When Treasury Meets Trade

Treasury processes and trade finance were once seen as disparate activities. Corporations have tended to regard business-to-business (B2B) invoice processing and accounts payable (A/P) payment processing as a wholly separate activity to the more complex, cross-border trade finance side of the business, which primarily relied on instruments such as letters of credit (L/Cs) and documentary collections. As a result, as treasury and A/P teams worked to drive paper from the procure-to-pay (P2P) process through initiatives such as electronic invoicing (e-invoicing) and electronic payments (e-payments), this was primarily seen as a treasury-centric exercise in processing cost efficiency.

Meanwhile, trade finance paper-to-electronic initiatives were viewed as a means to achieve greater levels of assurance about payments and help mitigate the associated risks by eliminating paper and providing more visibility into import and export transactions. With notable exceptions such as Asia, where treasury and trade have long been one conversation, treasury and trade historically have been viewed as distinct by corporations, as well as by banks, which employed separate treasury and trade experts and solutions for each of these areas.

Where those silos have existed in the past, the picture is now changing rapidly. In recent years, the argument for taking an integrated approach to treasury and trade has grown stronger as a number of trends within the market have combined to make the holistic approach more attractive. Consequently, corporations, banks and technology providers are increasingly looking at ways of bringing these areas together. A significant amount of progress has already been made.

The Road to Convergence

As open account trade continues to replace the use of L/Cs, companies, which in the past might have taken a separate approach to treasury and trade, have started to revisit this division. As a result, in many companies the gulf between treasury and trade has narrowed, or closed completely, blurring the lines between each through the lens of a combined working capital conversation. Banks have responded to this trend by building out their P2P processing, payment (cards and traditional payments), and financing business designed for open account trading, complimenting traditional trade to create a clear convergence.

The global financial crisis has acted as another important catalyst. The truth of the old refrain ‘cash is king’ has never been felt more keenly: since the availability of credit tightened in 2008, corporations have increasingly reassessed their own processes to find ways to free up cash and thereby reduce their funding needs. After the crisis, real-time visibility has become a must-have for treasurers and chief financial officers (CFOs). To achieve this, data cannot be locked in different silos at the corporate or at the bank. Businesses are increasingly starting to integrate financial and physical supply chain data in a consolidated view to increase visibility and optimise their cash position.

More recently, many companies have increased cash reserves and are looking for short-term, lower risk means to increase their returns. As a result, the focus on working capital has become increasingly important for senior-level executives, pushing cash flow strategy even higher up the corporate agenda.

There are three ways in which companies can improve the cash conversion cycle:

  1. Reduce days sales outstanding (DSO).
  2. Increase days payable outstanding (DPO).
  3. Reduce days sales of inventory (DSI).

In other words: get paid sooner, pay suppliers later and hold inventory for less time. Companies have been looking at ways to tackle all of these areas in order to free up idle cash or maximise their return on investment of cash reserves.

Meanwhile, the issue of vendor health has been brought into sharper focus by the economic downturn. With some suppliers struggling to secure consistent, cost-effective access to working capital, companies have increasingly realised that their business model is only as secure as the weakest of their strategic vendors. Consequently, when companies are looking to improve their working capital position, they are increasingly taking into account the health of their key vendors and seeking ways to support their working capital needs – a trend that transcends both traditional treasury and trade. It is also important to take an end-to-end view of working capital needs, as almost all buyers are ultimately suppliers as you look downstream to the final consumer.

Two Become One

In light of these trends – the growing focus on optimising cash flow and the health of suppliers – the conditions are right for two initiatives in particular to take a central role in facilitating the convergence of treasury and trade.

The first of these trends is e-invoicing. It is positioned right where treasury and trade intersect. It can deliver internal cost benefits and process efficiencies and, when used to best advantage, it can strengthen the company’s trading relationships with its counterparties. This topic has been attracting attention for a number of years now and looks at last to be becoming more mainstream, particularly among larger corporations. Companies are increasingly recognising that e-invoicing can offer cash flow visibility and working capital advantages beyond the obvious benefits of saving processing time and costs.

Notably the approaches taken to e-invoicing commonly differ between larger corporates, which tend to use enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and may opt for a home-grown e-invoicing program, and mid-market corporates, which are more likely to be looking for a turnkey service provider. A driver for increased adoption of e-invoicing is its recognition as a valuable working capital tool, specifically in optimising terms management through early payment discounts. For example, a supplier offering 2%/10 net 30 payment terms (i.e. offering a 2% discount for payment within 10 days instead of 30) equates to an effective annual interest rate of 36%.

This is a highly attractive opportunity for corporations. The reality, however, is that for many turning an invoice around within 10 days is simply not achievable unless processes are streamlined and automated. A recent study noted improving terms management as a near-term strategic business priority, but cited the inability to timely process an invoice as the number one obstacle to overcome. While technology is certainly helping the business adoption, the reality is that 80-90% of B2B invoices are still handled on paper.

The main challenges to overcome are vendor adoption (the ability for vendors to send e-invoices), competing internal initiatives, and business process reengineering. Related to vendor adoption is the need to provide flexible connectivity – via proprietary host-to-host and SWIFT channels – to all parties in the ecosystem (buyers, suppliers, freight-forwarders/third party logistics providers, and the bank) to enable electronic processing. The bank then in turn provides full treasury and trade access through a working capital portal that delivers end-to-end transaction initiation/visibility to treasury, trade, foreign exchange (FX), electronic/card payments, and short-term liquidity and debt.

However, full connectivity to a critical mass of parties in the value chain will take years to achieve. An attractive transitional solution to overcome vendor adoption is to receive paper invoices and convert them to electronic data and images to automate the downstream workflow and approval process. The business case for change is compelling: in Europe alone, a recent study cited €500bn of working capital unnecessarily tied up in the top 1000 corporates due to the legacy paper environment.

Linking the Chain

A second market force combining treasury and trade, which strengthens the e-invoicing value proposition for both buyer and supplier, is supply chain finance (SCF) and invoice discounting. Whereas e-invoicing is an example of how treasury-focused technology can have a working capital impact, SCF brings working capital optimisation to the next level. Both buyer and seller-driven, invoice discounting is a topic which has its roots in trade finance techniques. Both SCF and invoice discounting can have a major impact on the transactional relationships more traditionally seen as part of treasury.

Invoice discounting and SCF can be buyer or seller driven, and can be bank-funded or buyer-funded. In all cases, they accomplish the same goal of allowing the supplier to finance receivables at favourable terms, providing sustained access to needed working capital. Such programmes can be deployed to offset the impact of increasing the payment terms offered by the buyer, and can provide favourable balance sheet treatment. Inventory financing can round out the opportunity and includes warehouse and inventory-in-transit financing to optimise just-in-time inventory management and financing. Linking invoice discounting or SCF with e-invoicing delivers an even more compelling business case for vendors to adopt both.

While e-invoicing is not a prerequisite for a SCF programme, they are complimentary. Combining both drives efficiency and value to parties on both sides of the transaction, and optimises cash flow visibility and working capital management. For financial institutions and technology providers, bundling e-invoicing together with financing solutions, such as SCF, receivables finance, inventory financing or distributor financing delivers a more powerful solution to the market. Winners in this space will deliver a full-service, treasury and trade solution: the technology platform, vendor segmentation and onboarding, plus ongoing service support.

Making the Move

So far, so good, but what does the convergence of treasury and trade look like in practical terms? Where financial institutions are concerned, the first step is to provide working capital experts who are able to speak to the corporation about maximising the cash conversion cycle for local and global transactions, whether that involves extending DPO and/or reducing DSO, and whether the solution is based on L/C or open account payment terms.

The second component is making sure that the solutions are developed in an integrated way but offered as modules based on a corporation’s needs. Bringing together treasury and trade includes both products and channels, delivering a unified treasury and trade view as part of the same ecosystem. Practically speaking, a solution must provide visibility to buyers and suppliers from purchase order or L/C inception, through to final settlement for processing and financing.

For corporations, adopting a combined treasury and trade solution is not without its challenges. More than ever before, treasurers today have the opportunity to make a significant impact to the company’s bottom line. As the definition of a payment event moves beyond the confines of the actual payment to a broader, purchase
order-to-pay (O2P) scope, the treasurer is taking on a broader role in managing this area. Where working capital solutions are concerned, the impact of the solution goes beyond treasury and A/P to a number of areas such as technology, ecommerce, and procurement, creating a complex internal set of stakeholders.

When looking to effectively position such a project internally, the treasurer will be competing for organisation focus and investment dollars. Understanding how a successfully deployed e-invoicing and financing solution aligns with corporate strategy, achieves working capital goals, and benefits each of the stakeholders is critical to gaining widespread, senior-level support to get the project off the ground. Key to getting buy-in is the ability to quantify the benefits of the solution being considered. Banks have a role to play in helping the treasurer to quantify and define the business case. Projects should be able to demonstrate a substantial return on investment, and one that can be measured in months rather than years.

The Future

The increasingly global supply chain, movement to open account trading, and focus on working capital optimisation continue to drive the importance of the treasury and trade conversation. The more recent dynamic of assisting corporates to maximise returns of short-term cash further strengthens the linkage between treasury, trade, and liquidity. Increasingly, companies, banks and technology providers are combining e-invoicing, e-payments and SCF/invoice discounting programmes to address client demands. Additionally, they recognise the need to deliver as trusted advisors, helping corporations develop the internal business case for change.

The business case for change is compelling, and treasury and trade convergence is happening now. Examples of companies approaching the efficient frontier in working capital are becoming more commonplace. Deploying e-invoicing and financing solutions as a means to achieve working capital goals will be a requirement to achieve a global competitive advantage.

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