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What is working capital?

Working capital is the lifeblood of every business. Yet many business owners aren’t aware of how much working capital they use day-to-day and don’t plan appropriately for times of seasonal demand.

And make no mistake – understanding working capital is critical for your business’s ongoing success, says Chartered Accountant Rod Fay, Director at Seacombe Services.

“Every business is going to get bumps and will be affected by various conditions,” he says.

“So how are you going to be able to cope with that if you don’t have a good understanding of your working capital and how cash flows through your business?”

The good news is that two simple formulas can help you determine this vital cash flow metric.

How to calculate working capital

In a perfect world, you would sell stock or provide a service one day and get paid for it at the same time.

If there were no lag between money out and money in, there would be no need to hold funds within your business to make the next sale or to cover expenses like wages, rent and tax.

In the real world, of course, every business needs a pool of cash on hand to bridge the gap.

This pool is the money available to fund day-to-day operations – known as working capital – and it’s the lifeblood of every business.

The concise definition of working capital, says Fay, is as follows:

Current assets – current liabilities = working capital

To break that down:

Current assets are things the business owns or has a claim on, and that can be rapidly turned into cash – think inventory and accounts receivable (‘current’ usually means within one year).

Current liabilities are obligations that will soon fall due – think short-term debt and accounts payable.

If the answer to your business’s current assets – current liabilities = working capital formula is positive (that is, your business has more current assets than current liabilities) your business has enough working capital to keep operating, even if conditions tighten up for a while.

“Every business is different, but the more positive the sum, the better your working capital,” Fay explains.

Of course, the amount of working capital a business needs varies across the year, so drill down to quarterly or even monthly figures to see the true picture.

Working capital calculation example

Imagine your business has $20,000 in cash and $50,000 in stock, and debtors owe you $50,000.

“These will generally be the three main components making up your business’s current assets, which in this case totals $120,000,” Fay says.

Next, you need to calculate the total owing to your creditors and short-term expenses. In this example, your accounts payable, payroll, taxes, monthly subscriptions and rent come to $100,000.

Fay says in simple terms you’ve got $120,000 worth of assets that are realisable into cash and $100,000 worth of liabilities.

“You will, therefore, have a surplus of $20,000 in cash,” he explains.

“But that working capital formula by itself is not the be-all and end-all. It’s not the panacea for understanding your business.”

Let’s take a look at another formula that can help give you more insight into your business’s working capital now.

More time needs more money

Another way to get insight into working capital is to calculate how many days it takes, on average, for the money that goes out to come back in.

This is known as the ‘operating cycle’ or ‘cash-conversion cycle’.

To calculate your business’s cash-conversion cycle, you need three numbers:

  1. Inventory days: How long stock sits on your shelf, or how long your business has to pay for labour and materials to create a saleable product.
  2. Debtor days: How long it takes to collect payment from your customers.
  3. Creditor days: How long your business can hold on to cash before it must pay suppliers.

Here’s the formula:

(Inventory days + debtor days) – creditor days = cash-conversion cycle

Cash-conversion cycle calculation example

(55 inventory days + 45 debtor days) – 30 creditor days = 70 days

In this example, the business owner waits 70 days for their outlays to turn back into cash.

But it’s just a guide. The cycle can blow out if, for example, sales suddenly slow down.

Alternatively, a smart business owner can also shorten the cycle by speeding up collections.

Fay adds that once you have calculated your cash-conversion cycle, you can work on shortening the period you’re out of pocket and plan your finance needs.

“Understanding how quickly you can get the conversion of your two major assets – your stock and debtors – is very, very important,” he says.

The typical cash-conversion cycle differs from one industry to another, so look for patterns and identify what the most successful businesses in each sector are doing right.

Zero in on working capital

By understanding your business’s working capital requirements, you can help shorten your cash-conversion cycle and plan for times of business stress.

If, after you’ve crunched the numbers, you fear your business may be a little short on working capital, rest assured there are finance options available.

Stress and good decision-making often don’t go hand-in-hand. Talk to a Prospa business lending specialist about how a line of credit can help minimise cash flow stress.

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The information in this post is provided for general information only and does not take into account your personal situation. You should consider whether the information is appropriate to your needs, and where appropriate, seek professional advice from financial, legal and taxation advisors. Although every effort has been made to verify the accuracy of the information as at the date of publication, Prospa, its officers, employees and agents disclaim all liability (except for any liability which by law cannot be excluded), for any error, inaccuracy, or omission from the information for any reason, including due to the passage of time, or any loss or damage suffered by any person directly or indirectly through relying on this information.

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