Cash management is a broad term that refers to the collection, concentration, and disbursement of cash. It encompasses a company's level of liquidity, its management of cash balance, and its short-term investment strategies. In some ways, managing cash flow is the most important job of business managers. If at any time a company fails to pay an obligation when it is due because of the lack of cash, the company is insolvent. Insolvency is the primary reason firms go bankrupt. Obviously, the prospect of such a dire consequence should compel companies to manage their cash with care. Moreover, efficient cash management means more than just preventing bankruptcy. It improves the profitability and reduces the risk to which the firm is exposed.
Cash management is particularly important for new and growing businesses. As Jeffrey P. Davidson and Charles W. Dean indicated in their book Cash Traps, cash flow can be a problem even when a small business has numerous clients, offers a superior product to its customers, and enjoys a sterling reputation in its industry. Companies suffering from cash flow problems have no margin of safety in case of unanticipated expenses. They also may experience trouble in finding the funds for innovation or expansion. Finally, poor cash flow makes it difficult to hire and retain good employees.
It is only natural that major business expenses are incurred in the production of goods or the provision of services. In most cases, a business incurs such expenses before the corresponding payment is received from customers. In addition, employee salaries and other expenses drain considerable funds from most businesses. These factors make effective cash management an essential part of any business's financial planning. "Cash is the lifeblood of a [store]," wrote Richard Outcalt and Patricia Johnson in Playthings. "Without cash for inventory, payroll, and other expenses, an emergency is imminent."
When cash is received in exchange for products or services rendered, many small business owners, intent on growing their company and tamping down debt, spend most or all of these funds. But while such priorities are laudable, they should leave room for businesses to absorb lean financial times down the line. The key to successful cash management, therefore, lies in tabulating realistic projections, monitoring collections and disbursements, establishing effective billing and collection measures, and adhering to budgetary restrictions.
Cash collection systems aim to reduce the time it takes to collect the cash that is owed to a firm. Some of the sources of time delays are mail float, processing float, and bank float. Obviously, an envelope mailed by a customer containing payment to a supplier firm does not arrive at its destination instantly. Likewise, the payment is not processed and deposited into a bank account the moment it is received by the supplier firm. And finally, when the payment is deposited in the bank account oftentimes the bank does not give immediate availability to the funds. These three "floats" are time delays that add up quickly, and they can force struggling or new firms to find other sources of cash to pay their bills.
Cash management attempts, among other things, to decrease the length and impact of these "float" periods. A collection receipt point closer to the customer—perhaps with an outside third-party vendor to receive, process, and deposit the payment (check)—is one way to speed up the collection. The effectiveness of this method depends on the location of the customer; the size and schedule of their payments; the firm's method of collecting payment; the costs of processing payments; the time delays involved for mail, processing, and banking; and the prevailing interest rate that can be earned on excess funds. The most important element in ensuring good cash flow from customers, however, is establishing strong billing and collection practices.
Once the money has been collected, most firms then proceed to concentrate the cash into one center. The rationale for such a move is to have complete control of the cash and to provide greater investment opportunities with larger sums of money available as surplus. There are numerous mechanisms that can be employed to concentrate the cash, such as wire transfers, automated clearinghouse (ACH) transfers, and checks. The tradeoff is between cost and time.
Another aspect of cash management is knowing a company's optimal cash balance. There are a number of methods that try to determine this magical cash balance, which is the precise amount needed to minimize costs yet provide adequate liquidity to ensure bills are paid on time (hopefully with something left over for emergency purposes). One of the first steps in managing the cash balance is measuring liquidity, or the amount of money on hand to meet current obligations. There are numerous ways to measure this, including: the Cash to Total Assets ratio, the Current ratio (current assets divided by current liabilities), the Quick ratio (current assets less inventory, divided by current liabilities), and the Net Liquid Balance (cash plus marketable securities less short-term notes payable, divided by total assets). The higher the number generated by the liquidity measure, the greater the liquidity—and vice versa. However, there is a tradeoff between liquidity and profitability which discourages firms from having excessive liquidity.
Many small business experience cash flow difficulties, especially during their first years of operation. But entrepreneurs and managers can take steps to minimize the impact of such problems and help maintain the continued viability of the business. Suggested steps to address temporary cash flow problems include:
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Hertenstein, Julie H., and Sharon M. McKinnon. "Solving the Puzzle of the Cash Flow Statement." Business Horizons. January-February 1997.
Hill, Ned C. and William L. Sartoris. Short-Term Financial Management. New York: Macmillan, 1992.
Outcalt, Richard F., and Patricia Johnson. "Coping with a Cash Crunch." Playthings. March 1997.
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