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Working capital and its management

Working capital (WC) is a financial metric which represents operating liquidity available to a business, organisation, or other entity, including governmental entities.

Working capital and its management 

Working capital (WC) is a financial metric which represents operating liquidity available to a business, organisation, or other entity, including governmental entities. Along with fixed assets such as plant and equipment, working capital is considered a part of operating capital. Gross working capital is equal to current assets. Working capital is calculated as current assets minus current liabilities. If current assets are less than current liabilities, an entity has a working capital deficiency, also called a working capital deficit and negative working capital.

A company can be endowed with assets and profitability but may fall short of liquidity if its assets cannot be readily converted into cash. Positive working capital is required to ensure that a firm is able to continue its operations and that it has sufficient funds to satisfy both maturing short-term debt and upcoming operational expenses. The management of working capital involves managing inventories, accounts receivable and payable, and cash. 

Working capital is the difference between current assets and current liabilities. It is not to be confused with trade working capital (the latter excludes cash). 

The basic calculation of working capital is based on the entity’s gross current assets.

Working Capital = Current Assets − Current Liabilities

The working capital cycle (WCC), also known as the cash conversion cycle, is the amount of time it takes to turn the net current assets and current liabilities into cash. The longer this cycle, the longer a business is tying up capital in its working capital without earning a return on it. Companies strive to reduce their working capital cycle by collecting receivables quicker or sometimes stretching accounts payable. Under certain conditions, minimizing working capital might adversely affect the company’s ability to realize profitability, e.g. when unforeseen hikes in demand exceed inventories, or when a shortfall in cash restricts the company’s ability to acquire trade or production inputs. 

Decisions relating to working capital and short-term financing are referred to as working capital management. These involve managing the relationship between a firm’s short-term assets and its short-term liabilities. The goal of working capital management is to ensure that the firm is able to continue its operations and that it has sufficient cash flow to satisfy both maturing short-term debt and upcoming operational expenses.

A managerial accounting strategy focusing on maintaining efficient levels of both components of working capital, current assets, and current liabilities, in respect to each other. Working capital management ensures a company has sufficient cash flow in order to meet its short-term debt obligations and operating expenses.

Decision criteria

By definition, working capital management entails short-term decisions—generally, relating to the next one-year period—which are “reversible”. These decisions are therefore not taken on the same basis as capital-investment decisions (NPV or related, as above); rather, they will be based on cash flows, or profitability, or both.

 

One measure of cash flow is provided by the cash conversion cycle—the net number of days from the outlay of cash for raw material to receiving payment from the customer. As a management tool, this metric makes explicit the inter-relatedness of decisions relating to inventories, accounts receivable and payable, and cash. Because this number effectively corresponds to the time that the firm’s cash is tied up in operations and unavailable for other activities, management generally aims at a low net count.

In this context, the most useful measure of profitability is return on capital (ROC). The result is shown as a percentage, determined by dividing relevant income for the 12 months by capital employed; return on equity (ROE) shows this result for the firm’s shareholders. Firm value is enhanced when, and if, the return on capital, which results from working-capital management, exceeds the cost of capital, which results from capital investment decisions as above. ROC measures are therefore useful as a management tool, in that they link short-term policy with long-term decision making. See economic value added (EVA).

Credit policy of the firm: Another factor affecting working capital management is credit policy of the firm. It includes buying of raw material and selling of finished goods either in cash or on credit. This affects the cash conversion cycle.

Management of working capital

Guided by the above criteria, management will use a combination of policies and techniques for the management of working capital. The policies aim at managing the current assets (generally cash and cash equivalents, inventories and debtors) and the short-term financing, such that cash flows and returns are acceptable. 

Cash management. Identify the cash balance which allows for the business to meet day to day expenses, but reduces cash holding costs.

Inventory management. Identify the level of inventory which allows for uninterrupted production but reduces the investment in raw materials—and minimizes reordering costs—and hence increases cash flow. Besides this, the lead times in production should be lowered to reduce Work in Process (WIP) and similarly, the Finished Goods should be kept on as low level as possible to avoid overproduction—see Supply chain management; Just In Time (JIT); Economic order quantity (EOQ); Economic quantity

Debtors management. Identify the appropriate credit policy, i.e. credit terms which will attract customers, such that any impact on cash flows and the cash conversion cycle will be offset by increased revenue and hence Return on Capital (or vice versa); see Discounts and allowances.

Short-term financing. Identify the appropriate source of financing, given the cash conversion cycle: the inventory is ideally financed by credit granted by the supplier; however, it may be necessary to utilize a bank loan (or overdraft), or to “convert debtors to cash” through “factoring”.

Evita Veigas
4 min read
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