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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

high margins vs. low

Many traditional growth investors characterize the ideal investment as being a company with substantial intellectual property–pharmaceutical research or computer chip designs or proprietary software–protected by patents.  This allows them to charge very high prices, relative to the cost of manufacturing, for their products.

Some go as far as to say that the high margins that this model generates are not just the proof of the pudding but also the ultimate test of any company’s value.

As I mentioned yesterday, the two issues with this approach are that: the high margins attract competition and that the price of maintaining this favorable position is continual innovation.  Often, successful companies begin to live the legend instead, hiding behind “moats” that increasingly come to resemble the Maginot Line.

In addition, high margins themselves are not an infallible sign of success.  Roadside furniture retailers, for example, invariably have high gross margins, even though their windows seem to be perpetually decorated with going-out-of-business signs.  That’s because furniture is not an everyday purchase.  Inventories turn maybe once or twice a year.  Margins have to be high to cover store costs–and, in normal times, to finance their inventories.

Although I am a growth investor, I’ve always had a fondness for distribution companies–middlemen like auto parts stores, or pharma wholesalers, or electrical component suppliers, or Amazon, or, yes, supermarkets (although supermarkets have been an investment sinkhole that I’ve avoided for most of my career).  My experience is that the good ones are badly misunderstood by Wall Street, mostly, I think, because of a fixation on margins.   In the case of the best distribution companies, margins are invariably low.  So that’s the wrong place to look.

Where to look, then?

the three keys to a distribution company:

–growing sales, which will leverage the fixed costs of the distribution infrastructure,

–rapid inventory turns, measured by annual sales/average inventory.  What a “good” number is will vary by industry.  Generally speaking, 10x is impressive, 30x is extraordinary,

–negative working capital, meaning that (receivables – payables) should be a negative number   …and getting more negative as time passes.  Payables are the money a company owes to suppliers, receivables the money customers owe to the company.  For a healthy firm, its products are in high enough demand that customers are willing to pay cash and suppliers are eager enough to do business that they offer the company generous payment terms.

A simple example:  all a company’s customers pay for everything (cash, debit or credit) on the day they buy.  Suppliers get paid 90 days after delivery of merchandise.  So receivables are zero; payables will end up averaging about 90 days of sales.  This means the company will have a large amount of cash, which will expand as long as sales increase, available to it for three months for free.

not just cash generation

The best distribution companies will also have a strategically-placed physical distribution network of stores and warehouses.

They’ll have sophisticated inventory management software that ensures they have enough on hand to meet customers’ needs + a small safety margin, but no more.  It will also weed out product clunkers.

They’ll have stores curated/configured to maximize purchases.

Monday

…the curious case of Whole Foods.

 

 

operating leverage (III)

You may notice that I’m working my way down the income statement in discussing operating leverage.  Yesterday I wrote about the leverage that comes from product manufacturing.  The key to finding this leverage is identifying fixed costs.

All the profit action takes place between the sales and gross profit lines.  This is also the most important place to look for operating leverage for most firms.

operating leverage in SG&A

Today’s topic is the operating leverage that occurs in the Sales, General and Administrative (SG&A) section of the income statement.

The general idea is that large parts of SG&A expense rise in line with inflation, not sales.  So if a company is growing at 10% a year while inflation is 2%, SG&A should slowly but surely shrink in relative terms.  And the company will have an additional force making profits grow faster than sales.

For many non-manufacturing companies, this is the major source of operating leverage.

why this leverage happens

There are several reasons for SG&A leverage:

–most administrative support functions reside in cost centers, meaning their management objective is to keep expenses in check.  Employees here are not directly involved in generating profits, so they have no reason to demand that their pay rise as fast as sales.

–as a company gets bigger and gains more experience, it will usually change the mix of administrative tasks it performs in-house and those it outsources, in a way that lowers overall expense.

–a small company, especially in a retail-oriented business, may initially do a lot of advertising to establish its brand name.  As it becomes larger and better-known, it may begin to qualify for media discounts and be able to afford more effective types of advertising.  At the same time, it will be able to rely increasingly on word-of-mouth to gain new customers.  In addition, it will also doubtless be shifting to more-effective, lower-cost internet/social media methods to spread its message.

negative working capital

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a form of operating leverage.  It has its effect on the interest expense line.  And in today’s near-zero short-term rate environment, it’s not as important as it normally is.  But, on the other hand, one day we’ll be back to normal–when being in a negative working capital situation will be more important.  It’s also one of my favorite concepts.

If a company can collect money from customers before it has to pay its suppliers, it can collect a financial “float” that it can earn interest on.  The higher sales grow, the bigger the amount of the float.  If the company is big enough (or, sometimes, crazy enough) it can even use a portion of the float to fund capital expenditures.  The risk is that the float is only there if sales are flat or rising.  If sales begin to decline, either because of a cyclical economic downturn or some more serious problem, the float begins to evaporate, as payments to suppliers exceed the cash inflow from customers.

Lots of businesses are like this.  For example, you eat at a restaurant.  You pay cash.  But the restaurant only pays employees and suppliers every two weeks.  And it pays is utility bills at the end of the month.

Hotels are the same way.  Utility companies, too.  Amazon and Dell, as well.