Are Cash-Flush Corporate Balance Sheets Hiding Stagnating Operating Efficiencies? (#workingcapital, #ZIRP)

In an article entitled “Too Much of a Good Thing” from CFO.com, we learn that American businesses have become less efficient with their use of working capital over the last year:

Days working capital (DWC) — the number of days it takes to convert working capital into revenue — did decrease marginally in 2011, from 37.7 days to 37 days. But REL downplays the improvement, attributing it in part to the companies’ 13% average revenue growth. “To have a 1.9% decrease is a positive, but not by a lot,” says Prathima Iddamsetty, senior manager of operations, research, and marketing at REL, a working capital consultancy.

Cash on hand across the group of surveyed companies, dubbed the REL U.S. 1,000, increased by $60.3 billion in 2011, helped in part by companies taking advantage of low interest rates to issue more debt, up by a record $233 billion year-over-year. Those companies now have a staggering $910 billion in excess working capital, including $425 billion in inventory, according to REL. “Way too much cash is being left on the table and not being put toward growth objectives,” says Iddamsetty.

But why does it matter?

Indeed, cash is still king for the REL U.S. 1,000. This is clearly evidenced by the $60 billion increase in cash on hand and the $233 billion increase in debt in 2011. Over a three-year period, cash on hand was $277 billion and accumulated debt $268 billion.

But using debt instead of efficient working capital management to get more cash into the bank account “comes with a long-term cost: eventually they will have to pay [the debt] down,” points out Ginsberg. “They’ll also have to generate a return on their existing assets that exceeds the interest rate, which is not what we’re seeing.”

It’s better to tap working capital as a funding source for long-term growth strategies, says Ginsberg. REL Consulting cites top performers in a broad range of industries, leveraging working capital to open up new businesses in emerging markets with growing consumer demand, for instance.

“Top performers have very tight manufacturing timetables and inventory management practices, in addition to strict collections and payment systems that are standardized across all locations,” says Michael K. Rellihan, an associate principal at REL. “The cash they generate from this high level of working capital efficiency is then applied to the growth agenda. Long-term, the result is a powerful benefit to the bottom line.”

“Only process improvements will provide sustainable cash flow benefits,” adds REL’s Sparks. “This requires working more closely with customers, getting better information to suppliers, and improving demand forecasting. You need to have an underlying process in place to manage working capital on a day-to-day basis; if not, it will be difficult to sustain.”

In other words, the growth in corporate debt and the resulting excess cash on the balance sheet gives the illusion of financial and business health in the short-term, when in the long-term these companies still must find ways to improve operating efficiencies and thereby generate profit. Ironically, even as the cost of debt in a zero-interest rate policy environment falls, this is getting harder and harder to do because there are fewer and fewer genuine opportunities to drive real growth and expand the top line while maintaining operating efficiency. It makes you wonder how much of this working capital problem is a symptom of our ZIRP-economy.

There was also a helpful chart showing the state of working capital efficiency by industry that can give you a quick high-level look at winners and losers in terms of working capital management.