Trend Analysis – Liquidity

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 7th, 2013

Economics 101

Liquidity can be More Important than Profitability to a Small Business Owner

Small business owners lose a lot of sleep worrying if they will have enough cash for tomorrow.  For next week.  For next month.  You can increase sales and add new customers but unless this creates cash those new sales and new customers may cause more problems than they help.  For a lot of businesses fail because they run out of cash.  Often times learning they have a cash problem only when they don’t have the cash to pay their bills.  So savvy business owners study their financial statements each quarter.  Even each month.  Looking for signs of trouble BEFORE they don’t have the cash to pay their bills.

Investors poor over corporations’ financial statements to make wise investment decisions.  Crunching a lot of numbers.  Analyzing a myriad of financial ratios.  Gleaning a lot of useful information buried in the raw numbers on the financial statements.  Small business owners analyze their financial statements, too.  But not quite to the extent of these investors.  They may look at some key numbers.  Focusing more on liquidity than profitability.  For profits are nice.  But profits aren’t cash.  As a lot of things have to happen before those profits turn into cash.  If they turn into cash.  The following are some balance sheet and income statement accounts.  Following these accounts are some calculations based on the values of these accounts.  With four quarters of data shown.

So what do these numbers say about this year of business activity?  Well, the business was profitable in all four quarters.  And rather profitable at that.  Which is good.  But what about that all important cash?  With each successive quarter the business had a lower cash balance.  That’s not as good as those profitability numbers.  And what about accounts receivable and inventory?  There seems to be some large changes in these accounts.  Are these changes good or bad?  What about accounts payable?  Accrued expenses?  Current portion of long-term debt?  These all went up.  What does this mean in the grand scheme of things?  Looking at these numbers individually doesn’t provide much information.  But when you do a little math with them you can get a little more information out of them.

In Trend Analysis a Downward sloping Current Ratio indicates a Potential Liquidity Problem

Current assets are cash or things that a business can convert into cash within the next 12 months.  Current liabilities are things a business has to pay within the next 12 months.  Current assets, then, are the resources you have to pay your current liabilities.  The relationship between current assets and current liabilities is a very important one.  Dividing current assets by current liabilities gives you the current ratio.  If it’s greater than one you are solvent.  You can meet your current financial obligations.  If it’s less than one you will simply run out of current resources before you met all of your current liabilities.  In our example this business has been solvent for all 4 quarters of the year.

Days’ sales in receivables is one way to see how your customers are paying their credit purchases.  The smaller this number the faster they are paying their bills.  The larger the number the slower they are paying their bills.  And the slower they pay their bills the longer it takes to convert your sales into cash.  Days’ sales in inventory tells you how many days of inventory you have based on your inventory balance and the cost of that inventory.  The smaller this number the faster things are moving out of inventory in new sales.  The larger this number is the slower things are moving out of inventory to reflect a decline in sales.  These individual numbers by themselves don’t provide a lot of information for the small business owner.  Big corporations can compare these numbers with similar businesses to see how they stack up against the competition.  Something not really available to small businesses.  But they can look at the trend of these numbers in their own business and gain very valuable information.

The above chart shows the 4-quarter trend in three important liquidity numbers.  Days’ sales in receivables increased after the second quarter upward for two consecutive quarters.  Indicating customers have paid their bills slower in each of the last two quarters.  Days’ sales in inventory showed a similar uptick in the last two quarters.  Indicating a slowdown in sales.  Both of these trends are concerning.  For it means accounts receivable are bringing in less cash to the business.  And inventory is consuming more of what cash there is.  Which are both red flags that a business may soon run short of cash.  Something the three quarters of falling current ratio confirm.  This business is in trouble.  Despite the good profitability numbers.  The downward sloping current ratio indicates a potential liquidity problem.  If things continue as they are now in another 2 quarters or so the business will become insolvent.  So a business owner knows to start taking action now to conserve cash before he or she runs out of it in another 2 quarters.

Keynesian Stimulus Spending can give a Business a Current Ratio trending towards Insolvency

In fact, this business was already having cash problems.  The outstanding balance in accounts payable increased over 100% in these four quarters.  Not having the cash to pay the bills the business paid their bills slower and the balance in outstanding accounts payable rose.  Substantially.  As the cash balance fell the business owner began borrowing money.  As indicated by the increasing amounts under current portion of long-term debt and interest expense.  Which would suggest substantial borrowings.  Putting all of these things together and you can get a picture of what happened at this business over the past year.  Which started out well.  Then experienced a burst of growth.  But that growth disappeared by the 3rd quarter.  When sales revenue began a 2-quarter decline.

Something happened to cause a surge in sales in the second quarter.  Something the owner apparently thought would last and made investments to increase production to meet that increased demand.  Perhaps hiring new people.  And/or buying new production equipment.  Explaining all of that borrowing.  And that inventory buildup.  But whatever caused that surge in sales did not last.  Leaving this business owner with excess production filling his or her inventory with unsold goods.  And the rise in days’ sales in receivables indicates that this business is not the only business dealing with a decline in sales.  Suggesting an economic recession as everyone is paying their bills slower.

So what could explain this?  A Keynesian stimulus.  Such as those checks sent out by George W. Bush to stimulate economic activity.  Which they did.  Explaining this sales surge.  But a Keynesian stimulus is only temporary.  Once that money is spent things go right back to where they were before the stimulus.  Unfortunately, this business owner thought the stimulus resulted in real economic activity and invested to expand the business.  Leaving this owner with excess production, bulging inventories, aging accounts receivable and a disappearing cash balance.  And a current ratio trending towards insolvency.  Which is why Keynesian stimulus spending does not work.  Most businesses know it is temporary and don’t hire or expand during this economic ‘pump priming’.  While those that do risk insolvency.  And bankruptcy.

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Balance Sheet, Financial Ratios, Private Equity, Toys “R” Us, Bain Capital, Leveraged Buyout and Initial Public Offering

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 29th, 2012

History 101

Private Equity guides a Business foundering in Rough Seas into a Safe Harbor to Refit it for Profitability

The balance sheet is the one of the two most important financial statements of a business.  It’s a snapshot in time of the financial position of a company.  In the classical format all assets are on the left side.  And all liabilities and equity are on the right.  And the total value of all assets equals the total value of all liabilities and equity.  In other words the business bought all of their assets with money raised by borrowing (liabilities), with money raised by selling stock (equity) or with money generated by the business (retained earnings/profits). 

Everything you ever wanted to know about a business you can find on the balance sheet.  Through numerous financial ratios you can determine if the business is using their assets efficiently.  Or have too many assets that cost more to maintain for the revenue they produce.  You can tell if a business has too much debt.  Or has so little debt that new debt can finance growth and expansion.  Which could attract new equity investors for further growth.  You can see if they’re matching the terms of their debt with the life of their assets.  Or if they’re taking on long-term debt obligations to provide short-term working capital.  A review of a firm’s balance sheet can also tell how well the management team is doing.  Or how poorly.

The financial picture the balance sheet provides of a business is an objective picture.  It gives an outsider a different view of the company than an insider.  Who may have a more subjective view.  They may not want to shutter a poorly utilized factory because of pride, sympathy for the employees or unfounded hope that business will improve soon.  So they will risk losing everything by not accepting that they must let some things go.  Like a cargo ship foundering in rough seas.  To save the ship and most of its cargo a captain may have to jettison some cargo.  If he or she doesn’t the captain can lose the ship.  The cargo.  And the lives of everyone on board.  Perhaps having a life or death decision in the balance makes it easier to make those hard decisions.  Perhaps that’s why some CEOs can’t let some things go.  Because they never accept the seriousness of their situation.  Perhaps this is why an outsider can read a balance sheet and see what the CEO can’t.  And act.  Like the captain of a ship foundering in rough seas.  And this is what private equity does.  Guides a foundering business into a safe harbor.  Refits it.  And then re-launches it on a course of profitability.

Toys “R” Us

Toys “R” Us was hitting its stride in the Eighties.  They were dominating the retail toy business.  Even expanding internationally.  And into other lines.  Children’s clothing.  Kids “R” Us.  And baby products.  Babies “R” Us.  There was no stopping them.  The secret to their success?  Sell every hot new toy kids wanted.  And sell it cheap.  At or below cost.  Using these loss leaders to get people into their stores.  Where they could sell them more expensive goods in addition to the most popular ‘must have’ toys. 

Then came the Nineties.  And serious competition.  From the big department stores, discount chains and warehouse clubs.  Target.  Wal-Mart.  Costco.  And then the Internet.  Who could use the Toys “R” Us strategy just as well.  And do them one better.  Toys “R” Us focused on selling the ‘must have’ toys at the lowest price.  Where customers came in knowing what they were looking for.  Finding it.  And heading to the checkout.  With a plan like that you don’t need customer service.  So when the competition matched them on selection and price they also threw in better customer service.  Wal-Mart surpassed Toys “R” Us.  Which was by then losing both profitability and market share. 

In 2004 a consortium of private equity (KKR and Bain Capital) and Vornado Realty Trust bought Toys “R” Us for $6.6 billion in a leveraged buyout.  And they turned the corporation around.  With a new management team.  Made the corporation more efficient.  In the brick and mortar stores as well as online.  The company is better and stronger today.  But it has delayed its Initial Public Offering (IPO) for about 2 years now due to a couple of lackluster Christmas seasons during the Great Recession.  They will use the capital raised from the IPO to pay down the debt from the leveraged buyout now sitting on Toys “R” Us’ balance sheet.  Making the turnaround complete.  Allowing the private equity firms to exit while leaving behind a healthier and more profitable company.

The Goal of the Leveraged Buyout was to make Toys “R” Us a Stronger Company

Private equity was successful at Toys “R” Us because Toys “R” Us was a good company.  From 1948 it consistently did the smart thing and grew into the giant it is.  But then it matured.  And the market changed.  Like a ship foundering in rough seas they just needed a little help to captain them through those rough seas.  And that’s what private equity did. 

Many will criticize the sizable debt they’ve left on their balance sheet.  But the plan was always to take the company public again.  Using the proceeds from the IPO to clean up the balance sheet.  Yes, the equity partners will also make a fortune.  But Toys “R” will emerge from this process a stronger company.  Which was the goal of the leveraged buyout.  They did not chop up the company and liquidate the pieces.  They purchased it in 2005.  And the company is still around today in 2012.  What have they been doing all this time?  Trying to make the company the best it can be.  So they can profit greatly from the IPO. 

No doubt the balance sheet of Toys “R” Us has never looked better.  Other than the debt added for the leveraged buyout.  Which they have been able to service since 2005.  So clearly the company is doing something right.  And just imagine how well they will do after they clean that debt off of their balance sheet.  After the IPO.  Suffice it to say that our grandchildren will be shopping there for their own children one day.

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Venture Capital and Private Equity

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 28th, 2012

Economics 101

An Idea is only an Idea unless there’s Capital to Develop it and a Business Plan

People put money in the bank to save it.  And to earn interest.  To make their savings grow.  So they can afford a down payment on a house one day.  Or start up a business.  To start a college fund.  Or a variety of other things.  They put their money into a bank because they have confidence that the bank will repay that money whenever they want to withdraw it.   And confident that the bank will earn a profit.  By prudently loaning out their deposits in business loans, mortgages, equity loans, etc.  So the bank can pay interest on their savings.  And make it grow.  While not risking the solvency of the bank by making risky loans that people won’t be able to repay.  With responsible saving and responsible lending both parties achieve what they want.  And the economy grows.

A high savings rate means banks can make more loans.  And businesses can borrow more to expand their businesses.  This is a very critical element in capitalism.  Getting capital to the people who need it.  Who can do incredible things with it.  Create new jobs.  Develop a new technology.  Find a better way to use our limited resources.  Bringing consumer prices down and increasing our standard of living.  Because when prices go down we can buy more things.  So we don’t have to sacrifice and go without.  We have a higher standards of living thanks to capitalism.  And the efficient use of capital.

As technology advanced individuals had more and more brilliant ideas.  But an idea is only an idea unless there’s capital to develop it.  And a business plan.  Something a lot of brilliant entrepreneurs are not good at.  They may think of a great new use of technology that will change the world.  Their mind can be that creative.  But they don’t know how to put a business plan together.  Or convince a banker that this idea is gold.  That this innovation is so new that no one had ever thought of it before.  That it’s cutting edge.  Paradigm shifting.  And it may be that and more.  But a banker won’t care.  Because bankers are conservative with other people’s money.  They don’t want to loan their deposits on something risky and risk losing it.  They want to bet on sure things.  Loan money to people that are 99% certain to repay it.  Not take chances with new technology that they haven’t a clue about.

Venture Capitalists make sure their Seed Capital is Used Wisely so it can Bloom into its Full Potential

Enter the venture capitalists.  Who are the polar opposite of bankers.  They are willing to take big risks.  Especially in technology.  Because new technologies have changed the world.  And made a lot of people very wealthy.  Especially those willing to gamble and invest in an unknown.  Those who provide the seed money for these ventures in the beginning.  That’s their incentive.  And why they are willing to risk such large sums of money on an unknown.  Something a banker never would do.  Who say ‘no’ to these struggling entrepreneurs.  And tell them to come back when they are more established and less risky. 

This is responsible banking.  And this is why people put their money into the bank.  Because bankers are conservative.  But there is a price for this.  Lost innovation.  If no one was willing to risk large sums of money on unknowns with brilliant ideas the world wouldn’t be the same place it is today.  This is what the venture capitalists give us.  Innovation.  And a world full of new technology.  And creature comforts we couldn’t have imagined a decade earlier.  Because they will risk a lot of money on an unknown with a good idea.

Most venture capitalists have been there before.  They were once that entrepreneur with an idea that turned it into great success.  That’s part of the reason they do this.  To recapture the thrill.  While mentoring an entrepreneur into the ways of business.  Like someone once did for them.  But it’s also the money.  They expect to make a serious return on their risky investment.  So much so that they often take over some control of the business.  They do what has to be done.  Make some hard decisions.  And make sure they use their investment capital wisely.  Sometimes pushing aside the entrepreneur if necessary.  To make sure that seed capital can bloom into its full potential.  Perhaps all the way to an initial public offering of stock.  And when it does everyone gets rich.  The entrepreneur with the good idea.  And the venture capitalist.  Who now has more seed capital available for other start-ups with promise.

The Goal of the Private Equity Firm is to Get In, Fix the Problems and Get Out

Venture capital belongs to the larger world of private equity.  Where private equity investment firms operate sort of like a bank.  But with a few minor differences.  Instead of depositors they have investors.  Instead of safe investments they have risky investments.  Instead of low returns on investment they have high returns on investment.  And instead of a passive review of a firm’s financial statements by a bank’s loan officer they actively intervene with business management.  Because private equity does more than just loan money.  They fix problems.  Especially in underperforming businesses.

A mature business that has seen better days is the ideal candidate for private equity.  The business is struggling.  They’re losing money.  And they’ve run out of ideas.  Management is either blind to their problems or unable (or unwilling) to take the necessary corrective action.  They can’t sell because business is too bad.  They don’t want to go out of business because they’ve invested their life savings to try and keep the business afloat.  Only to see continued losses.  Their only hope to recover their losses is to fix the business.  To make it profitable again.  And selling their business to a private equity firm solves a couple of their problems fast.  First of all, they get their prior investments back.  But more importantly they get hope. 

The private equity firm uses some of their investment capital to secure a large loan.  The infamous leveraged buyout which has a lot of negative connotations.  But to a business owner about to go under and lose everything the leveraged buyout is a blessing.  And it’s so simple.  A private equity firm buys a business by taking on massive amounts of debt.  They put that debt on the business’ books.  Debt that future profits of the business will service.  Once the equity firm does its magic to restore the business to profitability.  Starting with a new management team.  Which is necessary.  As the current one was leading the firm to bankruptcy.  They may interview people.  Identify problems.  Find untapped potential to promote.  They may close factories and lay off people.  They may expand production to increase revenue.  Whatever restructuring is necessary to return the firm to profitability they will do.  Their goal is to get in, fix the problems and get out.  Selling the now profitable business for a greater sum than the sum of debt and equity they used to buy it.

But with great risk comes the chance for great failure.  When it works it works well.  Producing a huge return on investment.  But sometimes they can’t save the business.  And the firm can’t avoid bankruptcy.  The business then will be liquidated to repay the banks who loaned the money.  While the equity the firm invested is lost.  Which is why they need to make big profits.  Because they suffer some big losses.  But they typically save more businesses than they fail to save.  And the businesses they do save would have gone out of business otherwise.  So in the grand scheme of things the world is a better place with private equity.

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The Space Shuttle versus the Airbus A380, an Economics Lesson

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 29th, 2011

The Space Shuttle, a Public Sector Failure

People like to point to the Apollo Program as the ultimate example of the American ‘can do’ attitude.  Apollo put men on the moon and retuned them safely.  If we can do that we should be able to do anything.  Even cure the common cold.  If only we attacked our greatest problems today the same way we solved the moon problem.  With a great big government program.  That marshaled a vast network of private contractors.  Where cost was no object.

But that was the problem with Apollo.  Cost.  It cost in excess of $20 billion dollars in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Today that would exceed $130 billion.  At the peak of the program spending consumed nearly 5% of all federal spending.  We’ve come close to shutting down government over lesser amounts in budget disputes.  The numbers are huge.  In comparison, the big three of federal outlays are Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and Defense, each consuming about 20% of all federal spending.  Imagine the fireworks if any of these were reduced to 15% (a 25% reduction in spending) to pay for another Apollo Program.  Suffice it to say it’s not going to happen.

This is why we don’t have more ‘Apollo’ programs to solve our problems.  We simply can’t afford to.  And in case you hadn’t noticed, NASA discontinued the Apollo Program, cancelling three moon landings.  Because of costs.  These cost savings help fund Skylab and the next big project.  The Space Shuttle.  Which was going to fix the cost problem.  By paying for itself.  Based on the private sector model.  The reusable vehicle was going to shuttle payload to space for paying customers and earn a profit.  The program, then, would pay for itself once launched.  And consume no tax dollars.  That was the plan, at least. 

But the Space Shuttle had its problems.  For one it was very dangerous.  And it turns out that the first manned mission was likely to be a disaster (see Shuttle Debuted Amid Unknown Dangers by Irene Klotz posted 6/29/2011 on Discovery News).

What NASA didn’t know at the time was that there was only a 1-in-9 chance the astronauts would make it back alive. Managers put the odds of losing the shuttle and its crew at 1-in-100,000.

Safety upgrades, including those initiated after two fatal accidents, have made the shuttle 10 times safer than it was in its early years, but the odds of a catastrophic accident are still high — about 1 in 90.

That is the largely unspoken part about why NASA is retiring its shuttle fleet after a final cargo run to the space station next month.

The Space Shuttle was just too complex a machine to meet any of its original goals.  Two shuttles were lost.  And the Space Shuttle Program never turned a profit.  The program that was going to pay for itself along the private sector model didn’t.  It required tax dollars.  A lot of them.

… preparing the shuttles for flight is extremely labor-intensive, which drives its $4 billion-a-year operating expense.

This is why we shouldn’t ask for any more great big government programs.  Because they’re typically abject failures.  Few companies in the private sector can fail as grandly.  Missing their profitability goal in excess of $4 billion dollars?  Year after year?  Only government can do this.  For only in government can a failed business model survive.  Because only government can tax, borrow and print money.

The Airbus A380, a Private Sector Success Story

This doesn’t happen in the private sector.  Where such gross mismanagement would put companies out of business.  Because they can’t tax, borrow or print.  Well, they can borrow.  But not at the low rates the government can.  Such failure would force them into junk territory.  And with a proven track record of losing billions year after year, even that wouldn’t be an option.  No, the private sector has to do it the old fashioned way.  They have to earn it.  You don’t have to be perfect.  You just have to be profitable (see Damaged Qantas A380 Refurbishment Underway by Guy Norris posted 6/29/2011 on Aviation Week).

Work to return to service the Qantas Airbus A380 damaged in last November’s uncontained engine failure is underway in Singapore.

The aircraft, which was substantially damaged when the number two Rolls-Royce Trent 900 shed a turbine disc, is about to be placed on stress jacks for major repairs to the wing and fuselage. Work will likely include replacement or repairs to the number one engine nacelle adjacent to the number two engine which was destroyed. The number two engine and nacelle is also being replaced…

The start of repair work, covered under an Aus $135 million insurance claim, puts a final end to speculation that the A380 would be written off. Airbus meanwhile declines to comment on the implications for possible longer term redesign as a result of lessons learned from the incident.

The Airbus A380 is a complex machine.  It’s expensive to build.  And to operate.  But it packs in a lot of people.  So the airlines can recover their costs through normal passenger service.  By offering passengers tickets at affordable prices.  With a little left over.  So Airbus can afford to sell these expensive airplanes at affordable prices, covering their costs with a little left over.  So their suppliers can sell components at affordable prices, covering their costs with a little left over.  Companies make profits everywhere in the process.  To return to their investors.  To reinvest in their operations.  Or to cover large, unexpected cost hits.  Like Airbus and Rolls Royce did to keep Qantas a satisfied customer.

A380 product marketing director Richard Carcaillet says “the two preliminary reports so far have focused on the engine event. However if there are any lessons for systems and procedures then we will take action. But with the co-operation of Rolls-Royce we have put a line of defense into the Fadec (full authority digital engine control), so that in the event of detecting a similar condition it will shut down quickly,” he adds.

Rolls has “now inspected and modified the whole fleet,” says Carcallet. For the moment the fix is the revised Fadec software, though longer term design changes are also underway to the engine, he adds.

The updated software commands an engine shut down if it detects the threat of an intermediate high pressure turbine overspeed occurring. Rolls is meanwhile working on a longer-term redesign of the Trent 900 oil system, a fire in which triggered the event.

Rolls-Royce has also agreed to pay (US) $100.5 million compensation to Qantas.

This is how the private sector works.  The profit incentive makes everyone do what is necessary to please and retain customers.  And improve safety.  Because airplanes falling apart in flight do not encourage anyone to buy a ticket.

Bigger Programs only mean Bigger Failures

There’s a reason that the Shuttle Program is no more but there are A380s flying and making money.  The difference between the Shuttle Program and the A380 is that one was in the public sector and the other is in the private sector.  And guess which one is the success story?  The one in the private sector.  Of course.  This despite the A380 having far more competition in Boeing (in particular the Boeing 747-400 and 747-8) than the Space Shuttle ever had.

Moral of the story?  Keep government programs small.  Because bigger programs only mean bigger failures.  And more tax dollars pulled from the private sector to pay for these failures.

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