A growing number of suppliers are using their receivables as a source of liquidity to alleviate financial strains in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Maureen Sullivan, head of supply chain finance at Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG).
Receivables are legally enforceable claims for payment held by a business for the goods it supplies or services it renders that customers have ordered but not paid for. These claims usually take the form of invoices issued by the supplier and delivered to the buyer for payment within an agreed timeframe.
The Liquidity Challenge Facing Suppliers
“Like many companies, suppliers have been facing liquidity shortages following the COVID-19 outbreak,” Sullivan said. “In some cases, excess demand for certain goods has been overburdening suppliers’ production capacity and draining them of working capital. In other cases, lower demand for goods has been causing income shortfalls. And physical disruptions in the manufacturing or delivery of goods have been delaying payments.”
Sullivan added that cash-strapped suppliers in these situations cannot always afford to wait the full 60- or 90-day payment terms set with the buyers who acquire their goods — a timeframe that would deprive them of the money they need in the interim to sustain their operations.
Sullivan said that to shorten their cash conversion cycles, a growing number of suppliers are enlisting in supply-chain finance programs, which enable them to sell their receivables to a bank in exchange for immediate cash. The bank then collects payment from the buyer at the later date in accordance with the payment terms established between the buyer and the supplier. In this manner, suppliers gain quicker access to money they are owed — money that would otherwise be inefficiently suspended until collection is due — while buyers get the time they require to pay off their balances.
Growing Demand For Supply Chain Finance
Since the coronavirus outbreak, according to Sullivan, demand for supply chain finance programs has been rising among suppliers and buyers alike because of their interdependence.
“A lesson learned from previous financial crises is the need to maintain supply chain integrity by ensuring that suppliers have access to liquidity in order to produce goods,” Sullivan said. “Following the outbreak, we’ve seen suppliers enlisting in these programs and using cash from receivable conversions as working capital for manufacturing.”
As Sullivan pointed out, the sale of receivables provides suppliers with an alternative and efficient source of liquidity — particularly in this challenging environment — and helps them optimize the capital they use for day-to-day operations. They can then use their credit facilities to borrow additional money for financing purposes other than working capital.
Sullivan added that buyers are equally concerned about the solvency of their suppliers because their businesses are operationally and strategically reliant on a smoothly functioning supply chain with no interruption. She noted an increase in the number of buyers enlisting their suppliers in supply chain finance programs as a consequence of the pandemic.
A buyer-led program links a single buyer with multiple suppliers, automating transactions and tracking invoice approval and settlement processes — from initiation to completion — between the buyer and the supplier. In a buyer-led program, the buyer agrees to approve its suppliers’ invoices, which are then sent to a banking partner that may provide the supplier with early payment. Conversely, a supplier-led program links a single supplier with multiple buyers in a similar fashion.
The Cost of Hedging Against Supply Chain Disruptions
Sullivan cited two main ways for buyers to safeguard themselves against the potential failure of a supplier to deliver the goods they need: (1) holding more inventory and (2) working with a greater number of suppliers.
“A buyer could either stockpile a reserve of goods to be used in case of a supply shortage or expand its network of suppliers to reduce reliance on any given one,” Sullivan said. “However, both options can be expensive. There are storage costs for holding inventory. And the more suppliers a buyer uses, the fewer price efficiencies the buyer can achieve. As an illustrative example, distributing an order of 100 widgets across 10 suppliers would likely cost more per widget than consolidating the order from just one or two suppliers, who might be able to reduce the price per widget using economies of scale if they manufactured more of it.”
For these reasons, Sullivan said buyers place a premium on the individual solvency of each supplier. Yet she added that it is occasionally necessary to diversify suppliers by geography in case of regional disruptions having nothing to do with solvency.
“Certain buyers have faced supply shortages when factories in China were shut down as a result of the pandemic,” Sullivan said. “We believe they will reassess their dependence on any which region and create workarounds with other suppliers to avoid bottlenecks in similar future situations.”