Effective Working Capital Management and Optimal Synchronization of Cash Flows

How do firms choose their operating cycle? How do firms choose their cash conversion cycle? What is the impact of firm’s operating cycle on the size and periodicity of investments in receivables and inventories? How do seasonal and cyclical trends affect firm’s operating cycle, cash conversion cycle and investments in current assets? These strategic policy questions relate to optimal cash flows synchronization and effective working capital management designed to maximize the wealth producing capacity of the enterprise.

In this review, we will examine some pertinent and extant academic literature on effective working capital management and provide some operational guidance to small business enterprises. The shorter the cash conversion cycle, the smaller the size of the firm’s investment in inventories and receivables and consequently the less the firm’s financing needs. Although setting ending cash balances is, to a large extent, judgmental, some analytical rules can be applied to assist effective formulation of better judgments and optimize cash flow management.

As you know, a correlate to cash is net working capital. Net working capital is not cash but the difference between current assets (what a firm currently owns) and current liabilities (what a firm currently owes). Current assets and current liabilities are firm’s immediate sources and uses of cash, respectively. Clearly, a firm’s ability to meet its current financial obligations (bills due within a year) depends on its ability to manage its current assets and liabilities, efficiently and effectively.

Effective working capital management requires the formulation of optimal working capital policy and the periodic management of cash flows, inventories, account receivables, accruals and account payables. And because poor working capital management can severely damage a firm’s credit worthiness and limit its access to money and capital markets, every effort must be made to minimize business default risk.

The significance of liquidity cannot be overemphasized. In addition, anything that adversely impacts a firm’s financial flexibility degrades its ability to borrow and cope with unexpected financial hardship. A firm must preserve its ability to react to unexpected expenses and investment opportunities. Financial flexibility derives from a firm’s use of leverage as well as cash holdings.

In practice, optimal working capital management includes effective cash conversion cycle, effective operating cycle, the determination of appropriate level of accruals, inventories, and account payables and the attendant funding options. Working capital policy impacts a firm’s balance sheet, financial ratios (current and quick assets) and possibly credit rating. Critical to efficient firm’s working capital management is a good understanding of its cash conversion cycle, or how long it takes for a firm to convert cash invested in operations into cash received.

The cash conversion cycle captures the time passed from the beginning of the production process to collection of cash from the sale of the finished products. Typically, a firm purchases raw materials and creates products. These products go into inventory and then are sold on account. Once the products are sold often on credit then the firm waits to receive payment, at which point the process begins again. Understanding the cash conversion cycle and the age of account receivables is critical to successful working capital management.

As you know, the cash conversion cycle is divided into three parts: the average payment period, the average collection period and the average age of inventory. The firm’s operating cycle is length of time from the receipt of raw materials to the collection of payment for the products sold on account. The operating cycle is therefore the sum of the inventory conversion period (the average time between when raw materials are received into inventory and product is sold) and the receivables conversion period (the average time between a sale and collection of the receipt). Note that the operations of a merchandising enterprise involves purchasing (the purchase of merchandise), sales (the sales of products to customers, and collection (the receipt of cash from customers).

Some Operational Guidance:

There is gathering empirical evidence suggesting that effective working capital management begins with assessment of operating cycle and optimizing cash flows from firm’s operations. Management must know, understand and anticipate the impact of cash flows on firm’s operations and its ability to maximize the profit producing capacity of the enterprise. Effective cash management is critical to the success of a business enterprise. It is all about cash flows.

One of the best ways to increase cash availability is to accelerate the receipt of incoming payments by reducing the age of account receivables using appropriate mix of incentives and penalties. A firm must evaluate current payment processes and identify effective options to expedite collection of account receivables.

There is strong evidence suggesting improving payment processes and moving to electronic alternatives will maximize liquidity and better manage costs of receivables. Liquidity is critical to the success of every business enterprise and effective cash management is the core of liquidity. In practice, a careful analysis of cash flows and assessment of investment strategies and policies is required to ensure that a firm has appropriate tools needed to maximize firm’s liquidity, and optimize cash flow management.

A firm optimizes cash flow management in its operating cycle by rationalizing-streamlining and improving the ways it manages the inflow of cash receipts, makes outflow cash payments and minimizes the age of account receivables. A firm needs digital records, electronic banking, robust internal controls and agile accounting systems for quick reconciliation of bank statements through timely access to bank accounts, customer records; and synchronizing cash flows, accounts payables, and accounting systems for increased efficiency.

Best industry practices include analyzing cash flows monthly to determine ending cash balance (the difference between total cash inflows and total cash outflows). The goal is a rising or positive periodic ending cash balance; Monitoring customer balances to manage account receivables (money owed to the firm from customers); and appropriate pre-qualifying processes before extending credit to customers is essential to minimizing incidence of bad debts.

A tracking system that monitors outstanding receivables and sends automatic reminders, invoices and statements is a useful tool. Some firms use factors by selling their receivables to factoring companies to ensure steady cash flows; Slowing down cash disbursements: Prudent cash flow management dictates that a firm retains cash as long as possible. Optimize cash flow management by paying on time while utilizing all accommodations consistent with the calculus of financial advantage. Finally, borrow long and lend short and time large expenses by setting aside small amounts to fund large expected expenditures. Always remember that long term liabilities become current liabilities in the accounting period in which they mature.