Amy Goldstein, Managing Director, International Cash and Liquidity Management Sales, about the benefits of centralising USD in the United States and how it is often particularly compelling due to its status as an international trading currency and the high volume of cash involved.
Centralisation has been a key theme in corporate treasury for some years, with many corporations successfully operating regional centres to support particular geographies. Increasingly, however, we see a trend towards centralisation by currency. Corporate treasurers have created account structures to centralise critical balances by currency in the ‘home market’ for that currency. The benefits apply to every currency; however, the value proposition of centralising USD in the United States is often particularly compelling considering its widespread use as an international trading currency and the high volume of cash involved.
According to estimates by Capital Economics earlier this year, US companies are holding $2.5tr offshore: an increase of nearly 20% over the past two years, and equivalent to nearly 14% of GDP. In addition, non-US headquartered corporations, particularly from Asia, Africa and Latin America, frequently denominate and settle in USD. Given the scale of balances involved, and the ubiquity of the currency for world trade, optimising USD is critical for all companies operating internationally. Comparable value may also exist, for other major currencies such as EUR, GBP and JPY, depending on the materiality of balances and the nature of the organisation’s business model.
Keeping close to home
There are a variety of reasons why companies may consider centralising their USD (or other currency) balances in the currency home market.
- Liquidity management
Looking first at US-headquartered corporations; many larger companies have regional treasury centres to support cash and liquidity management, while activities such as group financing, FX management, investment etc. are more often located at headquarters. As a result, there can be significant benefits to centralising USD in the US: keeping USD cash pools and residual balances close at hand and in the same time zone while benefiting from later cut-off-times to meet investment deadlines. For non-US headquartered corporations there are investment and payment efficiency benefits of centralising USD.
Having centralised liquidity, investment options are deeper in the currency’s indigenous market, with more access to markets and liquidity. This allows treasurers to meet investment and risk objectives and potentially provide value generation. At the same time, treasurers can manage counterparty risk more precisely by maintaining central visibility and control over exposures.
- Payment and collection efficiency
There is also an opportunity to reduce costs of cross-border payments and collections, depending on the company’s supply chain, customer base and where suppliers are located. Cross-border flows are typically more expensive, take longer to settle. As value dating is sometimes unpredictable, companies often need to maintain a higher cash buffer or put in place larger than necessary intra-day overdraft lines. Reconciliation of incoming customer flows can also be more time and labour-intensive as remittance data is frequently omitted or truncated as part of the cross-border payment process. In contrast, by centralising a currency in its home market, the number of cross-border payments and collections can be reduced, allowing companies to leverage local clearing systems that result in reduced costs, improved reconciliation and greater efficiency.
Managing the pressure
Given the pressure on treasury to ‘do more with less’, centralising funds on a currency basis can be an attractive proposition. Furthermore, the benefits of doing so are not limited to cash, liquidity and investment. For example, treasurers face a range of risk and regulatory challenges, including event risk, such as bank exits from certain product lines or markets. Managing the outcomes of this can be very taxing for corporate treasury and creates business continuity risk. Holding currency nearby at lower costs with access to the depth and breadth of the home market ensures that companies are best positioned to deal with market events. KYC requirements can also be complex and onerous, with differences in requirements between banks and markets, so centralising currencies into a single geographic location and therefore simplifying global account structures can reduce the compliance burden.
One question, however, is why treasurers have not chosen to centralise cash balances into each currency’s home market in the past. One reason is perhaps that the opportunity to do so has not always been clear. For example, in Europe, while the euro as a single currency has existed since 1999, the Eurozone effectively comprised multiple domestic markets with the same currency until the introduction of SEPA (Single Euro Payments Area). Therefore there were often either actual or perceived market or regulatory barriers to centralisation. Since SEPA payment instruments have replaced most domestic payment types, with a harmonised legal framework, more companies operating in different euro-based countries are now centralising euros into a single location. Although some domestic payment instruments remain and clearing systems in each European country have different characteristics, such as cut off and settlement times, these should not result in treasurers opting to fragment euro cash balances.
Many US companies believe that centralising funds held by offshore entities into the US creates a tax event. There are two areas of focus to consider here: co-mingling of funds and opening non-resident accounts on a stand-alone basis. Co-mingling of funds between entities registered in different jurisdictions creates a taxable event; the key is to confirm what that taxable event entails, be it double taxation treaties, thin-capitalisation rules or other issues. The opening of USD non-resident accounts in the US on a stand-alone basis is less clear and open to interpretation. There is corporate treasury precedence for both. Whenever considering these options, it is critical always to obtain independent expert tax advice.
Every country is subject to its own tax rules, so a centralised currency model cannot simply be replicated for every currency. Consequently, treasurers need to engage tax and legal departments, and their banking and other third party providers to understand the opportunities and benefits in each case. This includes exploring the way in which currency flows and exposures are currently managed, including payment and collection instruments used, the financing and investment products in place, and the applicable costs. The home market opportunities can then be explored, including optimal payment, financing and investment instruments, and any cost, liquidity or risk management advantages. This also involves looking at where customers and suppliers are located, and the potential impact on them.
Treasurers need to anticipate and be prepared for disruptive events, and those that plan ahead by minimising risk in key currencies and maintaining centralised, flexible banking and treasury structures are likely to weather these events most successfully. Visibility and control over major balances is essential through good times and bad, and centralising cash in the currency home market can be a very valuable way of achieving this. There are a number of considerations to take into account, looking end-to-end across the supply chain, in which banks and service providers can offer advice and expertise. Investment in this process can reap considerable benefits, allowing treasury to increase its value to the enterprise and manage major currency balances cost- and risk-efficiently.
(Source: BNP Paribas Cash Management)
How to automatically get the best exchange rate
Companies working with several currencies often want to avoid exchange rate risks and administrative hassle. That is why the bank has come up with a behind-the-scenes solution: the 'embedded FX' service.
Embedded FX? You don't even need to remember the name, because the system works automatically, without you even having to think about it. FX doesn't stand for Hollywood-style special effects, but for Foreign Exchange, sometimes referred to as Cross Currency. You are guaranteed to come across this at some point if you make international payments, since they are not always executed in the currency of the debit account (referred to as 'mono-currency payments'). Sometimes, the currencies of the accounts the payment is being debited from or credited to may not be the same. These are FX payments. During such payments, an exchange takes place: one currency is sold and another bought, without you having to lift a finger.
The volumes on the FX market might be greater than you'd think. To put it plainly: they are enormous. Every day, more than 5 trillion American dollars are traded. That is 5000 billion American dollars, more than the volume involved in global equities trading...in a single day. The FX market operates day and night, and only closes over the weekend from 10 pm on Friday until 10 pm on Sunday.
Wim Grosemans (Head of Product Management Payments and Receivables at the BNP Paribas Cash Management Competence Center):
'On the FX market, banks essentially play the role of a wholesaler: they buy and sell currencies on the international market, and then sell them on to the customer with a mark-up. BNP Paribas is one of the biggest players, ranking among the global top ten. There is no official market rate in this over-the-counter market. Each bank determines the rate at which it wants to buy and sell currencies itself. Unofficial market rates can be found in publications from a number of public institutions (such as the European Central Bank) and private organisations (Reuters, Bloomberg etc.). These are based on the average rate offered by a number of major banks.'
The rate is always determined per currency pair, for example the euro versus the American dollar: EUR/USD = 1.1119. The most traded pair is EUR/USD, which represents 25% of daily trade. Second on the list is the pair American dollar/Japanese yen
(USD/JPY) with 18%, with British pound/American dollar (GBP/USD) coming in third at 9%.
Alwin Vande Loock (Product Marketing Manager Payments and Receivables at the BNP Paribas Cash Management Competence Center):
'As for the rate, banks offer a number of options. The rate can be a live market rate that is continuously being updated. The EUR/USD rate, for example, is adjusted more than 50 times per second. Another option is a daily rate. In this case, a rate is offered that will apply for a certain period.'
For many companies, all of this hassle with exchange rates is a real headache. Too complex, too expensive in terms of administrative costs and too many exchange rate risks. For those customers, banks have a solution: embedded FX.
Wim Grosemans (Head of Product Management Payments and Receivables at the BNP Paribas Cash Management Competence Center):
'When you make a payment in a currency you do not hold an account in, the bank will immediately retrieve a good exchange rate from its colleagues in the dealing room of the Global Markets department. The rate is usually confirmed within one hour after the customer has sent the payment. Unless large amounts are being transferred, the entire process is automatic. The IT systems used are much more efficient than they were just a few years ago, meaning that the bank is less exposed to volatility and can offer its customers a competitive rate. Embedded FX is an efficient and simple alternative for anyone who doesn't want to hold accounts in different currencies and run the exchange rate risks that entails. For the customer, it no longer matters what currency they use: the process is exactly the same. What's more, it gives them peace of mind, because they know that they'll always get a great rate.'
Working capital: far more than just an accounting term
Working capital, also known as net operating capital, presents a picture of the operational liquidity of a business. But there is more to it than meets the eye.
The success of a business actually depends to a significant extent on how it deals with its working capital needs.
The difference between working capital and working capital needs
Within the financial analysis, working capital is just one of the indicators that present a picture of the operational liquidity of a business. It not only affects general management, but also the access to bank credit or the valuation of the business, for example. This is calculated as follows:
Equity capital and other resources in the long term - fixed assets
This allows you to see whether sufficient long-term funds are available to finance the production chain. Where there is a positive result that is indeed the case, whereas with a negative result it is actually the production chain that must safeguard the long-term financing.
It is therefore useful to calculate the working capital needs as well:
Current assets (excluding cash) - current liabilities (excluding financial liabilities)
The result shows the amount the business needs in order to finance its production chain, and may be both positive and negative:
- where working capital needs are positive, the commercial debts no longer cover the short-term assets (excluding the financial). In that case, a business can rely on its working capital. If this is insufficient, it will need additional financing for its operational cycle in the short term;
- where working capital needs are negative, a business can meet its short-term liabilities without any problem. Nevertheless, it is advisable to reduce working capital needs (further).
In short, working capital presents a picture of the operational liquidity of a business, whereas working capital needs represent the amount the business needs in order to finance its production chain.
In other words, it boils down to limiting working capital needs as far as possible, thus increasing liquidity. This is crucial, especially in times of economic or financial difficulty. After all, customers tend to pay later then, while your stocks are increasing and your suppliers are imposing stricter payment terms. As a result, more and more working capital gets 'frozen' in your operating cycle, precisely when circumstances make it more difficult to attract additional financing.
Optimising working capital is not only a question of long-term considerations. In the short term, too, the business can release cash that is not being used optimally, or is being used unnecessarily, more specifically in the purchasing, production and sales processes within the operating cycle.
The working capital and the working capital needs must, above all, be geared effectively to each other. The working capital needs must be structurally less than the working capital itself, preferably with an extra buffer. However, there is no mathematical truth regarding the amount of working capital and working capital needs. Sector, activity and business model can affect this, for example.
Cover yourself before embarking on a quest for global markets
Any company that begins to trade abroad is buying into the idea that it can conquer brand new markets, but also that new risks are an inevitability. And although the risks are often worth taking, informed directors will evaluate the danger in order to be better prepared.
In love, as in business, distance makes things more complicated. However, in an increasingly globalised world, expanding your business activity into other countries remains essential – especially in an export-oriented country like Belgium. This strategic challenge demands an appropriate approach that will allow the company to move into new territory successfully. Whether internationalisation takes a physical or virtual form, a number of risks of a new type will join those you are already managing at local level, including hazards associated with transportation, exchange rate risks, poor knowledge of regional regulations, cultural or ethical "gaps", and difficulties arising from unpaid sums and recovering these abroad, etc. To minimise the impact on your business, take precautions and correctly signpost the pathway separating you from your international customers.
Where should you venture to?
If you have identified a particular continent or country of interest, you have presumably spotted obvious commercial benefits. You know your business and are convinced that this move can work well. But before you take the plunge, a step back is necessary so that you can analyse the country-related risks: from the geopolitical context (an embargo would be disastrous for your plans) to the political and socio-economic situation on the ground. It is not uncommon, for example, for elections to have a destabilising effect on the climate of a nation.
Do you have sufficient local knowledge?
This question may appear trivial at first, but culture and traditions have a major influence on the way trade is conducted – even in a globalised world. Beyond market expectations and the chances your product has of success, it is imperative to grasp the cultural differences that could have an impact on your business. A Japanese company does not take the same approach as its equivalent in Chile. Do not hesitate to recruit a trustworthy consultant who fully understands the region.
Have you planned for the worst?
This piece of advice is highly pertinent when the country in question uses a currency other than the euro because foreign exchange rates fluctuate continuously, with the result that you could be obliged to convert money according to less favourable terms than those initially expected. Adopt an effective foreign exchange policy (stabilise your profit margins, control your cash flow, mitigate potential adverse effects, etc.) and employ hedging techniques that best suit your situation.
How do you evaluate your international customers?
Once you have analysed the context, drop down a level to gauge the reliability of your customer in terms of their financial situation and history (e.g. of making payments), their degree of solvency, etc. While such research may not be simple, it is decisive in order to prevent payment defaults that can do enormous harm. If in doubt, take out an appropriate insurance policy to protect yourself. Paying for this could prevent you from becoming embroiled in perilous (not to mention costly) recovery action abroad. Should you end up in a crisis situation, you should ideally obtain local support in the country. Finally, be aware that in the EU, debt recovery is simplified by the European Payment Order procedure.
Have you adequately adapted the tools you use?
One of the greatest risks of international trade is transportation (loss, theft, accidents, seizures, contamination, etc.) in addition to customs formalities. Once dispatched, the goods are no longer within your control, and so you must ensure your carriers accept adequate liability. This means, for example, having suitable insurance cover, but also anticipating the multitude of procedures to be launched in any dispute. More generally, you will need to review and adapt the contracts you have with transport companies, as well as your international customers. Ensure you clearly set out the terms and conditions that apply (payment deadlines, exchange rates, compensation, etc.) and include realistic clauses that safeguard your own interests.
Cash continues to charm Europeans
Contrary to widespread belief, on the continent, cash is here to stay. This is according to the findings of an ECB study. Despite significant geographic disparities, euro area consumers still hugely favour using cash to make low-value purchases.
At the end of 2017 the European Central Bank (ECB) published an extensive study on the payment habits of European citizens from the 19 euro area countries. The aim? To shed light on consumers' payment behaviour at points of sale, particularly concerning the use of cash, bank cards and other payment instruments. The main result of the study was that cash continues to reign supreme, as it represents 79% of all transactions carried out and 54% of the total value of exchanges. Bank cards come in second (19% of transactions and 39% of value). However, the report — which is based on data from 2016, segmented by country, but also by other criteria, such as type, age and level of education — highlights significant geographic disparities.
Cash in the south? Not necessarily!
More than 124 billion payments were made in cash, compared to 30 billion by card and 3 billion using other instruments (cheque, bank transfer, smartphone, etc.). Contrary to what you might think, southern European countries are not the only ones favouring cash, particularly in terms of the number of transactions. In fact, Germany, Austria and Slovenia achieve record levels with at least 80% of transactions being made in cash. In terms of value, Greece, Cyprus and Malta come out on top, with more than 70% of amounts settled in cash at points of sale. And at the other end of the spectrum? The Netherlands, Estonia and Finland, where the majority of purchases are made by card. France, Luxembourg and Belgium join these countries, where only the lowest payment amounts are made using cash (33% or less).
No significant profile type
The ECB study also sheds light on the demographic characteristics of European consumers who prefer cash to other payment methods, even though there are not really any significant differences. Nevertheless, men aged over 40 of all levels of education take the crown. In fact, women are more likely to use bank cards; much like the younger generations (under 40), except for 18 to 24-year-olds (probably because there are more students of this age). More surprisingly, a large proportion of consumers say that they prefer bank cards to cash – information that is contradictory to what this analysis has found. The explanation provided by the ECB is that those surveyed tend to forget low-value payments and only think about the larger payments. However, 81% of transactions observed in 2016 involved values below €25 for the purchase of daily consumer goods, while only 8% were above €50.
Access to card payments does not explain everything
According to the report, European consumers have rather high access to card payments on average (almost 72%). However, the level of card support at points of sale does not explain the huge use of cash. Nevertheless, an undeniable correlation can be determined for countries where retail chains are less likely to accept card payments, such as Greece, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Slovakia and Malta – all of which are below the European average. Another interesting element is the low level of contactless payment provision throughout Europe. However, for most European consumers, the speed of the transaction is one of the most decisive criteria when deciding on a payment method. No doubt the increase of cards equipped with contactless technology — which will certainly speed up transactions — will compete with the use of cash...