart of working capital.
Working Capital Example
In a small group meeting we can illustrate the definitions above as follows:
We have 4 people – Charlie, her parents, her customers, and her suppliers.
Charlie needs to buy raw materials to turn into widgets for her customers, and pay people to run the machines, and pay the landlord rent, and the equipment supplier their lease payment, and the investors their dividends and interest. All this costs her ²10 (for new readers, ² is the symbol for Treasury Café Monetary Units, or TCMU’s), and she needs to deliver this by the end of the month. We call these people, in aggregate, suppliers.
However, since she just started out, Charlie does not have this ²10, so she borrows it from her parents. At month end she pays the suppliers and delivers widgets to her customers. The cash pattern for this is depicted in the figure "First Month".
Notice the critical nature of the working capital investment in this case - Charlie only has the funding to pay it off once the operations related to it are over.
This concept of “over” is important, and we will get back to it shortly.
Note that this example above can be conducted in small settings with real funds to illustrate the point with only the initial ²10. If you would like to do this, the only addition step you would need to do would be to move the ²10 between supplier and customer due to “all other economic activity” or something during the period. This is sometimes helpful for non-finance types to understand experientially what working capital is.
Working Capital Classification
Permanent working capital assets are from the point of the fixed assets to the trough of the cycle. They are defined as such because they always exist no matter where we are in the cycle.
Temporary working capital assets are defined as those between trough and peak. They are defined as such because they disappear at a certain point in the cycle, and their value varies depending on where we are in time.
Often the distinction between the two can get confusing. This is where our concept of “over”, discussed earlier, can be helpful.
A business unit, eager to close the sale on a new deal, might argue that its capital cost should reflect short-term rates because the cash conversion cycle for this will be 40 days. However, we can ask “will the business with this customer be over then?” If we find that “No, we will be doing a new deal with them next month if this goes well, and every month thereafter” rather than “Yes, it is a one-shot deal” then the working capital looks to be more permanent and longer-lived (as Charlie’s parents have learned!).
Over time, a firm’s “permanent” and “temporary” working capital will vary. Looking at a graph of a firm growing over time can be illustrative. In this example, both the level of permanent working capital and temporary working capital grows along with the firm.
Financing Working Capital
Financing working capital assets is not an exact science. Some will tell you that the “permanent working capital” portion should be financed with long-term, “permanent” capital (i.e. long-term debt and equity), for the reason that it is permanent and therefore should be financed with something that matches the tenor.
This point of view can be explained by taking Charlie’s parents’ perspective of the situation. In our example above, they provide capital they do not get back until the firm closes its doors, as near a definition to permanent as any free-market enterprise can entertain! They therefore should expect a return commensurate with other long-term investment alternatives.
Alternatively, some would argue that working capital assets be financed at short-term capital rates. This argument relies in part on a different application of the matching principle – short-term assets should be financed by short-term liabilities.
If we consider a liquidation scenario where each investor gets a specific slice of the firm as collateral, then the working capital investors have less to worry about – customers pay their bills in full when due or face enforceable collection efforts, and any finished inventory can be sold for close to market prices provided it is not obsolete for some reason.
Investors with factory equipment, buildings and land face a lot more variability around the ultimate monetary realization and its’ timing. Thus, since the specific nature of the risk and the timing of its occurrence are different, that should lead us to conclude that the investments are different and require different treatment.
We can illustrate how funding can be short-term by modifying our original Charlie example slightly. If, once we collect from customer, add two additional steps to the process, 1) paying back her parents, and then 2) obtaining ²10 either by re-borrowing from her parents or from a new source, prior to her payment to the suppliers. Under this scenario, the provider of working capital funding gets to choose each month whether to continue it or not. Conversely, Charlie is at risk of not obtaining it each and every month as well.
Of course, any point between these two extremes can be chosen as well. We will look at this a little more in-depth in the next Treasury Café post.
Working Capital funding is an essential component of the firm’s financial strategy, and working capital requirements are an important factor to consider as the firm evaluates its opportunities and its needs.
· Does everyone in your organization have a solid understanding of Working Capital?
· Do you have a preference as to Working Capital financing? Why?
Add to the discussion with your thoughts, comments, questions and feedback! Please share Treasury Café with others. Thank you!