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What is Working Capital and Why Does it Matter?

Michelle Calkins
Posted by Michelle Calkins on Oct 26, 2023 3:38:44 PM

Find the right level of working capital to grow a healthy business 

Working Capital is an important financial metric for understanding your company’s operating liquidity (the ability to convert your assets into cash for the purpose of paying the bills). Knowing your amount of working capital can also guide your inventory management strategies, leading to smarter buying decisions. 

By the book, the definition of working capital is: 

Working Capital = Current AssetsCurrent Liabilities  

In other words, it’s the cash you have left over once all payments due to you are collected and your bills are paid. 

If your company maintains an inventory of goods that you sell to your customers, the formula can be expanded to: 

Inventory Value (value of items for sale and items used to make goods for sale) 

+ Receivables from Customers (cash owed to the company for sales) 

+ Rebates from Suppliers (Discounts for buying a certain value, quantity, or within a certain timeframe) 

– Payables to Suppliers (cost of inventory) 

= Working Capital. 

What’s considered a healthy working capital varies from industry to industry – but in theory it should be as low as possible. 

A low working capital is a strong indicator that your company is finding the right balance between what you have on your shelves, the revenue you are generating, the investments you are making in your future, and the debts you owe. 

A high working capital can be a sign your business is booming, but it can also mean you’re missing investment and growth opportunities. 

Another Insightful Approach 

In the business world, working capital is usually measured not by the cash figure of assets minus liabilities but by what’s known as your current ratio, which is: 

Current Ratio = Current Assets / Current Liabilities  

According to Investopedia, your business should aim for a current ratio between 2.0 to 1.2, but this varies by industry; here are some average current ratios for industries you’re likely in, according to CSIMarket: 

  • Internet, Mail Order, & Online Shops: 1.12 
  • Wholesale: 1.29 
  • Food Processing: 1.26 
  • Miscellaneous Manufacturing: 1.55 

A ratio higher than 2 is a sign that you’re not properly using your funds – either in the form of carrying too much inventory or not capitalizing on extra cash by investing in growing your business, while a ratio lower than 2 may make it difficult to find the cash you’ll need to pay your suppliers and other debts. 

The metric changes as quickly as you make sales, pay suppliers, or increase your inventory – but by understanding how the decisions you make affect it, you can take control of your working capital instead of letting it control you. 

Here are some aspects of your operations to consider as you create your working capital management strategy: 

Turn Down Supplier Discounts 

Just say no (sometimes)! Avoid the temptation to take advantage of supplier discounts when they mean ordering more inventory than you need right now. 

Sure, you could buy three times the materials to reduce your per item cost by 75%. But unless you can actually sell that inventory, you risk filling your shelves with stuff that can quickly become obsolete, broken, or buried. 

By collecting data to understand what your customers want and when, you can better decide when it’s the right time to take advantage of these discounts. 

Achieve Negative Working Capital 

There are two ways to look at negative working capital – one way is a signal of financial distress for a company indicating you have spent more money than you have. 

A more positive definition involves a strategy that requires careful thought and planning. 

By setting terms of payment with your suppliers that give you enough time to collect from your customers before you pay for the raw materials of the items you sold – you are, in essence, borrowing cash from your suppliers to free up more money for your day-to-day operations. 

This strategy requires an in-depth understanding of your customer demand cycles to ensure it's possible to sell all your inventory and collect from your customers prior to your invoice due dates. 

Negotiate your payment terms with your own billing cycle in mind. Be sure to give yourself an overlap period where you have cash payments in the bank but no invoices due for the products and materials you just sold. 

For example, let’s say you made $100 in sales for product X and have collected all payments due from your customers. 

You owe your suppliers $50 for the raw goods you used to make product X, but the invoice isn’t due for another two weeks. 

Because working capital only factors in supplier payments that are currently due, your working capital is $100 ahead instead of only $50 – which is what it would be if you had to pay your supplier at the same time you collected payment. 

Maintaining a negative working capital balance frees up cash to take advantage of opportunities to spend money on growing your business and reducing debts. 

Control Inventory Levels 

Inventory reduction plays a major role in achieving an ideal working capital – the less inventory on hand, the less you owe to suppliers, tipping your working capital in your favor. 

Take control of your inventory levels by putting your sales and purchasing history data to work, helping you predict the optimal levels of inventory necessary to operate. 

The goal is to use that data to find the right balance between demand, production, and ordering raw materials or stock. 

Order too much and you’ve tied up cash resources in products or materials that aren’t making you money. Purchase too little and now you run the risk of losing sales to your competitors who do have the product available for sale. 

If this all seems like an elaborate guessing game, you’re not alone. Learn more about inventory reduction in our earlier post. From “lead times” to “just-in-time,” it covers the basics you need to know to get started. 

Find the Balance, Achieve Results 

Businesses of any size can find a healthy balance of inventory, taking advantage of supplier discounts, and payment cycles by leveraging inventory management software that helps automate processes and track inventory and costs in real time.  


Topics: Financial Advisory


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