Keeping Cash Safe

As the economy sputters, companies are striving to maintain their liquidity.

Amid immense uncertainty, the conservation of cash is in full swing. Managing working capital tightly, “de-risking” cash investments, increasing credit lines — you name it, companies are doing it. In fact, many balance sheets are now brimming with cash.

In a study of 563 companies rated triple-B-plus to single-B-minus, Fitch Ratings forecast that total corporate liquidity in 2008 will increase 2.7 percent over 2007. With money still relatively inexpensive, spending has yet to take a hit. Nonetheless, many companies are treating cash — and access to it — as more precious than the supply would suggest.

They are more risk averse when it comes to capital investment, for example (see “Capex Caution“). US Airways will cut capital expenditures this year by 24 percent, to $240 million. Similarly, after spending $300 million in capex over six years, Frank Gatti, CFO of Educational Testing Services (ETS), decided to slash $10 million (20 percent) from the company’s budget for software development. “We’re going into a period that may or may not have robust revenue growth,” he says.

Watching Working Capital

For ETS, which hasn’t borrowed since 1998, paying close attention to working capital — the assets applied to operations — is even more critical. ETS promotes that awareness in business-unit leaders by basing their compensation partly on working-capital consumption. If a unit’s receivables are higher than a set threshold, a pro forma adjustment to profits is made for calculating compensation. “It represents the opportunity cost of having money housed in accounts receivable instead of cash,” Gatti says.

Higher working-capital costs are also receiving renewed attention at $14 billion World Fuel Services Corp., which sells to maritime and aviation customers. Rising oil prices could sting the company on its inventory carrying costs, just as its cash balance has dropped due to the acquisition of AVCard, a credit-card outfit. “We are very focused on ensuring we’re not carrying a penny more of inventory than we need to,” says CFO Ira Birns. As of the fourth quarter, the company’s inventory was $103 million, down $11 million from the prior period. That represents two days of sales.

But at the strategic-spending level, World Fuel is not retrenching. Last December it took the opportunity to refinance a bank credit facility on the same or better terms. “We felt that the bull lending market was overdue for a correction,” Birns says. “My father used to tell me that when it’s there in front of you, take it.” The company doubled the size of its existing facility to $475 million and extended it to 2012. Then, it turned around and tapped one-quarter of that facility to acquire gasoline and diesel distributor Texor Petroleum for $104 million.

Given that money is still relatively cheap, operating with borrowed assets still makes sense for some companies. Herman Miller Inc. plans to use a recently increased credit facility for any short-term operating cash needs. The $2 billion office-furniture maker upped its syndicated, five-year revolver by $100 million, to $250 million, says CFO Curt Pullen. “We have purposely worked down our cash balances,” Pullen says. “We are not keeping a lot of excess cash.”

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