I’m a big fan of working capital, i.e., current assets on the balance sheet minus current liabilities. That’s because it can reveal a great deal about the power relationships among a company, its suppliers and its customers. It’s particularly important today in the retail industry, if it’s correct, as I think it is, that:
–many more aggressive–and, by and large, more successful over long periods–retailers found themselves when the pandemic began to wind down last year with too much inventory of stay-at-home merchandise for which demand had begun to wane, and
–much of this had been bought at very high prices, and with lower-than-normal ability to return much (any?) of it.
Also, as I’ve mentioned before, I think merchants are determined not to carry this problem into 2024–which is how I read the super-aggressive promotions of all sorts of good that I find myself seeing over the past few weeks. Three reasons for this urgency: merchandise has a finite, and continuingly contracting, shelf life; the cost of carrying the inventory has risen from zero-ish, along with sort-term interest rates; and the faster a problem is in the rear view mirror, the sooner Wall Street will forget it.
In the most general terms, working capital accounting goes like this:
–the company orders products from a supplier. When they are received, those items appear on the asset side of the balance sheet as Inventory. If the buyer has to pay up front (unusual, but sometimes happens), the Cash account is reduced at the same time by the appropriate amount. If payment is in the future, the obligation is recorded on the liabilities side as a Payable. The asset and the liability balance one another out.
–when the item is sold, the Inventory carrying value for it is reduced (any profit/loss will flow back onto the balance sheet through the income statement, but let’s not worry about that). If payment is immediate, Cash is increased by the appropriate amount. If payment is in the future, an increase in Receivables is recorded.
One tried-and-true measure of company power is Receivables (i.e., financing provided by the company) vs. Payables (financing suppliers have provided to the company) . Big Payables/small Receivables is the better situation–although this figure can be distorted, particularly with retailers, when consumer credit cards are involved. I’ve found this to be very reliable, though, especially in business-to-business situations.
Another indicator is annual inventory turns, that is, annual sales divided by average inventories. A pharmaceutical distributor might turn its inventories 30x/year, a supermarket 20x, Target maybe 7x, a jeweler or a furniture store (if there any of the latter left) maybe 1x, a whiskey distiller only once every five-six years.
To some degree high turns vs low is a matter of investor taste. I’m a fan of high turns, for instance, but detractors argue that high turns go with low margins (true, I think) and no defenses against competition (an old-school idea I disagree with). The issues with low turns are: the cost of carrying inventories + the time it takes to adjust one’s offerings. The offset is that margins are typically much higher.
What am I looking for now as consumer discretionary firms adjust to the post-pandemic world? I’m expecting–and I’m seeing–high sales, margins maybe half the pre-pandemic level, along with shrinking inventories and lower overall borrowings. Even though I don’t think the market appreciates it, I see this as the first sign of a return to health.