Sunday, December 07, 2008

See-Saw Capitalization

With another day of doom and gloom news hitting the streets, many organizations are frantic about how to survive the current economic climate. Simply peruse the news sources; companies are screaming for more revenue and slashing costs in hopes to keep their heads above water until January 20. According to published polls, “things will be better in 2009.” However according to economists, yes 2009 will show signs of turnaround… in Q3! Survival during these times requires more financial savvy than has been needed in the last 50 or so years.

It is interesting to spend some time examining different organizations and how they are reacting to this climate. In the corporate world, businesses are shutting offices, stores and cutting back production shifts in manufacturing lines. In professional services like accountancy, organizations are staffing up to provide companies with ‘Survival Services.’ In the law firm arena, many firms are cutting staff anywhere from 8-12% and shutting offices. While others slash, burn and bonus the remaining staff. The question begs, what is the right survival technique for these times.

In watching this economic climate slowly meltdown over the past 24+ months, I am confident in saying that survival is based on reading and reacting to the market indicators. I am reminded of a luncheon more than 24 months ago when the first spark of a credit problem struck. I spent the remaining hour foreshadowing what was to unfold. Reading and interpreting the market indicators are so very important, but even more is to react to them – do something. It is in the doing something that many companies fail.

Following a law office CFO luncheon in Texas, I was approached by a CFO who indicated that his firm was feeling the economic climate very hard and if I had any suggestions. In keeping the conversation light and trying not to come off as the oracle of economic wisdom, I suggested better client relations, more direct marketing and revaluating the firm’s capitalization. This simple suggestion precipitated a plethora of questions, first of which, why not cost cutting? I have always felt that cost cutting measures are secondary to putting the customer first. I explained to my colleague, that cost cutting before sterling service leaves the firm vulnerable to a competitor who provides better customer care. Also, cost cutting for fiscal responsibility should be at the forefront of financial management.

Within a week of my return and of my last submission I was asked on two occasions what is the optimal amount of working capital for an organization, one firm engaged me to help them in that area. A simple Google on working capital will bring back over 11million entries; everything from definitions, to books to companies who have ‘figured it out’. Personally, I don’t believe there is the ‘right’ amount of capitalization for any company, as there are so many contributing factors. However, with a few simple rules the ‘right’ amount may be very closely approximated.

Working capital is defined as current assets less current liabilities. In reality it is the amount of money I need to satisfy my current obligations. Borrowing from accounting theory, current is the time period of 1 year. So working capital is the amount of money I can generate on an ongoing basis to meet my current financial obligations. What inventory can I turn into cash to pay the expenses of my operation. That is it! Granted, in normal business operations cash flow has peaks and troughs. However over the course of a year the cash position should be net positive. If not, the firm is undercapitalized. Likewise, an increasing surplus of cash is suggestive of an overcapitalized position.

Excluding risk, market verticals, taxation, etcetera organizations should strive to have a statistically net positive cash position at some point in their fiscal year, and have it for a certain period of time. A great rule of thumb would be at least one financial quarter. For those periods where cash flows are more in the trough, the use of operating lines of credit help as a flattening agent. However, at some time in the year the operating loan should be repaid and the firm should be in a statistically net positive cash situation. If not, the firm is undercapitalized.

Getting the right capitalization has many components, however the simplest of which is budgeting for the next year. The organization needs to examine what their goals are for the upcoming year and the costs incurred in reaching their goals. A manufacturing organization that may be faced with heavy retooling costs to achieve a 12% growth of the coming 3-5 years would require a heavy capital injection. Without adding tremendous complexity, this would be best served through a public offering of sorts. However, a professional services organization seeking to bring a few new partners on board would have the incoming partners contribute capital to meet the new capital requirements of the organization. Conversely, a firm seeking to grow its market presence in different cities would need to solicit increased capitalization of all the existing and new partners.

There are a whole host reasons why organizations are becoming statistics of the economic crisis. The survivors will be the ones that are reading the market indicators and acting, also the ones who are adequately capitalized.

The best rule I have heard was, use short term money to pay short term commitments and get long term money for long term commitments. Managing the organization’s capitalization is essentially balancing the firm’s self-investment portfolio to smooth out the up and downs.

No comments: