negative working capital

Working capital is all about the inventory cycle–meaning the journey from cash in the bank to production materials to finished goods to sales and back to cash.  For pharma distributors the cycle may take two weeks, for a scotch distillery six years.  Conventionally, however, working capital is defined as assets and liabilities being used over a 12-month period.

Manufacturers typically have lots of working capital, much of it tied up in inventory.  Retailers of consumer durables and jewelry do, too.

There’s another class of companies, however, like utilities, restaurants, hotels…that typically have negative working capital, meaning the company doesn’t need to feed cash into the production process to keep it going.  Instead, operations generate cash, at least for a time.   And the amount of cash grows as the business expands.

Why is this?

–A restaurant is an easy example.  In the US, sales happen either in cash or by credit card, where the funds are available for use almost immediately.  So it has no receivables on the asset side of the balance sheet and it has an inventory of maybe a couple of days’ food.  On the liabilities side, rent, utilities, salaries and food ingredients are paid for an average of, say, two weeks after their inputs are used.  So once it gets going, the restaurant has many more current liabilities than current assets and it has the use of the upfront payments for about 14 days.  If the restaurant prospers, the gap between liabilities and assets may expand in percentage terms, but even if not the cash “float” will grow in the absolute.

–An online service charging a monthly or yearly subscription fee–music, books, news, Adobe Cloud–works the same way.  People pay in advance for services provided bit by bit over the term of the subscription.

–hotels, cruise ships and public utilities, too.

There’s a temptation for negative working capital companies, seeing apparently idle cash of $100,000, then $125,000, then $175,000 (much bigger figures for publicly-traded companies) just lying on the balance sheet for years, to use this money to, say, open a second restaurant that would potentially double the size of the firm, create economies of scale…  In fact, the only company I can think of that steadfastly refused to touch any portion of its cash buildup was Dell in its heyday as a PC manufacturer.

The problem:  suppose a negative working capital company takes a risk with its “float” money and stumbles.   In our restaurant example, let’s say the company takes $50,000 out of its cash balance, uses it to set up a second location and the second restaurant flops.  All of a sudden, salaries, utilities, rent, food bills come due and there isn’t enough money.  Whoops.

Suppose the business begins to shrink.  If so, so too does the cash pile.  But at least initially the liabilities remain the same.  Potential trouble, unless the company adjusts very quickly.

More relevant today, suppose there’s a quarantine and incoming cash dries up completely.  In the restaurant case, in less than a month, the cash is all gone!   And the owner has to decide whether to inject more capital into the business, close its doors, or not pay the bills and see what happens.

CCL

A case in point is cruise line Carnival (CCL), which raised about $6 billion last week in a stock/bond sale, shortly after drawing down much, if not all, of its $3 billion bank credit lines.  Three entries on the balance sheet explain these moves to me.  As of last November CCL had $518 million in cash on the asset side:  liabilities:  $4.7 billion in customer deposits + $1.8 billion in accrued liabilities (= other stuff).