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Virtual Accounts Help Treasury and Accounting Bridge Multiple ERPs 

The advantages of using virtual accounts for accounting and reconciliation across ERPs.

A member at a recent NeuGroup meeting described his company’s pilot initiatives with its primary transaction banks in Europe to roll out virtual accounts (VAs).

  • Treasury is doing the projects in partnership with accounting and are aimed at reducing the all-in cost of account reconciliation, cash application and account maintenance—which EY has estimated at about $4,000 per account—while also improving liquidity access and management.

The advantages of using virtual accounts for accounting and reconciliation across ERPs.

A member at a recent NeuGroup meeting described his company’s pilot initiatives with its primary transaction banks in Europe to roll out virtual accounts (VAs).

  • Treasury is doing the projects in partnership with accounting and are aimed at reducing the all-in cost of account reconciliation, cash application and account maintenance—which EY has estimated at about $4,000 per account—while also improving liquidity access and management.

Tangible benefits. The VA advantages are even more tangible for the member’s company, because of recent large acquisitions that have resulted in the company operating multiple enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.

  • VAs allow them to identify payments and separate account statements, helping to automate posting and reconciliation across various systems.
  • Physical accounts reside in one ERP, and VAs allow for more seamless reconciliation in the other.

Another member with as many as 70 ERP instances noted that his company was also looking into VAs to help with reconciliation and cash consolidation in conjunction with its cash pools.

  • The company may begin by using internal dummy, subledger accounts in the general ledger (GL) vs. VAs.

VAs vs. subledgers. This prompted a debate on the merits of VAs vs subledger accounts in the ERP or even the treasury management system (TMS).

  • “Replicating real bank accounts with virtual accounts was deemed the easier sell to accounting and other functions, since you can get the whole account infrastructure, MT940 reports from SWIFT included,” one member noted.
  • You can also establish clear account ownership with VAs to do the reconciliation.

Reporting benefits. Mark Smith, head of global liquidity at Goldman Sachs’ newly launched transaction banking unit offering Virtual Integrated Accounts, concurs that the benefits of the reporting capability of VAs have helped fuel their growth among corporates.

  • A key advantage to a VA is the unique identifier assigned to each incoming receipt and outgoing payment so that the bank’s VA solution can attribute it to the correct VA, and in turn the bank account with which it is associated.
  • These identifiers can be simple reference numbers, or they can be configured as a clearly-recognized account number, such as an International Bank Account Number or IBAN, so a payment instruction need only contain the VA identifier to be automatically posted and reconciled across associated physical and VAs.

Tax concerns. While accounting can be easily sold on VAs, tax departments are more leery.  

  • Several companies reported tax being concerned about assigning VAs to multiple entities, for example, which would help transform pay-on-behalf-of and receive-on-behalf-on structures and allow in-house banks to fully leverage them.
  • To work around this, treasury must get tax comfortable with affiliates using VAs with the parent or treasury center like they would an intercompany ledger.
  • To do that, they must properly organize their payment and receipt structure in the centralized entity.
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Cost-Cutting Corporates Need to Factor in ROI of Cybersecurity

Quantifying the value of cyber defenses as some companies look to cut costs amid COVID.
 
Cybersecurity is a major concern for NeuGroup member companies, and the pandemic has forced them to pay more attention to the risks of having so many people in finance roles working from home as the push for accelerated automation and digitalization grows.

  • At the same time, COVID-19 has also pushed companies to tighten their belts. But cutting spending on cyber defenses looks like a potentially costly mistake.

Quantifying the value of cyber defenses as some companies look to cut costs amid COVID.
 
Cybersecurity is a major concern for NeuGroup member companies, and the pandemic has forced them to pay more attention to the risks of having so many people in finance roles working from home as the push for accelerated automation and digitalization grows.

  • At the same time, COVID-19 has also pushed companies to tighten their belts. But cutting spending on cyber defenses looks like a potentially costly mistake. 

Return on investment. A recent survey of more than 1,000 companies globally by ESI ThoughtLab found that investing in cyber defenses provides double-digit returns on investment (ROI)—179% on average. The ROI analysis is based on how cybersecurity investments change a firm’s expected losses.

  • Training and improving staff skills, recruiting specialists and appropriately compensating cybersecurity staff provided the biggest bang for the buck, with an ROI of 271%.
  • “One of the things we found from the study is that the investment in people results in the highest decline in the probability of a breach,” said Davis Hake, co-founder of Arceo.ai, which specializes in cyber-risk analytics, who was on the survey’s advisory board.
  • The study found significant ROI from investments in cybersecurity-related processes and procedures (156%) and technology (129%). 

Costs and COVID. Cybersecurity—like treasury—is often considered a cost center, so cost cuts may be imminent.

  • The ESI study notes, “Our interviews during the pandemic show a divergence of views, with some companies, particularly those in hard-hit areas like retail and hospitality, expecting significant budget cuts, and others foreseeing increases to support more ambitious digital transformation plans.”
  • Research firm Gartner recently estimated that companies’ spending on protecting their information from cyberattacks will increase by 2.4% in 2020, down significantly from the 8.7% growth it forecasted in December 2019, as a result of the pandemic. 

The value of cyber insurance. Six in 10 respondents plan to spend more on cyber insurance over the next two years, the survey found. And of those firms most advanced in cybersecurity effectiveness and compliance—which ESI calls cybersecurity leaders—57% have coverage over $10 million, compared to 30% of non-leaders.

  • Mr. Hake, who is also an adjunct professor of cyber-risk management at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “I talk to my students about this—when you you look at the price per dollar, insurance is one of the best investments you can make from a financial perspective.” 

Cybersecurity leaders. ESI determined leaders by analyzing responding companies’ adherence to the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, success in thwarting actual cyberattacks, and the Verizon Business Cyber Risk Monitoring Tool, based on publicly available data from Bitsight and Verizon’s own data breach investigations.

  • Only 64 of 151 companies classified as leaders in NIST compliance are advanced in cybersecurity effectiveness, the survey found, while leaders adapt the framework to business goals, strategies and the company’s individual risk profile.
  • Leaders make cybersecurity hygiene a top priority and do more frequent backup restoration drills.
  • Leaders are more likely to make cybersecurity a shared responsibility, often between the CIO and CISO, and they report to the CEO, COO or the board.
  • Eight out of 10 leading companies conduct cyber-risk scenario analysis, assess the financial impact of risk events, and measure the impact of mechanisms to mitigate risk.
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Exploring Cashforce’s Forecasting Solution, Among Others

Bottoms-up, top-down, ERP or bank statments?

During a recent discussion about cash forecasting at NeuGroup’s Global Cash and Banking Group, one member asked if any of her peers had done demos of solutions from Cashforce.

  • Another member said his company had reached the point where Cashforce is “going demo something” once an NDA is in place. “We have found them to be very open-minded,” the member said.
  • That’s important because his company has decided it does not want a forecasting system that relies on bottom-up analysis of data sourced from ERPs, in part because the company has “so many” different ERP systems and is “looking for an  AI, robotics approach” using top-down analysis.
  • He said that Cashforce has “been incredibly engaged” and willing to design solutions based on a bank statement model rather than ERP data.

Bottoms-up, top-down, ERP or bank statments?

During a recent discussion about cash forecasting at NeuGroup’s Global Cash and Banking Group, one member asked if any of her peers had done demos of solutions from Cashforce.

  • Another member said his company had reached the point where Cashforce is “going demo something” once an NDA is in place. “We have found them to be very open-minded,” the member said.
  • That’s important because his company has decided it does not want a forecasting system that relies on bottom-up analysis of data sourced from ERPs, in part because the company has “so many” different ERP systems and is “looking for an  AI, robotics approach” using top-down analysis.
  • He said that Cashforce has “been incredibly engaged” and willing to design solutions based on a bank statement model rather than ERP data.

Multiple approaches. This member described the company’s journey, saying, “We are taking on multiple approaches, some internal, some external, trying to figure out what’s most cost effective.”

  • “We’ve talked to a number of different companies and vendors; what’s worked for one company may not work for us,” he said.
  • The company, the member said, is “engaging all the fintechs out there” and has found that some are focused on ERPs while others understand this company’s preference for a bank account approach.
  • But as the ecnomic effects of the pandemic mount, this member said his company is “growing wary” of fintech companies because of the impression that “cash is drying up in fintech land.”
  • He said he would love to use cash forecasting supplied by a TMS, but that the experience of using the module offered by his TMS vendor is “just ok.” Sound familiar?
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Treasury’s Key Role as Corporates Support Black Communities

Treasurers weigh investments, deposits and transactions that will benefit Black communities.

Treasury teams within the NeuGroup Network are playing a key role at companies that are stepping up efforts to support Black communities and Black-owned financial institutions.

  • NeuGroup members discussed their initiatives and options at a recent Virtual Interactive Session (VIS) that followed a webinar in which Netflix detailed its commitment to allocate 2% of cash holdings—initially up to $100 million—into financial institutions and organizations that directly support Black communities in the US.

Treasurers weigh investments, deposits and transactions that will benefit Black communities.

Treasury teams within the NeuGroup Network are playing a key role at companies that are stepping up efforts to support Black communities and Black-owned financial institutions.

  • NeuGroup members discussed their initiatives and options at a recent Virtual Interactive Session (VIS) that followed a webinar in which Netflix detailed its commitment to allocate 2% of cash holdings—initially up to $100 million—into financial institutions and organizations that directly support Black communities in the US.
  • Director of treasury Shannon Alwyn told VIS participants that Netflix approached this project—an idea from someone in HR which treasury executed—by asking, “How can we make a difference in the normal course of business—how to do something without really doing anything—to make this more than a moment?”
  • Part of the answer to that question involved moving a portion of non-operating cash from one set of banking partners to other financial institutions.

The Netflix plan. Netflix is taking a first step by putting $35 million into two vehicles:

  • $25 million will be managed by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), which will invest in Black financial institutions serving low- and moderate-income communities and Black community development corporations.
  • $10 million will go to Hope Credit Union in the form of a so-called transformational deposit to fuel economic opportunity in the South. This is a two-year CD with a 30-day call option in case Netflix needs the liquidity.

Big Picture. In general terms, companies looking to make an impact have three pillars to consider:

  1. Depositing cash into banks that directly serve Black communities.
  2. Using Black-owned institutions for financial transactions such as bond issues or stock buybacks.
  3. Direct investment of debt, equity or contributions in kind (e.g., technology, training and building housing).

There are obstacles to making investments that benefit communities. Investment policy constraints are among the biggest.

  • Most firms need peer benchmarks to ok carve-outs for depositing significant amounts of excess cash with smaller institutions and to approve equity investments that are said to have much more of a multiplier effect than loans financed by bank deposits.

Inspired by Netflix. A treasurer who attended the Netflix webinar and the NeuGroup VIS said his company, inspired in part by Netflix, is now looking to support Black-owned community development financial institutions (CDFIs) via options that include:

  • Making deposits directly into minority depository institutions (MDIs) that serve Black communities. This requires due diligence, partly because of the relatively small asset size of many Black-owned banks.
  • Using an intermediary similar to LISC that can help spread the company’s investment across a bigger group of Black-owned MDIs. “That’s what everyone is grappling with—trying to get adequate scale and diversification and some level of diligence,” the treasurer said.

Other paths to progress. The treasurer is also looking into options discussed by other companies who spoke at the VIS. They include:

  • A structured fund similar to one described by a member from a large technology company.
    • That tech company also uses the Certificate of Deposit Account Registry Service (CDARS) with a CDFI in New Orleans.
    • And the company makes use of the Insured Cash Sweep (ICS) service that involves hundreds of institutions.
  • A separately managed account (SMA) used by another company. The account is managed by RBC’s Access Capital, which helps financial institutions comply with the Community Reinvestment Act.
    • The SMA’s fixed-income investments include highly-rated issues from GSEs that support single-family loans and small businesses. The treasurer exploring his options called this “an elegant solution.”

Investment policy changes. The treasurer said it’s highly likely his company will need to amend its investment policy to accommodate whatever decisions senior management ultimately make. That will require approval by the CFO; the finance committee and the board will be notified.

  • During the Netflix webinar, Ms. Alwyn said, “We actually did have to get an exception to our investment policy for a certain portion of our cash in order to be able to do this. Because it is honestly taking on a quite a different risk profile than we’re used to. We decided that we need to take on a little bit more risk if we want to create change.”

Advice for peers. Ms. Alwyn said the company had to “carve out a specific portion” of its non-operating cash to devote to this initiative and “we kept that small.” She suggested that other treasury teams contemplating similar moves may want to think about:

  • Ratings from external agencies.
  • Duration requirements.
  • What size bank you’re willing to do business with.
  • “Getting comfortable with what level of risk you’re willing to take on as a company.”
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When an Auditor Puts on the Consultant’s Hat

How much and when should internal auditors report about projects outside of their audit plan?
 
Internal audit is increasingly being called upon to get more involved in nontraditional types of engagements—projects that don’t fall within the scope of the audit plan. These might include counsel, advice, facilitation, data analytics and automation. From company to company, managing these projects varies, according to members of NeuGroup’s Internal Auditors’ Peer Group.

  • In a recent virtual discussion with IAPG members, the question was whether they report these extracurricular activities to the audit committee (AC). The general answer is yes, extra activities usually get some mention; it’s just different degrees of mention. In other words, some go into more detail than others.

How much and when should internal auditors report about projects outside of their audit plan?
 
Internal audit is increasingly being called upon to get more involved in nontraditional types of engagements—projects that don’t fall within the scope of the audit plan. These might include counsel, advice, facilitation, data analytics and automation. From company to company, managing these projects varies, according to members of NeuGroup’s Internal Auditors’ Peer Group.

  • In a recent virtual discussion with IAPG members, the question was whether they report these extracurricular activities to the audit committee (AC). The general answer is yes, extra activities usually get some mention; it’s just different degrees of mention. In other words, some go into more detail than others. 

No report. One member says his department doesn’t issue a report after an advisory project. One reason is that the company’s legal department is sensitive about writing things down if it’s not a full-blown audit.

  • Another member is careful not to use audit language in any report or summary of work done. In other words, there are no words like “findings” or color codes for level of severity. “It can’t sound like an audit,” he said.
  • Still, the first auditor said, they do list the projects in IA’s quarterly report to the AC, putting them down as “other projects” so that committee members know what they’re working on.
    • The other reason they don’t create a written report is that stakeholders “get cagey” if audit says it will fully report something to the AC, especially if the stakeholder has called audit looking for help.

Reports and PPTs. Another member created a methodology where if the assignment is more than 150 hours of work and has assigned resources, he will report it. However, it would be in the form of a short memo and not a deep dive.

  • “For the small projects, we tend to just think of them more as minor engagements and want to give auditors the freedom to perform a variety of tasks, so typically not reported,” the member said. “But if we schedule the engagement and think it would be more then 150 hours and/or included multiple resources we would report the project to the AC in our summary.”
  • This member has hired someone to manage these special projects, which amount to about 5% of IA’s work.
  • Another member said this “non-audit advisory” totals about 10% of her team’s audit work. They create a PowerPoint of a slide or two where they offer recommendations for controls, i.e., for a Workday implementation they did a while ago. Smaller projects, like a recent charitable giving advisory project, don’t merit a PPT. 

Who do you work for? Members say that their boards are generally ok with these extra projects but want to make sure the work is not cutting into audit’s main purpose.

  • Said one member, “It’s kind of, ‘We don’t mind [you doing the projects] but you’re supposed to be covering our backs, so don’t go to far.’”
  • “Yes, do the projects but not at a cost to assurance,” said another. 

Just advise. Members also stressed that they are strictly offering guidance or advisory services. “When advising, we’re careful not to help build whatever it is; just recommend controls,” said a member.

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Treasurers Master Managing Remotely, Face New Challenges

Challenges facing treasurers include communication, hiring, reviews and figuring out what lies ahead.

The pandemic has demonstrated that treasury operations can function smoothly and without major problems when team members and managers are forced to work from home (WFH) for several months—while at the same time exposing the shortcomings and challenges of working and managing remotely.

  • That mixed picture, as well as unresolved questions about the future, emerged during a recent virtual discussion among members of the Life Sciences Treasury Peer Group, sponsored by Societe Generale.

Challenges facing treasurers include communication, hiring, reviews and figuring out what lies ahead.

The pandemic has demonstrated that treasury operations can function smoothly and without major problems when team members and managers are forced to work from home (WFH) for several months—while at the same time exposing the shortcomings and challenges of working and managing remotely.

  • That mixed picture, as well as unresolved questions about the future, emerged during a recent virtual discussion among members of the Life Sciences Treasury Peer Group, sponsored by Societe Generale.

“Generally positive.” That’s how one group member described the experience of overcoming “a lot of the challenges,” encountered while working and managing from home. Another treasurer said that “we’ve all discovered we can survive” remotely, but doesn’t think anyone really wants to do this permanently. “Zoom phone call exhaustion is part of our day,” he said.

Fans of Teams. Screen fatigue aside, more than one member mentioned their use of Microsoft Teams to keep the lines of communication open, with one describing the benefits of being able, with one click, to automatically connect to anyone on his team. “Any time you want to reach out and touch someone—they pick up right away,” he said.

Permanent remote? One treasurer shared that some people on her team are asking if they can work from home three times a week going forward—with others asking if they could go remote full time, allowing them to leave California, where the company is based, to save money.

  • “I have many introverts on my team,” said another member who is having similar conversations with team members who like working from home. Another member’s company did a survey that showed many people on his team want to go back to the office on a part-time basis only.
  • One treasurer raised the issue of paying people less if they move to areas with lower costs of living.
  • More than one treasurer said employees would have the option of working from home unti the end of 2020. One noted that Google employees can chose WFH for the next year. 

Whiteboards and watercoolers. Among the clear negatives of working and managing remotely is the loss of informal, impromptu communication when one team member or manager stops at a colleague’s desk or talks while grabbing a drink at the watercooler. “You lose that flow of information and that understanding,” one treasurer said, adding that people can end up feeling isolated.

  • One member said that conversations about career development have fallen by the wayside during the pandemic. “Development is something we’ll have to pick back up,” he said.

The hiring hurdle. Hiring, training and onboarding have become more challenging during the pandemic, members said. One member said culture is particularly important at his company and introducing someone new to it is “harder when you’re remote.”

  • Another treasurer who recently hired a senior manager described holding a lot of Zoom calls with the candidate and a broader set of panelists to compensate for the lack of in-person interviews. The treasurer is now meeting the new hire in person once a week while wearing masks and socially distancing.
  • One member expressed reservations about hiring junior staffers who are less able to self-manage than people in in senior roles.
  • A third treasurer who described hiring an intern as an “interesting experience” said the person has worked out quite well, emphasizing the need in times like this to hire people who have an ability to work on their own.
  • One member has recorded training sessions and saved them “forever” so she can bring new hires up to speed.

Reviews during WFH. Several members said they have emphasized the positive during remote, mid-year reviews; they expected year-end reviews that involve discussion of promotions and compensation to be more difficult if done remotely.

  • One treasurer said he wants to reward high performers but was troubled by penalizing people who have struggled for personal reasons during the pandemic. He asked how others would manage year-end ratings given this situation.
  • Another member said he is spending much more time understanding the personal challenges facing team members. His general message is that he doesn’t care when people work as long as they get the work done. “People are quite productive, so you give them some slack,” he said.
  • That kind of flexibility will be necessary as members prepare for the fall and the difficulties faced by team members whose children cannot return to school.
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Cash is King, Especially If You Know Where It Is at All Times

Pinpointing where all your cash resides—and how much you have—depends on good technology.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the value of technology that allows treasury to know—in real time—how much cash is available and where it is.
 
A recent virtual meeting of NeuGroup’s Tech20HG—for treasurers of high-growth tech companies—revealed that the technology that treasury teams use varies: The pre-meting survey of members showed that 45% of respondents do not have a treasury management system (TMS), compared to 55% that do.Those with a TMS use well-known vendors, but no clear winner emerged (see pie chart). With the relative youth of the companies in the group, their ERPs are of recent vintage and acquisitions haven’t yet resulted in the use of multiple ERPs and/or multiple instances of the ERPs in use. From that point of view, things are under control.

Pinpointing where all your cash resides—and how much you have—depends on good technology.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the value of technology that allows treasury to know—in real time—how much cash is available and where it is.
 
A recent virtual meeting of NeuGroup’s Tech20HG—for treasurers of high-growth tech companies—revealed that the technology that treasury teams use varies: The pre-meting survey of members showed that 45% of respondents do not have a treasury management system (TMS), compared to 55% that do.Those with a TMS use well-known vendors, but no clear winner emerged (see pie chart). With the relative youth of the companies in the group, their ERPs are of recent vintage and acquisitions haven’t yet resulted in the use of multiple ERPs and/or multiple instances of the ERPs in use. From that point of view, things are under control.


SaaS is where it’s at. Whether members choose to implement a TMS or special-purpose add-ons to existing systems, software-as-a-service, or SaaS, is what many consider the best way of availing themselves of new technology tools.

  • SaaS doesn’t require nearly as many internal IT resources to implement and maintain as installed software, and security protocols have improved to the point where IT chiefs are satisfied.
  • So, if your IT teams slow you down (when was the last time treasury was first in line for internal IT projects?), cloud solutions enable faster delivery of benefits, or “quick time to value,” according to Joerg Wiemer of bank connectivity and payments provider TIS, the meeting sponsor.

Too many bank accounts? Companies doing business in many countries across the globe are likely to have many bank accounts, too. Some companies have more than one per legal entity: One for collections, one for disbursements and local concentration accounts, and possibly single purpose accounts for local tax payments for example. In any event, the number of bank accounts usually exceeds what a treasurer wants to have.

Good bank account management is the foundation for good cash management. One advantage TIS says it has is that more than 10,000 banks are connected to its cloud platform.

  • TIS’s customers can then access cash balance statement data into one centralized point more seamlessly than in a heterogeneous environment where the data needs to be accessed via proprietary e-banking tools and then consolidated and analyzed.
  • TIS or not, the key is to have the capability to connect to both back-end systems and front-end banks to enable real-time data aggregation and accessibility. 

And if you don’t? Whether because of poor bank connectivity or local banks’ inability to deliver statement information, a 2019 study of 172 companies by PwC reported that about a quarter of companies did not have daily visibility of all their cash. In addition, a JPMorgan study, also from 2019, concluded that cash forecasting beyond 90 days is still a challenge for many US companies. There are many contributing factors to poor cash visibility. 

  • Decentralization: A complex business ecosystem in different geographies with various payment methods and banking partners using inconsistent messaging may result in fragmented data landscape.
  • Lack of systems integration exacerbates challenges stemming from multiple instances of different ERP systems, bank portals, additional TMSs and HR databases.
  • Poor data quality from too many manual processes. A manual data process is prone to mistakes, time consuming and the data is already outdated by the time it reaches the HQ.

Consequences of poor cash visibility. These effects are interconnected and can result in inefficiency, which can be expensive in the long run. Consequences:

  • No visibility over cash flows and no holistic view of actual cash position means outdated or missing cash information to guide business decisions.
  • Difficulty calculating excess cash for investing or paying down debt means that inefficient use of cash and funding costs may increase, leading to unnecessarily large cash buffers.
  • Inability to track foreign currency positions to hedge risks.
  • Longer time frames for creating cash flow reporting for C-Level.

On the other hand, analysis instead of data gathering. With streamlined access to balance information, treasury team members can free up their time; rather than gathering data, they can turn their analytical eye toward answering questions like:

  • Do we have enough cash even if the top line drops 30%?
  • Where is our cash and what is our cash position and cash exposure with our different banks?
  • What does our operating cash flow look like?
  • Do we run into problems with financial covenants?

Faster and cheaper. Ultimately, a well-executed technology strategy that enables access to data more seamlessly will produce returns not only in time savings from consistent and more automated processes, but also reduced bank fees, funding costs and increased cash efficiency.

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How AI Can Hit the Cash Forecast Bull’s-eye When the Wind Is Wild

What happens to your AI-based model when historical data and cash flow patterns are disrupted?

Cutting-edge cash forecasting models that make use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning will, inevitably, require manual adjustments by humans to account for seismic disruptions like the pandemic. The good news is that AI models will eventually catch up with the new normal, becoming more accurate with less intervention.

  • That was among the insights offered by Tracey Ferguson Knight, director of solution engineering (treasury) for HighRadius, who participated in a recent NeuGroup Virtual Interactive Session, “Cash Forecasting During a Crisis.”
  • “That’s the key to machine learning, it’s going to adapt,” Ms. Ferguson Knight said in a follow-up interview. “The better the models are, the faster they will catch up.”

What happens to your AI-based model when historical data and cash flow patterns are disrupted?

Cutting-edge cash forecasting models that make use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning will, inevitably, require manual adjustments by humans to account for seismic disruptions like the pandemic. The good news is that AI models will eventually catch up with the new normal, becoming more accurate with less intervention.

  • That was among the insights offered by Tracey Ferguson Knight, director of solution engineering (treasury) for HighRadius, who participated in a recent NeuGroup Virtual Interactive Session, “Cash Forecasting During a Crisis.”
  • “That’s the key to machine learning, it’s going to adapt,” Ms. Ferguson Knight said in a follow-up interview. “The better the models are, the faster they will catch up.”

Miles to go. Unfortunately, most NeuGroup members still rely on Excel and the knowledge of a limited number of treasury analysts, who don’t typically have data science skills.

  • If those analysts leave, treasury may be unable to make an immediate change to a forecast that they didn’t build and don’t always understand, Ms. Ferguson Knight said.
  • To address this, several members said they want to improve data sourcing, build better data models, standardize and share data science skills and tools across treasury and FP&A, establish a center of excellence and explore professional service firms as a backstop.

Pandemic pace. The uncertainty created by COVID-19 has magnified the importance of cash forecasting—especially for companies that are not cash rich—a theme heard often during exchanges among NeuGroup members in the last five months. And many companies are now forecasting more frequently.

  • More than one member said their company is now doing daily cash forecasts that go out 12 months, which one member called excessive. “I can’t count how many different scenarios we’ve done,” he said.
  • “Forecasting cadence has increased dramatically,” Ms. Ferguson Knight said. “Companies that use to forecast quarterly, they might be doing it monthly now. Those that were doing it monthly are doing it weekly. Those that were doing it weekly are sometimes doing it multiple times a day.”
  • Companies that rely on manual processes will have difficulty increasing the speed and accuracy of forecasts, she added. “With AI and data science and a vendor that’s providing better models, you’re able to increase accuracy.”

AI playbook. The odds of success at using AI to improve the accuracy of cash forecasts rise if you:

  1. Start with a baseline. This is where a master cash-flow model is helpful. And if you have used algorithms to produce cash forecasts with accuracy pre-crisis, you can use these as a baseline.
  2. Compare forecast to actuals. Use AI tools and treasury team members to review comparisons of forecasts to actuals.
  3. Consider manual changes. People may be aware of change or see things in the data that might prompt immediate manual changes in the forecast and the forecast model.
  4. Allow the AI tool to learn. From there, keep feeding the data into the AI-tool so that it can learn from the changing data patterns and errors between the forecast and actual result.  

AR and AP. HighRadius’ AI focuses heavily on accounts receivable (AR) and then accounts payable (AP). It will require:

  • A master list of data (customer or supplier variables).
  • Correlated data from related variables shown to influence predicted payment data by the customer with AR, for example.
  • Appling multiple algorithms to predict that payment date/receipt of the cash from AR for the cash or when your AP will pay for cash outflow.

Algorithmic accuracy. Your cash forecasting system should then switch to algorithms that show the most success in predicting the cash inflow and outflow. We learned in an earlier session on AI used in cash forecasting that certain algorithm types do better with unexpected changes in data patterns. How quickly the algorithms learn pattern changes to bring cash forecasts back up to the 90+ percentage accuracy levels will depend on:

  • The frequency and tenor of the forecasts. If you are doing monthly forecasts for the next month it will take longer than if you are doing a daily forecast for every day out a month. 
  • The granularity of your forecast. For example, if you pull data to forecast cash from each legal entity and bank account, the AI may learn faster than if you forecast by pooling entity or some other aggregate.
  • Corporates should aim for the most granular level of detail they can get and the frequency they can achieve reliably and aggregate from there. The more cash poor you are, the more there will be an incentive to forecast with more detail and frequency.
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On Track: Banks Adopting CECL Not Derailed by COVID-19

Regulators have allowed banks to delay implementing CECL, but most are well on the way to adopting the standard.
 
Banks have been given extra time to implement the FASB’s CECL standard, but most are continuing their push to adopt the measure. The CARES act passed by the US Senate back in March offered banks the option to pause implementation until either the end of the year or the end of the COVID-19 national emergency, whichever came first.

  • According to meeting material presented at NeuGroup’s Bank Treasurers’ Peer Group, the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s current expected credit losses standard has already been adopted by 93% of banks with more than $10 billion in assets.
  • These banks are also prepared, according to the bank sponsor of the meeting. Loan loss reserves are up by an average of 60% from the beginning of the year.

Regulators have allowed banks to delay implementing CECL, but most are well on the way to adopting the standard.
 
Banks have been given extra time to implement the FASB’s CECL standard, but most are continuing their push to adopt the measure. The CARES act passed by the US Senate back in March offered banks the option to pause implementation until either the end of the year or the end of the COVID-19 national emergency, whichever came first.

  • According to meeting material presented at NeuGroup’s Bank Treasurers’ Peer Group, the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s current expected credit losses standard has already been adopted by 93% of banks with more than $10 billion in assets. 
  • These banks are also prepared, according to the bank sponsor of the meeting. Loan loss reserves are up by an average of 60% from the beginning of the year.

Trouble. Unemployment and growth statistics point to trouble ahead, one banker presenting to the group said. The sponsor bank itself was “trying to figure out” what the next quarters will look like. Views are “very varied,” the banker said, adding that “everything is going to be impacted by COVID, no sector will be spared.” She said charge-offs “are low now but will increase.” One positive development is deposit growth, which she described as “good.”

Scenario planning. Other banks are also trying to determine the level of COVID-19-related uncertainty in their economic forecast. This in turn has driven the uncertainty in the predictive loan models that are key to the loan-loss reserve buildup for each bank. Most banks use multiple economic scenarios and may make qualitative changes to adjust for so much uncertainty. Many use economic scenarios provided by Moody’s with periodic updates. The methodology has been the focus of frequent questions in bank earnings calls.

As ready as ever? The bank sponsor also said banks were prepared for CECL impacts on their “Day 1” and “Day 2” reserves, the former being related to equity and latter related to quarterly income reports. The sponsor noted that Day 2 reserve build has been equal or greater than “Day 1 charge” for banks. But outcomes could vary depending on “portfolio mix and loss history.”

  • Reserves to loans range from 0.4% to 3.3%, with large US regionals at 1.7% and mid-caps at 1.3%, the sponsor bank’s analysis showed.
  • As such, “banks are acknowledging the likelihood of additional reserve build in 2Q, absent material changes in the current outlook.”
  • The pandemic-related delay applies to both the banks’ Day 1 and Day 2 reserve build, according to S&P Global. 

Noted in most earnings reports. The sponsor bank also noted that most banks had at least one slide related to CECL in their earnings calls, which suggests that there are plenty of COVID-sensitive loan portfolio exposures.

  • The bank said that about 15%-20% of banks provided more detailed loan disclosure breakdowns by loan type in their Q1 calls. Most of that percentage was for larger banks while mid-cap banks “generally disclosed information on higher risk portfolios.” Key exposures include health care, energy, hotel, restaurant, retail, entertainment, travel and transportation, the bank presenters said.
  • On the calls, sponsors noted that most all management teams expressed uncertainty about future economic conditions and offered different takes on their baseline assumptions on the shape and timing of recovery.
  • Many banks assumed negative GDP in Q2 and FY 2020, and high unemployment rates persisting into 2021. 

Forbearance response. The sponsor said banks were seeing a lot of forbearance requests and taking different approaches. For some, a client request was “the only prerequisite for many banks, while other banks are taking a more prudent approach and analyzing need.” Still, overall, there is a desire “to quickly process and assist customers.”

  • Most banks reporting forbearance actions “are reacting to customer inbound requests;” however, some banks are taking a proactive approach and “engaging in active dialogue with clients” about forbearance and client assistance initiatives that are available to them.

Slowdown in requests. Some banks disclosed an early spike in requests that have subsequently tapered off, suggesting that some clients may have foreseen economic difficulties ahead and/or fiscal initiatives are helping or are forecasted to help. This may change as COVID-19 resurges in many US states.

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Helping Hands: How Corporates Are Aiding Customers and Suppliers

Supply chain finance and how the “we’re in this together” approach to the pandemic is playing out.

The COVID-19 crisis has put the meaning of business community—emphasis on community—into sharp relief as some businesses have survived well or even thrived (tech, consumer staples), while others have suffered devastating losses (retail, travel and hospitality).

  • At few points in recent memory has the mutual reliance on comrades in commerce been more important; and as in families, it’s often the stronger of the business brotherhood who pitches in the most to see the tribe through tough times.

Supply chain finance and how the “we’re in this together” approach to the pandemic is playing out.

The COVID-19 crisis has put the meaning of business community—emphasis on community—into sharp relief as some businesses have survived well or even thrived (tech, consumer staples), while others have suffered devastating losses (retail, travel and hospitality).

  • At few points in recent memory has the mutual reliance on comrades in commerce been more important; and as in families, it’s often the stronger of the business brotherhood who pitches in the most to see the tribe through tough times.

At a recent Tech20 treasurers’ meeting, members shared what they were doing to keep business running—their own and that of all their value chain partners.

Who needs money? Can you collect later and pay earlier? Members across the NeuGroup universe—strong, global and investment grade, mostly—have shared throughout the crisis that they have been asked to extend collection terms to customers and pay suppliers earlier.

  • But that means being judicious and determining “how much capacity we have and how much credit to give,” said one member. “Some of our programs are more efficient and we can’t afford to be too generous.”
  • Nevertheless, typically the strongest credit in the chain, large corporates are the best positioned to partner with C2FO, Taulia or another supply chain finance specialist or with their banks for a proprietary offering.

Win-win: Change of business models may present opportunity. When the world as you know it grinds to a halt, what other avenues to reach customers are there? For brick-and-mortar retailers, going online, if they haven’t already, seems the natural step if customers cannot come to them. Some build their own; others join one of the branded platforms. 

  • By expanding a retail revival program already in place for underrepresented communities, one was able to onboard new sellers—mainstream small and medium-sized businesses that had never sold online—to its platform rapidly while also supporting them with a curriculum of educational tools on how to use it and thrive on it, plus a free trial period and free listings.

Speed and scale require ownership. Operationalizing a new program is one thing; scaling it is another. To deliver on promises made to new sellers at a faster pace than normal takes internal coordination. One idea is to have a special task force own it, with either treasury driving it or with significant involvement. 

  • Treasury can help creating educational tools addressing what to do when goods are sold and how the money comes into the seller’s bank account.
  • On the corporate side, this connects to the treasury and balance sheet implications of extending credit to customers (such as payment grace periods) as well as partnering with global billing to streamline while managing fraud risk.
  • It helps for treasury to also be the owner of collections.

Negotiating new terms to spread the pain. In situations where the company is a platform between a seller and buyer—new economy service companies come to mind—the fine print of agreements really comes into focus.

  • In cases where refund policies are subject to seller discretion and/or are too one-sided, the platform or broker may need to step in to ensure the pain of lost business is shared equitably between buyers, sellers and itself via an amended extenuating circumstances policy.
  • This requires careful thought on what will feel equitable to all involved to maintain brand goodwill, and how the broker itself can finance its part, including loans and dipping into reserves.
  • In addition, if refunds during the pandemic suddenly go from a relative exception to an avalanche of requests, it may also require a reengineering of the payments-reversal process to manage significant transaction volume.
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What Dollar Weakness and ‘Japanification’ Mean for FX Hedging Strategies

Corporate financial risk managers should be reassessing long-held assumptions as they look to redo their hedging.

Add a weakening US dollar to the growing list of reasons risk managers at multinational corporations need to take a long, hard look at their hedging programs and strategies.

  • That takeaway emerged at a NeuGroup Virtual Interactive Session last week featuring Societe Generale global strategist Albert Edwards, known for his provocative mid-1990s “Ice Age” thesis of bonds outperforming stocks.
  • Christophe Downey, a director in the bank’s market risk advisory practice, explored possible changes to FX risk policies for NeuGroup members looking to protect themselves or benefit from a weakening dollar and a strengthening euro.

Corporate financial risk managers should be reassessing long-held assumptions as they look to redo their hedging.

Add a weakening US dollar to the growing list of reasons risk managers at multinational corporations need to take a long, hard look at their hedging programs and strategies.

  • That takeaway emerged at a NeuGroup Virtual Interactive Session last week featuring Societe Generale global strategist Albert Edwards, known for his provocative mid-1990s “Ice Age” thesis of bonds outperforming stocks.
  • Christophe Downey, a director in the bank’s market risk advisory practice, explored possible changes to FX risk policies for NeuGroup members looking to protect themselves or benefit from a weakening dollar and a strengthening euro.

Japanification? Mr. Edwards’ thesis of a weaker USD (and deflation in the near term) is set against this backdrop:

  • The unprecedented intervention by the Fed directly into the real economy and not just the finance sector is backed by massive levels of fiscal stimulus that, like in Japan, will end up on the central bank balance sheet.
  • “We have crossed the Rubicon” Mr. Edwards said, from quantitative easing to something more like Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), and there is “no way we can go back.”
    • It has been increasingly apparent that risk managers and other NeuGroup members should be brushing up on the implications of this unprecedented monetary policy and the tenets of MMT.
  • The developed world has coasted on having weaker currencies than USD to help support their economies; but now, one by one, the reasons for dollar strength are vanishing.

Dollar doldrums. One of those reasons—along with the expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet—involves the collapse of the interest rate differential between the US and Europe that has underpinned the carry trade and has long played a key role in the FX rate outlook of many risk managers.

  • COVID-19, of course, is a key reason for the collapse of that rate differential as the US economy’s relative strength versus the rest of the world declines.
  • The eurozone has recently taken away the need for a weaker euro support with the decision to issue community debt to support fiscal stimulus. This will allow the euro to strengthen, and Mr. Edwards thinks the dollar might weaken about 10% against it.
  • Along with the outlook for the dollar, the economic fallout from the pandemic and the havoc it is wreaking on supply and demand means corporates must reevaluate their FX exposures.

Action levers. Assuming the risk management policy allows a view on currency direction to influence hedge decisions, the three levers for change FX risk managers have are hedge ratio, tenor and instrument choice. How they use them depends on if they need to buy or sell dollars (see table).

  • Hedge ratios have already been challenged because of the pandemic’s impact on business and exposures; but even if business has not been severely affected, dollar weakness may still prompt a look at hedge ratios, specifically lowering them for short USD exposures.
  • Shorter tenors are another response to forecast uncertainty, or an unfavorable carry on the currency.
  • Both of these approaches are risky in case of FX headwinds, as most corporates are looking to protect downside risk, Mr. Downey noted.

An optimal instrument mix. Assuming short USD exposures, SocGen back tested a two-year program with 24 hedges layered in monthly (for an overall P/L smoothing effect, all else equal).

  • In the tradeoff between smooth earnings with neutralized FX impact where forwards work best but realize large FX losses at times, and an all-put option strategy with premium costs but unlimited upside once recouped, those with policy flexibility should consider analyzing their exposures and currencies to determine where on the spectrum they will feel the risk is acceptable for their desired risk management outcome. 

More optionality. Societe Generale is recommending that corporates with short dollar positions incorporate more options into their product mix to capture upside from cash flows converted back to a weaker dollar with limited incremental volatility.

  • A vanilla put strategy (option to sell foreign currency/buy dollars) would provide the best trade-off between volatility and incremental cost (the payment of a premium is part of the cost of the strategy, like the carry cost of the forward strategy).
  • A collar (combination of a purchased option and a sold option to reduce the overall cost of the hedge) with sufficiently low delta would likely deliver the best P&L and hedge level in a multi-year USD weakening trend; but would come with some increased volatility.
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Scoring With Single Sign-On and Bank Portal Rationalization

One member’s winning use of single sign-on to access bank portals through Wallstreet Suite impresses peers.
 
A NeuGroup member’s success at implementing single sign-on (SSO) to provide access to bank portals through the company’s treasury management system (TMS) made a splash at the spring virtual meeting of the Global Cash and Banking Group.

  • Of equal interest was the member’s goal of taking away “as much bank portal access as possible” from employees, some of whom only need to see bank statements and don’t conduct cash transactions.
    • The result, the presenter said, was a “mass migration from bank portals into the TMS for visualizations.”

One member’s winning use of single sign-on to access bank portals through Wallstreet Suite impresses peers.
 
A NeuGroup member’s success at implementing single sign-on (SSO) to provide access to bank portals through the company’s treasury management system (TMS) made a splash at the spring virtual meeting of the Global Cash and Banking Group.

  • Of equal interest was the member’s goal of taking away “as much bank portal access as possible” from employees, some of whom only need to see bank statements and don’t conduct cash transactions.
    • The result, the presenter said, was a “mass migration from bank portals into the TMS for visualizations.”

Single sign-on safety. One of the main benefits of migrating users to TMSs from bank portals, the presenter said, is the added safety, security and control provided by single sign-ons—an authentication service where employees use one set of login credentials to access multiple applications.

  • The company’s TMS is ION’s Wallstreet Suite, which links to the company’s identity management system through single sign-on. Various bank portals connect to the TMS.
  • That means users who leave the company and lose access to its network immediately lose access to the TMS.
  • The single sign-on gives the company more control than bank portals in terms of segregation of duties and role restriction, helping the company “restrict to the exact level of detail,” the member said.

Bank portal rationalization. About three years ago, a substantial number of the company’s bank accounts were accessed through online bank portals. “Bank portals have no standards on security and user controls,” one of the presenter’s slides stated.

  • Centralize. To mitigate risk through rationalization, the company centralized portal management, moving read-only users to the TMS and moving payments to SAP where possible.
  • Challenges. Hurdles included resistance to change, insufficient staff from small business units for appropriate segregations of duties and slower speeds for same-bank payments using the TMS vs. a bank portal.
  • Success. The results of the company’s efforts include:
    • The elimination of more than 50% of its bank portals globally.
    • The reduction of bank portal user counts by more than 50%.
    • No single person having the ability to initiate and approve a payment.
    • A substantial reduction in the number of wires going through portals.

Customization question. One member listening to the presentation said her company has been struggling with bank portal rationalization.

  • One issue is how to customize access to the TMS and balance what users want with security concerns. “What if we don’t want to share all that info with an entity?” she asked.
  • The presenter said his company’s TMS can restrict users by bank account, entity or time period. “We had to create a complex set of profiles” to account for segregation of duties and the need to restrict access to initiate payments. “It is a lot of work,” he said.
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Pandemic Stokes Fire of Rising D&O Insurance Premiums

Corporates see no relief as insurers take a hard line on renewals amid rising fears of COVID litigation.
 
Premiums for directors and officers (D&O) insurance are surging, a pain point discussed at several NeuGroup meetings this spring, including the Tech20 Treasurers’ Peer Group and the Life Sciences Treasurers’ Peer Group.

  • Premiums were already on the rise at the beginning of the year and now, amid the pandemic, they continue to rise. That’s in part because COVID-19-related D&O claims are already being filed in US courts.

Corporates see no relief as insurers take a hard line on renewals amid rising fears of COVID litigation.
 
Premiums for directors and officers (D&O) insurance are surging, a pain point discussed at several NeuGroup meetings this spring, including the Tech20 Treasurers’ Peer Group and the Life Sciences Treasurers’ Peer Group.

  • Premiums were already on the rise at the beginning of the year and now, amid the pandemic, they continue to rise. That’s in part because COVID-19-related D&O claims are already being filed in US courts. 

Big percentage increases. During Tech20’s recent virtual meeting, members said they were seeing premiums rise by between 25% and 70%. According to insurance broker Marsh, rates on D&O policies in the US rose 44% on average in the first quarter from the same period a year ago. Marsh reported that 95% of its clients experienced an increase.

  • “The last few weeks have been bad,” said one member, adding that in some cases insurers themselves “have just walked away.” Another member was quoted an increase in the 30% range and considered himself lucky. “If someone gives you something good, take it.”
  • This advice was too late for one member. “We were told of a 30-35% [increase] in February, but now we’re told between 50%-70%,” she said.
  • At the NeuGroup for treasurers of retailers, one member’s D&O renewal experience involved “premium pressure on the lead portion, but more on the excess layers, where the premium pressure was outrageous.”

Reckoning and retention. After a “historic underpricing” of D&O premiums in London, the market is now witnessing a serious course correction, according to an account executive from Aon Risk Solutions who spoke at the life sciences meeting.

  • This reckoning, along with the pandemic, means the London market is not offering capacity and premiums are surging, he said.
  • Another takeaway from that meeting: higher retentions by corporates are not leading to significant premium relief.
  • Some members of the life sciences group reported having difficulty getting competing quotes for D&O coverage.

Litigation nation. At the LSTPG meeting, one insurance expert presenting noted that he was starting to see an increase in “litigation over the pandemic,” including lawsuits in the tourism sector. No one is immune,” he said, and treasurers should “anticipate seeing more and more [litigation].”

  • With this in mind, some treasures noted that underwriters were adding a pandemic or virus exclusion to policies going forward; current policies either don’t have the exclusion or are vague. 

Better beyond D&O. The good news, according to Tech20 members, is that outside of some coverage areas like D&O and property, there haven’t been huge increases. “Coverage has remained stable,” said one Tech20 member, who added that there was “no constriction in terms and conditions.”

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A Green Light for Tax Equity Investments in Renewable Energy

There’s still time for corporates to benefit from federal tax credits and reap attractive returns.

The final session of NeuGroup’s final H1 meeting featured a presentation on green and sustainability-linked finance by U.S. Bank, sponsor of the NeuGroup for Retail Treasury. Below are some key takeaways from the session as distilled by Joseph Neu, founder of NeuGroup and leader of the retail group.

  • Update your view on the ROI of tax equity structures. Commenting on the cash flows from a transaction presented by U.S. Bank, one member noted that they looked more sizable than he remembered when looking into tax equity structures several years ago. This shows how the economics have improved significantly with the greater investment tax credit available, so it pays to do the math again if you have not looked at these in a while. Members confirmed that the immediate (end of year one) tax credit payback and subsequent operational cash flows make it relatively easy to meet your hurdle and do something good with renewable energy (mainly solar) tax equity investments.

There’s still time for corporates to benefit from federal tax credits and reap attractive returns.

The final session of NeuGroup’s final H1 meeting featured a presentation on green and sustainability-linked finance by U.S. Bank, sponsor of the NeuGroup for Retail Treasury. Below are some key takeaways from the session as distilled by Joseph Neu, founder of NeuGroup and leader of the retail group.

  • Update your view on the ROI of tax equity structures. Commenting on the cash flows from a transaction presented by U.S. Bank, one member noted that they looked more sizable than he remembered when looking into tax equity structures several years ago. This shows how the economics have improved significantly with the greater investment tax credit available, so it pays to do the math again if you have not looked at these in a while. Members confirmed that the immediate (end of year one) tax credit payback and subsequent operational cash flows make it relatively easy to meet your hurdle and do something good with renewable energy (mainly solar) tax equity investments.
  • It helps to work with a bank/broker with balance sheet. If you have your own source of funding it is easier to control the transaction while lining up investors and keeping the contractor and project moving. One member noted having a transaction fail with a broker that did not have its own funding and lost control of the project.
  • Investors needed. U.S. Bank says that there are multiples more projects needing financing than current investors in tax equity structures, so it’s a bit of an investor’s market. Also, even if the tax credits on offer though 2023 are not renewed, there is still ample time to get on board—and there is good likelihood that they will be.
Source: U.S. Bank
  • PPAs and VPPAs. Power purchase agreements (PPAs) and virtual PPAs are also a way to support renewable energy, but come with a bit more risk due to potential price fluctuations and the need to actually use the energy procured or the counterparty risk with the VPPA.  Tax equity structures tend to have a first loss guarantee by the bank to cushion performance risk.  
  • Do you have enough use of proceeds to issue in benchmark size?  When the discussion turned to green bonds, the first question was to look at your use of proceeds, including with three or more-year look backs, to see if you can justify a benchmark size issuance of $500 million or more.
  • If yes, then consider the fees/real asset economics. The second question asked was to what extent a green issuance can be justified based on the cost of issuance and pricing. All things point to the answer being yes— you can see a three to four basis point advantage to green bonds, as appetite by ESG investors and normal fixed income investors for ESG-friendly bonds is strong and growing stronger.
    • The only way to prove it without extrapolation of different tranches (green and non-green) issued at once by an issuer or by backing out the new issue premium differential from how green bonds trade in the secondary markets is for someone to issue a 10-year green bond and 10-year non-green bond of the same amount simultaneously.
    • One member said he would do that if bank underwriting fees were discounted to help him do it. These fees can be a bit higher because there is a bit more work on the part of the bank underwriter. There are also specialty accounting/audit fees to consider and those of a specialty ESG rater.
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Keeping That Resilient Posture Post-Pandemic

Having the resilience to survive the pandemic needs to extend into staying that way it as the pandemic abates (whenever that is).

One imperative that has informed the operations of most corporates during the pandemic is business resiliency. Through the stress of potential liquidity crunches, supply-chain disruptions and work from home pressures, companies have bobbed and weaved their way with great resiliency. But what about once the pandemic is over? What will BAU, “business as usual,” be like after the COVID-19 pandemic loosens its grip?

At NeuGroup’s recent European Treasury Peer Group (EuroTPG) virtual meeting, sponsor HSBC noted that in the early stages, COVID-19 was a supply crisis, hitting the large production city Wuhan, prompting a manufacturing shift to other Asian countries; it was only later that it became a demand crisis when countries mandated that wide swaths of their populations stay home.

Having the resilience to survive the pandemic needs to extend into staying that way as the pandemic abates (whenever that is).

One imperative that has informed the operations of most corporates during the pandemic is business resiliency. Through the stress of potential liquidity crunches, supply-chain disruptions and work from home pressures, companies have bobbed and weaved their way with great resiliency. But what about once the pandemic is over? What will BAU, “business as usual,” be like after the COVID-19 pandemic loosens its grip?

At NeuGroup’s recent European Treasury Peer Group (EuroTPG) virtual meeting, sponsor HSBC noted that in the early stages, COVID-19 was a supply crisis, hitting the large production city Wuhan, prompting a manufacturing shift to other Asian countries; it was only later that it became a demand crisis when countries mandated that wide swaths of their populations stay home. 

  • Treasurers can learn valuable operations, risk and treasury-structure lessons for the post-COVID world from how the crisis developed and how it affected their businesses. 
  • A risk scorecard to evaluate the exposure to risk factors like 2020 revenue impact, operational inelasticity, reliance on key suppliers, input prices, cash and available credit, impacts on costs and debt metrics, and of course time to return to BAU, can be particularly illustrative. 

Build a robust, centralized treasury with strong regional execution abilities. Large, global MNCs that have navigated the crisis well have shown the importance of having the right treasury structure, which emphasizes control and flexibility; the ideal set-up enables: 

  • Systems to deliver real-time, global exposure information.
  • A centralized liquidity and risk management framework.
  • Centralized policies and control structure and regional/local execution, where needed, via treasury hubs.   

Go for operational flexibility and endurance to stay the course. With a widespread and long-lasting crisis, what is the company’s ability to: 

  • Access sufficient cash levels and credit lines, and ability to “flex” capital expenditures? 
  • Serve customers (and for customers to purchase goods and services) while the pandemic rages?
  • Change its sales model, potentially increasing e-commerce and direct sales? 
  • Substitute and localize parts of the supply chains in a swift manner?
  • Not rely unduly on offshore sources of materials and components?
  • Recover lost revenues when the outbreak ebbs?

Supply chain finance was the original risk mitigation. Trade finance was “born as a risk management solution,” said HSBC in its session, and COVID-19 has put the spotlight on the importance of getting the supply chain in top form to withstand potential border closings and financing droughts. 

  • This has been borne out in reports from across the NeuGroup universe. Some members have had supply chain finance (SCF) vendors tell them that banks temporarily asked for wider spreads to compensate for their own higher funding costs. 
  • Other members worry more about how one unavailable link or part in the supply chain could metastasize into a larger material or component unavailability, thereby threatening a key product line.

Make someone happy. For its part, HSBC said it was also focusing on supporting the corporate supply chains of its current clientele while also extending its services to new customers. A presenter said the bank wants to support suppliers to avoid shortages by offering HSBC’s balance sheet for: 

  • Classical trade instruments to match liquidity generation and supplier risk mitigation: Here, supply chain programs should consider documentary payment terms to mitigate long receivables risk and enable financing; documentary payment terms are also cheaper than letters of credit.
  • SCF to support suppliers’ liquidity position and mitigate concentration risk via receivables finance and forfaiting.

Open-account financing to established, single-flow key suppliers. 

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Managing Bank Balance Sheets in a Low Yield Environment

NeuGroup BankTPG members hear ways to manage their balance sheets amid low interest rates (that may remain low a long time).

The Federal Reserve announced in early June that it would keep its benchmark interest rate near zero through 2022. While this might be good for borrowers, what does it mean for lenders? And are negative rates possible?

The first question has many answers, as members of NeuGroup’s Bank Treasurers’ Peer Group (BankTPG) heard at the 16th annual meeting. There were several strategies suggested by the meeting sponsor on what bank treasurers can do to manage the balance sheet amid this uncertainty. The answer to whether rates go negative: it is unlikely

NeuGroup BankTPG members hear ways to manage their balance sheets amid low interest rates (that may remain low a long time).

The Federal Reserve announced in early June that it would keep its benchmark interest rate near zero through 2022. While this might be good for borrowers, what does it mean for lenders? And are negative rates possible?

The first question has many answers, as members of NeuGroup’s Bank Treasurers’ Peer Group (BankTPG) heard at the 16th annual meeting. There were several strategies suggested by the meeting sponsor on what bank treasurers can do to manage the balance sheet amid this uncertainty. The answer to whether rates go negative: it is unlikely (see below). 

Like the Gershwin tune. “Low rates are here to stay,” one member of the BankTPG meeting sponsor team said, and thus would remain a challenge for banks. “Not a lot of yield to be had here,” he added. The bankers suggested that as with their own balance sheet, members should think about pass-throughs. 

  • “Given current mortgage rates, prepayments may increase and remain elevated, suggesting that bank portfolios should purchase lower dollar price assets in pass-throughs,” the sponsor said in a presentation.

Real estate could help. BankTPG members were told that GSEs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could be facing reform soon, although COVID-19 may delay things. Despite this, the housing market should stay strong, according to the meeting sponsors. Commercial real estate could be problematic but low rates could mitigate the impact. 

  • “There could be some challenges to commercial, but looking at it overall, it’s not bad because of low rates,” said one member of the sponsor team. “There are plenty of people with dry powder to buy in distress and otherwise.” 

Protect against volatility. Another strategy for the remainder of 2020 suggested by sponsors was to protect downside risk with hedges. “Shifting from linear derivatives into hedges with positive convexity like interest rate swaps may be risk accretive at current rate levels. Also, “as implied volatility hits multi-year lows, 0% strike interest rate floors and interest rate collars have become powerful hedging tools.” 

Certificates of deposit. The sponsor said some of its clients are investing in bank CDs with customized coupons. “There’s some risk there so don’t do in large size,” the sponsor suggested. 

Floating-rate SOFR. With the Fed’s Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR) gaining traction, there have been many entities, including GSEs Fannie and Freddie, banks like Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse and Bank of America issuing SOFR-referenced floating rate notes. The BankTPG sponsor said that despite this, SOFR FRNs are not that popular. 

  • On the other hand, the bank is “supportive of the move to SOFR; the transmission mechanism is good,” the sponsor said. Nonetheless, “it raises a lot of questions on how you want to be positioned right now.” And in terms of FRNs, “anything out there that is a lottery ticket if rates go negative.” 

Negative rates? The sponsor said negative rates in the US are unlikely, and members agreed. Across the NeuGroup network, the consensus is that US rates, while remaining near zero, will not go negative. 

  • “Our bank is trying to be disciplined and mechanical,” said one member who was reviewing whether to “unwind and reposition things” in case rates go below zero. The sponsors added that their bank was “trying to be disciplined and mechanical” about the market.” 
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NeuGroup for Retail Treasury Pilot Series Wrap-Up

Customer paying using mobile phone

In a series of Zoom sessions, the NeuGroup for Retail Treasury was launched in partnership with Starbucks treasury and sponsored by U.S. Bank. NeuGroup Founder and CEO Joseph Neu shares his key takeaways from the sessions as follows:

  1. Retail is a sector of haves and have-nots based on being deemed an essential business, the ability to offer and scale on-line offerings and/or deliver out-of-store, including via curbside pickup or drive through.
  2. Business norms are changing fast. In June, the focus for retailers shifted from Covid-19 to racial injustice and equity in a matter of two weeks.
  3. Point-of-sale payments are problematic. In the US, in particular, payment systems serving the point of sale have not kept up with digital payments, creating substantial problems for retailers, and Covid-19 has laid that bare.

By Joseph Neu

As part of our ongoing experimentation with new virtual formats, the NeuGroup for Retail Treasury pilot “meeting” was made into a series of Zoom sessions over the course of about six weeks, concluding this week. This group was launched in partnership with Starbucks Treasury on the member side and sponsored by U.S. Bank.

Here are my key takeaways as a wrap up to the series:

Covid-19 divides into haves and have-nots. Retail and other consumer-facing businesses, such as quick-serve restaurants, represent a sector of haves and have nots.

The haves:

  • Those deemed essential businesses that could remain open during the Covid-19 lockdown
  • Those that were prepared to offer/ramp online offerings as well as
  • Those that provided out-of-store delivery, including curbside pick-up or drive through are the more likely haves in this sector.

The have-nots:

  • Pretty much everyone else.

Protests prompt fast-changing norms.  In a session that happened to fall on Juneteenth, weeks after a session where a member in the Twin Cities shared his perspectives on the situation there, we took a good portion of our exchange on regulation and business norms to discuss an entirely unexpected crisis. We discussed how the retail sector, being consumer-facing and with storefronts made part of the protests, was confronting a crisis brought about by racial trauma and a lack of respect being shown for Black lives.

  • Underscoring the pace of change in business norms, the focus shifted from Covid-19 to racial justice and equity in a period of two weeks.

It was a fitting way to celebrate Juneteenth, however.

  • Several members attending also joined on what was a company holiday for them (a new holiday can be decided upon in days).
  • All spoke to what their companies have and will continue to do to show their commitment to, as one company noted: “to standing with Black families, communities and team members and creating lasting change around racial justice and equity.”
  • All also will be building on their foundations of diversity and inclusion to make what one member of color noted she hopes will be sincere actions to create lasting change.

Payments at the point of sale are problematic.  In the US, in particular, the payment situation at the point of sale is a huge problem and Covid-19 has laid that bare.

  • The problems start with interchange fees in this country that have not kept pace with digital forms of payment
  • They actually dissuade merchants from accepting contactless forms of payment, including the safest form using smartphones with biometric identify verification.

As a result, the US has seen growth in contactless forms of payment rise to 4%, from 0.4% in the last 18 months, while the rest of the developed world is growing it to over 50% of face-to-face transactions.

  • While members report that electronic payments are growing, including contactless, as a result of Covid-19, the cost involved in processing such payments is also a growing concern.

Cash transactions, meanwhile, have been hampered, at a time when customers are returning to in-store purchases, by the disruptions of coins in circulation. This is due to so many stores being closed in lockdown, coin recycling machines being turned off, and consumer reluctance to return to stores and use unhygenic cash and coin as payment. 

  • Without the ability to make change–given the cost of electronic payments on small-ticket sales and the number of customers who prefer or can only pay in cash– stores processing face-to-face payment at the point of the sale have had to scramble to cope with yet another issue detrimental to their business.
  • The state of play in the US with point-of-sale payments is an embarrassment and we should all do more to ensure that we don’t let it stand as it does.
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COVID Boosts Contactless Payments, Revealing Retailer Frustrations

Low adoption rates in the US and issues such as routing rights and interchange fees may present challenges for some retailers as contactless payment grows.

It’s no big surprise that the pandemic has pushed more US shoppers to use contactless credit and debit cards as well as mobile wallets. Tapping or waving a card or phone is a cleaner, safer way to pay than swiping or inserting a card.

  • But what stood out at a recent NeuGroup for Retail Treasury meeting was the frustration voiced by members about aspects of the shift to contactless payments—each aspect related in some way to costs.

Low adoption rates in the US and issues such as routing rights and interchange fees may present challenges for some retailers as contactless payment grows.

It’s no big surprise that the pandemic has pushed more US shoppers to use contactless credit and debit cards as well as mobile wallets. Tapping or waving a card or phone is a cleaner, safer way to pay than swiping or inserting a card.

  • But what stood out at a recent NeuGroup for Retail Treasury meeting was the frustration voiced by members about aspects of the shift to contactless payments—each aspect related in some way to costs.

One-sided investment? “This frustrates me,” said one member, adding that companies like hers were “forced to step up and invest” in technology enabling chips and contactless payments or risk being liable for fraudulent charges. The problem? Card issuers, she said, did not include contactless technology when they introduced chip cards—meaning retailers had to make “a one-sided investment” with respect to contactless payments.

The US as laggard. One reason that investment hasn’t paid off for many retailers is that very few US consumers are making contactless payments, even though about 75% of merchant locations can accept them and card issuers are now providing them. As the chart shows, only 4% of face-to-face transactions in the US are contactless, far below the global average of 50%.  

  • This discrepancy meant merchants have not benefitted significantly from faster transaction processing times or throughputs available with contactless payments, the member said. And employees of quick service restaurants with drive-through service had to keep passing cards back and forth with customers.
  • But the times are changing fast: More than half (51%) of Americans are now using some form of contactless payment, which includes tap-to-go credit cards and mobile wallets like Apple Pay, according to Mastercard. 

Pinless debit in peril? Another member pointed out that companies like his that process pinless debit transactions—which by law allow merchants to route transactions away from the big global card networks and pay lower interchange fees—may lose that ability if they opt for contactless payments.

  • “This is the networks’ way of eliminating pinless debit because of lost revenue,” he said.

Upside down. The last area of frustration discussed concerns the interchange fees merchants pay for contactless transactions over the internet using biometric technology in digital wallets, making them among the most secure transactions, one treasuer said.

  • He argued that this superior level of security should mean interchange fees for mobile transactions online are the lowest paid by retailers. They’re not.
  • They’re among the highest, he said, because they are treated in most cases as any internet transaction, which is less secure than when a customer is presenting a card in a physical store or restaurant.
  • That there is no correlation between the fees charged and the relative level of security doesn’t make sense to this treasurer.
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Pandemic Pushes Companies to Digitize Processes, Prioritize People

Treasurers at tech firms push to abandon legacy processes while focusing on keeping teams connected.
 
Many tech companies during the pandemic have been able to announce that they will not lay anyone off during the crisis—and have been able to keep their promise.
 
Unfortunately, that’s not universally true—some businesses have been particularly hard hit and have had to furlough or cut staff, and consequently do more with less. This prompted a hard look at projects and their prioritization for many members of NeuGroup’s Tech20 Treasurers’ Peer Group, who met virtually in May.

Treasurers at tech firms push to abandon legacy processes while focusing on keeping teams connected.
 
Many tech companies during the pandemic have been able to announce that they will not lay anyone off during the crisis—and have been able to keep their promise.
 
Unfortunately, that’s not universally true—some businesses have been particularly hard hit and have had to furlough or cut staff, and consequently do more with less. This prompted a hard look at projects and their prioritization for many members of NeuGroup’s Tech20 Treasurers’ Peer Group, who met virtually in May.
 
Mixed emphasis. Even for those members who didn’t have to downsize their teams, there was an effort to deprioritize certain projects to avoid the fatigue that creeps into teams as the work from home (WFH) regime drags on. But there may also be projects that should be accelerated.

  • A lack of automation and digitalization manifests itself sharply in uncertain times and calls for a mindset of taking advantage of the crisis to boost these efforts.
  • One simple example is the push for wider bank and regulatory acceptance of digital signatures (Adobe Sign, DocuSign) instead of the standard “wet” signature, not just on a temporary basis but permanently and globally.
  • And if you haven’t automated enough of your cash positioning, for instance, now is the time to do so to free up time for critical forecasting and analysis. 

Back in the office, or not so much? What will the future workplace look like, even if you have an office to go to? Even with smaller meeting sizes, half team in, half team out, masks on and temps checked—all of which will put a damper on the office enthusiasm—some employees might not have an office. One treasurer’s company had announced in May that it would reduce its real estate footprint by 50%; this has been something heard across NeuGroups.

  • “Hoteling,” with coworking and shared work spaces, is back again. Will this lead to a reversal of the California exodus trend, i.e., going to lower-cost states? If one of the key reasons for distributing teams out of the state is the cost of Bay Area real estate, will that go on to the same degree if the team can just work from home instead, saving cost on office space? At the very least, the calculus will look a bit different going forward. 

But really, what’s next? As one member noted, the new WFH paradigm is not likely to change any time soon and may become a permanent arrangement for some, or at least some of the time. What will that mean for recruitment processes, performance reviews, retention, team alignment and getting everyone to row in the same direction?

  • Focus on the folks. A member noted the emphasis on empathy and keeping the team feeling connected: “At other meetings, we used to talk to about systems, systems, systems, and now it’s people, people, people. And I can’t imagine losing any of my people now.”
  • When everyone’s remote, “it’s hard to recreate the ordinary dialogue you have” noted one of the RBC Capital Markets sponsors, referring to summer interns and new hires. That said, it seems that younger employees are thriving in the WFH environment and have grown more assertive; they were quieter in the office. As one member said, “On Zoom, everyone’s square is the same size.”
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Under the Hood of the Global Payments System: Complexity

How TIS helped The Adecco Group harmonize payment, reporting and bank account management processes.

So, you need to make payments? Sounds simple, but once you look under the hood of the global payments apparatus—which has developed differently in different places for different currencies—you will discover separate layers of complexity. That’s according to Joerg Wiemer, co-founder and CEO of Treasury Intelligence Solutions, or TIS.Put simply, there are three different sources of complexity.

  1. The connection and integration of the ERP and the bank system is incomplete, resulting in the use of multiple e-banking tools and a cumbersome cash visibility process.
  2. Payment formats, despite efforts to harmonize them, are not fully standardized, resulting in more time-consuming setup processes and/or costly payment fixes.
  3. Communication options like APIs are more like green bananas than the ripe fruit they are currently made out to be. Add to these the increased frequency of fraud attempts targeting the payments function.

How TIS helped The Adecco Group harmonize payment, reporting and bank account management processes.

So, you need to make payments? Sounds simple, but once you look under the hood of the global payments apparatus—which has developed differently in different places for different currencies—you will discover separate layers of complexity. That’s according to Joerg Wiemer, co-founder and CEO of Treasury Intelligence Solutions, or TIS.

Put simply, there are three different sources of complexity.

  1. The connection and integration of the ERP and the bank system is incomplete, resulting in the use of multiple e-banking tools and a cumbersome cash visibility process.
  2. Payment formats, despite efforts to harmonize them, are not fully standardized, resulting in more time-consuming setup processes and/or costly payment fixes.
  3. Communication options like APIs are more like green bananas than the ripe fruit they are currently made out to be. Add to these the increased frequency of fraud attempts targeting the payments function. 

High jump. The combination of these factors makes it hard for a treasury management system (TMS) to truly meet payment needs. And that’s before you consider that you will always need to make payments. A TMS, TIS suggests, can be a great “all-arounder” but is still like an Olympic decathlete in terms of required functionalities compared to the superior, focused expertise of a sprinter, long-distance runner, high jumper or javelin thrower.

A simplification case. At a recent meeting of the Tech20 High Growth Edition, NeuGroup for treasurers of high-growth tech companies, TIS co-presented a payments simplification case with a client, The Adecco Group. 

  • Adecco is a Fortune Global 500 recruitment and staffing agency based in Zurich, Switzerland, which operates 5,100 branches in eight regions and 60 countries. Over 60% of its EUR 23.4 billion FY2019 revenues came from Western Europe, and 19% from North America.
  • While the business is relatively stable and has some offsetting/countercyclical elements, 75% of revenues come from temporary staffing solutions with “retail-like” margins, i.e., not that generous. With processes involving up to 700,000 individuals at any given time, the emphasis is naturally on operating efficiency.
  • This entails digitization and automation in timesheets, recruitment (e.g., candidate portals), documentation, administration and, of course, payments. 

The handover. The payments function, often managed by treasury, is a handover point from many stakeholders, including treasury itself, accounting, shared services, IT or value-added process owners, and a variety of legal entities. It is similar at Adecco. The objectives of Adecco’s transformation journey are focused on:

  • Global cash visibility in the TMS, Kyriba.
  • Connection to all banks globally using TIS as the service bureau, ensuring communication efficiency (SWIFT, host-to-host, EBICS, BACS) depending on volume and complexity of local business needs.
  • Improved and harmonized payment, reporting and bank account management processes via a single, bank-independent e-banking system, provided by TIS (over 10,000 banks are connected via TIS’s cloud platform)—while also achieving compliance, bank-signature governance, risk reduction and cash centralization via pooling arrangements.  

A complicating factor is payroll payments: Salary and wage payments come from human resource systems where local rules and regulations for employee protections and taxes drive local differences, making this type of payment hard to harmonize.

The business case? Depending on your starting point, a “very high” ROI can be achieved primarily by:

  • Building in the ability to choose the most efficient communication option (bullet 2 above) for each payment. Over 90% of the traffic can go directly via non-SWIFT channels, meaning it’s cheaper: SWIFT has transaction-based pricing and TIS has “value-based” pricing where higher complexity means higher pricing (the number of bank accounts or ERPs is a proxy for complexity). But part of the TIS value proposition is reducing complexity with their project implementation.
  • Overcoming format-error driven payment delays (and costly fixes) with the use of TIS’s continuously updated and maintained payments “format library.” 

Success factors. Like many project stories, success lies in the effective coordination and collaboration of people.

  • Senior management sets the tone by driving change and expectations; also required is committed involvement from internal controls, compliance and IT/security, and strong governance from business, finance and treasury leadership.  

Test, test and test some more. For an end-to-end (E2E) process approach to be successful, test, test and retest all the formats and pathways thoroughly. And include deliberate errors to make testing as robust as possible.

Next up: From batch to instant payments. TIS does not consider APIs quite ready for prime time yet, and cites country-by-country differences (apps, clearing systems, amount thresholds and the varying API libraries banks have) as the primary reasons. They are nevertheless a big development and will bring many benefits in time.

  • People use Adecco’s app to find jobs; when their work is done and approved, nothing really stands in the way of settling the payment for that work.
  • “So we envision moving from batch to instant payments,” André van der Toorn, senior vp of treasury at the Adecco Group, said. Adecco’s associates (employees for whom Adecco is the employer of record) may be keen to accept that, even if it means they will get paid slightly less. Instant payments may come very soon, based on the success of a live test with a digital client in a remote part of the world.

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Obstacle Course: Cash Forecasting Challenges in Latin America 

Treasurers in Latin America are coping with the pandemic, M&A activity and working capital needs.
 
Many of the cash management challenges currently facing treasurers in Latin America are being complicated by a variety of factors, including the omnipresent COVID-19 crisis. But also in the mix is recent M&A activity in the region (think integration and its opposite, divestiture), along with difficult financing conditions affecting working capital management.
 
COVID chaos. Latin America is no exception in regions contending with the difficulties brought on by the pandemic. As in other parts of the world, work from home (WFH) processes have had to be invented on the fly and then executed.

Treasurers in Latin America are coping with the pandemic, M&A activity and working capital needs.
 
Many of the cash management challenges currently facing treasurers in Latin America are being complicated by a variety of factors, including the omnipresent COVID-19 crisis. But also in the mix is recent M&A activity in the region (think integration and its opposite, divestiture), along with difficult financing conditions affecting working capital management.
 
COVID chaos. Latin America is no exception in regions contending with the difficulties brought on by the pandemic. As in other parts of the world, work from home (WFH) processes have had to be invented on the fly and then executed.

  • This has led to some turnover, part of which stems from the paradoxical situation where WFH often means more work and burnout; this then leads to companies onboarding new people either virtually or in person while maintaining social distancing protocols.
  • Members pointed out that this highlighted the importance of written, up-to-date policies and procedures. 

M&A chaos. Acquisitions, and in one case a divestiture, bring their own challenges to accurate cash forecasting. Integration of the entities involved must take place country by country. The message here is that there is a lot to do, in multiple tax and regulatory environments that generally do not allow cross-border solutions. Of course, the whole forecast philosophy can vary—forecast as needed vs. regular forecasts. Also, the need to repatriate regularly or leave the cash where it is requires major adjustment and training.

  • Where treasury management systems are involved (and the accounting systems that feed them), there is the need to reconcile different approaches to the requirements of the new combined (or separated) entity. 

Working cap scrutiny. Communicating the expected cash needs of the new company is an important issue to management ahead of earnings calls. Going along with this is the focus on working capital, and in particular short-term assets like accounts receivable (DSO’s) and inventory (months of sales).

  • Often overlooked is the opportunity presented on the liability side. Companies with historically strong cash flow may have slipped into a practice of just paying the bills as presented.
  • By paying according to terms, or negotiating payment terms to industry benchmarks, companies can add to cash on hand the same way collecting sales faster adds to cash. 

Cash rules. Treasury needs to work closely with in-country managers to identify where there are opportunities to increase cash on hand and then determine how to get that cash to where it is needed, whether to pay down debt or pay equity investors.

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Why Swapping Fixed-Rate Debt to Floating Is Still Worth Considering

Wells Fargo shared insights on liability management at the pilot meeting of NeuGroup for Capital Markets.

At a spring meeting of NeuGroup for Capital Markets, sponsored by Wells Fargo, several members said they had used interest-rate swaps to shift more of their debt to floating rates, a move that paid off as rates fell in the second quarter amid the pandemic.

  • A few participants had regrets about having swapped from floating to fixed rates.
  • One member said his team is “spending a lot of time trying to get the right mix” of fixed and floating rates as it asks if “it makes sense to do swaps.”

Wells Fargo shared insights on liability management at the pilot meeting of NeuGroup for Capital Markets.

At a spring meeting of NeuGroup for Capital Markets, sponsored by Wells Fargo, several members said they had used interest-rate swaps to shift more of their debt to floating rates, a move that paid off as rates fell in the second quarter amid the pandemic.

  • A few participants had regrets about having swapped from floating to fixed rates.
  • One member said his team is “spending a lot of time trying to get the right mix” of fixed and floating rates as it asks if “it makes sense to do swaps.”

Conversations and convincing. One of the members who swapped from fixed to floating said it had required “convincing management this was right” from an asset liability management (ALM) perspective, adding that treasury had lots of conversations with the CFO “to make him comfortable.” She said much of the focus was on timing which, fortunately, “worked out.”

  • As a result, some of this company’s hedges are in the money, raising the question of whether it makes sense to unwind or enter into offsetting swaps to monetize the hedge gains. The member asked for input on accounting and other considerations.
  • This company had also done some pre-issuance hedging and was doing more of it at the time of the meeting.

Magic formula? One of the presenters from Wells Fargo asked, rhetorically, how many people at the meeting had been told there is a “magic formula” for the ideal debt mix, such as 75% fixed to 25% floating.

  • Formulas aside, the key question investment-grade (IG) companies must answer before using interest-rate swaps, he said, is how much volatility in corporate earnings (before interest and taxes) will result from changes in rates. The answer, he suggested, depends on the cyclicality of the business and its “absorption capacity.”
  • It’s important to ask why you put on the swap, especially in this environment when fixed to floating-rate swaps went into the money, the Wells Fargo presenter said. What’s important is determining how much potential eps volatility it creates and whether “you can add it and not create heartburn,” he said.

What now? Another presenter from Wells Fargo said that, as a result of lower savings now available from swapping fixed to floating rates, “I think people have written off swaps to floating.” But he said the savings are still decent, meaning it makes sense to keep swaps on the radar screen and that corporates should “keep thinking” about them.

  • In a follow-up call in early July, he said his views still hold in the current market and pointed to data Wells Fargo presented during the meeting to illustrate that swaps to floating make sense even when rates are flat.
  • It shows that over the last 23 years, the savings on a 5-year swap, even in an adjusted market environment where interest rates remain flat and trendless, still amount to nearly 100 basis points.
  • This may be especially relevant today given that so many companies boosted liquidity as the pandemic shut down the economy by issuing fixed-rate debt.
  • As a result, Wells Fargo’s presentation says, the liability portfolios of many IG issuers are overweight fixed-rate debt.
  • The bank also noted an “asset liability mismatch (debt versus cash/short-term investments) creating ‘negative carry drag’.”
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Brain Game: Using Artificial Intelligence to Improve Cash Forecasting

ION’s plans to tap machine learning, deep learning and neural networks to help treasurers.  
 
Making better use of technology to improve cash flow forecasting (and cash visibility) has taken on greater importance during the pandemic for many companies where it was already a high priority. That was among the key takeaways at the spring virtual meeting of the Global Cash and Banking Group, sponsored by ION Treasury.

  • ION sells seven different treasury management systems (TMSs), including Reval and Wallstreet Suite.
  • Among the cross-product solutions ION is focused on is a cash forecasting tool leveraging artificial intelligence (AI), mostly in the form of machine learning (ML) and deep learning neural networks.
  • One of the ION presenters said advances in AI and ML have produced an “opportunity to reimagine how cash forecasting can be done,” noting something treasurers know too well—that no one yet has truly “solved in a great way” one of the top challenges facing finance teams.

ION’s plans to tap machine learning, deep learning and neural networks to help treasurers.  
 
Making better use of technology to improve cash flow forecasting (and cash visibility) has taken on greater importance during the pandemic for many companies where it was already a high priority. That was among the key takeaways at the spring virtual meeting of the Global Cash and Banking Group, sponsored by ION Treasury.

  • ION sells seven different treasury management systems (TMSs), including Reval and Wallstreet Suite.
  • Among the cross-product solutions ION is focused on is a cash forecasting tool leveraging artificial intelligence (AI), mostly in the form of machine learning (ML) and deep learning neural networks.
  • One of the ION presenters said advances in AI and ML have produced an “opportunity to reimagine how cash forecasting can be done,” noting something treasurers know too well—that no one yet has truly “solved in a great way” one of the top challenges facing finance teams.

Define your terms. Another ION presenter explained that AI is any intelligence demonstrated by a machine.

  • ML—a subset of AI—involves the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed.
  • Deep learning (DL) is a subset of ML and includes so-called neural networks inspired by the human brain. The algorithms powering neural networks need “training data” to learn, enabling them to recognize patterns.
    • The ION presenter gave the example of a neural network within a self-driving vehicle that processes images “seen” by the car. 

Building on data and business knowledge. For cash forecasting, the learning process starts with entering historical data into the model that is “cleaned” by tagging the inflows and outflows appropriately and removing outliers that would significantly skew trends. Models are trained via algorithms that apply rules and matching inputs with expected outputs.

Validation required. Like many learning curves, it takes time for the model to reach a high level of performance and requires treasury professionals to validate that the algo knows what it is doing by comparing the forecast to actual variances.

  • Similarly, people—not machines—will have insider knowledge of significant changes within the organization and must make tweaks to the model where appropriate. 

Measuring the models. Various statistical approaches feed neural networks’ underlying algorithms. When building their AI cash forecasting solution, ION tested everything from simple linear regression to multivariable linear regression to the Autoregressive Integrated Moving Average (ARIMA) model, which adds layers to the neural network and process non-linear activities.

  • ION’s research suggests that linear regression-based learning models perform well for businesses with stable, growing cash flows, but less well with cash flows subject to seasonal peaks.
    • ARIMA models perform better, but need extra modeling for seasonality while neural networks require careful attention to training data to learn from, as well as supplemental intervention when non-repeating events occur—such as global pandemics.
  • Still, you can get 90%-95% accuracy most of the time, in seconds vs a day or more using manual methods. ML for cash forecasting has the potential to be 3,000 times faster than common manual processes companies employ, according to ION.
    • Other benefits include improving accuracy, overcoming human biases, picking up anomalies that could mean fraudulent activity, and realizing monetary gains from more predictable cash positions.
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Managing the Team Through WFH Takes Effort

Powering an effective team through tough times – snacks and all.

For all the talk about how well NeuGroup peer group members and their teams have navigated the pandemic – quarter closes, bond issuances, insurance renewals, revolver negotiations, even hostile takeover attempts – there is a nagging feeling that “this can’t go on forever” without more problems manifesting themselves in some way. 

After almost four months of a near complete “work from home” or WFH regime, it will still be a while before the full strength of the treasury team is back together in the office. Some companies have announced recently phased-in returns as early as mid-June while others have been told to stay home through the end of the year. What can be learned from the experience so far as the situation stays fluid? Here are some thoughts from NeuGroup’s recent Tech20 Treasurers’ Peer Group meeting.

Powering an effective team through tough times – snacks and all.

For all the talk about how well NeuGroup peer group members and their teams have navigated the pandemic – quarter closes, bond issuances, insurance renewals, revolver negotiations, even hostile takeover attempts – there is a nagging feeling that “this can’t go on forever” without more problems manifesting themselves in some way. 

After almost four months of a near complete “work from home” or WFH regime, it will still be a while before the full strength of the treasury team is back together in the office. Some companies have announced recently phased-in returns as early as mid-June while others have been told to stay home through the end of the year. What can be learned from the experience so far as the situation stays fluid? Here are some thoughts from NeuGroup’s recent Tech20 Treasurers’ Peer Group meeting. 

First, all the BCP work pays off. Treasury’s essential focus of keeping the lights on no matter the catastrophe has long required detailed business continuity plans to ensure access to liquidity, collections capabilities and the ability to make payments away from a compromised office site. 

  • So, arguably, no team was better prepared than treasury going into the pandemic-driven mandate for staff to take up their posts at home. Some treasurers noted with relief that they had recently tested the BCP and that things had worked out as planned when the order came. 

Not much change for some. Global corporations of a certain size already have regional treasury centers in other places of the world, and – especially if based in the high-cost San Francisco Bay Area – varying levels of distributed teams in lower-cost regions of the US, e.g., Florida and Texas. The ability to lead those teams may have taken on a different nuance in the WFH environment, but managers were already used to leading remote team members. 

  • “We were already very remote so we had that down, and the [quarterly] close wasn’t a problem,” said a Tech20 member who leads both the treasury and tax teams. Nevertheless – and despite a significant redistribution of ergonomic chairs from offices to homes across the Bay Area – several companies gave a stipend of up to several hundred dollars to set up a home office. 

Reassure the team with leadership, transparency. With the airwaves filled with COVID-19 news and the increased focus on cash and forecasting facing a very uncertain future, it is natural that people start worrying about losing their jobs. Some companies, including one Tech20 member who shared her company’s approach to leading in times of COVID-19, announced that there would be no layoffs in 2020. 

  • This company also makes a lot of effort to show empathy with employees and demonstrates its own focus on well-being to reassure others that it is OK to nor just power on as usual. The cadence of communication is important.

Set boundaries, examples. Particularly in situations where the whole family is at home, it’s important to demarcate work time and home time. Our presenting member said her husband oversees schooling the kids and she does “after school” activities. This means she is not available for meetings for a set number of hours in the afternoon and encourages her staff to set similar limits. 

  • Another member, who also emphasized mental well-being after the intensity of weeks upon weeks of blurred work/home lines – especially for single parents with young kids, and since taking vacation seems pointless if you can’t go anywhere – said he would take a Friday off on a regular basis, signaling that similar actions by staff are acceptable. 

A lot of mileage out of small morale boosters. Coffee breaks and happy hours by Zoom, a dedicated Slack channel for office chitchat and family pictures, checking in on the singles on the team, and online trivia game time are examples of team building and maintaining a sense of team and inclusion. The tax and treasury chief from above organized a “remote offsite” meeting to connect with the team and from time to time sends much-welcomed healthy snack packages (from Oh My Green) to her staff. 

  • All this combined with the moratorium on layoffs have rewarded the presenting company’s management with their highest employee satisfaction numbers, despite the challenging period. 
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Do Pensions Need to Bolster Post-Retirement Resources?

Pension managers could be doing a better job of guiding retirees with their post-work pension planning.

For decades, defined contribution (DC) retirement plans have helped address the needs of individuals leading up to retirement. However, plan sponsors have made little progress in addressing individuals’ needs during retirement itself, according to Insight Investment, a sponsor of the NeuGroup for Pension and Benefits’ recent meeting. 

Retirement anxiety. There is a lot of unease for employees on the verge of retiring, as they worry about funding their non-working lives. It also remains a major concern among the population still working, given the disappearance of defined benefit pension plans, near-zero interest rates and highly volatile equity markets.

Pension managers could be doing a better job of guiding retirees with their post-work pension planning.

For decades, defined contribution (DC) retirement plans have helped address the needs of individuals leading up to retirement. However, plan sponsors have made little progress in addressing individuals’ needs during retirement itself, according to Insight Investment, a sponsor of the NeuGroup for Pension and Benefits’ recent meeting. 

Retirement anxiety. There is a lot of unease for employees on the verge of retiring, as they worry about funding their non-working lives. It also remains a major concern among the population still working, given the disappearance of defined benefit pension plans, near-zero interest rates and highly volatile equity markets.  

“Surveys are showing that this is a concern for individuals,” said Bruce Wolfe, head of individual retirement strategy at Insight Investment. “The first step is to understand how the decumulation phase differs from the accumulation phase and create a framework to deliver the steady, predictable lifetime income that retirees generally desire.” 

  • Mr. Wolfe believes many of the “hurdles for plan sponsors to do more are only a matter of perception.” This means steps do exist for those managing the plan to not only educate soon-to-be retirees but also offer solutions to help manage their assets at separation “giving them firmer footing for the next phase of their lives.”
  • Meeting attendees basically agreed that while it was generally good to offer their employees a range of investment products – including environmental, social and governance options – within their retirement plans, there was little interest in what exiting employees did with their savings after they leave the company. While companies may offer some simple retirement planning tools, they do not want to risk appearing to be fiduciaries. 

Decumulation in the spotlight. The lack of tools has put decumulation in the spotlight for many plan sponsors, a recognition that most retirees are lost when it comes to what is, in practical terms, fairly sophisticated financial analysis. For example, only 5.5% wait until age 70 to start taking social security benefits when most retirees should wait as long as possible given longevity protection and inflation hedge that social security uniquely provides. For 401(k) participants seeking help there are some positive developments including:

  • 41% of plans have at least some form of “retirement income” solutions available, although plan sponsors acknowledge more innovation is needed.
  • The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act cleared away some legal impediments to offering more retirement income products, particularly annuity-related ones.
  • QLAC products (Qualified Longevity Annuity Contracts) can be offered with limits within DC plans providing participants access to lifetime annuity contracts starting when individuals reach their 80s.   

This means plan sponsors need to “think harder about the escalating challenges they will face through the ‘decumulation’ phase of their investment lifecycle,” the Insight Investment team told meeting attendees. 

Unsteady footing. “Uncertainty is building as we find ourselves in an ‘interregnum’ between the post-war economic order and a brand-new economic era,” said Abdallah Nauphal, CEO at Insight Investment. “COVID-19 has provided an idea of how liquidity challenges, rebalancing and tail risk concerns can be elevated in stressed market conditions.” 

  • This means investors should prepare for future crises accordingly.
  • “Plans may need to consider adding additional tools to the toolkit, such as completion, overlay, asymmetric payoff and cost-effective downside equity risk management strategies to help ensure full funding and manage pension risks,” said Shivin Kwatra, Insight Investment’s head of LDI portfolio management in the US.
  • “We also believe investors need to focus on high quality investments to help ensure they meet their return and cash flow requirements with the highest level of certainty,” Mr. Kwatra said.
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Virtual Accounts Help Treasury and Accounting Bridge Multiple ERPs 

The advantages of using virtual accounts for accounting and reconciliation across ERPs.

A member at a recent NeuGroup meeting described his company’s pilot initiatives with its primary transaction banks in Europe to roll out virtual accounts (VAs).

  • Treasury is doing the projects in partnership with accounting and are aimed at reducing the all-in cost of account reconciliation, cash application and account maintenance—which EY has estimated at about $4,000 per account—while also improving liquidity access and management.

The advantages of using virtual accounts for accounting and reconciliation across ERPs.

A member at a recent NeuGroup meeting described his company’s pilot initiatives with its primary transaction banks in Europe to roll out virtual accounts (VAs).

  • Treasury is doing the projects in partnership with accounting and are aimed at reducing the all-in cost of account reconciliation, cash application and account maintenance—which EY has estimated at about $4,000 per account—while also improving liquidity access and management.

Tangible benefits. The VA advantages are even more tangible for the member’s company, because of recent large acquisitions that have resulted in the company operating multiple enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.

  • VAs allow them to identify payments and separate account statements, helping to automate posting and reconciliation across various systems.
  • Physical accounts reside in one ERP, and VAs allow for more seamless reconciliation in the other.

Another member with as many as 70 ERP instances noted that his company was also looking into VAs to help with reconciliation and cash consolidation in conjunction with its cash pools.

  • The company may begin by using internal dummy, subledger accounts in the general ledger (GL) vs. VAs.

VAs vs. subledgers. This prompted a debate on the merits of VAs vs subledger accounts in the ERP or even the treasury management system (TMS).

  • “Replicating real bank accounts with virtual accounts was deemed the easier sell to accounting and other functions, since you can get the whole account infrastructure, MT940 reports from SWIFT included,” one member noted.
  • You can also establish clear account ownership with VAs to do the reconciliation.

Reporting benefits. Mark Smith, head of global liquidity at Goldman Sachs’ newly launched transaction banking unit offering Virtual Integrated Accounts, concurs that the benefits of the reporting capability of VAs have helped fuel their growth among corporates.

  • A key advantage to a VA is the unique identifier assigned to each incoming receipt and outgoing payment so that the bank’s VA solution can attribute it to the correct VA, and in turn the bank account with which it is associated.
  • These identifiers can be simple reference numbers, or they can be configured as a clearly-recognized account number, such as an International Bank Account Number or IBAN, so a payment instruction need only contain the VA identifier to be automatically posted and reconciled across associated physical and VAs.

Tax concerns. While accounting can be easily sold on VAs, tax departments are more leery.  

  • Several companies reported tax being concerned about assigning VAs to multiple entities, for example, which would help transform pay-on-behalf-of and receive-on-behalf-on structures and allow in-house banks to fully leverage them.
  • To work around this, treasury must get tax comfortable with affiliates using VAs with the parent or treasury center like they would an intercompany ledger.
  • To do that, they must properly organize their payment and receipt structure in the centralized entity.
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Cost-Cutting Corporates Need to Factor in ROI of Cybersecurity

Quantifying the value of cyber defenses as some companies look to cut costs amid COVID.
 
Cybersecurity is a major concern for NeuGroup member companies, and the pandemic has forced them to pay more attention to the risks of having so many people in finance roles working from home as the push for accelerated automation and digitalization grows.

  • At the same time, COVID-19 has also pushed companies to tighten their belts. But cutting spending on cyber defenses looks like a potentially costly mistake.

Quantifying the value of cyber defenses as some companies look to cut costs amid COVID.
 
Cybersecurity is a major concern for NeuGroup member companies, and the pandemic has forced them to pay more attention to the risks of having so many people in finance roles working from home as the push for accelerated automation and digitalization grows.

  • At the same time, COVID-19 has also pushed companies to tighten their belts. But cutting spending on cyber defenses looks like a potentially costly mistake. 

Return on investment. A recent survey of more than 1,000 companies globally by ESI ThoughtLab found that investing in cyber defenses provides double-digit returns on investment (ROI)—179% on average. The ROI analysis is based on how cybersecurity investments change a firm’s expected losses.

  • Training and improving staff skills, recruiting specialists and appropriately compensating cybersecurity staff provided the biggest bang for the buck, with an ROI of 271%.
  • “One of the things we found from the study is that the investment in people results in the highest decline in the probability of a breach,” said Davis Hake, co-founder of Arceo.ai, which specializes in cyber-risk analytics, who was on the survey’s advisory board.
  • The study found significant ROI from investments in cybersecurity-related processes and procedures (156%) and technology (129%). 

Costs and COVID. Cybersecurity—like treasury—is often considered a cost center, so cost cuts may be imminent.

  • The ESI study notes, “Our interviews during the pandemic show a divergence of views, with some companies, particularly those in hard-hit areas like retail and hospitality, expecting significant budget cuts, and others foreseeing increases to support more ambitious digital transformation plans.”
  • Research firm Gartner recently estimated that companies’ spending on protecting their information from cyberattacks will increase by 2.4% in 2020, down significantly from the 8.7% growth it forecasted in December 2019, as a result of the pandemic. 

The value of cyber insurance. Six in 10 respondents plan to spend more on cyber insurance over the next two years, the survey found. And of those firms most advanced in cybersecurity effectiveness and compliance—which ESI calls cybersecurity leaders—57% have coverage over $10 million, compared to 30% of non-leaders.

  • Mr. Hake, who is also an adjunct professor of cyber-risk management at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “I talk to my students about this—when you you look at the price per dollar, insurance is one of the best investments you can make from a financial perspective.” 

Cybersecurity leaders. ESI determined leaders by analyzing responding companies’ adherence to the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, success in thwarting actual cyberattacks, and the Verizon Business Cyber Risk Monitoring Tool, based on publicly available data from Bitsight and Verizon’s own data breach investigations.

  • Only 64 of 151 companies classified as leaders in NIST compliance are advanced in cybersecurity effectiveness, the survey found, while leaders adapt the framework to business goals, strategies and the company’s individual risk profile.
  • Leaders make cybersecurity hygiene a top priority and do more frequent backup restoration drills.
  • Leaders are more likely to make cybersecurity a shared responsibility, often between the CIO and CISO, and they report to the CEO, COO or the board.
  • Eight out of 10 leading companies conduct cyber-risk scenario analysis, assess the financial impact of risk events, and measure the impact of mechanisms to mitigate risk.
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Exploring Cashforce’s Forecasting Solution, Among Others

Bottoms-up, top-down, ERP or bank statments?

During a recent discussion about cash forecasting at NeuGroup’s Global Cash and Banking Group, one member asked if any of her peers had done demos of solutions from Cashforce.

  • Another member said his company had reached the point where Cashforce is “going demo something” once an NDA is in place. “We have found them to be very open-minded,” the member said.
  • That’s important because his company has decided it does not want a forecasting system that relies on bottom-up analysis of data sourced from ERPs, in part because the company has “so many” different ERP systems and is “looking for an  AI, robotics approach” using top-down analysis.
  • He said that Cashforce has “been incredibly engaged” and willing to design solutions based on a bank statement model rather than ERP data.

Bottoms-up, top-down, ERP or bank statments?

During a recent discussion about cash forecasting at NeuGroup’s Global Cash and Banking Group, one member asked if any of her peers had done demos of solutions from Cashforce.

  • Another member said his company had reached the point where Cashforce is “going demo something” once an NDA is in place. “We have found them to be very open-minded,” the member said.
  • That’s important because his company has decided it does not want a forecasting system that relies on bottom-up analysis of data sourced from ERPs, in part because the company has “so many” different ERP systems and is “looking for an  AI, robotics approach” using top-down analysis.
  • He said that Cashforce has “been incredibly engaged” and willing to design solutions based on a bank statement model rather than ERP data.

Multiple approaches. This member described the company’s journey, saying, “We are taking on multiple approaches, some internal, some external, trying to figure out what’s most cost effective.”

  • “We’ve talked to a number of different companies and vendors; what’s worked for one company may not work for us,” he said.
  • The company, the member said, is “engaging all the fintechs out there” and has found that some are focused on ERPs while others understand this company’s preference for a bank account approach.
  • But as the ecnomic effects of the pandemic mount, this member said his company is “growing wary” of fintech companies because of the impression that “cash is drying up in fintech land.”
  • He said he would love to use cash forecasting supplied by a TMS, but that the experience of using the module offered by his TMS vendor is “just ok.” Sound familiar?
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Treasury’s Key Role as Corporates Support Black Communities

Treasurers weigh investments, deposits and transactions that will benefit Black communities.

Treasury teams within the NeuGroup Network are playing a key role at companies that are stepping up efforts to support Black communities and Black-owned financial institutions.

  • NeuGroup members discussed their initiatives and options at a recent Virtual Interactive Session (VIS) that followed a webinar in which Netflix detailed its commitment to allocate 2% of cash holdings—initially up to $100 million—into financial institutions and organizations that directly support Black communities in the US.

Treasurers weigh investments, deposits and transactions that will benefit Black communities.

Treasury teams within the NeuGroup Network are playing a key role at companies that are stepping up efforts to support Black communities and Black-owned financial institutions.

  • NeuGroup members discussed their initiatives and options at a recent Virtual Interactive Session (VIS) that followed a webinar in which Netflix detailed its commitment to allocate 2% of cash holdings—initially up to $100 million—into financial institutions and organizations that directly support Black communities in the US.
  • Director of treasury Shannon Alwyn told VIS participants that Netflix approached this project—an idea from someone in HR which treasury executed—by asking, “How can we make a difference in the normal course of business—how to do something without really doing anything—to make this more than a moment?”
  • Part of the answer to that question involved moving a portion of non-operating cash from one set of banking partners to other financial institutions.

The Netflix plan. Netflix is taking a first step by putting $35 million into two vehicles:

  • $25 million will be managed by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), which will invest in Black financial institutions serving low- and moderate-income communities and Black community development corporations.
  • $10 million will go to Hope Credit Union in the form of a so-called transformational deposit to fuel economic opportunity in the South. This is a two-year CD with a 30-day call option in case Netflix needs the liquidity.

Big Picture. In general terms, companies looking to make an impact have three pillars to consider:

  1. Depositing cash into banks that directly serve Black communities.
  2. Using Black-owned institutions for financial transactions such as bond issues or stock buybacks.
  3. Direct investment of debt, equity or contributions in kind (e.g., technology, training and building housing).

There are obstacles to making investments that benefit communities. Investment policy constraints are among the biggest.

  • Most firms need peer benchmarks to ok carve-outs for depositing significant amounts of excess cash with smaller institutions and to approve equity investments that are said to have much more of a multiplier effect than loans financed by bank deposits.

Inspired by Netflix. A treasurer who attended the Netflix webinar and the NeuGroup VIS said his company, inspired in part by Netflix, is now looking to support Black-owned community development financial institutions (CDFIs) via options that include:

  • Making deposits directly into minority depository institutions (MDIs) that serve Black communities. This requires due diligence, partly because of the relatively small asset size of many Black-owned banks.
  • Using an intermediary similar to LISC that can help spread the company’s investment across a bigger group of Black-owned MDIs. “That’s what everyone is grappling with—trying to get adequate scale and diversification and some level of diligence,” the treasurer said.

Other paths to progress. The treasurer is also looking into options discussed by other companies who spoke at the VIS. They include:

  • A structured fund similar to one described by a member from a large technology company.
    • That tech company also uses the Certificate of Deposit Account Registry Service (CDARS) with a CDFI in New Orleans.
    • And the company makes use of the Insured Cash Sweep (ICS) service that involves hundreds of institutions.
  • A separately managed account (SMA) used by another company. The account is managed by RBC’s Access Capital, which helps financial institutions comply with the Community Reinvestment Act.
    • The SMA’s fixed-income investments include highly-rated issues from GSEs that support single-family loans and small businesses. The treasurer exploring his options called this “an elegant solution.”

Investment policy changes. The treasurer said it’s highly likely his company will need to amend its investment policy to accommodate whatever decisions senior management ultimately make. That will require approval by the CFO; the finance committee and the board will be notified.

  • During the Netflix webinar, Ms. Alwyn said, “We actually did have to get an exception to our investment policy for a certain portion of our cash in order to be able to do this. Because it is honestly taking on a quite a different risk profile than we’re used to. We decided that we need to take on a little bit more risk if we want to create change.”

Advice for peers. Ms. Alwyn said the company had to “carve out a specific portion” of its non-operating cash to devote to this initiative and “we kept that small.” She suggested that other treasury teams contemplating similar moves may want to think about:

  • Ratings from external agencies.
  • Duration requirements.
  • What size bank you’re willing to do business with.
  • “Getting comfortable with what level of risk you’re willing to take on as a company.”
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When an Auditor Puts on the Consultant’s Hat

How much and when should internal auditors report about projects outside of their audit plan?
 
Internal audit is increasingly being called upon to get more involved in nontraditional types of engagements—projects that don’t fall within the scope of the audit plan. These might include counsel, advice, facilitation, data analytics and automation. From company to company, managing these projects varies, according to members of NeuGroup’s Internal Auditors’ Peer Group.

  • In a recent virtual discussion with IAPG members, the question was whether they report these extracurricular activities to the audit committee (AC). The general answer is yes, extra activities usually get some mention; it’s just different degrees of mention. In other words, some go into more detail than others.

How much and when should internal auditors report about projects outside of their audit plan?
 
Internal audit is increasingly being called upon to get more involved in nontraditional types of engagements—projects that don’t fall within the scope of the audit plan. These might include counsel, advice, facilitation, data analytics and automation. From company to company, managing these projects varies, according to members of NeuGroup’s Internal Auditors’ Peer Group.

  • In a recent virtual discussion with IAPG members, the question was whether they report these extracurricular activities to the audit committee (AC). The general answer is yes, extra activities usually get some mention; it’s just different degrees of mention. In other words, some go into more detail than others. 

No report. One member says his department doesn’t issue a report after an advisory project. One reason is that the company’s legal department is sensitive about writing things down if it’s not a full-blown audit.

  • Another member is careful not to use audit language in any report or summary of work done. In other words, there are no words like “findings” or color codes for level of severity. “It can’t sound like an audit,” he said.
  • Still, the first auditor said, they do list the projects in IA’s quarterly report to the AC, putting them down as “other projects” so that committee members know what they’re working on.
    • The other reason they don’t create a written report is that stakeholders “get cagey” if audit says it will fully report something to the AC, especially if the stakeholder has called audit looking for help.

Reports and PPTs. Another member created a methodology where if the assignment is more than 150 hours of work and has assigned resources, he will report it. However, it would be in the form of a short memo and not a deep dive.

  • “For the small projects, we tend to just think of them more as minor engagements and want to give auditors the freedom to perform a variety of tasks, so typically not reported,” the member said. “But if we schedule the engagement and think it would be more then 150 hours and/or included multiple resources we would report the project to the AC in our summary.”
  • This member has hired someone to manage these special projects, which amount to about 5% of IA’s work.
  • Another member said this “non-audit advisory” totals about 10% of her team’s audit work. They create a PowerPoint of a slide or two where they offer recommendations for controls, i.e., for a Workday implementation they did a while ago. Smaller projects, like a recent charitable giving advisory project, don’t merit a PPT. 

Who do you work for? Members say that their boards are generally ok with these extra projects but want to make sure the work is not cutting into audit’s main purpose.

  • Said one member, “It’s kind of, ‘We don’t mind [you doing the projects] but you’re supposed to be covering our backs, so don’t go to far.’”
  • “Yes, do the projects but not at a cost to assurance,” said another. 

Just advise. Members also stressed that they are strictly offering guidance or advisory services. “When advising, we’re careful not to help build whatever it is; just recommend controls,” said a member.

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Treasurers Master Managing Remotely, Face New Challenges

Challenges facing treasurers include communication, hiring, reviews and figuring out what lies ahead.

The pandemic has demonstrated that treasury operations can function smoothly and without major problems when team members and managers are forced to work from home (WFH) for several months—while at the same time exposing the shortcomings and challenges of working and managing remotely.

  • That mixed picture, as well as unresolved questions about the future, emerged during a recent virtual discussion among members of the Life Sciences Treasury Peer Group, sponsored by Societe Generale.

Challenges facing treasurers include communication, hiring, reviews and figuring out what lies ahead.

The pandemic has demonstrated that treasury operations can function smoothly and without major problems when team members and managers are forced to work from home (WFH) for several months—while at the same time exposing the shortcomings and challenges of working and managing remotely.

  • That mixed picture, as well as unresolved questions about the future, emerged during a recent virtual discussion among members of the Life Sciences Treasury Peer Group, sponsored by Societe Generale.

“Generally positive.” That’s how one group member described the experience of overcoming “a lot of the challenges,” encountered while working and managing from home. Another treasurer said that “we’ve all discovered we can survive” remotely, but doesn’t think anyone really wants to do this permanently. “Zoom phone call exhaustion is part of our day,” he said.

Fans of Teams. Screen fatigue aside, more than one member mentioned their use of Microsoft Teams to keep the lines of communication open, with one describing the benefits of being able, with one click, to automatically connect to anyone on his team. “Any time you want to reach out and touch someone—they pick up right away,” he said.

Permanent remote? One treasurer shared that some people on her team are asking if they can work from home three times a week going forward—with others asking if they could go remote full time, allowing them to leave California, where the company is based, to save money.

  • “I have many introverts on my team,” said another member who is having similar conversations with team members who like working from home. Another member’s company did a survey that showed many people on his team want to go back to the office on a part-time basis only.
  • One treasurer raised the issue of paying people less if they move to areas with lower costs of living.
  • More than one treasurer said employees would have the option of working from home unti the end of 2020. One noted that Google employees can chose WFH for the next year. 

Whiteboards and watercoolers. Among the clear negatives of working and managing remotely is the loss of informal, impromptu communication when one team member or manager stops at a colleague’s desk or talks while grabbing a drink at the watercooler. “You lose that flow of information and that understanding,” one treasurer said, adding that people can end up feeling isolated.

  • One member said that conversations about career development have fallen by the wayside during the pandemic. “Development is something we’ll have to pick back up,” he said.

The hiring hurdle. Hiring, training and onboarding have become more challenging during the pandemic, members said. One member said culture is particularly important at his company and introducing someone new to it is “harder when you’re remote.”

  • Another treasurer who recently hired a senior manager described holding a lot of Zoom calls with the candidate and a broader set of panelists to compensate for the lack of in-person interviews. The treasurer is now meeting the new hire in person once a week while wearing masks and socially distancing.
  • One member expressed reservations about hiring junior staffers who are less able to self-manage than people in in senior roles.
  • A third treasurer who described hiring an intern as an “interesting experience” said the person has worked out quite well, emphasizing the need in times like this to hire people who have an ability to work on their own.
  • One member has recorded training sessions and saved them “forever” so she can bring new hires up to speed.

Reviews during WFH. Several members said they have emphasized the positive during remote, mid-year reviews; they expected year-end reviews that involve discussion of promotions and compensation to be more difficult if done remotely.

  • One treasurer said he wants to reward high performers but was troubled by penalizing people who have struggled for personal reasons during the pandemic. He asked how others would manage year-end ratings given this situation.
  • Another member said he is spending much more time understanding the personal challenges facing team members. His general message is that he doesn’t care when people work as long as they get the work done. “People are quite productive, so you give them some slack,” he said.
  • That kind of flexibility will be necessary as members prepare for the fall and the difficulties faced by team members whose children cannot return to school.
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Cash is King, Especially If You Know Where It Is at All Times

Pinpointing where all your cash resides—and how much you have—depends on good technology.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the value of technology that allows treasury to know—in real time—how much cash is available and where it is.
 
A recent virtual meeting of NeuGroup’s Tech20HG—for treasurers of high-growth tech companies—revealed that the technology that treasury teams use varies: The pre-meting survey of members showed that 45% of respondents do not have a treasury management system (TMS), compared to 55% that do.Those with a TMS use well-known vendors, but no clear winner emerged (see pie chart). With the relative youth of the companies in the group, their ERPs are of recent vintage and acquisitions haven’t yet resulted in the use of multiple ERPs and/or multiple instances of the ERPs in use. From that point of view, things are under control.

Pinpointing where all your cash resides—and how much you have—depends on good technology.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the value of technology that allows treasury to know—in real time—how much cash is available and where it is.
 
A recent virtual meeting of NeuGroup’s Tech20HG—for treasurers of high-growth tech companies—revealed that the technology that treasury teams use varies: The pre-meting survey of members showed that 45% of respondents do not have a treasury management system (TMS), compared to 55% that do.Those with a TMS use well-known vendors, but no clear winner emerged (see pie chart). With the relative youth of the companies in the group, their ERPs are of recent vintage and acquisitions haven’t yet resulted in the use of multiple ERPs and/or multiple instances of the ERPs in use. From that point of view, things are under control.


SaaS is where it’s at. Whether members choose to implement a TMS or special-purpose add-ons to existing systems, software-as-a-service, or SaaS, is what many consider the best way of availing themselves of new technology tools.

  • SaaS doesn’t require nearly as many internal IT resources to implement and maintain as installed software, and security protocols have improved to the point where IT chiefs are satisfied.
  • So, if your IT teams slow you down (when was the last time treasury was first in line for internal IT projects?), cloud solutions enable faster delivery of benefits, or “quick time to value,” according to Joerg Wiemer of bank connectivity and payments provider TIS, the meeting sponsor.

Too many bank accounts? Companies doing business in many countries across the globe are likely to have many bank accounts, too. Some companies have more than one per legal entity: One for collections, one for disbursements and local concentration accounts, and possibly single purpose accounts for local tax payments for example. In any event, the number of bank accounts usually exceeds what a treasurer wants to have.

Good bank account management is the foundation for good cash management. One advantage TIS says it has is that more than 10,000 banks are connected to its cloud platform.

  • TIS’s customers can then access cash balance statement data into one centralized point more seamlessly than in a heterogeneous environment where the data needs to be accessed via proprietary e-banking tools and then consolidated and analyzed.
  • TIS or not, the key is to have the capability to connect to both back-end systems and front-end banks to enable real-time data aggregation and accessibility. 

And if you don’t? Whether because of poor bank connectivity or local banks’ inability to deliver statement information, a 2019 study of 172 companies by PwC reported that about a quarter of companies did not have daily visibility of all their cash. In addition, a JPMorgan study, also from 2019, concluded that cash forecasting beyond 90 days is still a challenge for many US companies. There are many contributing factors to poor cash visibility. 

  • Decentralization: A complex business ecosystem in different geographies with various payment methods and banking partners using inconsistent messaging may result in fragmented data landscape.
  • Lack of systems integration exacerbates challenges stemming from multiple instances of different ERP systems, bank portals, additional TMSs and HR databases.
  • Poor data quality from too many manual processes. A manual data process is prone to mistakes, time consuming and the data is already outdated by the time it reaches the HQ.

Consequences of poor cash visibility. These effects are interconnected and can result in inefficiency, which can be expensive in the long run. Consequences:

  • No visibility over cash flows and no holistic view of actual cash position means outdated or missing cash information to guide business decisions.
  • Difficulty calculating excess cash for investing or paying down debt means that inefficient use of cash and funding costs may increase, leading to unnecessarily large cash buffers.
  • Inability to track foreign currency positions to hedge risks.
  • Longer time frames for creating cash flow reporting for C-Level.

On the other hand, analysis instead of data gathering. With streamlined access to balance information, treasury team members can free up their time; rather than gathering data, they can turn their analytical eye toward answering questions like:

  • Do we have enough cash even if the top line drops 30%?
  • Where is our cash and what is our cash position and cash exposure with our different banks?
  • What does our operating cash flow look like?
  • Do we run into problems with financial covenants?

Faster and cheaper. Ultimately, a well-executed technology strategy that enables access to data more seamlessly will produce returns not only in time savings from consistent and more automated processes, but also reduced bank fees, funding costs and increased cash efficiency.

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How AI Can Hit the Cash Forecast Bull’s-eye When the Wind Is Wild

What happens to your AI-based model when historical data and cash flow patterns are disrupted?

Cutting-edge cash forecasting models that make use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning will, inevitably, require manual adjustments by humans to account for seismic disruptions like the pandemic. The good news is that AI models will eventually catch up with the new normal, becoming more accurate with less intervention.

  • That was among the insights offered by Tracey Ferguson Knight, director of solution engineering (treasury) for HighRadius, who participated in a recent NeuGroup Virtual Interactive Session, “Cash Forecasting During a Crisis.”
  • “That’s the key to machine learning, it’s going to adapt,” Ms. Ferguson Knight said in a follow-up interview. “The better the models are, the faster they will catch up.”

What happens to your AI-based model when historical data and cash flow patterns are disrupted?

Cutting-edge cash forecasting models that make use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning will, inevitably, require manual adjustments by humans to account for seismic disruptions like the pandemic. The good news is that AI models will eventually catch up with the new normal, becoming more accurate with less intervention.

  • That was among the insights offered by Tracey Ferguson Knight, director of solution engineering (treasury) for HighRadius, who participated in a recent NeuGroup Virtual Interactive Session, “Cash Forecasting During a Crisis.”
  • “That’s the key to machine learning, it’s going to adapt,” Ms. Ferguson Knight said in a follow-up interview. “The better the models are, the faster they will catch up.”

Miles to go. Unfortunately, most NeuGroup members still rely on Excel and the knowledge of a limited number of treasury analysts, who don’t typically have data science skills.

  • If those analysts leave, treasury may be unable to make an immediate change to a forecast that they didn’t build and don’t always understand, Ms. Ferguson Knight said.
  • To address this, several members said they want to improve data sourcing, build better data models, standardize and share data science skills and tools across treasury and FP&A, establish a center of excellence and explore professional service firms as a backstop.

Pandemic pace. The uncertainty created by COVID-19 has magnified the importance of cash forecasting—especially for companies that are not cash rich—a theme heard often during exchanges among NeuGroup members in the last five months. And many companies are now forecasting more frequently.

  • More than one member said their company is now doing daily cash forecasts that go out 12 months, which one member called excessive. “I can’t count how many different scenarios we’ve done,” he said.
  • “Forecasting cadence has increased dramatically,” Ms. Ferguson Knight said. “Companies that use to forecast quarterly, they might be doing it monthly now. Those that were doing it monthly are doing it weekly. Those that were doing it weekly are sometimes doing it multiple times a day.”
  • Companies that rely on manual processes will have difficulty increasing the speed and accuracy of forecasts, she added. “With AI and data science and a vendor that’s providing better models, you’re able to increase accuracy.”

AI playbook. The odds of success at using AI to improve the accuracy of cash forecasts rise if you:

  1. Start with a baseline. This is where a master cash-flow model is helpful. And if you have used algorithms to produce cash forecasts with accuracy pre-crisis, you can use these as a baseline.
  2. Compare forecast to actuals. Use AI tools and treasury team members to review comparisons of forecasts to actuals.
  3. Consider manual changes. People may be aware of change or see things in the data that might prompt immediate manual changes in the forecast and the forecast model.
  4. Allow the AI tool to learn. From there, keep feeding the data into the AI-tool so that it can learn from the changing data patterns and errors between the forecast and actual result.  

AR and AP. HighRadius’ AI focuses heavily on accounts receivable (AR) and then accounts payable (AP). It will require:

  • A master list of data (customer or supplier variables).
  • Correlated data from related variables shown to influence predicted payment data by the customer with AR, for example.
  • Appling multiple algorithms to predict that payment date/receipt of the cash from AR for the cash or when your AP will pay for cash outflow.

Algorithmic accuracy. Your cash forecasting system should then switch to algorithms that show the most success in predicting the cash inflow and outflow. We learned in an earlier session on AI used in cash forecasting that certain algorithm types do better with unexpected changes in data patterns. How quickly the algorithms learn pattern changes to bring cash forecasts back up to the 90+ percentage accuracy levels will depend on:

  • The frequency and tenor of the forecasts. If you are doing monthly forecasts for the next month it will take longer than if you are doing a daily forecast for every day out a month. 
  • The granularity of your forecast. For example, if you pull data to forecast cash from each legal entity and bank account, the AI may learn faster than if you forecast by pooling entity or some other aggregate.
  • Corporates should aim for the most granular level of detail they can get and the frequency they can achieve reliably and aggregate from there. The more cash poor you are, the more there will be an incentive to forecast with more detail and frequency.
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On Track: Banks Adopting CECL Not Derailed by COVID-19

Regulators have allowed banks to delay implementing CECL, but most are well on the way to adopting the standard.
 
Banks have been given extra time to implement the FASB’s CECL standard, but most are continuing their push to adopt the measure. The CARES act passed by the US Senate back in March offered banks the option to pause implementation until either the end of the year or the end of the COVID-19 national emergency, whichever came first.

  • According to meeting material presented at NeuGroup’s Bank Treasurers’ Peer Group, the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s current expected credit losses standard has already been adopted by 93% of banks with more than $10 billion in assets.
  • These banks are also prepared, according to the bank sponsor of the meeting. Loan loss reserves are up by an average of 60% from the beginning of the year.

Regulators have allowed banks to delay implementing CECL, but most are well on the way to adopting the standard.
 
Banks have been given extra time to implement the FASB’s CECL standard, but most are continuing their push to adopt the measure. The CARES act passed by the US Senate back in March offered banks the option to pause implementation until either the end of the year or the end of the COVID-19 national emergency, whichever came first.

  • According to meeting material presented at NeuGroup’s Bank Treasurers’ Peer Group, the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s current expected credit losses standard has already been adopted by 93% of banks with more than $10 billion in assets. 
  • These banks are also prepared, according to the bank sponsor of the meeting. Loan loss reserves are up by an average of 60% from the beginning of the year.

Trouble. Unemployment and growth statistics point to trouble ahead, one banker presenting to the group said. The sponsor bank itself was “trying to figure out” what the next quarters will look like. Views are “very varied,” the banker said, adding that “everything is going to be impacted by COVID, no sector will be spared.” She said charge-offs “are low now but will increase.” One positive development is deposit growth, which she described as “good.”

Scenario planning. Other banks are also trying to determine the level of COVID-19-related uncertainty in their economic forecast. This in turn has driven the uncertainty in the predictive loan models that are key to the loan-loss reserve buildup for each bank. Most banks use multiple economic scenarios and may make qualitative changes to adjust for so much uncertainty. Many use economic scenarios provided by Moody’s with periodic updates. The methodology has been the focus of frequent questions in bank earnings calls.

As ready as ever? The bank sponsor also said banks were prepared for CECL impacts on their “Day 1” and “Day 2” reserves, the former being related to equity and latter related to quarterly income reports. The sponsor noted that Day 2 reserve build has been equal or greater than “Day 1 charge” for banks. But outcomes could vary depending on “portfolio mix and loss history.”

  • Reserves to loans range from 0.4% to 3.3%, with large US regionals at 1.7% and mid-caps at 1.3%, the sponsor bank’s analysis showed.
  • As such, “banks are acknowledging the likelihood of additional reserve build in 2Q, absent material changes in the current outlook.”
  • The pandemic-related delay applies to both the banks’ Day 1 and Day 2 reserve build, according to S&P Global. 

Noted in most earnings reports. The sponsor bank also noted that most banks had at least one slide related to CECL in their earnings calls, which suggests that there are plenty of COVID-sensitive loan portfolio exposures.

  • The bank said that about 15%-20% of banks provided more detailed loan disclosure breakdowns by loan type in their Q1 calls. Most of that percentage was for larger banks while mid-cap banks “generally disclosed information on higher risk portfolios.” Key exposures include health care, energy, hotel, restaurant, retail, entertainment, travel and transportation, the bank presenters said.
  • On the calls, sponsors noted that most all management teams expressed uncertainty about future economic conditions and offered different takes on their baseline assumptions on the shape and timing of recovery.
  • Many banks assumed negative GDP in Q2 and FY 2020, and high unemployment rates persisting into 2021. 

Forbearance response. The sponsor said banks were seeing a lot of forbearance requests and taking different approaches. For some, a client request was “the only prerequisite for many banks, while other banks are taking a more prudent approach and analyzing need.” Still, overall, there is a desire “to quickly process and assist customers.”

  • Most banks reporting forbearance actions “are reacting to customer inbound requests;” however, some banks are taking a proactive approach and “engaging in active dialogue with clients” about forbearance and client assistance initiatives that are available to them.

Slowdown in requests. Some banks disclosed an early spike in requests that have subsequently tapered off, suggesting that some clients may have foreseen economic difficulties ahead and/or fiscal initiatives are helping or are forecasted to help. This may change as COVID-19 resurges in many US states.

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Helping Hands: How Corporates Are Aiding Customers and Suppliers

Supply chain finance and how the “we’re in this together” approach to the pandemic is playing out.

The COVID-19 crisis has put the meaning of business community—emphasis on community—into sharp relief as some businesses have survived well or even thrived (tech, consumer staples), while others have suffered devastating losses (retail, travel and hospitality).

  • At few points in recent memory has the mutual reliance on comrades in commerce been more important; and as in families, it’s often the stronger of the business brotherhood who pitches in the most to see the tribe through tough times.

Supply chain finance and how the “we’re in this together” approach to the pandemic is playing out.

The COVID-19 crisis has put the meaning of business community—emphasis on community—into sharp relief as some businesses have survived well or even thrived (tech, consumer staples), while others have suffered devastating losses (retail, travel and hospitality).

  • At few points in recent memory has the mutual reliance on comrades in commerce been more important; and as in families, it’s often the stronger of the business brotherhood who pitches in the most to see the tribe through tough times.

At a recent Tech20 treasurers’ meeting, members shared what they were doing to keep business running—their own and that of all their value chain partners.

Who needs money? Can you collect later and pay earlier? Members across the NeuGroup universe—strong, global and investment grade, mostly—have shared throughout the crisis that they have been asked to extend collection terms to customers and pay suppliers earlier.

  • But that means being judicious and determining “how much capacity we have and how much credit to give,” said one member. “Some of our programs are more efficient and we can’t afford to be too generous.”
  • Nevertheless, typically the strongest credit in the chain, large corporates are the best positioned to partner with C2FO, Taulia or another supply chain finance specialist or with their banks for a proprietary offering.

Win-win: Change of business models may present opportunity. When the world as you know it grinds to a halt, what other avenues to reach customers are there? For brick-and-mortar retailers, going online, if they haven’t already, seems the natural step if customers cannot come to them. Some build their own; others join one of the branded platforms. 

  • By expanding a retail revival program already in place for underrepresented communities, one was able to onboard new sellers—mainstream small and medium-sized businesses that had never sold online—to its platform rapidly while also supporting them with a curriculum of educational tools on how to use it and thrive on it, plus a free trial period and free listings.

Speed and scale require ownership. Operationalizing a new program is one thing; scaling it is another. To deliver on promises made to new sellers at a faster pace than normal takes internal coordination. One idea is to have a special task force own it, with either treasury driving it or with significant involvement. 

  • Treasury can help creating educational tools addressing what to do when goods are sold and how the money comes into the seller’s bank account.
  • On the corporate side, this connects to the treasury and balance sheet implications of extending credit to customers (such as payment grace periods) as well as partnering with global billing to streamline while managing fraud risk.
  • It helps for treasury to also be the owner of collections.

Negotiating new terms to spread the pain. In situations where the company is a platform between a seller and buyer—new economy service companies come to mind—the fine print of agreements really comes into focus.

  • In cases where refund policies are subject to seller discretion and/or are too one-sided, the platform or broker may need to step in to ensure the pain of lost business is shared equitably between buyers, sellers and itself via an amended extenuating circumstances policy.
  • This requires careful thought on what will feel equitable to all involved to maintain brand goodwill, and how the broker itself can finance its part, including loans and dipping into reserves.
  • In addition, if refunds during the pandemic suddenly go from a relative exception to an avalanche of requests, it may also require a reengineering of the payments-reversal process to manage significant transaction volume.
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What Dollar Weakness and ‘Japanification’ Mean for FX Hedging Strategies

Corporate financial risk managers should be reassessing long-held assumptions as they look to redo their hedging.

Add a weakening US dollar to the growing list of reasons risk managers at multinational corporations need to take a long, hard look at their hedging programs and strategies.

  • That takeaway emerged at a NeuGroup Virtual Interactive Session last week featuring Societe Generale global strategist Albert Edwards, known for his provocative mid-1990s “Ice Age” thesis of bonds outperforming stocks.
  • Christophe Downey, a director in the bank’s market risk advisory practice, explored possible changes to FX risk policies for NeuGroup members looking to protect themselves or benefit from a weakening dollar and a strengthening euro.

Corporate financial risk managers should be reassessing long-held assumptions as they look to redo their hedging.

Add a weakening US dollar to the growing list of reasons risk managers at multinational corporations need to take a long, hard look at their hedging programs and strategies.

  • That takeaway emerged at a NeuGroup Virtual Interactive Session last week featuring Societe Generale global strategist Albert Edwards, known for his provocative mid-1990s “Ice Age” thesis of bonds outperforming stocks.
  • Christophe Downey, a director in the bank’s market risk advisory practice, explored possible changes to FX risk policies for NeuGroup members looking to protect themselves or benefit from a weakening dollar and a strengthening euro.

Japanification? Mr. Edwards’ thesis of a weaker USD (and deflation in the near term) is set against this backdrop:

  • The unprecedented intervention by the Fed directly into the real economy and not just the finance sector is backed by massive levels of fiscal stimulus that, like in Japan, will end up on the central bank balance sheet.
  • “We have crossed the Rubicon” Mr. Edwards said, from quantitative easing to something more like Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), and there is “no way we can go back.”
    • It has been increasingly apparent that risk managers and other NeuGroup members should be brushing up on the implications of this unprecedented monetary policy and the tenets of MMT.
  • The developed world has coasted on having weaker currencies than USD to help support their economies; but now, one by one, the reasons for dollar strength are vanishing.

Dollar doldrums. One of those reasons—along with the expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet—involves the collapse of the interest rate differential between the US and Europe that has underpinned the carry trade and has long played a key role in the FX rate outlook of many risk managers.

  • COVID-19, of course, is a key reason for the collapse of that rate differential as the US economy’s relative strength versus the rest of the world declines.
  • The eurozone has recently taken away the need for a weaker euro support with the decision to issue community debt to support fiscal stimulus. This will allow the euro to strengthen, and Mr. Edwards thinks the dollar might weaken about 10% against it.
  • Along with the outlook for the dollar, the economic fallout from the pandemic and the havoc it is wreaking on supply and demand means corporates must reevaluate their FX exposures.

Action levers. Assuming the risk management policy allows a view on currency direction to influence hedge decisions, the three levers for change FX risk managers have are hedge ratio, tenor and instrument choice. How they use them depends on if they need to buy or sell dollars (see table).

  • Hedge ratios have already been challenged because of the pandemic’s impact on business and exposures; but even if business has not been severely affected, dollar weakness may still prompt a look at hedge ratios, specifically lowering them for short USD exposures.
  • Shorter tenors are another response to forecast uncertainty, or an unfavorable carry on the currency.
  • Both of these approaches are risky in case of FX headwinds, as most corporates are looking to protect downside risk, Mr. Downey noted.

An optimal instrument mix. Assuming short USD exposures, SocGen back tested a two-year program with 24 hedges layered in monthly (for an overall P/L smoothing effect, all else equal).

  • In the tradeoff between smooth earnings with neutralized FX impact where forwards work best but realize large FX losses at times, and an all-put option strategy with premium costs but unlimited upside once recouped, those with policy flexibility should consider analyzing their exposures and currencies to determine where on the spectrum they will feel the risk is acceptable for their desired risk management outcome. 

More optionality. Societe Generale is recommending that corporates with short dollar positions incorporate more options into their product mix to capture upside from cash flows converted back to a weaker dollar with limited incremental volatility.

  • A vanilla put strategy (option to sell foreign currency/buy dollars) would provide the best trade-off between volatility and incremental cost (the payment of a premium is part of the cost of the strategy, like the carry cost of the forward strategy).
  • A collar (combination of a purchased option and a sold option to reduce the overall cost of the hedge) with sufficiently low delta would likely deliver the best P&L and hedge level in a multi-year USD weakening trend; but would come with some increased volatility.
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Scoring With Single Sign-On and Bank Portal Rationalization

One member’s winning use of single sign-on to access bank portals through Wallstreet Suite impresses peers.
 
A NeuGroup member’s success at implementing single sign-on (SSO) to provide access to bank portals through the company’s treasury management system (TMS) made a splash at the spring virtual meeting of the Global Cash and Banking Group.

  • Of equal interest was the member’s goal of taking away “as much bank portal access as possible” from employees, some of whom only need to see bank statements and don’t conduct cash transactions.
    • The result, the presenter said, was a “mass migration from bank portals into the TMS for visualizations.”

One member’s winning use of single sign-on to access bank portals through Wallstreet Suite impresses peers.
 
A NeuGroup member’s success at implementing single sign-on (SSO) to provide access to bank portals through the company’s treasury management system (TMS) made a splash at the spring virtual meeting of the Global Cash and Banking Group.

  • Of equal interest was the member’s goal of taking away “as much bank portal access as possible” from employees, some of whom only need to see bank statements and don’t conduct cash transactions.
    • The result, the presenter said, was a “mass migration from bank portals into the TMS for visualizations.”

Single sign-on safety. One of the main benefits of migrating users to TMSs from bank portals, the presenter said, is the added safety, security and control provided by single sign-ons—an authentication service where employees use one set of login credentials to access multiple applications.

  • The company’s TMS is ION’s Wallstreet Suite, which links to the company’s identity management system through single sign-on. Various bank portals connect to the TMS.
  • That means users who leave the company and lose access to its network immediately lose access to the TMS.
  • The single sign-on gives the company more control than bank portals in terms of segregation of duties and role restriction, helping the company “restrict to the exact level of detail,” the member said.

Bank portal rationalization. About three years ago, a substantial number of the company’s bank accounts were accessed through online bank portals. “Bank portals have no standards on security and user controls,” one of the presenter’s slides stated.

  • Centralize. To mitigate risk through rationalization, the company centralized portal management, moving read-only users to the TMS and moving payments to SAP where possible.
  • Challenges. Hurdles included resistance to change, insufficient staff from small business units for appropriate segregations of duties and slower speeds for same-bank payments using the TMS vs. a bank portal.
  • Success. The results of the company’s efforts include:
    • The elimination of more than 50% of its bank portals globally.
    • The reduction of bank portal user counts by more than 50%.
    • No single person having the ability to initiate and approve a payment.
    • A substantial reduction in the number of wires going through portals.

Customization question. One member listening to the presentation said her company has been struggling with bank portal rationalization.

  • One issue is how to customize access to the TMS and balance what users want with security concerns. “What if we don’t want to share all that info with an entity?” she asked.
  • The presenter said his company’s TMS can restrict users by bank account, entity or time period. “We had to create a complex set of profiles” to account for segregation of duties and the need to restrict access to initiate payments. “It is a lot of work,” he said.
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Pandemic Stokes Fire of Rising D&O Insurance Premiums

Corporates see no relief as insurers take a hard line on renewals amid rising fears of COVID litigation.
 
Premiums for directors and officers (D&O) insurance are surging, a pain point discussed at several NeuGroup meetings this spring, including the Tech20 Treasurers’ Peer Group and the Life Sciences Treasurers’ Peer Group.

  • Premiums were already on the rise at the beginning of the year and now, amid the pandemic, they continue to rise. That’s in part because COVID-19-related D&O claims are already being filed in US courts.

Corporates see no relief as insurers take a hard line on renewals amid rising fears of COVID litigation.
 
Premiums for directors and officers (D&O) insurance are surging, a pain point discussed at several NeuGroup meetings this spring, including the Tech20 Treasurers’ Peer Group and the Life Sciences Treasurers’ Peer Group.

  • Premiums were already on the rise at the beginning of the year and now, amid the pandemic, they continue to rise. That’s in part because COVID-19-related D&O claims are already being filed in US courts. 

Big percentage increases. During Tech20’s recent virtual meeting, members said they were seeing premiums rise by between 25% and 70%. According to insurance broker Marsh, rates on D&O policies in the US rose 44% on average in the first quarter from the same period a year ago. Marsh reported that 95% of its clients experienced an increase.

  • “The last few weeks have been bad,” said one member, adding that in some cases insurers themselves “have just walked away.” Another member was quoted an increase in the 30% range and considered himself lucky. “If someone gives you something good, take it.”
  • This advice was too late for one member. “We were told of a 30-35% [increase] in February, but now we’re told between 50%-70%,” she said.
  • At the NeuGroup for treasurers of retailers, one member’s D&O renewal experience involved “premium pressure on the lead portion, but more on the excess layers, where the premium pressure was outrageous.”

Reckoning and retention. After a “historic underpricing” of D&O premiums in London, the market is now witnessing a serious course correction, according to an account executive from Aon Risk Solutions who spoke at the life sciences meeting.

  • This reckoning, along with the pandemic, means the London market is not offering capacity and premiums are surging, he said.
  • Another takeaway from that meeting: higher retentions by corporates are not leading to significant premium relief.
  • Some members of the life sciences group reported having difficulty getting competing quotes for D&O coverage.

Litigation nation. At the LSTPG meeting, one insurance expert presenting noted that he was starting to see an increase in “litigation over the pandemic,” including lawsuits in the tourism sector. No one is immune,” he said, and treasurers should “anticipate seeing more and more [litigation].”

  • With this in mind, some treasures noted that underwriters were adding a pandemic or virus exclusion to policies going forward; current policies either don’t have the exclusion or are vague. 

Better beyond D&O. The good news, according to Tech20 members, is that outside of some coverage areas like D&O and property, there haven’t been huge increases. “Coverage has remained stable,” said one Tech20 member, who added that there was “no constriction in terms and conditions.”

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A Green Light for Tax Equity Investments in Renewable Energy

There’s still time for corporates to benefit from federal tax credits and reap attractive returns.

The final session of NeuGroup’s final H1 meeting featured a presentation on green and sustainability-linked finance by U.S. Bank, sponsor of the NeuGroup for Retail Treasury. Below are some key takeaways from the session as distilled by Joseph Neu, founder of NeuGroup and leader of the retail group.

  • Update your view on the ROI of tax equity structures. Commenting on the cash flows from a transaction presented by U.S. Bank, one member noted that they looked more sizable than he remembered when looking into tax equity structures several years ago. This shows how the economics have improved significantly with the greater investment tax credit available, so it pays to do the math again if you have not looked at these in a while. Members confirmed that the immediate (end of year one) tax credit payback and subsequent operational cash flows make it relatively easy to meet your hurdle and do something good with renewable energy (mainly solar) tax equity investments.

There’s still time for corporates to benefit from federal tax credits and reap attractive returns.

The final session of NeuGroup’s final H1 meeting featured a presentation on green and sustainability-linked finance by U.S. Bank, sponsor of the NeuGroup for Retail Treasury. Below are some key takeaways from the session as distilled by Joseph Neu, founder of NeuGroup and leader of the retail group.

  • Update your view on the ROI of tax equity structures. Commenting on the cash flows from a transaction presented by U.S. Bank, one member noted that they looked more sizable than he remembered when looking into tax equity structures several years ago. This shows how the economics have improved significantly with the greater investment tax credit available, so it pays to do the math again if you have not looked at these in a while. Members confirmed that the immediate (end of year one) tax credit payback and subsequent operational cash flows make it relatively easy to meet your hurdle and do something good with renewable energy (mainly solar) tax equity investments.
  • It helps to work with a bank/broker with balance sheet. If you have your own source of funding it is easier to control the transaction while lining up investors and keeping the contractor and project moving. One member noted having a transaction fail with a broker that did not have its own funding and lost control of the project.
  • Investors needed. U.S. Bank says that there are multiples more projects needing financing than current investors in tax equity structures, so it’s a bit of an investor’s market. Also, even if the tax credits on offer though 2023 are not renewed, there is still ample time to get on board—and there is good likelihood that they will be.
Source: U.S. Bank
  • PPAs and VPPAs. Power purchase agreements (PPAs) and virtual PPAs are also a way to support renewable energy, but come with a bit more risk due to potential price fluctuations and the need to actually use the energy procured or the counterparty risk with the VPPA.  Tax equity structures tend to have a first loss guarantee by the bank to cushion performance risk.  
  • Do you have enough use of proceeds to issue in benchmark size?  When the discussion turned to green bonds, the first question was to look at your use of proceeds, including with three or more-year look backs, to see if you can justify a benchmark size issuance of $500 million or more.
  • If yes, then consider the fees/real asset economics. The second question asked was to what extent a green issuance can be justified based on the cost of issuance and pricing. All things point to the answer being yes— you can see a three to four basis point advantage to green bonds, as appetite by ESG investors and normal fixed income investors for ESG-friendly bonds is strong and growing stronger.
    • The only way to prove it without extrapolation of different tranches (green and non-green) issued at once by an issuer or by backing out the new issue premium differential from how green bonds trade in the secondary markets is for someone to issue a 10-year green bond and 10-year non-green bond of the same amount simultaneously.
    • One member said he would do that if bank underwriting fees were discounted to help him do it. These fees can be a bit higher because there is a bit more work on the part of the bank underwriter. There are also specialty accounting/audit fees to consider and those of a specialty ESG rater.
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Keeping That Resilient Posture Post-Pandemic

Having the resilience to survive the pandemic needs to extend into staying that way it as the pandemic abates (whenever that is).

One imperative that has informed the operations of most corporates during the pandemic is business resiliency. Through the stress of potential liquidity crunches, supply-chain disruptions and work from home pressures, companies have bobbed and weaved their way with great resiliency. But what about once the pandemic is over? What will BAU, “business as usual,” be like after the COVID-19 pandemic loosens its grip?

At NeuGroup’s recent European Treasury Peer Group (EuroTPG) virtual meeting, sponsor HSBC noted that in the early stages, COVID-19 was a supply crisis, hitting the large production city Wuhan, prompting a manufacturing shift to other Asian countries; it was only later that it became a demand crisis when countries mandated that wide swaths of their populations stay home.

Having the resilience to survive the pandemic needs to extend into staying that way as the pandemic abates (whenever that is).

One imperative that has informed the operations of most corporates during the pandemic is business resiliency. Through the stress of potential liquidity crunches, supply-chain disruptions and work from home pressures, companies have bobbed and weaved their way with great resiliency. But what about once the pandemic is over? What will BAU, “business as usual,” be like after the COVID-19 pandemic loosens its grip?

At NeuGroup’s recent European Treasury Peer Group (EuroTPG) virtual meeting, sponsor HSBC noted that in the early stages, COVID-19 was a supply crisis, hitting the large production city Wuhan, prompting a manufacturing shift to other Asian countries; it was only later that it became a demand crisis when countries mandated that wide swaths of their populations stay home. 

  • Treasurers can learn valuable operations, risk and treasury-structure lessons for the post-COVID world from how the crisis developed and how it affected their businesses. 
  • A risk scorecard to evaluate the exposure to risk factors like 2020 revenue impact, operational inelasticity, reliance on key suppliers, input prices, cash and available credit, impacts on costs and debt metrics, and of course time to return to BAU, can be particularly illustrative. 

Build a robust, centralized treasury with strong regional execution abilities. Large, global MNCs that have navigated the crisis well have shown the importance of having the right treasury structure, which emphasizes control and flexibility; the ideal set-up enables: 

  • Systems to deliver real-time, global exposure information.
  • A centralized liquidity and risk management framework.
  • Centralized policies and control structure and regional/local execution, where needed, via treasury hubs.   

Go for operational flexibility and endurance to stay the course. With a widespread and long-lasting crisis, what is the company’s ability to: 

  • Access sufficient cash levels and credit lines, and ability to “flex” capital expenditures? 
  • Serve customers (and for customers to purchase goods and services) while the pandemic rages?
  • Change its sales model, potentially increasing e-commerce and direct sales? 
  • Substitute and localize parts of the supply chains in a swift manner?
  • Not rely unduly on offshore sources of materials and components?
  • Recover lost revenues when the outbreak ebbs?

Supply chain finance was the original risk mitigation. Trade finance was “born as a risk management solution,” said HSBC in its session, and COVID-19 has put the spotlight on the importance of getting the supply chain in top form to withstand potential border closings and financing droughts. 

  • This has been borne out in reports from across the NeuGroup universe. Some members have had supply chain finance (SCF) vendors tell them that banks temporarily asked for wider spreads to compensate for their own higher funding costs. 
  • Other members worry more about how one unavailable link or part in the supply chain could metastasize into a larger material or component unavailability, thereby threatening a key product line.

Make someone happy. For its part, HSBC said it was also focusing on supporting the corporate supply chains of its current clientele while also extending its services to new customers. A presenter said the bank wants to support suppliers to avoid shortages by offering HSBC’s balance sheet for: 

  • Classical trade instruments to match liquidity generation and supplier risk mitigation: Here, supply chain programs should consider documentary payment terms to mitigate long receivables risk and enable financing; documentary payment terms are also cheaper than letters of credit.
  • SCF to support suppliers’ liquidity position and mitigate concentration risk via receivables finance and forfaiting.

Open-account financing to established, single-flow key suppliers. 

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Managing Bank Balance Sheets in a Low Yield Environment

NeuGroup BankTPG members hear ways to manage their balance sheets amid low interest rates (that may remain low a long time).

The Federal Reserve announced in early June that it would keep its benchmark interest rate near zero through 2022. While this might be good for borrowers, what does it mean for lenders? And are negative rates possible?

The first question has many answers, as members of NeuGroup’s Bank Treasurers’ Peer Group (BankTPG) heard at the 16th annual meeting. There were several strategies suggested by the meeting sponsor on what bank treasurers can do to manage the balance sheet amid this uncertainty. The answer to whether rates go negative: it is unlikely

NeuGroup BankTPG members hear ways to manage their balance sheets amid low interest rates (that may remain low a long time).

The Federal Reserve announced in early June that it would keep its benchmark interest rate near zero through 2022. While this might be good for borrowers, what does it mean for lenders? And are negative rates possible?

The first question has many answers, as members of NeuGroup’s Bank Treasurers’ Peer Group (BankTPG) heard at the 16th annual meeting. There were several strategies suggested by the meeting sponsor on what bank treasurers can do to manage the balance sheet amid this uncertainty. The answer to whether rates go negative: it is unlikely (see below). 

Like the Gershwin tune. “Low rates are here to stay,” one member of the BankTPG meeting sponsor team said, and thus would remain a challenge for banks. “Not a lot of yield to be had here,” he added. The bankers suggested that as with their own balance sheet, members should think about pass-throughs. 

  • “Given current mortgage rates, prepayments may increase and remain elevated, suggesting that bank portfolios should purchase lower dollar price assets in pass-throughs,” the sponsor said in a presentation.

Real estate could help. BankTPG members were told that GSEs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could be facing reform soon, although COVID-19 may delay things. Despite this, the housing market should stay strong, according to the meeting sponsors. Commercial real estate could be problematic but low rates could mitigate the impact. 

  • “There could be some challenges to commercial, but looking at it overall, it’s not bad because of low rates,” said one member of the sponsor team. “There are plenty of people with dry powder to buy in distress and otherwise.” 

Protect against volatility. Another strategy for the remainder of 2020 suggested by sponsors was to protect downside risk with hedges. “Shifting from linear derivatives into hedges with positive convexity like interest rate swaps may be risk accretive at current rate levels. Also, “as implied volatility hits multi-year lows, 0% strike interest rate floors and interest rate collars have become powerful hedging tools.” 

Certificates of deposit. The sponsor said some of its clients are investing in bank CDs with customized coupons. “There’s some risk there so don’t do in large size,” the sponsor suggested. 

Floating-rate SOFR. With the Fed’s Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR) gaining traction, there have been many entities, including GSEs Fannie and Freddie, banks like Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse and Bank of America issuing SOFR-referenced floating rate notes. The BankTPG sponsor said that despite this, SOFR FRNs are not that popular. 

  • On the other hand, the bank is “supportive of the move to SOFR; the transmission mechanism is good,” the sponsor said. Nonetheless, “it raises a lot of questions on how you want to be positioned right now.” And in terms of FRNs, “anything out there that is a lottery ticket if rates go negative.” 

Negative rates? The sponsor said negative rates in the US are unlikely, and members agreed. Across the NeuGroup network, the consensus is that US rates, while remaining near zero, will not go negative. 

  • “Our bank is trying to be disciplined and mechanical,” said one member who was reviewing whether to “unwind and reposition things” in case rates go below zero. The sponsors added that their bank was “trying to be disciplined and mechanical” about the market.” 
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NeuGroup for Retail Treasury Pilot Series Wrap-Up

Customer paying using mobile phone

In a series of Zoom sessions, the NeuGroup for Retail Treasury was launched in partnership with Starbucks treasury and sponsored by U.S. Bank. NeuGroup Founder and CEO Joseph Neu shares his key takeaways from the sessions as follows:

  1. Retail is a sector of haves and have-nots based on being deemed an essential business, the ability to offer and scale on-line offerings and/or deliver out-of-store, including via curbside pickup or drive through.
  2. Business norms are changing fast. In June, the focus for retailers shifted from Covid-19 to racial injustice and equity in a matter of two weeks.
  3. Point-of-sale payments are problematic. In the US, in particular, payment systems serving the point of sale have not kept up with digital payments, creating substantial problems for retailers, and Covid-19 has laid that bare.

By Joseph Neu

As part of our ongoing experimentation with new virtual formats, the NeuGroup for Retail Treasury pilot “meeting” was made into a series of Zoom sessions over the course of about six weeks, concluding this week. This group was launched in partnership with Starbucks Treasury on the member side and sponsored by U.S. Bank.

Here are my key takeaways as a wrap up to the series:

Covid-19 divides into haves and have-nots. Retail and other consumer-facing businesses, such as quick-serve restaurants, represent a sector of haves and have nots.

The haves:

  • Those deemed essential businesses that could remain open during the Covid-19 lockdown
  • Those that were prepared to offer/ramp online offerings as well as
  • Those that provided out-of-store delivery, including curbside pick-up or drive through are the more likely haves in this sector.

The have-nots:

  • Pretty much everyone else.

Protests prompt fast-changing norms.  In a session that happened to fall on Juneteenth, weeks after a session where a member in the Twin Cities shared his perspectives on the situation there, we took a good portion of our exchange on regulation and business norms to discuss an entirely unexpected crisis. We discussed how the retail sector, being consumer-facing and with storefronts made part of the protests, was confronting a crisis brought about by racial trauma and a lack of respect being shown for Black lives.

  • Underscoring the pace of change in business norms, the focus shifted from Covid-19 to racial justice and equity in a period of two weeks.

It was a fitting way to celebrate Juneteenth, however.

  • Several members attending also joined on what was a company holiday for them (a new holiday can be decided upon in days).
  • All spoke to what their companies have and will continue to do to show their commitment to, as one company noted: “to standing with Black families, communities and team members and creating lasting change around racial justice and equity.”
  • All also will be building on their foundations of diversity and inclusion to make what one member of color noted she hopes will be sincere actions to create lasting change.

Payments at the point of sale are problematic.  In the US, in particular, the payment situation at the point of sale is a huge problem and Covid-19 has laid that bare.

  • The problems start with interchange fees in this country that have not kept pace with digital forms of payment
  • They actually dissuade merchants from accepting contactless forms of payment, including the safest form using smartphones with biometric identify verification.

As a result, the US has seen growth in contactless forms of payment rise to 4%, from 0.4% in the last 18 months, while the rest of the developed world is growing it to over 50% of face-to-face transactions.

  • While members report that electronic payments are growing, including contactless, as a result of Covid-19, the cost involved in processing such payments is also a growing concern.

Cash transactions, meanwhile, have been hampered, at a time when customers are returning to in-store purchases, by the disruptions of coins in circulation. This is due to so many stores being closed in lockdown, coin recycling machines being turned off, and consumer reluctance to return to stores and use unhygenic cash and coin as payment. 

  • Without the ability to make change–given the cost of electronic payments on small-ticket sales and the number of customers who prefer or can only pay in cash– stores processing face-to-face payment at the point of the sale have had to scramble to cope with yet another issue detrimental to their business.
  • The state of play in the US with point-of-sale payments is an embarrassment and we should all do more to ensure that we don’t let it stand as it does.
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COVID Boosts Contactless Payments, Revealing Retailer Frustrations

Low adoption rates in the US and issues such as routing rights and interchange fees may present challenges for some retailers as contactless payment grows.

It’s no big surprise that the pandemic has pushed more US shoppers to use contactless credit and debit cards as well as mobile wallets. Tapping or waving a card or phone is a cleaner, safer way to pay than swiping or inserting a card.

  • But what stood out at a recent NeuGroup for Retail Treasury meeting was the frustration voiced by members about aspects of the shift to contactless payments—each aspect related in some way to costs.

Low adoption rates in the US and issues such as routing rights and interchange fees may present challenges for some retailers as contactless payment grows.

It’s no big surprise that the pandemic has pushed more US shoppers to use contactless credit and debit cards as well as mobile wallets. Tapping or waving a card or phone is a cleaner, safer way to pay than swiping or inserting a card.

  • But what stood out at a recent NeuGroup for Retail Treasury meeting was the frustration voiced by members about aspects of the shift to contactless payments—each aspect related in some way to costs.

One-sided investment? “This frustrates me,” said one member, adding that companies like hers were “forced to step up and invest” in technology enabling chips and contactless payments or risk being liable for fraudulent charges. The problem? Card issuers, she said, did not include contactless technology when they introduced chip cards—meaning retailers had to make “a one-sided investment” with respect to contactless payments.

The US as laggard. One reason that investment hasn’t paid off for many retailers is that very few US consumers are making contactless payments, even though about 75% of merchant locations can accept them and card issuers are now providing them. As the chart shows, only 4% of face-to-face transactions in the US are contactless, far below the global average of 50%.  

  • This discrepancy meant merchants have not benefitted significantly from faster transaction processing times or throughputs available with contactless payments, the member said. And employees of quick service restaurants with drive-through service had to keep passing cards back and forth with customers.
  • But the times are changing fast: More than half (51%) of Americans are now using some form of contactless payment, which includes tap-to-go credit cards and mobile wallets like Apple Pay, according to Mastercard. 

Pinless debit in peril? Another member pointed out that companies like his that process pinless debit transactions—which by law allow merchants to route transactions away from the big global card networks and pay lower interchange fees—may lose that ability if they opt for contactless payments.

  • “This is the networks’ way of eliminating pinless debit because of lost revenue,” he said.

Upside down. The last area of frustration discussed concerns the interchange fees merchants pay for contactless transactions over the internet using biometric technology in digital wallets, making them among the most secure transactions, one treasuer said.

  • He argued that this superior level of security should mean interchange fees for mobile transactions online are the lowest paid by retailers. They’re not.
  • They’re among the highest, he said, because they are treated in most cases as any internet transaction, which is less secure than when a customer is presenting a card in a physical store or restaurant.
  • That there is no correlation between the fees charged and the relative level of security doesn’t make sense to this treasurer.
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Pandemic Pushes Companies to Digitize Processes, Prioritize People

Treasurers at tech firms push to abandon legacy processes while focusing on keeping teams connected.
 
Many tech companies during the pandemic have been able to announce that they will not lay anyone off during the crisis—and have been able to keep their promise.
 
Unfortunately, that’s not universally true—some businesses have been particularly hard hit and have had to furlough or cut staff, and consequently do more with less. This prompted a hard look at projects and their prioritization for many members of NeuGroup’s Tech20 Treasurers’ Peer Group, who met virtually in May.

Treasurers at tech firms push to abandon legacy processes while focusing on keeping teams connected.
 
Many tech companies during the pandemic have been able to announce that they will not lay anyone off during the crisis—and have been able to keep their promise.
 
Unfortunately, that’s not universally true—some businesses have been particularly hard hit and have had to furlough or cut staff, and consequently do more with less. This prompted a hard look at projects and their prioritization for many members of NeuGroup’s Tech20 Treasurers’ Peer Group, who met virtually in May.
 
Mixed emphasis. Even for those members who didn’t have to downsize their teams, there was an effort to deprioritize certain projects to avoid the fatigue that creeps into teams as the work from home (WFH) regime drags on. But there may also be projects that should be accelerated.

  • A lack of automation and digitalization manifests itself sharply in uncertain times and calls for a mindset of taking advantage of the crisis to boost these efforts.
  • One simple example is the push for wider bank and regulatory acceptance of digital signatures (Adobe Sign, DocuSign) instead of the standard “wet” signature, not just on a temporary basis but permanently and globally.
  • And if you haven’t automated enough of your cash positioning, for instance, now is the time to do so to free up time for critical forecasting and analysis. 

Back in the office, or not so much? What will the future workplace look like, even if you have an office to go to? Even with smaller meeting sizes, half team in, half team out, masks on and temps checked—all of which will put a damper on the office enthusiasm—some employees might not have an office. One treasurer’s company had announced in May that it would reduce its real estate footprint by 50%; this has been something heard across NeuGroups.

  • “Hoteling,” with coworking and shared work spaces, is back again. Will this lead to a reversal of the California exodus trend, i.e., going to lower-cost states? If one of the key reasons for distributing teams out of the state is the cost of Bay Area real estate, will that go on to the same degree if the team can just work from home instead, saving cost on office space? At the very least, the calculus will look a bit different going forward. 

But really, what’s next? As one member noted, the new WFH paradigm is not likely to change any time soon and may become a permanent arrangement for some, or at least some of the time. What will that mean for recruitment processes, performance reviews, retention, team alignment and getting everyone to row in the same direction?

  • Focus on the folks. A member noted the emphasis on empathy and keeping the team feeling connected: “At other meetings, we used to talk to about systems, systems, systems, and now it’s people, people, people. And I can’t imagine losing any of my people now.”
  • When everyone’s remote, “it’s hard to recreate the ordinary dialogue you have” noted one of the RBC Capital Markets sponsors, referring to summer interns and new hires. That said, it seems that younger employees are thriving in the WFH environment and have grown more assertive; they were quieter in the office. As one member said, “On Zoom, everyone’s square is the same size.”
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Under the Hood of the Global Payments System: Complexity

How TIS helped The Adecco Group harmonize payment, reporting and bank account management processes.

So, you need to make payments? Sounds simple, but once you look under the hood of the global payments apparatus—which has developed differently in different places for different currencies—you will discover separate layers of complexity. That’s according to Joerg Wiemer, co-founder and CEO of Treasury Intelligence Solutions, or TIS.Put simply, there are three different sources of complexity.

  1. The connection and integration of the ERP and the bank system is incomplete, resulting in the use of multiple e-banking tools and a cumbersome cash visibility process.
  2. Payment formats, despite efforts to harmonize them, are not fully standardized, resulting in more time-consuming setup processes and/or costly payment fixes.
  3. Communication options like APIs are more like green bananas than the ripe fruit they are currently made out to be. Add to these the increased frequency of fraud attempts targeting the payments function.

How TIS helped The Adecco Group harmonize payment, reporting and bank account management processes.

So, you need to make payments? Sounds simple, but once you look under the hood of the global payments apparatus—which has developed differently in different places for different currencies—you will discover separate layers of complexity. That’s according to Joerg Wiemer, co-founder and CEO of Treasury Intelligence Solutions, or TIS.

Put simply, there are three different sources of complexity.

  1. The connection and integration of the ERP and the bank system is incomplete, resulting in the use of multiple e-banking tools and a cumbersome cash visibility process.
  2. Payment formats, despite efforts to harmonize them, are not fully standardized, resulting in more time-consuming setup processes and/or costly payment fixes.
  3. Communication options like APIs are more like green bananas than the ripe fruit they are currently made out to be. Add to these the increased frequency of fraud attempts targeting the payments function. 

High jump. The combination of these factors makes it hard for a treasury management system (TMS) to truly meet payment needs. And that’s before you consider that you will always need to make payments. A TMS, TIS suggests, can be a great “all-arounder” but is still like an Olympic decathlete in terms of required functionalities compared to the superior, focused expertise of a sprinter, long-distance runner, high jumper or javelin thrower.

A simplification case. At a recent meeting of the Tech20 High Growth Edition, NeuGroup for treasurers of high-growth tech companies, TIS co-presented a payments simplification case with a client, The Adecco Group. 

  • Adecco is a Fortune Global 500 recruitment and staffing agency based in Zurich, Switzerland, which operates 5,100 branches in eight regions and 60 countries. Over 60% of its EUR 23.4 billion FY2019 revenues came from Western Europe, and 19% from North America.
  • While the business is relatively stable and has some offsetting/countercyclical elements, 75% of revenues come from temporary staffing solutions with “retail-like” margins, i.e., not that generous. With processes involving up to 700,000 individuals at any given time, the emphasis is naturally on operating efficiency.
  • This entails digitization and automation in timesheets, recruitment (e.g., candidate portals), documentation, administration and, of course, payments. 

The handover. The payments function, often managed by treasury, is a handover point from many stakeholders, including treasury itself, accounting, shared services, IT or value-added process owners, and a variety of legal entities. It is similar at Adecco. The objectives of Adecco’s transformation journey are focused on:

  • Global cash visibility in the TMS, Kyriba.
  • Connection to all banks globally using TIS as the service bureau, ensuring communication efficiency (SWIFT, host-to-host, EBICS, BACS) depending on volume and complexity of local business needs.
  • Improved and harmonized payment, reporting and bank account management processes via a single, bank-independent e-banking system, provided by TIS (over 10,000 banks are connected via TIS’s cloud platform)—while also achieving compliance, bank-signature governance, risk reduction and cash centralization via pooling arrangements.  

A complicating factor is payroll payments: Salary and wage payments come from human resource systems where local rules and regulations for employee protections and taxes drive local differences, making this type of payment hard to harmonize.

The business case? Depending on your starting point, a “very high” ROI can be achieved primarily by:

  • Building in the ability to choose the most efficient communication option (bullet 2 above) for each payment. Over 90% of the traffic can go directly via non-SWIFT channels, meaning it’s cheaper: SWIFT has transaction-based pricing and TIS has “value-based” pricing where higher complexity means higher pricing (the number of bank accounts or ERPs is a proxy for complexity). But part of the TIS value proposition is reducing complexity with their project implementation.
  • Overcoming format-error driven payment delays (and costly fixes) with the use of TIS’s continuously updated and maintained payments “format library.” 

Success factors. Like many project stories, success lies in the effective coordination and collaboration of people.

  • Senior management sets the tone by driving change and expectations; also required is committed involvement from internal controls, compliance and IT/security, and strong governance from business, finance and treasury leadership.  

Test, test and test some more. For an end-to-end (E2E) process approach to be successful, test, test and retest all the formats and pathways thoroughly. And include deliberate errors to make testing as robust as possible.

Next up: From batch to instant payments. TIS does not consider APIs quite ready for prime time yet, and cites country-by-country differences (apps, clearing systems, amount thresholds and the varying API libraries banks have) as the primary reasons. They are nevertheless a big development and will bring many benefits in time.

  • People use Adecco’s app to find jobs; when their work is done and approved, nothing really stands in the way of settling the payment for that work.
  • “So we envision moving from batch to instant payments,” André van der Toorn, senior vp of treasury at the Adecco Group, said. Adecco’s associates (employees for whom Adecco is the employer of record) may be keen to accept that, even if it means they will get paid slightly less. Instant payments may come very soon, based on the success of a live test with a digital client in a remote part of the world.

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Obstacle Course: Cash Forecasting Challenges in Latin America 

Treasurers in Latin America are coping with the pandemic, M&A activity and working capital needs.
 
Many of the cash management challenges currently facing treasurers in Latin America are being complicated by a variety of factors, including the omnipresent COVID-19 crisis. But also in the mix is recent M&A activity in the region (think integration and its opposite, divestiture), along with difficult financing conditions affecting working capital management.
 
COVID chaos. Latin America is no exception in regions contending with the difficulties brought on by the pandemic. As in other parts of the world, work from home (WFH) processes have had to be invented on the fly and then executed.

Treasurers in Latin America are coping with the pandemic, M&A activity and working capital needs.
 
Many of the cash management challenges currently facing treasurers in Latin America are being complicated by a variety of factors, including the omnipresent COVID-19 crisis. But also in the mix is recent M&A activity in the region (think integration and its opposite, divestiture), along with difficult financing conditions affecting working capital management.
 
COVID chaos. Latin America is no exception in regions contending with the difficulties brought on by the pandemic. As in other parts of the world, work from home (WFH) processes have had to be invented on the fly and then executed.

  • This has led to some turnover, part of which stems from the paradoxical situation where WFH often means more work and burnout; this then leads to companies onboarding new people either virtually or in person while maintaining social distancing protocols.
  • Members pointed out that this highlighted the importance of written, up-to-date policies and procedures. 

M&A chaos. Acquisitions, and in one case a divestiture, bring their own challenges to accurate cash forecasting. Integration of the entities involved must take place country by country. The message here is that there is a lot to do, in multiple tax and regulatory environments that generally do not allow cross-border solutions. Of course, the whole forecast philosophy can vary—forecast as needed vs. regular forecasts. Also, the need to repatriate regularly or leave the cash where it is requires major adjustment and training.

  • Where treasury management systems are involved (and the accounting systems that feed them), there is the need to reconcile different approaches to the requirements of the new combined (or separated) entity. 

Working cap scrutiny. Communicating the expected cash needs of the new company is an important issue to management ahead of earnings calls. Going along with this is the focus on working capital, and in particular short-term assets like accounts receivable (DSO’s) and inventory (months of sales).

  • Often overlooked is the opportunity presented on the liability side. Companies with historically strong cash flow may have slipped into a practice of just paying the bills as presented.
  • By paying according to terms, or negotiating payment terms to industry benchmarks, companies can add to cash on hand the same way collecting sales faster adds to cash. 

Cash rules. Treasury needs to work closely with in-country managers to identify where there are opportunities to increase cash on hand and then determine how to get that cash to where it is needed, whether to pay down debt or pay equity investors.

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Why Swapping Fixed-Rate Debt to Floating Is Still Worth Considering

Wells Fargo shared insights on liability management at the pilot meeting of NeuGroup for Capital Markets.

At a spring meeting of NeuGroup for Capital Markets, sponsored by Wells Fargo, several members said they had used interest-rate swaps to shift more of their debt to floating rates, a move that paid off as rates fell in the second quarter amid the pandemic.

  • A few participants had regrets about having swapped from floating to fixed rates.
  • One member said his team is “spending a lot of time trying to get the right mix” of fixed and floating rates as it asks if “it makes sense to do swaps.”

Wells Fargo shared insights on liability management at the pilot meeting of NeuGroup for Capital Markets.

At a spring meeting of NeuGroup for Capital Markets, sponsored by Wells Fargo, several members said they had used interest-rate swaps to shift more of their debt to floating rates, a move that paid off as rates fell in the second quarter amid the pandemic.

  • A few participants had regrets about having swapped from floating to fixed rates.
  • One member said his team is “spending a lot of time trying to get the right mix” of fixed and floating rates as it asks if “it makes sense to do swaps.”

Conversations and convincing. One of the members who swapped from fixed to floating said it had required “convincing management this was right” from an asset liability management (ALM) perspective, adding that treasury had lots of conversations with the CFO “to make him comfortable.” She said much of the focus was on timing which, fortunately, “worked out.”

  • As a result, some of this company’s hedges are in the money, raising the question of whether it makes sense to unwind or enter into offsetting swaps to monetize the hedge gains. The member asked for input on accounting and other considerations.
  • This company had also done some pre-issuance hedging and was doing more of it at the time of the meeting.

Magic formula? One of the presenters from Wells Fargo asked, rhetorically, how many people at the meeting had been told there is a “magic formula” for the ideal debt mix, such as 75% fixed to 25% floating.

  • Formulas aside, the key question investment-grade (IG) companies must answer before using interest-rate swaps, he said, is how much volatility in corporate earnings (before interest and taxes) will result from changes in rates. The answer, he suggested, depends on the cyclicality of the business and its “absorption capacity.”
  • It’s important to ask why you put on the swap, especially in this environment when fixed to floating-rate swaps went into the money, the Wells Fargo presenter said. What’s important is determining how much potential eps volatility it creates and whether “you can add it and not create heartburn,” he said.

What now? Another presenter from Wells Fargo said that, as a result of lower savings now available from swapping fixed to floating rates, “I think people have written off swaps to floating.” But he said the savings are still decent, meaning it makes sense to keep swaps on the radar screen and that corporates should “keep thinking” about them.

  • In a follow-up call in early July, he said his views still hold in the current market and pointed to data Wells Fargo presented during the meeting to illustrate that swaps to floating make sense even when rates are flat.
  • It shows that over the last 23 years, the savings on a 5-year swap, even in an adjusted market environment where interest rates remain flat and trendless, still amount to nearly 100 basis points.
  • This may be especially relevant today given that so many companies boosted liquidity as the pandemic shut down the economy by issuing fixed-rate debt.
  • As a result, Wells Fargo’s presentation says, the liability portfolios of many IG issuers are overweight fixed-rate debt.
  • The bank also noted an “asset liability mismatch (debt versus cash/short-term investments) creating ‘negative carry drag’.”
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Brain Game: Using Artificial Intelligence to Improve Cash Forecasting

ION’s plans to tap machine learning, deep learning and neural networks to help treasurers.  
 
Making better use of technology to improve cash flow forecasting (and cash visibility) has taken on greater importance during the pandemic for many companies where it was already a high priority. That was among the key takeaways at the spring virtual meeting of the Global Cash and Banking Group, sponsored by ION Treasury.

  • ION sells seven different treasury management systems (TMSs), including Reval and Wallstreet Suite.
  • Among the cross-product solutions ION is focused on is a cash forecasting tool leveraging artificial intelligence (AI), mostly in the form of machine learning (ML) and deep learning neural networks.
  • One of the ION presenters said advances in AI and ML have produced an “opportunity to reimagine how cash forecasting can be done,” noting something treasurers know too well—that no one yet has truly “solved in a great way” one of the top challenges facing finance teams.

ION’s plans to tap machine learning, deep learning and neural networks to help treasurers.  
 
Making better use of technology to improve cash flow forecasting (and cash visibility) has taken on greater importance during the pandemic for many companies where it was already a high priority. That was among the key takeaways at the spring virtual meeting of the Global Cash and Banking Group, sponsored by ION Treasury.

  • ION sells seven different treasury management systems (TMSs), including Reval and Wallstreet Suite.
  • Among the cross-product solutions ION is focused on is a cash forecasting tool leveraging artificial intelligence (AI), mostly in the form of machine learning (ML) and deep learning neural networks.
  • One of the ION presenters said advances in AI and ML have produced an “opportunity to reimagine how cash forecasting can be done,” noting something treasurers know too well—that no one yet has truly “solved in a great way” one of the top challenges facing finance teams.

Define your terms. Another ION presenter explained that AI is any intelligence demonstrated by a machine.

  • ML—a subset of AI—involves the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed.
  • Deep learning (DL) is a subset of ML and includes so-called neural networks inspired by the human brain. The algorithms powering neural networks need “training data” to learn, enabling them to recognize patterns.
    • The ION presenter gave the example of a neural network within a self-driving vehicle that processes images “seen” by the car. 

Building on data and business knowledge. For cash forecasting, the learning process starts with entering historical data into the model that is “cleaned” by tagging the inflows and outflows appropriately and removing outliers that would significantly skew trends. Models are trained via algorithms that apply rules and matching inputs with expected outputs.

Validation required. Like many learning curves, it takes time for the model to reach a high level of performance and requires treasury professionals to validate that the algo knows what it is doing by comparing the forecast to actual variances.

  • Similarly, people—not machines—will have insider knowledge of significant changes within the organization and must make tweaks to the model where appropriate. 

Measuring the models. Various statistical approaches feed neural networks’ underlying algorithms. When building their AI cash forecasting solution, ION tested everything from simple linear regression to multivariable linear regression to the Autoregressive Integrated Moving Average (ARIMA) model, which adds layers to the neural network and process non-linear activities.

  • ION’s research suggests that linear regression-based learning models perform well for businesses with stable, growing cash flows, but less well with cash flows subject to seasonal peaks.
    • ARIMA models perform better, but need extra modeling for seasonality while neural networks require careful attention to training data to learn from, as well as supplemental intervention when non-repeating events occur—such as global pandemics.
  • Still, you can get 90%-95% accuracy most of the time, in seconds vs a day or more using manual methods. ML for cash forecasting has the potential to be 3,000 times faster than common manual processes companies employ, according to ION.
    • Other benefits include improving accuracy, overcoming human biases, picking up anomalies that could mean fraudulent activity, and realizing monetary gains from more predictable cash positions.
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Managing the Team Through WFH Takes Effort

Powering an effective team through tough times – snacks and all.

For all the talk about how well NeuGroup peer group members and their teams have navigated the pandemic – quarter closes, bond issuances, insurance renewals, revolver negotiations, even hostile takeover attempts – there is a nagging feeling that “this can’t go on forever” without more problems manifesting themselves in some way. 

After almost four months of a near complete “work from home” or WFH regime, it will still be a while before the full strength of the treasury team is back together in the office. Some companies have announced recently phased-in returns as early as mid-June while others have been told to stay home through the end of the year. What can be learned from the experience so far as the situation stays fluid? Here are some thoughts from NeuGroup’s recent Tech20 Treasurers’ Peer Group meeting.

Powering an effective team through tough times – snacks and all.

For all the talk about how well NeuGroup peer group members and their teams have navigated the pandemic – quarter closes, bond issuances, insurance renewals, revolver negotiations, even hostile takeover attempts – there is a nagging feeling that “this can’t go on forever” without more problems manifesting themselves in some way. 

After almost four months of a near complete “work from home” or WFH regime, it will still be a while before the full strength of the treasury team is back together in the office. Some companies have announced recently phased-in returns as early as mid-June while others have been told to stay home through the end of the year. What can be learned from the experience so far as the situation stays fluid? Here are some thoughts from NeuGroup’s recent Tech20 Treasurers’ Peer Group meeting. 

First, all the BCP work pays off. Treasury’s essential focus of keeping the lights on no matter the catastrophe has long required detailed business continuity plans to ensure access to liquidity, collections capabilities and the ability to make payments away from a compromised office site. 

  • So, arguably, no team was better prepared than treasury going into the pandemic-driven mandate for staff to take up their posts at home. Some treasurers noted with relief that they had recently tested the BCP and that things had worked out as planned when the order came. 

Not much change for some. Global corporations of a certain size already have regional treasury centers in other places of the world, and – especially if based in the high-cost San Francisco Bay Area – varying levels of distributed teams in lower-cost regions of the US, e.g., Florida and Texas. The ability to lead those teams may have taken on a different nuance in the WFH environment, but managers were already used to leading remote team members. 

  • “We were already very remote so we had that down, and the [quarterly] close wasn’t a problem,” said a Tech20 member who leads both the treasury and tax teams. Nevertheless – and despite a significant redistribution of ergonomic chairs from offices to homes across the Bay Area – several companies gave a stipend of up to several hundred dollars to set up a home office. 

Reassure the team with leadership, transparency. With the airwaves filled with COVID-19 news and the increased focus on cash and forecasting facing a very uncertain future, it is natural that people start worrying about losing their jobs. Some companies, including one Tech20 member who shared her company’s approach to leading in times of COVID-19, announced that there would be no layoffs in 2020. 

  • This company also makes a lot of effort to show empathy with employees and demonstrates its own focus on well-being to reassure others that it is OK to nor just power on as usual. The cadence of communication is important.

Set boundaries, examples. Particularly in situations where the whole family is at home, it’s important to demarcate work time and home time. Our presenting member said her husband oversees schooling the kids and she does “after school” activities. This means she is not available for meetings for a set number of hours in the afternoon and encourages her staff to set similar limits. 

  • Another member, who also emphasized mental well-being after the intensity of weeks upon weeks of blurred work/home lines – especially for single parents with young kids, and since taking vacation seems pointless if you can’t go anywhere – said he would take a Friday off on a regular basis, signaling that similar actions by staff are acceptable. 

A lot of mileage out of small morale boosters. Coffee breaks and happy hours by Zoom, a dedicated Slack channel for office chitchat and family pictures, checking in on the singles on the team, and online trivia game time are examples of team building and maintaining a sense of team and inclusion. The tax and treasury chief from above organized a “remote offsite” meeting to connect with the team and from time to time sends much-welcomed healthy snack packages (from Oh My Green) to her staff. 

  • All this combined with the moratorium on layoffs have rewarded the presenting company’s management with their highest employee satisfaction numbers, despite the challenging period. 
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Do Pensions Need to Bolster Post-Retirement Resources?

Pension managers could be doing a better job of guiding retirees with their post-work pension planning.

For decades, defined contribution (DC) retirement plans have helped address the needs of individuals leading up to retirement. However, plan sponsors have made little progress in addressing individuals’ needs during retirement itself, according to Insight Investment, a sponsor of the NeuGroup for Pension and Benefits’ recent meeting. 

Retirement anxiety. There is a lot of unease for employees on the verge of retiring, as they worry about funding their non-working lives. It also remains a major concern among the population still working, given the disappearance of defined benefit pension plans, near-zero interest rates and highly volatile equity markets.

Pension managers could be doing a better job of guiding retirees with their post-work pension planning.

For decades, defined contribution (DC) retirement plans have helped address the needs of individuals leading up to retirement. However, plan sponsors have made little progress in addressing individuals’ needs during retirement itself, according to Insight Investment, a sponsor of the NeuGroup for Pension and Benefits’ recent meeting. 

Retirement anxiety. There is a lot of unease for employees on the verge of retiring, as they worry about funding their non-working lives. It also remains a major concern among the population still working, given the disappearance of defined benefit pension plans, near-zero interest rates and highly volatile equity markets.  

“Surveys are showing that this is a concern for individuals,” said Bruce Wolfe, head of individual retirement strategy at Insight Investment. “The first step is to understand how the decumulation phase differs from the accumulation phase and create a framework to deliver the steady, predictable lifetime income that retirees generally desire.” 

  • Mr. Wolfe believes many of the “hurdles for plan sponsors to do more are only a matter of perception.” This means steps do exist for those managing the plan to not only educate soon-to-be retirees but also offer solutions to help manage their assets at separation “giving them firmer footing for the next phase of their lives.”
  • Meeting attendees basically agreed that while it was generally good to offer their employees a range of investment products – including environmental, social and governance options – within their retirement plans, there was little interest in what exiting employees did with their savings after they leave the company. While companies may offer some simple retirement planning tools, they do not want to risk appearing to be fiduciaries. 

Decumulation in the spotlight. The lack of tools has put decumulation in the spotlight for many plan sponsors, a recognition that most retirees are lost when it comes to what is, in practical terms, fairly sophisticated financial analysis. For example, only 5.5% wait until age 70 to start taking social security benefits when most retirees should wait as long as possible given longevity protection and inflation hedge that social security uniquely provides. For 401(k) participants seeking help there are some positive developments including:

  • 41% of plans have at least some form of “retirement income” solutions available, although plan sponsors acknowledge more innovation is needed.
  • The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act cleared away some legal impediments to offering more retirement income products, particularly annuity-related ones.
  • QLAC products (Qualified Longevity Annuity Contracts) can be offered with limits within DC plans providing participants access to lifetime annuity contracts starting when individuals reach their 80s.   

This means plan sponsors need to “think harder about the escalating challenges they will face through the ‘decumulation’ phase of their investment lifecycle,” the Insight Investment team told meeting attendees. 

Unsteady footing. “Uncertainty is building as we find ourselves in an ‘interregnum’ between the post-war economic order and a brand-new economic era,” said Abdallah Nauphal, CEO at Insight Investment. “COVID-19 has provided an idea of how liquidity challenges, rebalancing and tail risk concerns can be elevated in stressed market conditions.” 

  • This means investors should prepare for future crises accordingly.
  • “Plans may need to consider adding additional tools to the toolkit, such as completion, overlay, asymmetric payoff and cost-effective downside equity risk management strategies to help ensure full funding and manage pension risks,” said Shivin Kwatra, Insight Investment’s head of LDI portfolio management in the US.
  • “We also believe investors need to focus on high quality investments to help ensure they meet their return and cash flow requirements with the highest level of certainty,” Mr. Kwatra said.
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Preparation Pays Off for Microsoft in Debt Exchange Offer

Liability management success: Microsoft received exchange interest of $12.5B, 56% of the targeted notional amount.
 
Treasury teams managing their debt portfolios have a menu of liability management transactions to choose from, including bond tenders, open-market repurchases, consent solicitations and debt exchanges. To use most of these tools, corporates need to offer investors a reasonable amount of time to decide, ranging from five to 20 business days.

  • So a successful liability transaction such as a debt exchange depends, in part, on a generally stable underlying market. COVID-19, of course, wreaked havoc on markets and sent volatility levels spiking. But monetary actions by the Fed and fiscal stimulus help calm markets, resulting in a sharp drop in volatility. And that opened the door for companies including Microsoft to take action.

Liability management success: Microsoft received exchange interest of $12.5B, 56% of the targeted notional amount.
 
Treasury teams managing their debt portfolios have a menu of liability management transactions to choose from, including bond tenders, open-market repurchases, consent solicitations and debt exchanges. To use most of these tools, corporates need to offer investors a reasonable amount of time to decide, ranging from five to 20 business days.

  • So a successful liability transaction such as a debt exchange depends, in part, on a generally stable underlying market. COVID-19, of course, wreaked havoc on markets and sent volatility levels spiking. But monetary actions by the Fed and fiscal stimulus help calm markets, resulting in a sharp drop in volatility. And that opened the door for companies including Microsoft to take action.

Laying the foundation. At a recent NeuGroup for Capital Markets office hours session, Microsoft’s treasury team discussed their recent debt exchange, announced on April 30, 2020 and settled on June 1, 2020.

  • Like any successful capital markets transaction, the preparation done in the months before by the treasury team laid the foundation for a debt exchange which accomplished the company’s financial and strategic objectives.
  • These objectives were driven by the primary principle to maximize economic value, including reducing the annual interest rate paid and being P&L accretive. 

Debt exchange details. On April 30, the company announced a registered waterfall exchange offer targeting 14 series of notes across two separate pools with maturities between 2035-2057, all with coupon rates above 3.75% (the existing notes) in exchange for cash into $6.25 billion of new notes due 2050 and $3 billion of new notes due 2060.

  • Microsoft set a waterfall prioritization based on economic value and registered the exchange via an S-4 filing requiring a 20-day offering period. It included an early exchange time on May 13, 2020 which offered investors better economics by exchanging their notes earlier than the official expiration date on May 28, 2020.
    • The strong interest by investors in the exchange allowed Microsoft to increase the amount of the new 2060 note to $3.75 billion. The final coupons on the new 2050 notes and the new 2060 notes were 2.525% and 2.675%, respectively. 

Banks with strong LM credentials. Working with joint dealer managers, Microsoft was able to tap into the knowledge and insights of two banks with strong credentials in liability management.

  • These banks were able to form a consensus on important details including what spreads over US Treasuries to use for both the existing notes and the new notes, modeling analysis, supporting logistics, the identification of holders of the existing notes and their likelihood of participating in the exchange, and potential ways to hedge interest rate movements.
  • At the end of the day, the transaction generated significant interest savings, and extended Microsoft’s debt maturity profile. The exchange also established new, liquid, par securities by allowing investors to move out of high dollar-priced bond issues.

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Cash and COVID-19: A Tale of Two Companies

One company asks, “Where is the cash?” while another reevaluates operational processes.
 
The economic upheaval unleashed by the pandemic divided the universe of companies at a recent virtual meeting of the Global Cash and Banking Group into two camps: Those with ample liquidity that were able to manage cash and conduct business as usual; and those forced to play defense and go “back to basics,” as one member in the latter camp put it.

  • Two member companies sharing very different perspectives on the pandemic’s impact on their businesses embodied this dichotomy: One, a tech giant, presented opportunities it found for process improvements; the other, a travel and leisure company, described an all-hands-on-deck liquidity crunch involving stress tests and turning over every stone for cash.

One company asks, “Where is the cash?” while another reevaluates operational processes.
 
The economic upheaval unleashed by the pandemic divided the universe of companies at a recent virtual meeting of the Global Cash and Banking Group into two camps: Those with ample liquidity that were able to manage cash and conduct business as usual; and those forced to play defense and go “back to basics,” as one member in the latter camp put it.

  • Two member companies sharing very different perspectives on the pandemic’s impact on their businesses embodied this dichotomy: One, a tech giant, presented opportunities it found for process improvements; the other, a travel and leisure company, described an all-hands-on-deck liquidity crunch involving stress tests and turning over every stone for cash. 

Tech tools. Liquidity was not an issue for the tech company and “we probably weathered the crisis better than other industries because of all the tech tools we have,” the member said, adding that the “crisis has raised opportunities” to improve processes.

  • The company was completely prepared to shift gears to work remotely so the challenge became how to overcome various geographical shutdowns and stay-at-home orders across the globe that affected access to stores, lockboxes and, in some cases, payroll.
  • Another technology company found opportunities on the check issuance side, saying that some vendors wanted to switch to ACH payments to improve their liquidity; but ACHs also made sense because it was pointless to send checks to locations (stores, lockboxes, etc.) that were closed. 

Tokens vs. mobile apps. During the pandemic, the first tech company lifted some restrictions on the use of mobile banking apps; when a token doesn’t work and treasury isn’t “in the building” the ease of a mobile app can save the day, especially since the company’s internal process requires three people to move money across the board.

  • However, future thought must be given to the continued use of mobile banking because in the case of termination or employee’s departure, it is easier to collect a token than disable a feature on their phone.

Are wet signatures a thing of the past? The pandemic also presented an opportunity to see how far banks would go in accepting DocuSign.

  • Members said the answer depends on the bank, with the member from the tech company saying, “We adjust to whatever the banks can support.” That said, many banks have made allowances that members hope will continue when things return to “normal.”

Where is the cash? On the flip side to these operational improvement opportunities, many treasury departments across industries scrambled to get a handle on all cash everywhere as the pandemic squeezed liquidity.

  • Hard hit. The travel and leisure industry in particular has been hard hit by mandated travel restrictions and months of consumer cancellations, resulting in a big blow to liquidity. For one member in that industry, prudent cash management and operations have been imperative to keeping the company’s balance sheet strong.
  • No treasury outside treasury. A centralized treasury department has helped with tackling the liquidity pinch for this member, allowing for global transparency and examination of onshore and offshore cash.
    • Because onshore does not equate to accessibility, her treasury department has re-bucketed cash by availability to determine true cash positions across horizons and established an internal task force with legal and accounting to establish minimum balances required for operations.
  • Scenario analyses and stress tests. Good cash forecasting has never been so important— treasury has been called to turn over models, run various scenario analyses and stress test base cases to safeguard the business. 
    • This treasury team tested base, prolonged recovery and severe impact analyses to consider various economic scenarios and protect minimum operating requirements.

Teamwork. The company formed a global finance task force to explore what more can be done to generate cost savings, defer tax and bolster receivables. The member said she was pleased to have employees volunteering from various departments and teams, coming together to help keep the company strong.

  • Similarly, with working capital management, different approaches are being taken with treasury in mind. Previously, departments would seek approval from the CFO based on anticipated ROI; now these teams are talking to treasury first to see if the use of cash makes sense before seeking sign-off. 

I will remember that. Members in similar boats agreed that some banks have gone out of their way to help them while others have been more strict, pushing back on requests and acting as though treasury was asking too much.

  • That prompted one member to say, “The banks who gave us the hard time—we won’t give them business.”
  • On the subject of accessing money invested in term deposits, she advised peers to always look at force majeure clauses in bank agreements to make sure they are not one-sided—allowing the bank to terminate but not allowing the investor to get money back early.
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US Coin Shortage: Retail Treasury Teams Call for Action, Urgency

Call it a disruption or call it a shortage—not enough coins means pain for retailers and banks.

Treasurers of major retailers and restaurant chains sounded loud notes of alarm at a NeuGroup virtual meeting Friday about what many observers are calling a coin shortage. U.S. Bank, the meeting sponsor, described it a “severe disruption” in the nation’s coin circulation sparked by COVID-19. (People have spent less cash during the pandemic and have exchanged far fewer coins for bills or credit at banks or grocery stores.)

Whatever you call this state of affairs, it’s a problem almost everyone said will turn painful this week and may last several months.

Call it a disruption or call it a shortage—not enough coins means pain for retailers and banks.

Treasurers of major retailers and restaurant chains sounded loud notes of alarm at a NeuGroup virtual meeting Friday about what many observers are calling a coin shortage. U.S. Bank, the meeting sponsor, described it as a “severe disruption” in the nation’s coin circulation sparked by COVID-19. (People have spent less cash during the pandemic and have exchanged far fewer coins for bills or credit at banks or grocery stores.)

Whatever you call this state of affairs, it’s a problem almost everyone said will turn painful this week and may last several months.

  • “What is the sense of urgency?” of addressing the problem, one assistant treasurer asked a U.S. Bank representative who serves on the Federal Reserve’s cash advisory council.
  • The U.S. Bank official said banks are keeping pressure on the US Mint, which ramped up production of all coins in mid-June, and are urging the Fed to make the public aware of the issue, including through social media.
  • While there is no easy, short-term solution, U.S. Bank is exhausting all channels to help clients, given the Fed’s decision to effectively ration the amount of coins banks can access to supply businesses.
  • The AT said his company’s coin orders are being filled at lower and lower percentages—as low as 20% or 0% in some areas. Roughly 20% of the company’s retail transactions are in cash.
A June 27 Twitter post by @Inevitable_ET says the photo is from a 7-Eleven.

Educating the public. “Why is the marketing campaign taking so long?” asked another member about expected efforts by the Fed to educate the public about the coin problem and encourage people to bring as many coins as possible back into the banking system.

  • “We as retailers are going to have to deal with consumers who don’t understand,” she said.
  • The treasurer of another retailer, where 40% of transactions are in cash, said there is some resistance from field teams to “having to explain the coin shortage in the country.”

Banks are showing a general lack of urgency/transparency. Members described their banks as providing varying degrees of help, from doing what they can, to “it’s not our problem” or “it’s not that bad of an issue.”

  • Comparing the issue to toilet paper hoarding earlier in the crisis, members noted that there is CEO-to-CEO engagement between retailers and suppliers. But that level of engagement is not happening between retailers and their banks, who are their suppliers of coin. 

Calls for more bank engagement. To address this, members suggested that banks come out with public letters from their CEOs calling attention to the coin shortage. This would help treasury get better traction and awareness in C-suites that this is a major issue that needs to be addressed.

Fixes are awkward, costly. Members noted that the fixes they are contemplating either are awkward or costly, and usually both.

  • On the awkward side is training associates to always ask for exact change, posting signs encouraging this and even saying that customers who do not have exact change (or an electronic form of payment) may not be able to check out or have their order filled.
  • On the cost side, moving low-dollar transactions to electronic payment has a significant economic cost (fees); rounding typically costs store as consumers don’t want to round up (and there are multi-jurisdiction tax issues to consider); and reprogramming point of sale systems can be expensive.
    •  Gift card issuance for change is also cumbersome. Some members are looking to donate change (or rounded-up amounts) to charity, usually the sponsored charity of the store.
    • Meanwhile, operators are being told to stop depositing coins, bringing in their own coins from home, ask local banks for supply and not to turn away coin orders that are “short.” 

Will coin disruption spread to notes? While banks have been assured by the Fed that the issue is not going to spread to notes, e.g., dollar bills or fives, retailers face an environment where the unexpected can happen, so members should extend their contingency plans to work out how to address disruption in smaller denomination notes as well.

Better/cheaper payment rails. Despite COVID-19 being a global issue, the coin disruption is principally a US problem, at least for the developed economies. Asked about the situation in the UK, for example, a member noted the country has an electronic payment system with much lower fees that allows for acceptance of electronic payment to become cost-effective at much lower ticket sizes. Multinational retailers are monitoring the situation in other cash-intensive markets closely, however.

Thus, the coin disruption provides yet another talking point alongside others with COVID-19, for those promoting an end to cash, a more inclusive electronic payment method, and digital currency. The Bank for International Settlements calls out the role of central banks with payments in this digital era, including establishing digital currencies in its recent economic annual report, for example.

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What the Experiment With Modern Monetary Theory Means for Risk Managers

Treasury and finance teams need to adapt to the reality of different thinking about debt and deficits.

By Joseph Neu

“We’re not even thinking about thinking about raising rates,” Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said after the Federal Open Market Committee’s June meeting.

  • This was good timing for me: On the same day, I suggested to clients of Chatham Financial attending a virtual summit that among the accelerating trends treasury and financial risk managers need to prepare for is the current flirtation with Modern Monetary Theory.

Study up on MMT. For those with a limited understanding of MMT, including me, it’s time to bone up, because without really saying they are doing so, governments and central banks of developed nations seem to be pushing us very close to something that will end up looking like an MMT experiment.

Treasury and finance teams need to adapt to the reality of different thinking about debt and deficits. 

By Joseph Neu

“We’re not even thinking about thinking about raising rates,” Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said after the Federal Open Market Committee’s June meeting.

  • This was good timing for me: On the same day, I suggested to clients of Chatham Financial attending a virtual summit that among the accelerating trends treasury and financial risk managers need to prepare for is the current flirtation with Modern Monetary Theory. 

Study up on MMT. For those with a limited understanding of MMT, including me, it’s time to bone up, because without really saying they are doing so, governments and central banks of developed nations seem to be pushing us very close to something that will end up looking like an MMT experiment. 

  • The zero-rates-for-the-foreseeable-future policy coming out of the Fed is telling, because one of the tenets of MMT is to set rates at zero to borrow more efficiently to cover needed government spending and print money to repay it. Apparently, though, some MMT proponents suggest that it’s even more efficient just to print money to cover government deficits and not issue any debt at all.
  • It’s probably safer to keep the government debt issuance going for now as it underpins private sector debt financing, credit and interest rate management. Many of us have to unlearn what we’ve been taught about printing money and inflation, too, before we stop worrying about how we will pay off government debt. 
  • Taxes, in the MMT view, are not to increase cash flow to pay the debt but to take out excess printed money from the system so that we don’t get to hyperinflation.

After studying MMT, those of you who are treasury and financial risk managers should consider: 

  • Changing your thinking about financial risk. The developed world seems to be on a mission to test MMT. Time to adjust thinking to that reality.
  • Rethinking your fixed-rate bias. For current policy to work, we need low rates (even zero, if not negative) to be the norm, so the economics of swaps or interest-rate risk management isn’t necessarily going to be the same.
  • Accepting central banks as financial market primaries. The massive central bank intervention crisis playbook has sped up. How much more can the Fed do before it becomes the primary financing mechanism for everything? 
  • Is your company a have or a have not? The divide between those that have unlimited access to capital and those that do not will widen—and it is not limited to sovereigns. If sovereigns have unlimited ability to finance deficits and issue debt, they also have unlimited ability to support the financing of entities they deem unworthy of failure. Meanwhile, the financially strongest private entities will look for an equivalent power to print money. 
  • Becoming “antifragile.” MMT (or whatever governs our financial economic situation now) is not likely sustainable; or if it is, the transition to everyone believing it is unlikely to be smooth. So risk managers must promote resilience in preparation for the unknown of what comes next.
    • If you subscribe to Nassim Taleb’s view, then the most resilient risk management approach is to become “antifragile.” That is, strive to manage risk through the transition to MMT (or whatever we end up with) so that you can benefit from shocks while thriving and growing when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder and stressors. And don’t forget learning to love adventure, risk and uncertainty.
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Transition to SOFR Pushing Ahead Despite Pandemic

The pandemic and its aftermath forced bank treasurers to move the Libor-to-SOFR transition to the back burner; but make no mistake, it is still very much still on the stove.

With apologies to the real estate industry, there were three critical issues that mattered to bank treasurers before the pandemic: 1) Libor to SOFR transition, 2) Libor to SOFR transition and 3) Libor to SOFR transition. But now, given COVID-19’s damaging impact on world economies, banks have been presented with new priorities, like securing adequate liquidity and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). 

This mindset has led many banks to thinking that they should back-burner the transition until the coast is clear. Another driver of this thinking is that many treasurers haven’t been so keen on moving away from Libor in the first place.

The pandemic and its aftermath forced bank treasurers to move the Libor-to-SOFR transition to the back burner; but make no mistake, it is still very much still on the stove.

With apologies to the real estate industry, there were three critical issues that mattered to bank treasurers before the pandemic: 1) Libor to SOFR transition, 2) Libor to SOFR transition and 3) Libor to SOFR transition. But now, given COVID-19’s damaging impact on world economies, banks have been presented with new priorities, like securing adequate liquidity and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). 

This mindset has led many banks to thinking that they should back-burner the transition until the coast is clear. Another driver of this thinking is that many treasurers haven’t been so keen on moving away from Libor in the first place.

Lingering skepticism. Several members of NeuGroup’s Bank Treasurers’ Peer Group (BankTPG), meeting virtually recently, revealed wariness of jumping on the SOFR train too soon. “People want someone else to be first mover,” said one member in a breakout session at the meeting, which was held virtually. There was not a lot of interest at his bank, he said, adding that SOFR-based lending “would be sticking out like a sore thumb” among peers. Another member said his bank was “not operationally ready” to move off Libor. “We could find an alternative rate,” he added. 

  • There is “a lot of discovery that hasn’t been done yet,” noted another member in the breakout. “The lending business has to evolve.” Another member added there are “a lot of things we can’t do operationally,” however, what he said the bank should be doing “is educating our customers: whatever replacement they’re going to.” 

Unfortunately, bank treasurers are going to have to overcome their hesitancy. 

The show must go on. According to a presentation at the meeting by Tom Wipf, Vice Chairman of Institutional Securities at Morgan Stanley and Chair of the Federal Reserve’s Alternative Reference Rates Committee (ARRC), the committee is “taking the timelines provided by the official sector as given and continuing its work, recognizing that although some near-term goals may be delayed, other efforts can continue.” 

In other words, do not assume Libor will continue to be published at the end of 2021, Mr. Wipf told meeting attendees. One of the official authorities the ARRC cites is the UK Financial Conduct Authority. The FCA in late March said the end-Libor date “has not changed and should remain the target date for all firms to meet.” 

  • “The transition from Libor remains an essential task that will strengthen the global financial system. Many preparations for transition will be able to continue. There has, however, been an impact on the timing of some aspects of the transition programmes of many firms,” the FCA said in a statement.
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March Madness: Searching for Answers on Cash Flow and Credit

Data from Clearwater underscores the concerns of treasury investment managers reducing risk during the pandemic.

If you needed any more proof that the pandemic has made treasury investment managers even more attuned to the risks in their portfolios, check out the table below from Clearwater Analytics, which sponsored a NeuGroup meeting this week on market trends and improving balance sheet management.

Cash flow and credit. It may not be surprising, but relative to other searches, the sheer number of views in March of data on cash flow projections for securities and portfolios—more than 13,000—captures exactly what was the top concern of nearly every portfolio manager.

Data from Clearwater underscores the concerns of treasury investment managers reducing risk during the pandemic.

If you needed any more proof that the pandemic has made treasury investment managers even more attuned to the risks in their portfolios, check out the table below from Clearwater Analytics, which sponsored a NeuGroup meeting this week on market trends and improving balance sheet management. 

Cash flow and credit. It may not be surprising, but relative to other searches, the sheer number of views in March of data on cash flow projections for securities and portfolios—more than 13,000—captures exactly what was the top concern of nearly every portfolio manager.

  • Also noteworthy is the 84% jump from the prior month in credit events inquiries. The investment manager for a large technology company who described his experience and thinking in the last several months said that keeping track of the volume of downgrades and other credit actions was “breathtaking.”
  • The same manager told his peers about having eliminated stakes in “industries we didn’t like” and reducing investments in energy, retail and health care credits. He said his team spent “an ungodly amount of time on credit.” 
  • And while not every treasury team does its own credit analysis, a widespread focus by managers on vulnerable sectors underlies the more than doubling (111%) in Clearwater views during March of portfolio exposure by industry. 

Governance and communication. The importance of strong governance emerged as a key takeaway from the meeting. It’s critical, as several NeuGroup members noted, that a company’s management team not only understands the risks taken by the investment team but are also comfortable with them before a significant market disruption like that experienced this year.

  • One member asked others if they were receiving any pressure from management to boost investment returns now that interest rates are closer to zero. And while managers whose companies issued debt at wide spreads in March said senior management is interested in reducing interest expense, that is not translating into pressure to take on greater risk with the cash.

Look around the corners. That said, investment managers who survived the first quarter and are now looking toward closing the books on the second are asking plenty of questions about how to position themselves for what lies ahead—much of which is uncertain. Many said they are still asking, as one of them put it, “What is the right amount of credit risk, liquidity, market risk, etc.” 

  • Whatever they do with cash in the months ahead, members are well advised to heed the warning of one peer who is constantly asking “what if we’re wrong?” in assessing what’s next. He noted that many observers doubted COVID-19 would move beyond Asia. That points up the critical need, he said, to keep doing stress tests. Without them, he said, “It’s hard to react if you’re on the wrong side of it.”
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Juneteenth and Beyond: NeuGroup Member Companies Take Action on Racial Justice

Treasurers at major retailers discuss what’s been done so far and what lies ahead.

Calls for major societal change in the wake of the killing of George Floyd have sparked many corporations, including NeuGroup member companies, to take a range of actions in support of change and racial justice. For some, those actions included the observation of Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the US.

Treasurers at major retailers discuss what’s been done so far and what lies ahead.
 

Calls for major societal change in the wake of the killing of George Floyd have sparked many corporations, including NeuGroup member companies, to take a range of actions in support of change and racial justice. For some, those actions included the observation of Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the US.

  • At a NeuGroup virtual meeting for retailers last Friday on changing regulation and business norms post-crisis, a member from a major American retailer described his company’s quick decision to make Juneteenth (June 19) a company holiday.
  • Noting that the company doesn’t typically move as quickly, he credited its fast action to its cross functional crisis leadership team which is approaching the company’s reaction to recent events as it would a crisis such as a hurricane or COVID-19.
  • The company kept stores open but paid time and half to hourly workers on Juneteenth; other, eligible workers had the option to take the day off with full pay; and the company’s headquarters offices were closed.
  • “As we pivoted to this issue, we had to decide if we wanted to follow or lead,” the member said. “We wanted to lead.” 

Education and sincerity. One participant, who is African American, encouraged others on the call to better educate themselves on matters of slavery and black history, noting that few on the call knew the meaning of Juneteenth until recently.

  • This treasury professional said that what matters is sincerity and action, not talk, taken to address underlying problems. She said there is a difference between “what you know is expedient and what is taken to heart, what is sincere and what is a press release.”

 A good start. Another participant noted the pride he felt in seeing how both his current and former employers have tackled the issue of race head-on, including the CEO of the company where he works now urging conversation and learning. “I couldn’t be prouder of how people have responded,” he said.
 
Accelerated change.  In the last few weeks, the national conversation shifted from COVID-19 to racial justice crisis, focused on diversity and inclusion and black lives.

  • That, observed NeuGroup founder Joseph Neu, highlights the extent to which COVID-19 has forced business thinking to be open to accelerated change and the urgency for companies and finance teams to embrace a faster pace of change for good.

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Can You Save A Month a Year Automating FX Trades?

360T says corporates can use the roughly four weeks saved by automating FX “nuisance trades” to spend time on more valuable analytical work.

The graphic below demonstrates some of the benefits of automating FX trades described by technology provider 360T at a recent interactive session for NeuGroup members called “Demystifying Automated Trading Across the Trade Lifecycle.”


360T says corporates can use the roughly four weeks saved by automating FX “nuisance trades” to spend time on more valuable analytical work.
 

The graphic above demonstrates some of the benefits of automating FX trades described by technology provider 360T at a recent interactive session for NeuGroup members called “Demystifying Automated Trading Across the Trade Lifecycle.”

  • The time savings accrue by eliminating the need to manually enter orders onto trading platforms, examine the pricing offered, choose among competing banks (and sometimes talking to them on the phone) and then deal with all the required back-office chores involved.
  • 360T’s presenters said that by automating the workflow trading process using rules-based trading execution technology that connects directly to a company’s treasury management system, users save time, achieve the best possible price—improving their spreads—and reduce operational risk caused by human errors.

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Pandemic Creates Too Many Unknowns to Change Pension Strategies

Pension managers struggle with strategy amid a pandemic pace unlike the drawn-out financial crisis.

Rapidly changing conditions during the pandemic have made it extremely difficult for many NeuGroup members and other treasury practitioners to create forecasts and devise strategies. Pension fund managers are in the same pickle, finding it nearly impossible to change their overall pension strategies given how fast the landscape is shifting.

Pension managers struggle with strategy amid a pandemic pace unlike the drawn-out financial crisis.
 
Rapidly changing conditions during the pandemic have made it extremely difficult for many NeuGroup members and other treasury practitioners to create forecasts and devise strategies. Pension fund managers are in the same pickle, finding it nearly impossible to change their overall pension strategies given how fast the landscape is shifting.

  • This is a far different predicament than during the 2008-09 financial crisis, which was a slow-moving disaster.
  • “The financial crisis evolved over time, so you had a lot of time,” said one member at a recent NeuGroup Pension and Benefits virtual meeting. “In COVID, you don’t have much time – you don’t know what things will be like a week from now.”
  • At the peak of the COVID crisis, pension managers focused on liquidity concerns—sometimes exacerbated by margin calls—and immediate benefit payment requirements.

Back seat. With market, credit and liquidity risk front and center, longevity risk management, which has minimal linkage to market conditions, has taken a back seat. Similarly, buy-outs and buy-ins—where plans buy annuities—are not currently priority projects. 

  • Buy-outs are on the back burner because many companies have already transferred low-balance participants because the economics are pretty powerful; that’s especially true of younger participants (whereas it becomes almost impossible to transfer longtime employees).

No enthusiasm for handouts. There was mixed enthusiasm for legislative initiatives like the American Benefits Council (ABC) proposal for new funding relief in light of the havoc COVID-19 has inflicted on defined benefit pension plans. This is because many investment-grade companies don’t face mandatory contributions in the next few years despite the market downturn, thanks to outstanding pension relief and previous proactive pre-funding. 

  • Nonetheless, funding relief remains a very important issue for some meeting participants; also, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES) passed by the US House apparently already includes many of the ABC provisions that would result in substantial funding relief. HEROES was previously estimated to equate to roughly five years of funding holiday.

Fixed income. In drilling down on fixed-income strategy, one sponsor presenter said that, broadly, there are three phases of a crisis: a liquidity crisis, a credit crisis and, finally, an inflation crisis. He believed that we are at the start of the credit crisis stage. He noted that central banks are supporting some categories of assets but not others, with clear trading implications. 

  • It is hard to evaluate some asset categories based on cash flows that are currently being deferred by many borrowers (such as rents) because it’s not known how much and how fast the deferred amounts will get repaid.
  • Also, it was explained how increases in operating costs can erode margins and also increase leverage—particularly in the high-yield space. Ultimately, members should worry about inflation because how else will all the government and private sector debt get repaid?
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Pensions Look for Re-Entry, Re-Risk Opportunities

Pension managers were de-risking at the end of 2019, much to their relief months later; now it’s time to add some risk.

Although pension managers have been de-risking over the course of the last several months – and continue to do so in different areas – many are now on the hunt to re-enter the market to re-risk. “Can we be nimble enough to pounce given the opportunities that are out there?” wondered one member of NeuGroup’s Pension and Benefits (NGPB) peer group at a recent virtual meeting.

Pension managers were de-risking at the end of 2019, much to their relief months later; now it’s time to add some risk.

Although pension managers have been de-risking over the course of the last several months – and continue to do so in different areas – many are now on the hunt to re-enter the market to re-risk. “Can we be nimble enough to pounce given the opportunities that are out there?” wondered one member of NeuGroup’s Pension and Benefits (NGPB) peer group at a recent virtual meeting.

LDI. Liability driven investment and de-risking clearly was the winning strategy at the end of 2019, which caused collective sighs of relief when the pandemic hit. 

  • Overall, the sentiment was that the equity market now seems to have gotten ahead of itself, so some participants are keeping some liquidity available for market downturns. 

Different paths. One theme emerging from a projects and priorities discussion at the meeting was that there was no uniformity in pension strategy among member companies. There is no gold standard “answer.” Why? Because of variations in underlying situations, such as companies with active vs. frozen plans, varying demographics of plan participants, and well-funded plans vs. those with a large deficit. 

  • The current roller-coaster environment makes it challenging to shift pension strategy, particularly given corporate governance issues and board oversight.

An example of this is different approaches to glide paths: some companies only have de-risking triggers as funded status improves, others have re-risking as well when equity investment value declines, and others have no defined glide path at all. 

  • In one sponsor presentation on pension risk management, a more sophisticated evolution was presented using outright option positions, collars and option replication using delta hedging.  

Options an option? Still, these strategies are challenged by the currently high volatility behind option pricing and, in particular, the volatility skew which makes out-of-the-money put options particularly expensive. 

  • It sounded like a few meeting participants had investigated these strategies but again are challenged by governance issues in authorization for them. Some participants are not even using derivative overlays at this point. Derivative overlays facilitate rapid shifts in risk position without the costs of buying and selling underlying cash investments, and also allow for better management of overall risk.

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Economic Forecast: Outlook for Recovery Improving, but Numerous Risks Remain

Evercore ISI economist Dick Rippe lays out the case for second-half growth after a first-half plunge.

The increased difficulty of cash forecasting and other financial planning since the COVID-19 outbreak means that many treasury and finance teams are eager to hear informed economic analysis and forecasts while we all wait for a vaccine.

  • At a NeuGroup meeting in late May, Dick Rippe, managing director and economist at Evercore ISI, provided his firm’s US and global economic outlook and responded to member questions. Mr. Rippe this week provided updates to his firm’s forecast and analysis.

Evercore ISI economist Dick Rippe lays out the case for second-half growth after a first-half plunge.

The increased difficulty of cash forecasting and other financial planning since the COVID-19 outbreak means that many treasury and finance teams are eager to hear informed economic analysis and forecasts while we all wait for a vaccine.

  • At a NeuGroup meeting in late May, Dick Rippe, managing director and economist at Evercore ISI, provided his firm’s US and global economic outlook and responded to member questions. Mr. Rippe this week provided updates to his firm’s forecast and analysis.

Two quarters of pain. Evercore ISI forecasts the economy will contract by a 40% annual rate in Q2, following a drop of 5.0% in Q1. Mr. Rippe noted that the combined decline in the first two quarters is the largest in the post-World War II period. 

  • The firm has counted over 1,300 instances of layoffs, pay cuts, and business or institution closures; many of these may be temporary, but as they occur, they reverberate throughout the economy, Mr. Rippe said. 

Encouraging signs. Evidence of an upturn has been accumulating rapidly in Evercore ISI’s view:

  • Employment picked up in May (after an enormous fall in April); filings for unemployment insurance – while still high – have diminished substantially in recent weeks; and retail sales rebounded sharply in May, as have auto sales. Similar gains are being seen in China and Germany.
  • Massive economic stimulus is being provided by both the Federal Reserve and the fiscal authorities in Congress and the Trump Administration.
  • A major GDP driver is consumer net worth—the value of houses, securities, and bank accounts. It is close to an all-time high, Mr. Rippe said, adding that it fell much further during the 2008-2009 financial crisis than it did when the coronavirus pandemic started.


Growth likely to resume in H2. Based upon those signs and fundamentals, Evercore ISI updated its economic forecast to show a faster recovery in the second half of 2020.

  • The forecast now shows growth in both Q3 and Q4 at a 20% annual rate; even so, measured from Q4 2019 to Q4 2020, real GDP is expected to decline by 4.8%.
  • Evercore ISI forecasts an increase of 5.0% in 2021. 
  • The improvements depend upon maintaining simulative economic policies which will help keep companies open and consumers solvent, Mr. Rippe said.
  • The emergence of a country-wide second wave of infections would be very damaging, he added. On the positive side, the rapid development of a vaccine would allow a much more secure economic advance.

Dollar doldrums? Responding to a member’s query about the outlook for the US dollar, Mr. Rippe noted that low interest rates brought about by highly accommodative monetary policy would usually be expected to lower the dollar. But in the current global environment, almost all central banks are moving in the same direction. So while the dollar might decline a little, no big move was likely, he said.

Negative Rates? Addressing another member’s concerns about short-term rates possibly going negative, Mr. Rippe said that given the US’s productive economy, when growth resumes negative rates won’t be necessary. And the Fed would go negative only in an absolute emergency, he said, because of the havoc it would reap on money-markets.

  • “But if you asked me three years ago to bet on what German 10-year bond yields would be, I never would have bet they would be negative.”
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A Win-Win Solution to Save Suppliers and Manage Corporate Cash

C2FO gives on and off-balance sheet options for early payments to suppliers in need.

As suppliers struggle in the COVID-19 economic environment, getting cash to them quickly can be a lifesaver, and even better is letting them choose the rate that’s most suitable for their circumstances.

  • At a recent NeuGroup virtual meeting, a major retailer described how C2FO’s unique platform gives even small suppliers ready access to a flexible, in-house, early funding program or supply chain finance (SCF) solution.

Cash management tool. By using the C2FO platform, companies can employ their own cash to fund early payments to their suppliers in return for a discount; or suppliers can choose a dynamic SCF option funded via a banking partner Both ways guarantee early payments.

 

C2FO gives on and off-balance sheet options for early payments to suppliers in need.
 
As suppliers struggle in the COVID-19 economic environment, getting cash to them quickly can be a lifesaver, and even better is letting them choose the rate that’s most suitable for their circumstances.

  • At a recent NeuGroup virtual meeting, a major retailer described how C2FO’s unique platform gives even small suppliers ready access to a flexible, in-house, early funding program or supply chain finance (SCF) solution.

Cash management tool. By using the C2FO platform, companies can employ their own cash to fund early payments to their suppliers in return for a discount; or suppliers can choose a dynamic SCF option funded via a banking partner Both ways guarantee early payments.

  • “It’s a nice mixture of having off and on-balance sheet programs, and being able to adjust and navigate the different needs—both supplier needs and corporate needs—in the event we want to reallocate that cash somewhere else,” the senior director of global treasury said.

Uptick in demand. The pandemic has increased demand for C2FO’s platform, especially for the company-cash option, according to Jordan Novak, SVP of market innovation at the Kansas City-headquartered fintech.

  • The SCF rate is attractive for suppliers, but there are significant onboarding hurdles, whereas onboarding to a company’s internal offering is fast and easy.  

Slice and dice. The company provides the yield it seeks, i.e. the discount suppliers give for early payment, and the available cash. C2FO’s platform uploads approved invoices and suppliers log in to set offers for early payment. The fintech’s proprietary algorithms match suppliers’ offers to the company’s desired rate of return. For example, if the target rate is 2%, one supplier may offer 1.5% and another 2.2%, and the technology aggregates all offers to the desired rate, resulting in a higher volume program.

  • C2FO provides the company’s ERP with the discount and new pay date.
  • The company still pays its suppliers directly, only faster.
  • The platform eliminates the need to segment suppliers, as this happens automatically when suppliers name their rates through C2FO.
  • C2FO is able to create programs for small and medium-sized companies, women-owned, minority-owned and veteran-owned businesses. The major retailer was able to craft these programs for its suppliers overnight.
  •  “We can slice and dice different groups of suppliers and have different targets or minimal rates,” the member said.  

Win-win. C2FO facilitates the company’s early payments to suppliers, and it’s a boon to those in critical need of cash.

  • Suppliers can pursue early payment across multiple geographies on the same platform while staying compliant with tax regulations globally.
  • For companies, the cloud-based platform automates what previously could have been hundreds or even thousands of negotiations with suppliers, providing seamless collaboration among companies and their trading partners.
  • “It improves our cash position and return on cash on the margins, and where it’s being used, it is definitely a benefit to P&L,” the retail treasury member said.

Here’s a slide summarizing the reasons the retailer chose to use C2FO’s platform:

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A “Perfect Storm” in Emerging Markets Shatters Hope for Some Investors 

Treasury investment managers hear sober forecasts and calls for greater action by the IMF.

Hardly any of the treasury investment managers who met in early May at a NeuGroup virtual meeting said they owned emerging market (EM) debt—not very surprising given that most companies have been parking cash in high-quality, short-duration investments since the pandemic rattled credit markets.

  • But one manager who does invest in USD-denominated EM debt said he was “bitterly disappointed” in the International Monetary Fund and G7 nations that had not “come to grips” with the depth of the problem facing the poorest countries in the developing world in the wake of the coronavirus, adding that they “haven’t thought big enough about” the issue—a contrast to fiscal and monetary efforts by developed nations.
  • He noted that emerging markets had been forecast to supply two-thirds of the world’s economic growth.
  • On the plus side, his company had avoided investments in Argentina and sold stakes in Turkish and Ukrainian debt.

Treasury investment managers hear sober forecasts and calls for greater action by the IMF.

Hardly any of the treasury investment managers who met in early May at a NeuGroup virtual meeting said they owned emerging market (EM) debt—not very surprising given that most companies have been parking cash in high-quality, short-duration investments since the pandemic rattled credit markets.

  • But one manager who does invest in USD-denominated EM debt said he was “bitterly disappointed” in the International Monetary Fund and G7 nations that had not “come to grips” with the depth of the problem facing the poorest countries in the developing world in the wake of the coronavirus, adding that they “haven’t thought big enough about” the issue—a contrast to fiscal and monetary efforts by developed nations.
  • He noted that emerging markets had been forecast to supply two-thirds of the world’s economic growth.
  • On the plus side, his company had avoided investments in Argentina and sold stakes in Turkish and Ukrainian debt.  

BlackRock’s take. Several representatives from BlackRock, sponsor of the meeting, described a grim situation in emerging markets, with one saying many nations face a “perfect storm,” given inadequate health care infrastructure to deal with COVID-19 cases, the trend toward onshoring in global supply chains, capital outflows and serious debt issues. One presenter said the IMF’s efforts at debt relief were “not enough.”

  • One senior executive said he was “very bearish” on the outlook for countries including Brazil, Indonesia and Argentina, saying all hope has been “shattered.”
  • The executive also noted that the greatest impact of climate change will be on the equatorial world, including Brazil, Africa and Bangladesh. “If you believe in climate change, the long-term impact is incredibly ugly,” he said. The developing world, he added, will “use more coal than ever” during a severe economic downturn.

Updates. In mid-June, the BlackRock Investment Institute explained its views on EM debt:

  •  “We stay neutral on hard-currency EM debt due to the heavy exposure to energy exporters and limited policy space among some markets. Default risks may be underpriced.
  • “We are neutral on local-currency EM debt because we see a risk of further currency declines in key markets amid monetary and fiscal easing. This could wipe out the asset class’s attractive coupon income.” 
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So far, So Good: US Banking Sector Shows Strength During Pandemic

Banks are as healthy as ever, and  robust investment-grade debt issuance has bolstered the industry’s profitability.

The global pandemic has cratered economies and affected businesses the world over. But the US banking system remains healthy because banks are well capitalized, having adhered to rules put in place after the 2008 financial crisis. Equally important: Investment-grade debt issuance by corporates is generating bank profits.

Banks are as healthy as ever, and  robust investment-grade debt issuance has bolstered the industry’s profitability.

The global pandemic has cratered economies and affected businesses the world over. But the US banking system remains healthy because banks are well capitalized, having adhered to rules put in place after the 2008 financial crisis. Equally important: Investment-grade debt issuance by corporates is generating bank profits.

  • That’s some of what members of NeuGroup’s Tech20 Treasurers’ Peer Group heard at a recent meeting from a bank equity strategist.
  • “The investment-grade markets are stronger than ever,” the strategist said. “Funding markets are very robust, with corporates taking advantage of low rates.”
  • Data from US securities industry organization SIFMA and financial tech and data company Refinitiv show that investment grade companies have issued more $1 trillion in debt this year. As a result, the strategist said, bank industry profits “are going gangbusters,” noting that this is a continuation of a long-term trend.

Texas ratios. This all means that despite the current economic straits, “We can handle a greater level of the problems we’re facing,” the strategist said. He also referred to the “Texas ratio,” which, by dividing nonperforming assets by tangible common equity and loan-loss reserves, helps investors determine how risky a bank is. (The higher the Texas ratio the more financial trouble a bank might be in.) By this measure, the sector is, “very healthy.”

  • That health stems in part from banks “setting aside a lot of money for loan losses” in the first quarter, the strategist said. He acknowledged that deferments “are happening” and loan forbearances “are way up;” additionally, bank lending standards are tightening and “demand is going down.” He added that he expects bank earnings to be weak “but this is not a balance sheet event or credit event.” Bottom line: “The banking system is as healthy as its been in our lifetimes.”

Weakness in Europe. The strategist said that while US banks are in top form, European banks are not. That’s because of the zero interest rate environment in the European Union. The European bank sector is weak because zero rates makes banks inefficient, the strategist noted. “European banks are as weak as they were in during the ’08-’09 financial crisis,” he said. US banks have taken a hit and are a great shape, and “nowhere near ’09 levels.”
 
Negative rates in the US? While there are negative rates globally, the strategist didn’t think the US would go that route. “There are now unprecedented levels of negative rates” globally, he said. “Will US go there? No, because we have a huge money market fund market and if we break the buck again, then it will be a huge mess.” And it certainly would be “negative for bank profitability.”

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The Loan Road Ahead: Steep Prices May Linger Longer Than Short Tenors

Post-pandemic advice from U.S. Bank for treasury teams: keep close to your banks.

Unlike the booming bond market, corporates still face restrictions on loans, and it may be awhile before pricing returns to pre-pandemic levels. U.S. Bank, sponsor of a recent NeuGroup meeting for assistant treasurers, provided participants with insights into revolver drawdowns and what to anticipate when refinancing or seeking new debt.

Revolver pricing leaps. The volume of revolving-credit drawdowns—once taboo—has hovered at over $250 billion since leaping to that level in mid-April.

  • A plurality of drawdowns by volume (42%) has been by companies rated ‘BBB’, followed by ‘BB’ (24.9%), ‘B’ (10.6%) and ‘A’ (8.5%), according to U.S. Bank.
  • Highly-rated borrowers issuing incremental short-tenor, drawn facilities saw pricing jump more than 40%, and well over 100% for undrawn ones, except ‘AA’ which increased 86%.

Post-pandemic advice from U.S. Bank for treasury teams: keep close to your banks.

Unlike the booming bond market, corporates still face restrictions on loans, and it may be awhile before pricing returns to pre-pandemic levels. At a recent NeuGroup meeting for assistant treasurers, U.S. Bank provided participants with insights into revolver drawdowns and what to anticipate when refinancing or seeking new debt.

Revolver pricing leaps. The volume of revolving-credit drawdowns—once taboo—has hovered at over $250 billion since leaping to that level in mid-April.

  • A plurality of drawdowns by volume (42%) has been by companies rated ‘BBB’, followed by ‘BB’ (24.9%), ‘B’ (10.6%) and ‘A’ (8.5%), according to U.S. Bank.
  • Highly-rated borrowers issuing incremental short-tenor, drawn facilities saw pricing jump more than 40%, and well over 100% for undrawn ones, except ‘AA’ which increased 86%.

Restrictions will persist. Libor floors became prevalent early on, said Jeff Stuart, U.S. Bank’s head of capital markets, and several structural features have since emerged, such as restricted payment tests on dividends and share buybacks, and anti-hoarding provisions requiring that a portion of drawdowns be used to pay down debt.

  • “I think they’ll be here for a while,” said Mr. Stuart, responding to a question whether such changes will apply to new issuances or executing an “accordion” option to increase loan size.
  • Pricing will stay elevated as well. “That’s what we’re going to see for some time,” Mr. Stuart said.

Some good news. Of 156 deals since March 23 tracked by U.S. Bank, only five new-money deals achieved tenors longer than a year; four were unrated and two secured. Eight “amends and extends” were longer than a year, and all 13 of those deals were in May.

  • “The world fell out of the five-year and dramatically increased the 364-day,” Mr. Stuart said, adding longer tenors will likely return to pre-pandemic levels sooner than pricing.

Some advice. Given banks’ “shock” at the rush to draw down revolvers, Mr. Stuart said, for the foreseeable future it will be harder to do multiyear facilities as well as accordion and incremental financings without impacting pricing on entire deals.

  • Banks are squirrely now, saying no to easy deals but agreeing to difficult ones. “It’s very difficult to predict what they’ll do, so this is a time when you need to be as close to your banks as ever,” Mr. Stuart said.
  • He anticipates greater confidence to lend next year and potentially improvements come fall, but “If you don’t have to do a deal now, don’t do it.”

No more stigma. Asked how drawing down a revolver influences banks’ view of the borrower, Mr. Stuart said initially he was perturbed at the lack of trust that the funding request implied, but soon realized how boards applied pressure to bolster liquidity.

  • “It used to be the worst thing a corporate could do, drawing down its back-up revolver, but I don’t think anybody is looking at it like that now,” he said.
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Dusting Off the Cobwebs and Retooling the Investment Policy

An inside look at portfolio governance and changes to investment strategies.

When the global pandemic hit, investment managers needed to act fast to manage liquidity and move company cash to short-dated safe havens. So having flexibility in their investment management strategy was essential for reallocation of portfolios and easy access to cash. At two NeuGroup virtual meetings for investment managers, members discussed investment policies and what governance their companies have in place.

An inside look at portfolio governance and changes to investment strategies.

When the global pandemic hit, investment managers needed to act fast to manage liquidity and move company cash to short-dated safe havens. So having flexibility in their investment management strategy was essential for reallocation of portfolios and easy access to cash. At two NeuGroup virtual meetings for investment managers, members discussed investment policies and what governance their companies have in place.

What is best-in-class portfolio governance? Most member companies have an investment policy that includes a high-level statement that can only be modified by the board, with underlying investment policies and procedures that may be changed by the treasurer or assistant treasurer; some require CFO approval.

  • The most convenient practice is to have a policy that allows the treasurer or assistant treasurer approval of investment mandates with monthly or quarterly reporting to the CFO and yearly reporting to the board. But is most convenient also best in class? Yes, if responsiveness during the liquidity crisis could have been inhibited by waiting for board approval.

Reinventing an investment program.  One member recently went through the process—thankfully before the global pandemic—of dusting off the cobwebs on her company’s investment policy and shared with peers the following advice for successful realignment.

  • Consider your cash buckets (i.e.: operational cash versus cash reserves), establish a minimum cash framework and back test your operating buffers.
    • Determine and maintain minimum operating cash balances.
    • Ensure sufficient liquidity to meet ongoing operational & strategic business needs.
  • Establish a new “cash culture” mindful of the cash impact from operational decisions.
    • Secure buy-in from management.
    • Align more frequently with FP&A.
    • Host biweekly meeting with treasurer & finance heads.
    • Improve treasury Cash Forecast by making departments accountable for forecast variances.
  • Conduct an investment policy review annually (or more frequently as needed)
    • Oversee risks, controls, managers and performance within treasury and accounting teams.
    • Address manager violations. One member uses Clearwater to monitor managers’ decisions and performance, making the managers reimburse the company if they violate a policy and have to sell an asset at a loss; if the manager was out of compliance at time of purchase, the CFO is alerted.

Benchmark for success:  This starts with monitoring the investment portfolio) daily and report at least monthly and quarterly. Also:

  • Pay attention daily to market moves, fair market value changes, unrealized gains/losses.
  • Compliance guidelines should be established via dashboards and baseline reporting. 
  • One member advocated that reporting is a way to confirm alignment with internal stakeholders.
    • Although his 10-page policy is approved annually, every quarter his team reports portfolio performance to the board.
    • Each month, his team sends the treasurer and CFO reports on permissible investments, holdings, performance, variances to prior years. 
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Latin America Treasury Peer Group Members Discuss Challenges of Managing Cash Amid Crisis

NeuGroup and Latin America

By Joseph Neu

Latin America is being hard hit by the COVID-19 virus and the economic aftershocks, both of which formed the backdrop for NeuGroup’s Latin America Treasury Peer Group 2020 H1 virtual meeting. Members discussed the challenges of intercompany lending, the lack of treasury center capabilities and looming Argentina chaos.

Here are few key takeaways I wanted to share.

By Joseph Neu

Latin America is being hard hit by the COVID-19 virus and the economic aftershocks, both of which formed the backdrop for NeuGroup’s Latin America Treasury Peer Group 2020 H1 virtual meeting. Members discussed the challenges of intercompany lending, the lack of treasury center capabilities and looming Argentina chaos.

Here are few key takeaways I wanted to share.

Rethinking intercompany funding. One member noted that in most Latin American countries where her company is located, entities are funded on a standalone basis. This is challenging when banks locally don’t step up with reasonable credit.

  • MNCs funding intercompany need to fit the region carefully into their strategic financing plans, for example, to tailor funds transfer pricing or their capital allocation models for intercompany loans; also at issue is capital invested into the region and cash pulled out vs. left in country.
  • COVID-19 has vastly disrupted forecasts of local cash and capital needs, so going forward, members will look to both improve forecasting capabilities in the region and integrate them more smoothly into the company’s broader strategic cash and capital planning.

Exasperation with the lack of treasury center capabilities. Members expressed their growing impatience with the lack of progress in the region, by governments and banks, to allow them to implement world-class cash management and other treasury operations solutions.

  • Latin America is simply not keeping pace with what is happening in the rest of the world. The impediments to world-class treasury center capabilities, e.g., linking up affiliates to the in-house bank, makes it more challenging amid the crisis to meet the needs of members’ businesses, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders.

Factoring in another Argentina crisis. As one member observed, this is not a new occurrence for Argentina; the country has defaulted on its debt nine times. Still, the most recent default has led to some new and innovative restrictions to accessing USD, members note.

  • For example, there has been a call on companies with offshore dollars to use them to pay external vendors before being able to sell more pesos. The only alternative is to invest pesos in assets that yield something that helps mitigate the inflationary loss.
  • So-called blue-chip swaps and their bond equivalents still carry fears of reputation risk.
  • Meanwhile, find a bank to help with factoring receivables so that you get those pesos to invest or spend as soon as possible.
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Life Sciences Treasurers Speak to Capital Market Strategies, Insurance and Payment Fraud Mitigation

By Joseph Neu

The NeuGroup Life Sciences Treasurers’ Peer Group completed its H1 meeting series last week, sponsored by Societe Generale. Here are a few takeaways I wanted to share:

Three types of companies with three capital markets crisis strategies. Life sciences businesses, like those in most sectors, fall into three general capital market strategy buckets:

  1. Those needing rescue capital in order to survive through this crisis.
  2. Those looking to fortify their balance sheets.
  3. Those looking to be opportunistic to monetize high stock volatility and build acquisition capital to diversify their growth portfolio.

By Joseph Neu

The NeuGroup Life Sciences Treasurers’ Peer Group completed its H1 meeting series last week, sponsored by Societe Generale. Here are a few takeaways I wanted to share:

Three types of companies with three capital markets crisis strategies. Life sciences businesses, like those in most sectors, fall into three general capital market strategy buckets:

  1. Those needing rescue capital in order to survive through this crisis.
  2. Those looking to fortify their balance sheets.
  3. Those looking to be opportunistic to monetize high stock volatility and build acquisition capital to diversify their growth portfolio.

Most members saw the crisis as a reason to build liquidity to give themselves the option to fund R&D, have dry powder for an acquisition and fund share buybacks or dividend payments.

  • That means the majority of companies in this group have one foot in the balance sheet fortification strategy and the other in the opportunistic and strategic bucket.

Pandemic pushing traditional insurance out. A session on the insurance market impact of COVID-19 revealed that the market is driving retention increases, with as much as 60 percent increases on renewal quotes.

  • But higher retention is not leading to the expected premium relief, especially on D&O and property coverage.
  • Some corporates are not even able to get competing quotes on D&O.

The feeling that the insurance market is broken is compounded by the lack of direct and indirect pandemic coverage found in current policies. Some of this is still to be determined by legislation and litigation. Plus, members are told that outright pandemic exclusions should be expected going forward and pandemic coverage, if offered at all, will come at a very high price.

  • These circumstances have more members weighing creative coverage and alternatives to traditional insurance, such as captives and group captives, perhaps even for D&O.
  • They are also allocating more lead time to the renewal process to consider all options. 

Payment fraud prevention in focus. Cyber risk of all kinds has risen during the work from home phase of the virus and remains high as more workers return to the office. But payment fraud is top of mind. One member presented to the group a layered approach to preventing payment fraud.

  • A key insight was the focus on contractual language now embedded in their supplier portal to put the onus on all vendors to comply with their cybersecurity requirements, including immediate notice of a business email compromise.
  • Plus, the supplier portal allows the firm to use credentialed logins to identify the right person to confirm remittance discrepancies.
  • Another popular best practice is to implement after-action reviews to go over any issues or events to make them into a teachable moment.
  • These reviews complement well a reward system where anyone who takes the extra step to confirm a potentially fraudulent payment or prevent a real one is acknowledged.

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Smooth Sailing: One Investment Manager’s Painless Adoption of CECL

Taking a qualitative approach and doing no discounted cash flow calculations produced a calm CECL debut for at least one investment manager.

At a recent NeuGroup meeting, the only investment manager whose company adopted the new accounting standard for estimating credit losses in the first quarter described a relatively painless process, giving comfort to some of his peers. The meeting, sponsored by BlackRock, included a presentation by Aladdin on FASB’s current expected credit losses (CECL) methodology. Aladdin offers risk management software tools and is part of BlackRock.

Qualitative vs quantitative. Among the CECL decisions facing corporates is whether to assess their credit investment portfolio on a qualitative basis or to use a quantitative approach that requires the use of models and, often, discounted cash flow (DCF) analysis. One of the Aladdin presenters said clients with larger portfolios often do a quantitative analysis or combine it with a qualitative approach.

Taking a qualitative approach and doing no discounted cash flow calculations produced a calm CECL debut for at least one investment manager.

At a recent NeuGroup meeting, the only investment manager whose company adopted the new accounting standard for estimating credit losses in the first quarter described a relatively painless process, giving comfort to some of his peers. The meeting, sponsored by BlackRock, included a presentation by Aladdin on FASB’s current expected credit losses (CECL) methodology. Aladdin offers risk management software tools and is part of BlackRock.

Qualitative vs quantitative. Among the CECL decisions facing corporates is whether to assess their credit investment portfolio on a qualitative basis or to use a quantitative approach that requires the use of models and, often, discounted cash flow (DCF) analysis. One of the Aladdin presenters said clients with larger portfolios often do a quantitative analysis or combine it with a qualitative approach.

  • The NeuGroup member whose company adopted CECL uses a qualitative method as an initial screen; if the qualitative assessment indicates that a security is “not money good,” then a quantitative assessment will be performed. The company’s accountants are comfortable with this approach, he added. 
    • In response to a question, the member said that in the event of needing to do a DCF analysis he will have Clearwater run the analysis. In practice, this is unlikely because any security with a credit loss will likely have been out of compliance and sold, he said.
  • The investment manager said his portfolio assessment includes making sure that every security is investment grade and then looking closely at any “outliers” that have dropped below a certain price level. He receives feedback and guidance from external managers when an issuer is downgraded. “Is it still money-good” is what he wants to know.
  • One investment manager said the perspective offered by the member who doesn’t expect to have to do any DCF analyses provided some relief. “The additional work may not be as bad as I thought it would be,” he said.
  • Another member of the group would like to see a survey showing if peers are taking a quantitative or a qualitative approach. He said the qualitative process described earlier “doesn’t sound vastly different from an “OTTI regime,” referring to the other-than-temporary impairment approach used to account for credit losses before the adoption of CECL. 

Adverse or severe? Companies using models as they adopt CECL face other decisions, including which economic scenario to use—particularly challenging given the uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic. An Aladdin presenter said the relevant scenarios today include:

  1. Baseline
  2. Adverse
  3. Severely adverse

The presenter said most, but not all, of the companies he’s seen are using the adverse scenario assumptions. That surprised at least one member who has run scenarios in preparation to adopt CECL. He said, “We asked ourselves, if this isn’t severe, what is?”

  • That same member, in response to a question about what his scenario testing had revealed, said it was “super interesting to watch.” He said the company initially had no credit losses on its books; “now, suddenly it’s everywhere.” An Aladdin presenter later said CECL could have an impact on earnings for some companies that have adopted the standard. 

Final thoughts. That said, the member whose company has adopted CECL said that “our general stance is that CECL is not targeted to us,” a sentiment that echoed statements heard in at least one of the meeting’s earlier breakout sessions on projects and priorities, where CECL was deemed “sort of a non-event for everyone,” as the NeuGroup leader in the group described it. We’ll see if that sentiment holds up through the next few quarters. 

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Differing Opinions About Audit Opinions

Internal auditors use a variety ratings or opinions for their reporting, despite a trend of not using them.

There is a growing trend of internal audit departments moving away from using audit opinions, or ratings, to rate the progress of a mitigation effort. The idea is to focus on the audit issue itself and mitigate it. Despite this trend, many auditees and audit committee members are happy with the current system and push back against suggestions to get rid of ratings.

Following an audit of a process, the auditee gets a rating or opinion on the progress they’ve made on fixing the process – the audit issue. Ratings methods differ; some employ colors.  Green generally means good while colors like yellow or orange mean “needs work” or “needs improvement;” red means things are bad and not being addressed at all. “I’ve never seen a red since I’ve been an auditor,” one member said at a recent virtual meeting of NeuGroup’s Internal Auditors’ Peer Group (IAPG).

Internal auditors use a variety ratings or opinions for their reporting, despite a trend of not using them.

There is a growing trend of internal audit departments moving away from using audit opinions, or ratings, to rate the progress of a mitigation effort. The idea is to focus on the audit issue itself and mitigate it. Despite this trend, many auditees and audit committee members are happy with the current system and push back against suggestions to get rid of ratings.

Following an audit of a process, the auditee gets a rating or opinion on the progress they’ve made on fixing the process – the audit issue. Ratings methods differ; some employ colors.  Green generally means good while colors like yellow or orange mean “needs work” or “needs improvement;” red means things are bad and not being addressed at all. “I’ve never seen a red since I’ve been an auditor,” one member said at a recent virtual meeting of NeuGroup’s Internal Auditors’ Peer Group (IAPG). 

In the meeting, members described their various rating scales – no two the same – and said in some cases they were asked to move away from them. One reason for this was that many of the functions being audited focused too much on the rating and not on the underlying issue. “The (audit) finding gets lost,” said one auditor. 

  • But auditors say they get pushback when they discuss moving away from ratings. “Execs like the overall rating because they don’t have to read the whole audit report,” said one IAPG member. Added another member, “Audit reports sometimes have too many pages. [AC members and executives] will read through them and then ask, ‘what’s important here?’ So the ratings and colors are needed.” 

And despite the industry effort to drop ratings, some IAPG members have actually added more rating categories to their scales. Several members who have three ratings for findings, typically along the lines of “satisfactory,” “needs improvement” and “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory,” have added more nuance. In a few cases they have split the middle rating, “needs improvement,” into “moderate improvement opportunity” and “needs significant improvement.” 

Language matters. Members also mentioned that there’s sometimes pushback over the language of ratings. 

  • For one member, the legal department made IA change the red rating “ineffective” to “major improvement needed.” This was because, in the case of a lawsuit, ineffective could be misconstrued and create a problem.
  • Another member mentioned that sometimes auditees, particularly millennials, take issue even if their mitigation efforts are good or get the top rating. In this member’s case, that rating is “satisfactory,” which to some ears sounds mediocre or worse. But the auditor said it’s not his job to say it’s anything more than that. 
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Financing the Fight Against COVID-19: Sustainability Bond Deals

Corporates and banks fuel gains in social and sustainability bond issuance amid the battle against the coronavirus.
 
The coronavirus pandemic may have dampened green bond issuance in the first quarter of 2020, but it has also pushed some corporates to use proceeds from sustainability bond offerings to help fight the virus. Case in point: Pfizer.

  • Heather Lang, executive director of sustainable finance solutions at ESG ratings firm Sustainalytics—which is being acquired by Morningstar—named Pfizer as one of the institutions using proceeds from recent sustainable debt deals to address the effects of COVID-19. She spoke at a recent NeuGroup meeting for assistant treasurers. Sustainalytics provided Pfizer with a so-called second-party opinion supporting the deal.
  • Pfizer—already in the process of preparing to issue a sustainability bond when the virus began—said some of the $1.25 billion in proceeds from its 10-year March offering will be used to “address the global COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of antimicrobial resistance.”

Corporates and banks fuel gains in social and sustainability bond issuance amid the battle against the coronavirus.
 
The coronavirus pandemic may have dampened green bond issuance in the first quarter of 2020, but it has also pushed some corporates to use proceeds from sustainability bond offerings to help fight the virus. Case in point: Pfizer.

  • Heather Lang, executive director of sustainable finance solutions at ESG ratings firm Sustainalytics—which is being acquired by Morningstar—named Pfizer as one of the institutions using proceeds from recent sustainable debt deals to address the effects of COVID-19. She spoke at a recent NeuGroup meeting for assistant treasurers. Sustainalytics provided Pfizer with a so-called second-party opinion supporting the deal.
  • Pfizer—already in the process of preparing to issue a sustainability bond when the virus began—said some of the $1.25 billion in proceeds from its 10-year March offering will be used to “address the global COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of antimicrobial resistance.”

Big Picture. Sustainalytics, according to its slide presentation, has expanded its “internal taxonomy to explicitly identify potential use of proceeds related to the virus, targeting two main areas – healthcare and socio-economic impact mitigation.”

  • Sustainalytics said, “Social bonds are ideal instruments for allocating capital to specific groups impacted by the pandemic and/or the wider population impacted by the economic crisis,” one reason that “there has been an uptick in social and sustainability bond issuance since the COVID-19 outbreak.”
  • In mid-May, Bank of America issued a $1 billion bond aimed at financing not-for-profit hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and manufacturers of health care equipment and supplies.
  • At the time of that deal, Bloomberg reported that borrowers globally had raised a record $102.6 billion of debt this year to combat the coronavirus including development banks, sovereigns and corporates. It reported that Chinese companies have issued the most so-called pandemic bonds.

Multiple uses of proceeds. During the meeting, one NeuGroup member said that public bond offerings are inherently sizable, “so unless you have major sustainability projects, it’s kind of hard” to use all the proceeds for environmental, social or governance activities.

  • But Ms. Lang pointed out that proceeds from one offering can be allocated to multiple uses.
  • For example, she said, a company could use the money for a pair of renewable energy projects, a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified headquarters office, and several social initiatives. “It doesn’t all have to go into one bucket.” 

Loans are the rage. Volume in the fastest-growing segment of the sustainability market, ESG-linked loans, leapt 168% over the last two years, exceeding $122 billion last year. One big draw: They offer the flexibility to use the proceeds for general corporate purposes.

  • They’re designed to promote the pursuit of sustainability goals by linking the interest rate on the loan to the achievement of those goals.
  • They’re available to investment grade and non-investment grade companies, including “browner” companies not previously eligible for an ESG bond, Ms. Lang said. They can be structured as revolvers, term loans, bilateral or syndicated.

She said Sustainalytics has recently worked on transactions for shipping companies, which struggled to enter the green market but have “a lot of potential for reducing carbon emissions for their fleets.”

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Founder’s KTAs from NeuGroup for European Treasury Peer Group 2020 H1 Meeting

By Joseph Neu
 
The European Treasury Peer Group 2020 H1 meeting took place last week, sponsored by HSBC. Here are some takeaways that I wanted to share:
 
COVID-19 validates regional treasury centers. HSBC said the case for regional treasury centers has been further validated by the pandemic. In comments on how clients have shown resilience and are preparing for markets to reopen, the bank noted the importance of real-time global exposure information, including a centralized liquidity and risk management framework; but also critical is the existence of treasury hubs to execute in regional markets.

By Joseph Neu
 
The European Treasury Peer Group 2020 H1 meeting took place last week, sponsored by HSBC. Here are some takeaways that I wanted to share:
 
COVID-19 validates regional treasury centers. HSBC said the case for regional treasury centers has been further validated by the pandemic. In comments on how clients have shown resilience and are preparing for markets to reopen, the bank noted the importance of real-time global exposure information, including a centralized liquidity and risk management framework; but also critical is the existence of treasury hubs to execute in regional markets. 

  • The value of regional centers stems from the need for MNCs to be agile and respond quickly in the new normal. That’s because the predictability of cash flows, FX markets and thus exposures are substantially diminished. So are the diversification of risk portfolios, natural hedges and the capacity to take risk more generally.
  • One result is that the comfort zone in which treasurers can wait for local context to get relayed to headquarters and for risk managers there to respond is likely to be gone for a while. 

Work from home works. All members reported that working from home (WFH) has worked well and better than expected. But some participants admitted to missing the office. Two reasons:

  • The ability to communicate on small things without scheduling a phone call or web conference is a disadvantage of WFH. 
  • Onboarding and training new hires remotely remains a big challenge. 

At the next meeting, members will share how their plans to return to the office have evolved. Most expect the additional flexibility of working remotely to persist post-pandemic. How this plays out for regional centers located in tax advantaged locations with substance requirements will be something to watch.
 
The virtues of virtual accounts. Two members shared rollouts of virtual account (VA) projects in EMEA. All members noted that their banks have been selling them hard.

  • The tangible advantage described so far is for companies with multiple ERPs, since virtual accounts allow them to identify payments and separate account statements, helping to automate posting and reconciliation across various systems.
  • VAs can bring more efficiency to liquidity sweeping arrangements with fewer accounts to manage and audit. 

Tax departments at several member companies are leery of assigning virtual accounts to multiple entities, which would help transform pay-on-behalf-of and receive-on-behalf-on structures, and allow in-house banks to fully leverage them. But the bottom line is that virtual account penetration in EMEA continues. 

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C2FO Showcases Scope Expansion to AT Leaders

Working Capital Cycle

By Joseph Neu

C2FO sponsored our recent Assistant Treasurers’ Leadership Group Meeting on Zoom. Their scope expansion, which is indicative of ways working capital platforms can support business ecosystems in this crisis, is my first of three takeaways from that meeting.

Working capital platforms expand their scope. Platforms such as C2FO’s focusing on intermediating between buyers with access to capital and a wide range of suppliers with working capital needs have a vital role to play in this pandemic.

  • C2FO is focusing on bringing more small and medium-sized businesses to their platform to better access working capital.
  • They can use their platform to connect suppliers with buyers in a position to offer early payment directly in reaction to the Covid-19 triggered economic downturn or to connect suppliers with their buyers’ banks and other financial providers to fund their working capital using the buyer’s superior credit.
  • C2FO is also advocating for government stimulus aimed at small businesses to get channeled through its platform.
  • Finally, to get access to working capital sooner, platforms are looking to offer pre-invoice, or purchase order financing in response to this crisis.

Either way, C2FO says, firms helping suppliers with earlier payment are generating stickiness and loyalty.

By Joseph Neu

C2FO sponsored our recent Assistant Treasurers’ Leadership Group Meeting on Zoom. Their scope expansion, which is indicative of ways working capital platforms can support business ecosystems in this crisis, is my first of three takeaways from that meeting.

Working capital platforms expand their scope. Platforms such as C2FO’s focusing on intermediating between buyers with access to capital and a wide range of suppliers with working capital needs have a vital role to play in this pandemic.

  • C2FO is focusing on bringing more small and medium-sized businesses to their platform to better access working capital.
  • They can use their platform to connect suppliers with buyers in a position to offer early payment directly in reaction to the Covid-19 triggered economic downturn or to connect suppliers with their buyers’ banks and other financial providers to fund their working capital using the buyer’s superior credit.
  • C2FO is also advocating for government stimulus aimed at small businesses to get channeled through its platform.
  • Finally, to get access to working capital sooner, platforms are looking to offer pre-invoice, or purchase order financing in response to this crisis.

Either way, C2FO says, firms helping suppliers with earlier payment are generating stickiness and loyalty.

Insurance renewals won’t be fun. Several members noted working on insurance renewal projects and hearing from peers that it is a nightmare, with premiums going higher for less coverage, starting with D&O. 

  • In response members are working more closely with their brokers, even changing brokers to seek better advice, as well as focusing internal risk teams on coming up with solutions. 

Bond economics are key to positive bank relationships. In a session where members narrated their recent bond deals to shore up liquidity for the crisis, all mentioned more attention than ever being paid to using bond economics to reward banks:

  • in the RCF,
  • who indicated a willingness to step up with new lending, or
  • who had helped advise on pre-crisis capital structure and capital plans.

There was also attention paid to familiar faces who had been actives on a bond deal with them before, given that everyone had to do this remotely.

  • Passives who lost out due to this “familiar-faces” bias, might also have gotten some make up money.

Such is the importance of bond economics to bank relationships these days.

Stay safe and well.

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How Corporates Tapping Capital Markets Use Minority and Diversity Firms

NeuGroup members discuss benefits, challenges and process as treasury promotes diversity and inclusion.  

Many treasury teams at multinational corporations strive to include firms owned by women, people of color and disabled veterans when selling debt, buying back stock or issuing commercial paper. At a recent NeuGroup meeting focusing on capital markets, members shared their insights on the process of including minority and diversity firms in various transactions.

Formalize the process. The member who kicked off the discussion described her company’s path toward formalizing the process of using minority and diversity firms to underwrite bond deals. Using diversity firms as junior managers initially encountered resistance from some lead managers who declined to fill their orders, she said. But in 2013 the company mandated the inclusion of five to six of the firms in each debt issue, allocating 1% to 2% of the bonds to them.

NeuGroup members discuss benefits, challenges and process as treasury promotes diversity and inclusion.  

Many treasury teams at multinational corporations strive to include firms owned by women, people of color and disabled veterans when selling debt, buying back stock or issuing commercial paper. At a recent NeuGroup meeting focusing on capital markets, members shared their insights on the process of including minority and diversity firms in various transactions.

Formalize the process. The member who kicked off the discussion described her company’s path toward formalizing the process of using minority and diversity firms to underwrite bond deals. Using diversity firms as junior managers initially encountered resistance from some lead managers who declined to fill their orders, she said. But in 2013 the company mandated the inclusion of five to six of the firms in each debt issue, allocating 1% to 2% of the bonds to them.

  • “There are about 20 firms we use,” the member explained. “We sat down with each one of them three years ago and we rotate among 12-15 of them for bond deals.”
  • Every year, the company also sets up a relatively small, 364-day revolving credit facility employing local diversity firms from the metropolitan area where it’s based.

Adding value. Some members have found diversity and minority firms add particular value in stock buybacks. “We have found a select group that do well in share repurchase,” said one participant. Others said they had more success in using diversity and minority firms in their CP programs, including the session leader. “They have come through for us when bulge bracket firms have not come through,” she said.

  • At a separate NeuGroup meeting of assistant treasurers, one member said, “Philosophically we want to further diversity, but we also want to find ways to add value when we work with diversity and minority firms.” Transaction execution quality is the top criteria to measure value, he added.
  • On bond deals, “we find these firms bring real and incremental orders,” the AT said, noting the investors they serve tend to be price-insensitive. And while those orders don’t make or break a deal, they help on the margin, diversifying the company’s large debt stack.

Meetings matter. Participants in both NeuGroup discussions agreed that meeting with diversity and minority firms is worthwhile, in part to determine which business owners are truly “walking the talk.” For instance, one member said, it’s a red flag if a woman who owns a firm shows up with six men. Also, he wants to know what a firm owned by a disabled veteran is doing beyond hiring veterans. He was particularly impressed by one firm that is offering training classes to disabled vets. 

  • Another member said it’s important to find minority and diversity firms that truly align with the values of his company, adding that hiring these firms is an extension of the corporation’s commitment to environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles—an increasingly important topic for issuers. 

Challenges. The relatively small size of a diversity or minority firm and the capital it has may limit its ability to execute on a bond underwriting, members said. “How much they could take was a problem,” one said of her experience with minority firms on debt deals. 

  • The assistant treasurer’s company has a sizable investment portfolio, but trades requiring significant balance sheets can be problematic for small minority firms, he said. Their size can also inhibit them from providing asset-management services to large corporates seeking efficiency by doling out multi-billion-dollar mandates.

Backing by big banks. Members agreed that a few large investment banks step up to help manage the inclusion of a minority or diversity firm in a bond offering and, in some cases, provide a capital backstop for the smaller firm. Other banks, one member said, still ask, “Why do we have to do this?” In other words, as another member observed, “Some lead underwriters are better or more willing than others.”

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Founder’s KTAs from the Global Cash and Banking Group 2020 H1 Meeting

Digital Forecasting

By Joseph Neu

NeuGroup facilitated our Global Cash and Banking Group’s 2020 H1 meeting last week, sponsored by ION Treasury.

Here are a few takeaways I wanted to share.

Focused on cash visibility and forecasting, still. Members in this group noted that their projects and priorities had not shifted as a result of Covid-19 and its impacts, given that cash visibility and forecasting were already a priority.

  • Using treasury technology and process improvement to get better at both also has not changed.
  • It’s just now the tech and processes have to work from home.

By Joseph Neu

NeuGroup facilitated our Global Cash and Banking Group’s 2020 H1 meeting last week, sponsored by ION Treasury.

Here are a few takeaways I wanted to share.

Focused on cash visibility and forecasting, still. Members in this group noted that their projects and priorities had not shifted as a result of Covid-19 and its impacts, given that cash visibility and forecasting were already a priority.

  • Using treasury technology and process improvement to get better at both also has not changed.
  • It’s just now the tech and processes have to work from home.

AI is the future of cash forecasting. Among the cross-product solutions ION is focused on are machine learning applications, starting with a cash forecasting tool leveraging artificial intelligence, mostly in the form of machine learning and deep learning neural networks. ION’s research suggests that linear regression-based learning models perform well for businesses with stable, growing cash flows, but less well with cash flows subject to seasonal peaks. ARIMA, or AutoRegressive Integrated Moving Average and Neural Network models perform better, but require extra modeling:

  • for seasonality with ARIMA models and
  • with neural networks, careful attention to training data to learn from and supplemental intervention when non-repeating events occur, such as when global pandemics happen.

Still, you can get 90%-95% accuracy most of the time, in seconds vs a day or more.

Bank connectivity as a service progressing. Members sharing on bank connectivity experience suggests that it is a diminishing, albeit still a pain point as:

  • global banks offer to serve as a gateway for statements and payments
  • TMS and ERP vendors look to connect around traditional bank portals and
  • specialty providers fill the breach for those ill-served by these solutions.

Balancing access security (e.g., managing tokens) and segregation of duties with convenience and business continuity in a crisis (mailing new physical tokens vs. turning off virtual tokens on employees own smartphones fast enough) is still an issue, yet positive progress is the prevailing sentiment.

Stay safe and well.

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Good Timing: Blowout Bond Deals Before and After the Meltdown

Two debt issues show the benefits of both planning and flexibility when tapping capital markets.

Investors clamoring for highly rated corporate bonds before the financial-market meltdown began in late February and again in early May provided opportunities for issuers to do debt deals at very attractive terms under different circumstances. Two members of NeuGroup’s Assistant Treasurers’ Leadership Group discussed with peers the key factors and market dynamics driving their companies’ deals.
 
The similarities. Each company’s offering, one at the start of 2020 and the other in early May, was oversubscribed by several multiples.

  • Each deal saw spreads inked well below initial price talk.
  • Both companies are in the technology sector and their deals may have benefited from investor demand following a dearth of tech offers in 2019. 

Two debt issues show the benefits of both planning and flexibility when tapping capital markets.

Investors clamoring for highly rated corporate bonds before the financial-market meltdown began in late February and again in early May provided opportunities for issuers to do debt deals at very attractive terms under different circumstances. Two members of NeuGroup’s Assistant Treasurers’ Leadership Group discussed with peers the key factors and market dynamics driving their companies’ deals.
 
The similarities. Each company’s offering, one at the start of 2020 and the other in early May, was oversubscribed by several multiples.

  • Each deal saw spreads inked well below initial price talk.
  • Both companies are in the technology sector and their deals may have benefited from investor demand following a dearth of tech offers in 2019. 

Thinking ahead pays. With existing bonds maturing over the summer and volatility likely as November elections neared, the first issuer decided that refinancing early was prudent. Had it waited a few months, the combination of blackout periods and the market impact of the coronavirus could have derailed its efforts.

So does flexibility. The second issuer had planned to refinance at year-end 2020 an existing deal maturing in summer 2021. Then it drew down its revolver in March, prompting a rethink. A lesson learned, the issuer’s AT said, was “be quick and flexible enough to react to market changes.”

  • Equities rallied and credit spreads tightened in April in response to the Federal Reserve’s aggressive efforts to stabilize markets and fiscal stimulus.The company filed its 10-Q at month’s end, a week after its earnings, to give investors time to read disclosures, especially regarding COVID-19.
  • The offering prospectus noted explicitly that proceeds were to pay down the revolver and refinance existing bonds, reassuring investors.

ESG talk helps. The first issuer’s bond wasn’t a sustainability bond, but slides in its NetRoadshow presentation discussed the company’s ESG footprint, and the CFO and treasurer explained its ESG initiatives during investor calls.

  • “That allowed us to draw a more diversified group of investors,” the AT said.  

Rewarding book runners. When assigning active book-runner positions, the first issuer prioritized help it had received on capital structure and allocation issues—beyond the banks’ normal treasury-operations services.

  • The second issuer chose active book runners from the first tier of its bank group and appeased a tier-one member that didn’t get that lucrative position by giving it the swap-manager role. “We typically would have unwound [the forward-starting swaps] ourselves, but we gave them that business,” the AT said.  

Saving money. The second issuer informed banks that it planned to pay down the revolver and asked them to waive the “breakage fee” for drawing on the bank facility. “Since we were dangling the bond economics, it gave them incentive to waive those fees,” the AT said.

  • The first issuer saved interest expense by stating the transaction size of its deal would not exceed what was initially announced, allowing the bookrunners to tighten pricing and get the best terms possible for the company.

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Aligning Investment Strategy With the Shape of the Economic Recovery

Investment managers hear Neuberger Berman’s bull, bear and base case scenarios and the outlook for credit markets.

The best path for some fixed-income investors amid the uncertainty created by the pandemic may be to follow the lead of the Federal Reserve and buy assets that the US central bank is buying to keep credit markets liquid. That was among the key takeaways about asset allocation at a NeuGroup virtual meeting of treasury investment managers in late April sponsored by Neuberger Berman.

Bull, bear or base case. Neuberger Berman shared with members its investment playbook, which lays out three scenarios for economic recovery:

Investment managers hear Neuberger Berman’s bull, bear and base case scenarios and the outlook for credit markets.

The best path for some fixed-income investors amid the uncertainty created by the pandemic may be to follow the lead of the Federal Reserve and buy assets that the US central bank is buying to keep credit markets liquid. That was among the key takeaways about asset allocation at a NeuGroup virtual meeting of treasury investment managers in late April sponsored by Neuberger Berman.

Bull, bear or base case. Neuberger Berman shared with members its investment playbook, which lays out three scenarios for economic recovery:

  1. Base case: “U-shaped” recovery
  2. Bull case: “V-shaped” recovery
  3. Bear case: “L-shaped” recovery

Medical, not economic. One of the Neuberger Berman presenters called the bull case somewhat “implausible,” while another said that investors betting on the bear case should definitely “follow the Fed.” The scenario that ultimately plays out, he said, will be determined more by “medical” facts than traditional economic forces. He added that watching what happens in countries farther along the coronavirus curve than the US will indicate whether the recovery is W-shaped, following second waves of infections.

Update: differentiation. In mid-May, Neuberger Berman’s asset allocation committee (ACC) wrote in a report that “after ‘following the Fed’ in the wake of the central bank’s interventions in credit markets, investors appear to have moved quickly to differentiate the strong from the vulnerable, reminding us of the importance of robust fundamental research in the current environment.”

What to do now. Following the meeting, one of the presenters said the following when asked for advice for corporate treasurers looking to add yield:

  • Extending maturities modestly makes sense as we think the Fed will be on hold for a significant period.
  • Although they have tightened off the [widest spreads], things like AAA-rated ABS, CMBS, and mortgage product make sense.
  • Although riskier, we like AAA-rated CLOs and short duration investment grade corporate securities as well.

Retracement but value. At the meeting, the presenters said that although spreads had tightened significantly on high-quality corporate debt, valuations remained attractive, a point reiterated by Neuberger Berman’s fixed income strategy committee in a subsequent report. It stated that weak economic growth will create challenges for pockets of credit markets—amid strong central bank support.

  • “The combination of these two ideas leaves us focused on high-quality fixed income investments, which in our view have substantial upside even after the recent retracement in markets. A world of zero yields will ultimately drive investors toward quality investments that are supported by global central banks,” the committee wrote.

Pretty bullish. In a follow-up discussion, one of the presenters said Neuberger Berman thinks “this can be an environment where credit spreads and risk assets reach pretty bullish outcomes.”

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Risk and the Butterfly Effect on Supply Chains Amid COVID-19 

What small issue now can turn into a larger risk later? And how far away is later?
 
Can a small slipup in the supply chain—such as the inability to get a small part—create a bigger risk down the line? That example of the butterfly effect in action is what one member of NeuGroup’s Corporate Enterprise Risk Management group says he and management have been thinking about lately. The issue, like many things in business these days, is that COVID-19 adds a new and unpredictable layer to forecasting.

What small issue now can turn into a larger risk later? And how far away is later?
 
Can a small slipup in the supply chain—such as the inability to get a small part—create a bigger risk down the line? That example of the butterfly effect in action is what one member of NeuGroup’s Corporate Enterprise Risk Management group says he and management have been thinking about lately. The issue, like many things in business these days, is that COVID-19 adds a new and unpredictable layer to forecasting.
 
Scope and speed. “We’re really struggling with something happening in the supply chain” and then how big it will become and how soon it would affect the business, he said. He added that the velocity of risk, that is, how soon whatever happens in the supply chain hurts the company, is also difficult to predict in the current environment. “There are different views of this,” he said. 

  • “One group might say that if so and so happened, it would take nine months” to affect the company. “Another group may say three months.”
  • This member is also refocusing on another significant risk that has been mostly forgotten amid the pandemic: trade war. This is something that was a big supply chain concern in all of 2019, the member said, and to him, “is more serious than COVID-19.”

Risk influencer. Another topic discussed by ERM members is the idea that COVID-19 shouldn’t be considered a risk at this point, but more of a risk influencer. There are other risks that predate the pandemic and will exist going forward. The challenge now is determining how will COVID-19 impact those existing risks. 

  • One ERM member said he was trying to get management to think beyond the short term and COVID-19. As the company “gets back into the swing of things, we want management to start thinking of the long-term risks associated with COVID-19.”
  • Echoing this point, another member added that he’s also been trying to get his management to think of COVID-19 not as a “separate risk, but something that is influencing other risks.”
  • “COVID-19, yes, but let’s not forget about existing risks,” added another member.
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Investment Managers Balance Need for Liquidity and Desire for Yield 

More cash and falling interest rates have some corporates weighing a return to prime funds.

Many treasury teams have plenty of cash to invest but not many places to park it that offer attractive yields. That has some of them debating whether, when and how to add risk to their portfolios while preserving capital and liquidity. The challenge is figuring out “how to optimize cash in a very short portfolio,” as one member put it. Read on to see what others said this spring at two NeuGroup virtual meetings for investment managers.

More cash and falling interest rates have some corporates weighing a return to prime funds.

Many treasury teams have plenty of cash to invest but not many places to park it that offer attractive yields. That has some of them debating whether, when and how to add risk to their portfolios while preserving capital and liquidity. The challenge is figuring out “how to optimize cash in a very short portfolio,” as one member put it. Here’s some of what others said this spring at two NeuGroup virtual meetings for investment managers:

  • “We’re evaluating different alternatives to pick up yield without commensurate risk—there’s not a lot of low-hanging fruit,” one assistant treasurer said. “We don’t want to get too far out over our ski tips. It’s a struggle—there’s no playbook in terms of where we’re headed here.”
  • Another member asked what others are doing “to capture extra yield” given that rates at the front end of the yield curve are near zero. “I struggle with that,” responded one of his peers. “I can go out six months and get 30 basis points; is it worth it?”
  • Another investment manager said his team is “balancing liquidity for the firm with taking advantage of dislocations.”

Raising capital. The economic uncertainty created by the pandemic sent many corporations racing to the capital markets to boost liquidity by issuing debt in record amounts in March and April. One member’s company raised more than $10 billion in two bond offerings. “Now we have to manage the cash,” he said, a reality mentioned by several members whose companies had done debt deals.  

Time for prime? After huge outflows sparked by the pandemic, prime funds more recently have seen inflows and increased interest by NeuGroup members who dumped them to put cash in government and treasury money market funds (MMFs). The Federal Reserve’s backstop, the Money Market Mutual Fund facility (MMLF), gave some investors more peace of mind about credit risk.

  • One member with cash to invest after raising capital asked if any of his peers had done “anything to find yield” and whether there was an “easy yield pickup” between prime and government MMFs.
  • “We are in prime funds,” another member said later. “We find the yield benefit attractive currently and do not have operational issues supporting the NAV movements. We ‘diligence’ prime fund managers thoroughly before investing in any particular fund to ensure we are OK with their credit process.”  
  • Another member, who is not back in prime funds or LVNAV funds in Europe, is considering them now, in part because he likes their yields relative to bank deposits, saying he views the risk of deposits “the same or worse” as prime funds. He’s evaluating:
    • Performance of the fund before, during, and after “what has so far been the peak of the market dislocation.”
    • The fund’s NAV, size, any gates or fees imposed and any recapitalizations.
    • “We will also look at things like the Fed’s MMLF to see how that may help in case there is a market ‘flare-up’,” he said.

Enhanced money market fund.  One participant who is not invested in prime MMFs raised the interest of peers by describing an enhanced MMF she manages internally that allows her to “go out three years floating, 18 months fixed” and invest in BBB credits. Over a six-year period, she has outperformed prime funds by about 40 basis points. And the icing on the cake: “I don’t charge 15 basis points.”

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Aligning Risks to Inculcate Risk Awareness

How one company’s ERM team is raising risk awareness and its own profile by organizing the firm’s sprawling risks.

Sometimes the best way to add importance to your function is to look to the top. To management, that is. This was what one company’s enterprise risk management team did to accomplish two things: help organize the company’s risks and add a level of seriousness to the function itself.

The head of this ERM team recently described, at NeuGroup’s Corporate ERM Group’s annual meeting, how he and his colleagues went about this task of organizing and legitimizing.

How one company’s ERM team is raising risk awareness and its own profile by organizing the firm’s sprawling risks.

Sometimes the best way to add importance to your function is to look to the top. To management, that is. This was what one company’s enterprise risk management team did to accomplish two things: help organize the company’s risks and add a level of seriousness to the function itself.

The head of this ERM team recently described, at NeuGroup’s Corporate ERM Group’s annual meeting, how he and his colleagues went about this task of organizing and legitimizing.

  • The member said that when he took over the role of head of risk management at the company, “ERM was a board reporting exercise; it was muted.” But then the board, in its desire to improve at oversight, decided it wanted to get a better handle on the company’s risks.

Simplifying. The member said his team started with the twin goals of simplifying and optimizing. “Simplification,”  he said, was “near and dear” to his company’s heart. This involved getting a better and more holistic view of enterprise risks and applying a strategy that assigned risks to business lines or individuals and allowed a better way to share results, standardize risk scoring, clarify risk definitions and roles, and leverage technology.

Whose risk is it? One of the first issues was identifying who owned what risk. “We don’t have a lot of roles that are ‘risk managers’ or ‘risk champions.'” ERM developed a risk council, which was comprised of people from different parts of the business. The council was given heft by drafting “a leader that was high up in the organization to help navigate and get people more engaged.” There is now active engagement across the company as well as a program that is a good balance of time, commitment and resources for all involved. 

Aligning on tech. There is also good alignment on methodology and what technology to use. The member said that the technology search has been getting momentum from other functions that have an interest in ultimately sharing it. “More groups are pricking up their ears as we get closer to a tool selection,” he said. This is beneficial because it will allow ERM to share the cost with whichever function decides to partner with it.

Sharing the news on risk. The final step will be how to share any findings on risk and spread the word across the business. This includes creating a forum for problem-solving and sharing information on risk, where to focus mitigation efforts and aligning the messaging to leadership. 

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Pandemic Raises the Stakes for Banks to Double Down on Digital

Digital banking is speeding up, and banks not getting ahead of the trend will be left behind.

Now is the time for all good bankers to embrace digital banking—or risk being left behind as the pandemic accelerates a trend that was gaining momentum well before the arrival of COVID-19. Engaging with digital now is also smart because the barrier to entry is relatively small and the returns can be significant. Those were among the insights from a presentation at a recent virtual meeting of NeuGroup’s Bank Treasurers’ Peer Group.

  • “This was a shift that was going to take years, but now that timeline has sped up,” a digital banking analyst at the meeting said. “It is now compressed into a matter of months.” He also said that “social distancing will reformat bank branches,” so there will be fewer visits to brick and mortar banks, which means banks, like many companies during the pandemic, should consider shrinking their footprints.
  • “There won’t be people walking through the door,” the bank analyst said. And contactless payments will continue to grow. “Cash is one of the dirtiest things you can touch these days,” he added.

Digital banking is speeding up, and banks not getting ahead of the trend will be left behind.

Now is the time for all good bankers to embrace digital banking—or risk being left behind as the pandemic accelerates a trend that was gaining momentum well before the arrival of COVID-19. Engaging with digital now is also smart because the barrier to entry is relatively small and the returns can be significant. Those were among the insights from a presentation at a recent virtual meeting of NeuGroup’s Bank Treasurers’ Peer Group.

  • “This was a shift that was going to take years, but now that timeline has sped up,” a digital banking analyst at the meeting said. “It is now compressed into a matter of months.” He also said that “social distancing will reformat bank branches,” so there will be fewer visits to brick and mortar banks, which means banks, like many companies during the pandemic, should consider shrinking their footprints.
  • “There won’t be people walking through the door,” the bank analyst said. And contactless payments will continue to grow. “Cash is one of the dirtiest things you can touch these days,” he added.

Growing pool. Another presenter, a bank treasurer, pointed out that the pool of potential clients for digital is growing, particularly in the health care space. Doctors and dentists are increasingly processing payments digitally and want to borrow online to expand their businesses. Another reason to act now: nonbank competitors.

  • “Amazon is becoming more bank-like,” the presenter said. The online retailer is “able to use vendor information to offer loans and financing. How can we tap that?”

Bottom line. Bankers at the meeting also heard that current technology solutions help level the playing field for regional banks. “We’re not a G-SIB,” the bank treasurer said, referring to the behemoth global systemically important banks. “So, this was an opportunity to buy and get in,” he said of his own bank’s entry. There are good verticals, he added, and the volume of business could mean a big increase in bank revenue.

  • He also said that nearly 90% of all banking is now done digitally, so there’s almost no choice. “Investing in digital infrastructure is paying benefits,” so “if you’re not focusing on digital, you’re missing out.”

More takeaways:

  • Shift in customer service. The digital bank analyst said that in addition to investing in tech, banks will need to hire more customer service staff. Digital banks are seeing a “huge influx of calls into call centers during the crisis,” he said.
  • Saying no. Customers are resisting paying for certain bank services. “They don’t want to pay fees; checking fees and for other services,” the analyst said. Also, digital banks have been waiving fees for early withdrawal on CDs.” The good news is that lower overhead with digital means banks would be able to waive some fees.
  • Reality check. It’s easier said than done for regional banks to digitize their entire product set. Online deposit gathering is very rate driven, and not a reliable source of funds. Loan origination online takes work, particularly if you want to digitize the whole customer journey through the interfaces with back-end systems.
  • Keep trying. Nonetheless, some members report success, competing with the likes of Chase, which has much bigger systems overhead than almost anyone else. This also eats up a significant portion of their tech spend advantage. Being smaller and agile helps. Members also report success with targeted acquisitions.
  • No more wet signature? The digital wave also may be the end of e-signatures, the bank treasurer said. “Will the Federal Reserve keep accepting e-signatures? Banks have temporarily allowed it; will they go back? I don’t think so.”
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Lessons Learned From a Major Treasury Integration and Enhancement

Consultants and lots of testing may pay off for corporates picking a single TMS following an acquistion. 

The merger of two large technology companies resulted in a highly ambitious integration and upgrade of numerous treasury functions and systems, and provided lessons for one NeuGroup member about setting realistic goals and the value of rigorous testing.
 
TMS timing. The member, who worked through many long days during the process, walked peers through the decision-making and implementation steps. The acquired company went live on Reval just as the merger closed; the other company had put on hold upgrading its FIS systems, Quantum and Trax, in light of the anticipated acquisition.
 
Time-intensive. The first step was to decide which treasury management system (TMS) would best suit both companies. This involved:

Consultants and lots of testing may pay off for corporates picking a single TMS following an acquistion. 

The merger of two large technology companies resulted in a highly ambitious integration and upgrade of numerous treasury functions and systems, and provided lessons for one NeuGroup member about setting realistic goals and the value of rigorous testing.
 
TMS timing. The member, who worked through many long days during the process, walked peers through the decision-making and implementation steps. The acquired company went live on Reval just as the merger closed; the other company had put on hold upgrading its FIS systems, Quantum and Trax, in light of the anticipated acquisition.
 
Time-intensive. The first step was to decide which treasury management system (TMS) would best suit both companies. This involved:

  • Members from the two treasury teams traveling back and forth between offices (yes, pre-coronavirus).
  • The completion of multiple vendor demos.
  • The involvement of 30 business workstreams.
  • 70 senior management executives engaging in more than 80 meetings.
  • The IT team logging more than 600 hours on the assessment project alone. 

And the winner is… “At the end of the day, we consulted with our top management, took a very deep dive in terms of strategic attributes and requirements, and FIS bubbled to the top,” the member said. But he emphasized that this was the best choice for them based on the specifics of the company and not necessarily the best choice for others. The real takeaway was the thoroughness of the selection process.
 
More moves. In addition to consolidating the two treasury functions under a single TMS, the companies migrated service bureaus to FIS and adopted the most recent versions of Trax and Quantum. The first year was taken up with planning, including scoping the FIS project, prepping for upgrades and user-acceptance testing (UAT), testing scripts and bank engagements. The meat of the project went live in 2019, with planned enhancements to hedging accounting, eBAM and bank fee tools.
 
The company learned important lessons: 

  • Consultants add value. In addition to devoting significant in-house resources, the companies tapped consultancies. Treasury Strategies helped conduct the RFP of TMS vendors, and Deloitte and TSI Consulting were retained to help determine which technologies best suited the two treasury groups, each with different functions and approaches to employing technology.
    • The consultancies already have the test scripts and can point to the strengths and weaknesses of different vendors. “So even though you have to pay them, it saves time in the end,” the member said, adding that the extra layer of resources comes in handy when the business side doesn’t have time to do the necessary testing. 

Testing, testing, testing. The company tested its work six times over six weekends in the first half of 2019. “All the testing, all the time, did pay off,” the member said. “We found multiple problems in our practice go-lives, and those were rung out of the system. So when we went live it was almost flawless.”

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Treasury’s CECL Conundrum: How to Estimate (and Define) a Credit Loss

Treasury investment managers trying to get a better handle on FASB’s new methodology for estimating credit losses got some help this month at two NeuGroup virtual meetings. No surprise, the issue of how exactly to estimate those losses generated plenty of interest. 

  • One of the meetings featured a presentation from EY that included the slide below. It lays out three criteria used to adjust historical loss information to develop a loss estimate. EY’s presenter said that coming up with a “reasonable and supportable forecast” is the tricky part, especially given the uncertainty created by the pandemic.
  • One member commented that while the slide is simple, “the definition of a credit loss is where I have an issue.” Like other members, he underscored the difficulty of determining what portion of an unrealized loss is related to credit as opposed to other factors, including liquidity. “I have a problem actually calculating that,” he said.
  • EY’s presentation made the point that CECL requires “the use of more judgment and is expected to increase earnings volatility.”

Treasury investment managers trying to get a better handle on FASB’s new methodology for estimating credit losses got some help this month at two NeuGroup virtual meetings. No surprise, the issue of how exactly to estimate those losses generated plenty of interest. 

  • One of the meetings featured a presentation from EY that included the slide below. It lays out three criteria used to adjust historical loss information to develop a loss estimate. EY’s presenter said that coming up with a “reasonable and supportable forecast” is the tricky part, especially given the uncertainty created by the pandemic.
  • One member commented that while the slide is simple, “the definition of a credit loss is where I have an issue.” Like other members, he underscored the difficulty of determining what portion of an unrealized loss is related to credit as opposed to other factors, including liquidity. “I have a problem actually calculating that,” he said.
  • EY’s presentation made the point that CECL requires “the use of more judgment and is expected to increase earnings volatility.”

Models. One EY presenter said the length of time the CECL process takes depends in part on what model corporates use to estimate losses. At another meeting, presenters from Aladdin—which offers risk management software tools and is owned by BlackRock—described three sources for coming up with “CECL numbers.” They are:

  1. Asset Managers. Aladdin advises asking if money managers are able to provide CECL- compliant numbers and to consider whether differences in loss modeling approaches between managers are acceptable. One member got silence after asking peers at the meeting if they had had any luck getting CECL information from external asset managers. Another member reported no luck after asking Clearwater.
  2. Internal Processes. Determine whether you have internal models that you can use as-is or if you need to make adjustments. And do you have in-house expertise for all asset classes? Are all the right teams involved?
  3. Vendor Solutions. Aladdin, which offers CECL modelling services to corporates, recommends assessing the quality of a firm’s asset coverage, asking whether it supports end-to-end workflow, including integration with accounting platforms, and asking whether the corporate can selectively override the vendor’s model settings if treasury has a different view.
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Treasurers Are Making the Most of Zoom and Microsoft Teams

The buzz: Zoom’s security improves, Teams may help IT governance, and more access to Bloomberg.
 
Virtual meetings have been a godsend to corporate treasury executives sheltering in place, despite occasional glitches. In a recent Zoom meeting, NeuGroup members exchanged valuable tips about making their virtual interactions more efficient and effective.
 
Kudos for Teams. A few participants using Microsoft Teams while working from home heaped praise on the solution. Responding to requests to elaborate, one member called it “absolutely superb for team working,” because it allows audio and video calls but also enables colleagues to work simultaneously on Excel spreadsheets and other Microsoft 365 applications.

The buzz: Zoom’s security improves, Teams may help IT governance, and more access to Bloomberg.
 
Virtual meetings have been a godsend to corporate treasury executives sheltering in place, despite occasional glitches. In a recent Zoom meeting, NeuGroup members exchanged valuable tips about making their virtual interactions more efficient and effective.
 
Kudos for Teams. A few participants using Microsoft Teams while working from home heaped praise on the solution. Responding to requests to elaborate, one member called it “absolutely superb for team working,” because it allows audio and video calls but also enables colleagues to work simultaneously on Excel spreadsheets and other Microsoft 365 applications.

  • “And there’s a very efficient follow-up mechanism—give someone a task, and they automatically get emails until they’ve completed it,” he said. 

Curbing shadow IT. Free technologies such as Microsoft Teams can fall outside a company’s IT toolkit and governance framework—so-called “shadow IT.” A cybersecurity expert at the meeting said Teams runs on a Microsoft SharePoint backbone, so the corporate IT people supporting SharePoint can control access.

  • “They can impose some degree of governance on the Teams environment,” he said. 

Zoom news. Zoom remains the go-to virtual meeting service but raises security concerns, such as “Zoom bombings” when hackers disrupt confidential meetings.

  • The April 27 release of Zoom 5.0, the expert said, provides significant security enhancements.
  • “Don’t be surprised in the next weeks or months when you see a very aggressive advertising campaign by Microsoft to ditch Zoom and get on to Teams,” the security expert said. 

Bloomberg: additional access. There is no need for one person to take on all Bloomberg terminal responsibilities for the group. A member noted that Bloomberg’s Disaster Recovery Services (DRS) allows multiple users to access a terminal subscription from different computers—one at a time, similar to an actual terminal.  

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ESG: A Leading Indicator of Quality for Federated Hermes

The asset manager believes an active ownership approach to responsible investing is how to navigate this market.

“ESG Investing Shines in Market Turmoil, With Help From Big Tech,” shouted a headline in the Wall Street Journal this week. The story reports that investors put a record $12 billion into ESG funds in the first four months of 2020, according to Morningstar Direct, more than double the same period last year. And more than 70% of ESG funds across all asset classes performed better than their counterparts during the first four months of the year.

The outperformance of many ESG funds during the pandemic is helping change the minds of investors who thought they had to sacrifice returns to invest responsibly, said Martin Jarzebowski, director of responsible investing at Federated Hermes, speaking at a roundtable this week. He expects the interest in sustainable investing to grow as more investors see the value in screening for ESG factors. 

The asset manager believes an active ownership approach to responsible investing is how to navigate this market.

“ESG Investing Shines in Market Turmoil, With Help From Big Tech,” shouted a headline in the Wall Street Journal this week. The story reports that investors put a record $12 billion into ESG funds in the first four months of 2020, according to Morningstar Direct, more than double the same period last year. And more than 70% of ESG funds across all asset classes performed better than their counterparts during the first four months of the year.

The outperformance of many ESG funds during the pandemic is helping change the minds of investors who thought they had to sacrifice returns to invest responsibly, said Martin Jarzebowski, director of responsible investing at Federated Hermes, speaking at a roundtable this week. He expects the interest in sustainable investing to grow as more investors see the value in screening for ESG factors. 

  • “There is a correlation between ESG leaders and lower volatility and more consistent profits,” he said. “ESG is a new quality factor—ESG leaders are additive to performance.”

Federated Hermes is doing its part to spread the word and get more businesses to engage in sustainability-focused risk management during the crisis and beyond. The company, a pioneer in active engagement, has pushed “stewardship” for investment managers for well over a decade and has a dedicated team, called EOS, that actively engages directly with company boards and executives. 

  • “EOS’s mission is to engage in a collaborative dialogue with corporate issuers to better understand material ESG risks and advocate for positive change,” Mr. Jarzebowski wrote in a recent blog post. “These dedicated engagers are ESG subject-matter experts who complement the fundamental research of Federated Hermes investment teams across all asset classes.”

The firm’s deep understanding of financially relevant ESG factors helps Federated Hermes’ global portfolio managers to assess the underlying quality of the companies in which they invest. And that, Mr. Jarzebowski argues, gives the company an edge against passive investing, which does not take the same approach.   

  • “By incorporating forward-looking ESG insights into our active investment process, we think we can better assess where the puck is headed relative to passive indexes, which are mostly judging quality through a rearview mirror,” Mr. Jarzebowski wrote.

Federated Hermes will share its insights on sustainable investing and how ESG can fit your company’s strategy in a webinar hosted by NeuGroup on June 9, 2020. Register for it here

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Pandemic Pushes Some Companies Away From Checks, Toward Real-Time Payments

U.S. Bank sees more clients opting for RTP in a bid to gain control and improve forecasting.

The COVID-19 pandemic appears to be persuading more companies to consider abandoning paper checks and start using electronic payment rails to pay bills — even though many corporate treasurers do not view speed as a major incentive to switch. That insight emerged during a presentation by U.S. Bank at a recent NeuGroup meeting it sponsored. 
 
Old, suboptimal habits in the US. Here’s some context for where US business stands now: Companies with $1 billion or more in revenue still make 39 percent of payments with checks, and the figure is higher for smaller companies, according to the Association of Financial Professionals’ 2020 Payments Fraud and Control Survey.

  • Among payment methods, checks are the most susceptible to fraud.
  • Forty-four other countries already have instant, electronic payment methods. 

U.S. Bank sees more clients opting for RTP in a bid to gain control and improve forecasting.

The COVID-19 pandemic appears to be persuading more companies to consider abandoning paper checks and start using electronic payment rails to pay bills — even though many corporate treasurers do not view speed as a major incentive to switch. That insight emerged during a presentation by U.S. Bank at a recent NeuGroup meeting it sponsored. 
 
Old, suboptimal habits in the US. Here’s some context for where US business stands now: Companies with $1 billion or more in revenue still make 39 percent of payments with checks, and the figure is higher for smaller companies, according to the Association of Financial Professionals’ 2020 Payments Fraud and Control Survey.

  • Among payment methods, checks are the most susceptible to fraud.
  • Forty-four other countries already have instant, electronic payment methods. 

The new normal. With most corporate mailrooms functioning minimally, businesses are trying alternatives to checks, including a system from The Clearing House called Real Time Payment (RTP), which U.S. Bank trailblazed as one of the earliest adopters.

  • “Over the last month we’ve seen the greatest number of clients opting for RTP,” said Anuradha Somani, a payment solutions executive in global treasury management at U.S. Bank. 
  • The timing is ripe, she said, since electronic payment rails have emerged that enable transactions to carry much more data, improving working capital, security, and analytics such as cash-flow forecasting.  

“Just in time” payments. Meeting participants agreed that payment speed was not the only priority, and Ms. Somani said that RTP’s key improvement is flexibility and control – meaning, no longer initiating a payment today and having to wait one or two days for settlement.

  • “It’s the ability to control payments at the precise time you want,” she said, noting that such control and the irrevocability of incoming RTPs, available 24/7/365, can dramatically improve cash forecasting. 
  • The treasurer of a major industrial company said, “What intrigues me is if I can have better information, and there’s something truly analytical about this to help enhance forecasting abilities.”

Data continuity: John Melvin, working capital consultant at U.S. Bank, called RTP “the biggest payments infrastructure change in the last 40 years.”  That change is the extensive data that transactions carry through the RTP network of connected banks.

Data-light ACH payments often receive remittance information through outside methods such as email or fax, which often requires searching for a payer’s identity in order to post the transaction. RTP’s request for payment (RFP) function instead allows billers to alert customers that payments are due by sending a message containing all the relevant biller information, facilitating reconciliation.

  • Because RFP-prompted payments require payers’ approval, they dramatically reduce fraud, and “models can be created to reconcile payments, eliminating the need for shared service centers purposed for reconciliation,” Melvin said.

While the pandemic is likely to be one of the most challenging crises businesses will ever face, proactively taking stock of payments strategy can help plan for the future, according to U.S. Bank. And it says that no matter what the initial driver is – the pandemic, speed, data, superior control or the ability to forecast better, faster payments are here to stay. 

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ERM’s Profile Rises as Boards Focus on Risk Oversight Role

Corporate boards are taking their oversight mandate more seriously; that’s why they need ERM.

Today’s corporate boards need to fully understand the risks a company faces as well as their relevance to its strategy and risk appetite. That’s been the case since 2009 when the SEC started requiring disclosure of a board’s role in risk oversight, including the qualifications of its members and a description of how the board administers its oversight function.

  • The risks revealed by COVID-19 make this a good time to probe how enterprise risk managers fit into this picture.

Corporate boards are taking their oversight mandate more seriously; that’s why they need ERM.

Today’s corporate boards need to fully understand the risks a company faces as well as their relevance to its strategy and risk appetite. That’s been the case since 2009 when the SEC started requiring disclosure of a board’s role in risk oversight, including the qualifications of its members and a description of how the board administers its oversight function.

  • The risks revealed by COVID-19 make this a good time to probe how enterprise risk managers fit into this picture.

ERM’s role. ERM can help the board fulfill its mandate and gain satisfaction that the right risks are being addressed. That was among the takeaways from a discussion led by Dr. Paul Walker, executive director of the Center for Excellence in ERM at St. John’s University. It is the ERM function that can collate all the risks of the company and drill down to the most important ones. 

  • Dr. Walker added that practitioners can provide the satisfaction the board is looking for by benchmarking with peers and uncovering possible risks through conversations and other interactions with company managers. This risk discovery process helps ERM to map the connected risks of the company. Dr. Walker said ERMs should take those connected risks and “boil them down to a story.” It’s more art than science, he admitted, but it can be done. 

Ultimately, Dr. Walker said, these efforts will further arm ERM with the right answer when the board eventually asks: “How do we know we’re looking at the right set of risks?”
 
Here are some of Dr. Walker’s recommendations for engaging with the board:

  • Know the laws. Corporations have a growing list of requirements on risk and governance best practices. This is a chance to show your risk expertise.
  • Don’t go overboard. Some ERMs can give too much information or create big presentations; boards and presenters can end up in the weeds. The truth of the matter is, ERM will probably get 15 minutes in front of the board or even a subcommittee (i.e., risk committee), so make it concise.
  • Whisper campaign. With that brief amount of face time, try sharing any other risks concerns with colleagues. If those colleagues are going to report to the board, whether they be audit or other compliance functions, “whispering” the issues to them can help. “Maybe they’ll mention it to the board in their report,” Dr. Walker said.
  • Know your audience. Dr. Walker said getting to know the board, what they read, what they want or expect, can be especially useful. Who likes data? Who likes reports? Who likes visuals? This will require a bit of sleuthing on the part of ERM.
  • Ahead of the curve. More gumshoeing here: Stay ahead of the board’s expectations and questions.

In the end, Dr. Walker said, “Don’t give vanilla if they want chocolate chip cookie dough.”

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The Challenges for Corporates of Nonbank Payments

Treasurers in Asia discuss why regulation, technology and business models complicate nonbank payments in the B2C space.

The brave new world of nonbank payments presents both challenges and opportunities for finance teams at multinationals that have to collect cash from open platforms, a topic that garnered attention at a recent meeting of NeuGroup treasurers in Asia. 

Key issues. In the business-to-consumer (B2C) arena, the widespread use of tech intermediaries such as PayPal, WeChat and Alipay poses a problem for corporates because these open platforms are not meeting the typical segregation of duties and reconciliation protocols required by audits. The only options involve complex manual processes.

Treasurers in Asia discuss why regulation, technology and business models complicate nonbank payments in the B2C space.

The brave new world of nonbank payments presents both challenges and opportunities for finance teams at multinationals that have to collect cash from open platforms, a topic that garnered attention at a recent meeting of NeuGroup treasurers in Asia. 

Key issues. In the business-to-consumer (B2C) arena, the widespread use of tech intermediaries such as PayPal, WeChat and Alipay poses a problem for corporates because these open platforms are not meeting the typical segregation of duties and reconciliation protocols required by audits. The only options involve complex manual processes.

B2B dynamics. In the business-to-business space (B2B), payment service intermediaries such as TraxPay have emerged with offerings that present corporates with risks as well as opportunities, such as the ability to hold data in the cloud. Regulation, technology and business models also complicate the B2B payment landscape. The hope is that in the long run, platforms become more sophisticated. For now, there’s no immediate relief, a sore point for corporates.

Fintech and the trust Issue. Reliance on intermediaries in the B2B payments area raises a related issue facing finance teams at multinationals: How much do they trust fintechs? When it comes to payments, corporates trust banks far more than fintechs or ideas like crowdfunding. The issue is especially relevant when it comes to payment aggregators like PayPal, Stripe and Square. Corporates have to weigh the popularity of these systems and their ability to provide a neutral layer between them and a bank against the risks of giving data to businesses that don’t have to comply with bank regulations. The dependence of these systems on APIs also presents risks.

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Crisis Forces Consideration of Unwinding Cash-Flow Hedges

The COVID-19 crisis has reduced exposures to a point where for many companies those hedges may not be needed anymore. Time to unwind?

If you’re planning on unwinding a cash-flow hedge, there are many things to think about before you do. Determining when and why to unwind, as well as how to view the transaction’s cost benefits, and what counterparty to use, are just a few of the factors to consider. This was the topic of discussion among NeuGroup FX Managers’ Peer Group 1 and 2 members in a recent virtual “office hour” meeting, which led to some interesting takeaways.

  • The “No Choice” camp. With hedge accounting being a big driver for most members, keeping hedges on the books when exposures are materially reduced – as they unarguably have for many sectors in the COVID-19 crisis – is not an option as you’ll be over-hedged. For some companies, the lost sales in the crisis might be made up for in a later quarter, but for travel and service business, it is unlikely the rebound will make up for all of it.

 

The COVID-19 crisis has reduced exposures to a point where for many companies those hedges may not be needed anymore. Time to unwind?

If you’re planning on unwinding a cash-flow hedge, there are many things to think about before you do. Determining when and why to unwind, as well as how to view the transaction’s cost benefits, and what counterparty to use, are just a few of the factors to consider. This was the topic of discussion among NeuGroup FX Managers’ Peer Group 1 and 2 members in a recent virtual “office hour” meeting, which led to some interesting takeaways.

  • The “No Choice” camp. With hedge accounting being a big driver for most members, keeping hedges on the books when exposures are materially reduced – as they unarguably have for many sectors in the COVID-19 crisis – is not an option as you’ll be over-hedged. For some companies, the lost sales in the crisis might be made up for in a later quarter, but for travel and service business, it is unlikely the rebound will make up for all of it.
  • Monetizing in-the-money hedges. If hedge accounting is a driver to unwind hedges that are in the money, the extra liquidity is welcome, nevertheless. But ITM hedges are also an opportunity to access additional liquidity, even if the hedges are still “good.” By unwinding them – cashing in – you get the extra cash immediately and if needed, you can enter into a new set of hedges for the remaining exposure at prevailing market rates.
  • Do you need to take the P/L right away? Talk to your hedge accounting people to see whether the gains/losses on the hedges are material enough to require that they be recognized in the current quarter or if they can be released in the quarter they otherwise would have occurred.
  • Do you need to sell the hedge? And if so, to the same counterparty? Not necessarily. If you don’t feel the pricing offered is attractive enough from the original counterparty, you can bid it out competitively if your trading processes permit. Or, you can dedesignate the hedge and enter into an offsetting cash-flow hedge for the “over-hedged” part for a neutral outcome.
  • Can you offset it on the balance hedge side instead? None of the members on the call said they could. In one case it was because of systems that prevented a cash-flow hedge to be “transferred” to the balance-sheet program. So instead, the cash-flow hedge needs to be dedesignated and an offsetting hedge to be put in place the same day.
  • How much extra work is it? Unwinding cross-currency interest rate swaps and other complex or multi-tranche derivatives can mean a lot of extra trading and processing work for the treasury team. That is less likely for relatively simple FX derivatives, most of which can likely be pushed through the regular trading process but will probably incur some more “manual” (spreadsheet) valuation calculations. This should take care of most of the push back from the treasury operations and accounting side.
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Cyberattacks: Post-Pandemic May Be Worse Than the Lockdown

Best practices pre-pandemic have become even more important as the economy reopens.

A top treasury concern for years, cyberattacks ramped up following the sudden transition to the work-from-home regimen prompted by the pandemic. They’ll likely ramp up even further when the economy begins opening up.

That was among the takeaways from a session on cybersecurity at a recent virtual NeuGroup meeting headed by Jenny Menna, deputy chief information security officer at U.S. Bank, and Chris Moschovitis, CEO of technology consultancy tmg-emedia.

Best practices pre-pandemic have become even more important as the economy reopens. 

A top treasury concern for years, cyberattacks ramped up following the sudden transition to the work-from-home regimen prompted by the pandemic. They’ll likely ramp up even further when the economy begins opening up. 

  • That was among the takeaways from a session on cybersecurity at a recent virtual NeuGroup meeting headed by Jenny Menna, deputy chief information security officer at U.S. Bank, and Chris Moschovitis, CEO of technology consultancy tmg-emedia. Below are more insights.

Beware of stuffed animals. When fear struck that the COVID-19 was in the US and spreading, the bad guys—criminals and state actors—saw opportunity. 

  • Almost immediately there was a jump in phishing emails that seek to exploit fears about the virus to lure employees into revealing private information. 
  • Malicious apps professing to come from key resources of information, and even stuffed animals with accompanying thumb drives arriving by mail, are designed to infect home computers. 

Don’t forget to patch. These best practices and defensive measures have become even more important:

  • Install the latest software patches on phones, personal computers and work laptops to guard against evolving malware.
  • Assume that requests from higher-ups, especially from a personal email account, to send money are bogus.
  • Don’t use personal email accounts for business. Don’t email company documents to a personal email account.
  • Home printers may be compromised; avoid attaching work laptops to them.
  • Change up Zoom and other virtual meeting-room passwords to avoid unwanted guests. 
  • Alert employees to the latest phishing scams and cyberattacks. The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the FBI regularly update the latest developments. 

At the corporate level. Understand connections to vendors and other third parties, their cybersecurity policies, and your company’s dependency on them. 

  • Discuss in advance with outside counsel and the FBI how to respond to a ransomware attack, Ms. Menna said. Several large corporations have been hit recently.  

The internal threat. Mr. Moschovitis noted that 30% of cybercrimes are conducted by internal agents who understand how to bypass an institution’s controls.

  • Without any physical controls or eye-to-eye employee interactions that may provide hints of bad intent, any company-related queries by an employee outside his or her direct responsibilities or otherwise odd behavior should be escalated to HR.  

Prep now. A meeting participant mentioned fears that reopening the economy will accompany a flurry of activity fueling even more cyberattacks. 

  • Mr. Moschovitis agreed. The flood of overdue invoices and other documents may be overwhelming to process, creating opportunity for cyberattacks. “Our advice remains consistent: The minute something becomes abnormal, pick up the phone” to double-check, he said.
  • Many employees will continue working from home, so policies such as how the division of labor will occur must be developed. “Now is the time to have these conversations,” he said. “And it will involve having a lot of stakeholders around the table—the COO, CFO, IT, cybersecurity. All these folks need to be in the room to have this conversation.”
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Pandemic Reveals the Haves and the Have Nots: Asia Report

Examples of the varying effects lockdowns had on businesses, and how they’ve responded.

The coronavirus pandemic has provided more proof that crises affect some companies far differently than others. The reasons include what industry a company is in, its business model and how much cash it has on hand—the haves and the have-nots.

Perhaps less expected is that business units within the same company may weather a storm better than others. All this and more emerged in discussions among finance practitioners in Asia participating in a NeuGroup virtual meeting in mid-April.

Examples of the varying effects lockdowns had on businesses, and how they’ve responded.

The coronavirus pandemic has provided more proof that crises affect some companies far differently than others. The reasons include what industry a company is in, its business model and how much cash it has on hand—the haves and the have-nots.

Perhaps less expected is that business units within the same company may weather a storm better than others. All this and more emerged in discussions among finance practitioners in Asia participating in a NeuGroup virtual meeting in mid-April. Here are some takeaways:

  • Members who work for cash-rich companies expressed interest in making strategic acquisitions as asset prices declined in response to the pandemic. Potential deals in this environment must be evaluated not only based on price but the degree to which an acquisition will deplete the buyer’s cash pile.
  • Asia business units planning to provide funds to parent companies had different experiences. For at least one company, the process was relatively easy, thanks to its strong relationships with local partners. Others faced difficulties getting approvals from external auditors and clearance from tax authorities.
  • Companies without significant cash surpluses have made significant cuts in capital expenditures and discretionary expenses. They have also drawn down or increased bank lines of credit.
  • A member from a consumer goods company described declining sales of its products that are distributed to restaurants but solid sales of products consumed at home and purchased in convenience stores.
  • Those drugs requiring face-to-face-meetings between pharmaceutical salespeople and health care providers are not selling as well as other drugs companies produce.
  • Lockdowns—no surprise—put a huge dent in sales of companies that rely on foot traffic.
  • Companies with business models that have easily transitioned to remote work such as consulting are doing well and, in some cases, have seen an uptick in business.
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Seeking Incremental Credit? Refinancing Loans? Expect Hurdles

Insights from U.S. Bank on current market dynamics as corporates shore up their access to credit.

Defensive drawdowns of revolving credit lines have subsided and banks are selectively entertaining requests for new, incremental loans as well as refinancings of existing credit lines. But borrowers can expect some hoops, hurdles and different market dynamics. That was among the takeaways from a presentation by U.S. Bank, sponsor of a recent virtual NeuGroup meeting for treasurers of large-cap companies. Here are highlights:

  • Members heard that in the wake of the pandemic, U.S. Bank had received more than 150 client requests for incremental liquidity lines—both new revolving and term—and to date had closed over 70 facilities with many more in the works as of April 23.

Insights from U.S. Bank on current market dynamics as corporates shore up their access to credit.

Defensive drawdowns of revolving credit lines have subsided and banks are selectively entertaining requests for new, incremental loans as well as refinancings of existing credit lines. But borrowers can expect some hoops, hurdles and different market dynamics. That was among the takeaways from a presentation by U.S. Bank, sponsor of a recent virtual NeuGroup meeting for treasurers of large-cap companies. Here are highlights:

  • Members heard that in the wake of the pandemic, U.S. Bank had received more than 150 client requests for incremental liquidity lines—both new revolving and term—and to date had closed over 70 facilities with many more in the works as of April 23.

Refinancing season begins. U.S. Bank is working with two large borrowers rated single-A or higher that are rolling over their 364-day tranches but leaving five-year portions alone, rather than pushing them out a year as they once would have.

  • These borrowers are offering upfront fees. “They’re trying to keep the integrity of the existing deal but recognizing that banks are under strain and pricing is likely to go up, so they’re offering the fees to bridge that gap,” said Jeff Duncan, managing director of loan capital markets at U.S. Bank.
  • Covenant waivers and amendments are likely to increase, he said, as companies digest their first quarter earnings and look ahead.

Loan split stays. The structure splitting loans into 364-day and five-year portions will likely continue, despite today’s challenges in rolling them over, because big companies can raise sufficient liquidity while keeping the bank group at a manageable number, Mr. Duncan said. Also:

  • A bank refusing to refinance the shorter piece while holding onto the five-year is effectively shutting off ancillary business. This gives borrowers leverage.
  • One member asked if seeking an incremental 364-day now would jeopardize refinancing an existing one in August. Ask the lead banks about syndicate capacity well in advance, said Jeff Stuart, U.S. Bank’s head of capital markets.
  • Coupling incremental loans with a bond deal incentivizes lenders with fees and reassures banks that the facility is temporary.

Big bank hiatus. A member looking for an unfunded revolver said the largest US banks were the least likely to step up, while European lenders, large US regionals, and Japanese banks even increased their allocations.

Prepare for the sprint. Given pricing volatility, U.S. Bank has led syndications that, from initial discussions to closing, have wrapped up in two weeks instead of the typical five or six, thereby meeting corporate clients’ accelerated funding needs.

Floors required, please. Libor floors on bank loans, guaranteeing a minimum yield, are becoming increasingly popular, most at 75 basis points and some at 100 basis points, Mr. Duncan said, and some banks are requiring floors in order to commit to incremental facilities.

  • “We’re seeing them more frequently at launch to take that issue off the table and maximize the number of participants getting into deals,” he said.

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Aligning on the Meaning of Risk Helps Companies Focus on It

The word risk means different things to different people; how can you agree on the definition across an organization?

“What exactly does risk mean to you?” one member asked during a recent virtual meeting of NeuGroup’s Corporate Enterprise Risk Management Group. The question was a bit rhetorical—the member answered it himself by saying risk means different things to different people. There is good risk, bad risk, strategic risk, operational risk and catastrophic risk.

  • This was true, said one member of an ERM team presenting to the group on risk alignment at her company. She said, “Initial definitions are easier to get consensus” on; but she observed that as you move away from those definitions and go out to the businesses, “That’s where we see more variation of risk.”

The word risk means different things to different people; how can you agree on the definition across an organization?

“What exactly does risk mean to you?” one member asked during a recent virtual meeting of NeuGroup’s Corporate Enterprise Risk Management Group. The question was a bit rhetorical—the member answered it himself by saying risk means different things to different people. There is good risk, bad risk, strategic risk, operational risk and catastrophic risk.

  • This was true, said one member of an ERM team presenting to the group on risk alignment at her company. She said, “Initial definitions are easier to get consensus” on; but she observed that as you move away from those definitions and go out to the businesses, “That’s where we see more variation of risk.”

Risk council. Another ERM member leading that alignment effort said that risk definitions need to be made uniform and that those definitions should be decided upon company-wide. To do it, ERM created a risk council by recruiting leaders from the regulatory side of the business, HR, accounting, R&D and the business units to help the broader company focus on ERM.

  • He added that since ERM reports into finance, he made sure not to “overload finance on the council.” The group sought to determine “where we were different and where were we the same,” when it came to nailing down the meaning of risk in different areas of the business.

No appetite for “appetite.” This member said the process was not straightforward because of the number of different personalities and agendas. “I expected we would stumble on some definitions,” he said, adding that, for instance, ERM’s “view of the world may be influenced by board personality.” Others might be influenced by other necessities; that means “there are words some people want to use and others they don’t want to use.”

  • For example, the company’s legal counsel didn’t like the term “risk appetite” and said the company had zero appetite for risk. He wanted to call it something else. Others saw it differently, which made it “challenging in some naming conventions.”

Higher profile. Nonetheless, this effort helped ERM “level set” what risk meant, the member said. The group then presented refined risk definitions to the board to get agreement. “The result has been active engagement.”

  • Overall, this and other efforts have raised the profile of ERM within the company. When he first took the position, ERM “was a board-reporting exercise; ERM was muted.” But now with the alignment project, the function is “now more of a presence.”

This has meant building more risk accountability and finding the right risk owners across the company. “The more we can get involved with individual regions or business, the more we can inculcate risk into the organization,” he said.

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COVID-19 Puts Buyback Programs on Hold—but Not for Everybody

Some companies are keeping share repurchases programs going while many others suspend them.

We are continuing to buy back stock,” said the treasurer of a cash-rich technology company in mid-March, speaking to peers during a virtual NeuGroup meeting of mega-cap businesses. “We haven’t pulled share repurchases either,” said the treasurer of a large health care company with a very healthy balance sheet and strong cash flow.

  • Later that day, a third treasurer—working from home—told the group that investor Bill Ackman was feeding market panic during an interview with CNBC. In it, he urged US companies to stop their buyback programs because “hell is coming.”

Some companies are keeping share repurchases programs going while many others suspend them.

We are continuing to buy back stock,” said the treasurer of a cash-rich technology company in mid-March, speaking to peers during a virtual NeuGroup meeting of mega-cap businesses. “We haven’t pulled share repurchases either,” said the treasurer of a large health care company with a very healthy balance sheet and strong cash flow.

  • Later that day, a third treasurer told the group that investor Bill Ackman was feeding market panic during an interview with CNBC. In it, he urged US companies to stop their buyback programs because “hell is coming.”

Suspending, scaling. In the month and a half since that day, as the coronavirus effectively shut down the US economy, many companies—including some NeuGroup members—have suspended share repurchase programs because of uncertainty about future cash flows, among other reasons.

  • One example: A consumer goods company that reported outstanding quarterly earnings in late April suspended its buyback program and withdrew guidance for 2020. The treasurer said the reasons include concerns about raw materials and—if infection rates spike—manufacturing sites. As a result, the company is “managing liquidity with a very different focus,” he said.
  • The capital markets manager of another large-cap company said, “We have a small buyback program in place and we’ve slowed it down over the last few weeks,” adding, “We’re waiting to get direction; the program is not cancelled but scaled back.”
  • A member who works at a company that began a repurchase program in late 2019 noted that buybacks in the current political and economic climate are “being frowned upon in some spaces.” He said his company may be scaling back on share repurchases and asked what peers are doing.
  • “We discontinued our share buyback program,” one treasurer said. “We think the world will understand.”

Not stopping now. The treasurer of the health care business said in the days leading up to a recent bond offering he was asked several times by investors if the company planned to stop buying back its stock. The answer—no—did not keep the deal from being a complete success, thanks to the company’s strong capital position, among other factors.

  • This company plans for its own “rainy day,” he said, adding it would undoubtedly pause the share repurchase program if it ever faced liquidity issues or needed government assistance—not its current situation.
  • The company, he said, will stick to its approach to repurchases, which includes buying when the stock trades below what leadership believes is the intrinsic value of the company.

A framework for buybacks. Back in 2018, as buybacks surged following US tax reform and the repatriation of assets, one NeuGroup member shared his three-point approach to designing a framework for repurchases. It involves:

  1. Achieving stated capital structure goals.
  2. Updating the valuation thesis regularly, validating repurchase decisions through retrospective analysis and adjusting for market conditions, changing business conditions or other factors.
  3. Execution: taking advantage of multiple buyback tools to manage through open markets and blackouts, while considering volatility, ADTV, VWAP and other factors to measure program success, bank execution and other factors.
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Time-Consuming and Intense: Due Diligence for Today’s Debt Deals

Corporates tapping the bond market should expect an in-depth, rigorous look at COVID-19 impacts.

Seller beware: Corporates selling bonds to bolster their liquidity this spring should expect a rigorous due diligence experience involving auditors, underwriters, internal counsel and external capital markets lawyers, among others.

  • The once seemingly perfunctory process for investment-grade issuers has become an intensive, multi-day, near round-the-clock affair, as banks and investors scrutinize issuer disclosures about COVID-19’s near- and long-term business impact.

Corporates tapping the bond market should expect an in-depth, rigorous look at COVID-19 impacts.
 
Seller beware: Corporates selling bonds to bolster their liquidity this spring should expect a rigorous due diligence experience involving auditors, underwriters, internal counsel and external capital markets lawyers, among others.

  • The once seemingly perfunctory process for investment-grade issuers has become an intensive, multi-day, near round-the-clock affair, as banks and investors scrutinize issuer disclosures about COVID-19’s near- and long-term business impact.

Be prepared. Once generic diligence questions are now very specific, even referencing unofficial public documents and news sources indicating business slowing that capital markets lawyers would never have used pre-pandemic.
“Things are happening so quickly, it almost gives us no choice,” Keith DeLeon, counsel at Sidley Austin LLP, told NeuGroup members at recent virtual meeting of treasurers at large-cap companies.

Extra time. In normal times, companies often issue debt immediately following Q1 financial filings, sometimes just before and sometimes on the same day. But now underwriters want more time to review.

  • “For first quarter and probably through the rest of 2020, underwriters are likely to recommend conducting the business and auditor calls a day or two following the filing of the 10-Q,” said Chris Cicoletti, a managing director of debt capital markets at US. Bank, which sponsored the meeting.
  • But don’t wait too long. Pre-coronavirus, offerings could take place weeks after the public filing, using a “bring-down call” with investors to fill in the gap. Few companies had filed 10-Qs so it’s hard to know, but that period may have shrunk to just a few days, Mr. DeLeon said, adding, “Diligence and disclosure, which clearly go hand-in-hand, go stale a lot faster.”

Groundhog Day. Mr. DeLeon observed that a current trend in the market involves diligence being refreshed overnight, because of new developments in between serial go/no-go calls.

  • “Deals are ready to go from a documentation perspective, there is a go/no-go call or market update that results in a decision to stand down, the diligence and disclosure are refreshed and the cycle repeats day after day until the deal gets done or stands down indefinitely,” he said.

Ready the big guns. Due diligence calls may once have been handled by treasury’s head of funding or investor relations. “It’s no longer delegated but handled by the C-suite officers,” Mr. DeLeon said.

  • Prepare for more underwriter questions. Full due diligence sessions are conducted with lead underwriters; now, co-managers and “passives” want the leads to ask more questions about coronavirus impact during a second call where the company updates underwriters on what may have changed since the first call.
  • “We don’t ask issuers to go through the entire diligence agenda again, but we do go through the biggest ticket items,” and that means the COVID-19 impact, Mr. DeLeon said.
  • Current practice suggests providing as much quantitative disclosure regarding the impacts of COVID-19 as possible, and other carefully worded qualitative disclosures regarding the actual and potential impacts of the pandemic in the risk factor and recent developments sections of offering and other disclosure documents.

Speed is of the essence. Quickly drafting disclosures as well as efficient mechanics, such as printing the offering documents, are vital to take advantage of optimal windows to issue bonds. The difference in pricing over just a few hours can be as much as half a percentage point given current intraday volatility. “Things like printer turnaround time have become critical in the current market given the often tight windows for optimal deal execution,” Mr. DeLeon noted.

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Keeping the Company Strong after the Initial Hit

Companies have survived the early impact of COVID-19; now the focus is keeping the concern going.

There is a lot of talk in treasury and risk circles lately about business continuity plans or BCPs. The talk is mainly around whether the plans worked and what lessons have been learned in the latest crisis. But there has not been as much talk about business resiliency, that is, whether the company, now in the throes of major health crisis, can hang in there and navigate ups and down. 

A recent Deloitte article on resiliency stressed that business leaders must be “vigilantly focused on protecting financial performance during and through the crisis … and making hard, fact-based decisions.” But what is also important, particularly in this crisis where lockdowns and employee isolation are the norm, is communications with those employees, keeping them engaged to help keep the company moving forward.

Companies have survived the early impact of COVID-19; now the focus is keeping the concern going.

There is a lot of talk in treasury and risk circles lately about business continuity plans or BCPs. The talk is mainly around whether the plans worked and what lessons have been learned in the latest crisis. But there has not been as much talk about business resiliency, that is, whether the company, now in the throes of major health crisis, can hang in there and navigate ups and down. 

A recent Deloitte article on resiliency stressed that business leaders must be “vigilantly focused on protecting financial performance during and through the crisis … and making hard, fact-based decisions.” But what is also important, particularly in this crisis where lockdowns and employee isolation are the norm, is communications with those employees, keeping them engaged to help keep the company moving forward.

Isolation stress. In a recent call with members of NeuGroup’s Internal Auditors’ Peer Group, several auditors said they were addressing the stresses that go with working remotely and the disconnect many employees feel as they isolate in their homes. 

  • In previous calls, members themselves have said that while working from home they often don’t know whether an action they take is just a shot in the dark with no result. “Is anything happening out there?” wondered one auditor.

Layoff fear. During the recent call, one member detailed how his company started doing a weekly check-in with employees, which included doctors and members of the human resources team. Doctors are there to answer health questions and HR can help with fears of layoffs. “Everyone feels like they’re out of touch and everyone is worried about layoffs at this point,” the member said. 

Another member said management at his company conducts similar calls, but in a more hierarchical way. They have calls with worldwide site leaders who in turn have calls with their employees. They also do calls with individual region leadership, like those in EMEA and Latin America. 

  • “They have very candid discussions,” the member said. Globally, employees can submit questions to managers that may or may not be addressed (due to volume) in any one of these calls. He said most of the questions regard layoffs.

Still another member said that his company’s HR is now providing support services for people isolated at home, which includes health services. 

Mapping the return. NeuGroup members continue to talk about returning to work and how that will all play out. One member said management meets with the CEO once a week to discuss locations and where stay-at-home orders are easing so they can start their back-to-work programs. 

  • Discussions also increasingly include reducing the company’s footprint by having some people work from home part time or on a rotational basis. “We’re looking at each location globally and doing the analysis,” said one member.
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Pandemic Lessons Learned by Treasurers in Asia

How finance teams respond to the need for cash depends in part on their ability to tap global cash pools.

As the pandemic brought  the world to a standstill, the primary concern of many multinational corporations centered on sustaining their operations, assuming no cash inflows for at least 30 days. For almost every company, that requires a lot of cash! That was among the takeaways from member comments at a recent NeuGroup virtual meeting of treasurers in Asia in early April.

Cash pools. Multinational companies best positioned to source emergency funds have access to global cash pools domiciled in jurisdictions where capital markets are liquid and central banks supportive, such as  London and  New York. To fund business activities elsewhere, companies rely on domestic banks or subsidiaries of foreign banks. 

How finance teams respond to the need for cash depends in part on their ability to tap global cash pools.

As the pandemic brought  the world to a standstill, the primary concern of many multinational corporations centered on sustaining their operations, assuming no cash inflows for at least 30 days. For almost every company, that requires a lot of cash! That was among the takeaways from member comments at a recent NeuGroup virtual meeting of treasurers in Asia in early April.

Cash pools. Multinational companies best positioned to source emergency funds have access to global cash pools domiciled in jurisdictions where capital markets are liquid and central banks supportive, such as  London and  New York. To fund business activities elsewhere, companies rely on domestic banks or subsidiaries of foreign banks. 

Other tools. Challenges arise when domestic credit is not sufficient to fund the company and its supply chain. To support loyal business partners, finance directors resort to traditional programs such as distributor and supplier financing. However, complex and paper intensive onboarding often holds them back. 

  • Likewise, declaring dividends from cash-rich subsidiaries to sustain cash-poor sister companies is challenging when both audit and tax clearance staff are themselves subject to lockdowns. Finance teams with long-standing relationships are more likely to break through. 

Government help. As a last resort, companies apply for direct government support. Members report that the application process is resource intensive and time consuming. To be effective, the country’s senior executive must lead a multi-functional team including tax, legal, government affairs, HR, and finance. The treasury team executes loan transactions and reporting, ensuring that new covenants do not breach existing agreements. 

Although it is too early to draw definitive lessons from the pandemic, it’s clear that the even the best business contingency plans never fully test the complexity of an unfolding crisis. Leveraging a global cash pool by concentrating a company’s firepower brings benefits well beyond a cost advantage. They give finance directors the space to look for practical local workarounds where needed.

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Funding Is Top Priority for Treasurers amid Pandemic: Poll

Treasurers have funding on their minds as they deal with COVID-19. BCP and supply chains also a concern.

Securing funding is a top priority for corporate treasurers thrust into the role of organizing companies’ financial response amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent poll by Bloomberg and Greenwich Associates. Following funding, treasurers say their attention is also on business continuity plans and suppliers.

Many treasurers have been tasked with making sure key suppliers have the resources to stay in business and providing the needed parts and material.

Treasurers have funding on their minds as they deal with COVID-19. BCP and supply chains also a concern.

Securing funding is a top priority for corporate treasurers thrust into the role of organizing companies’ financial response amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent poll by Bloomberg and Greenwich Associates. Following funding, treasurers say their attention is also on business continuity plans and suppliers.

Many treasurers have been tasked with making sure key suppliers have the resources to stay in business and providing the needed parts and material. 

  • The Bloomberg-Greenwich survey revealed that treasurers (49% of respondents) are taking a closer look at customer and supplier credit, receivables and financing. 

“One of the most intriguing results of our poll was that it revealed the most important risk focus for treasurers is the credit position of their supply chain and customers,” said Ken Monahan, senior analyst at Greenwich Associates. 

  • “This even rated above improving relationships with their own creditors,” he added. “This is interesting because the most observable phenomenon has been the rush to funding. The scrutiny of the supply chain and the customers goes on behind the scenes but is a top priority nonetheless.”
  • NeuGroup has heard similar responses in weekly interactions with its members. Several companies mentioned making sure their suppliers remained viable. And early on they said they were looking to underpin balance sheets by tapping revolvers or looking for loans. 

However, at the same time, they noted that some bankers were viewing drawdowns and requests much more favorably than others. Realizing this, treasurers are communicating with banks. According to the Bloomberg-Greenwich poll, 39% of respondents said they “increased conversations with our banks.”

The poll was conducted during a Bloomberg webinar on Greenwich Associates’ recent report, “Changing KPIs force treasurers to improve their risk technology.”

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Looking for Yield: Investment Managers Mull Prime Funds, Short-Duration SMAs

After fleeing prime funds, corporates are asking if now is the time to return.

Treasury investment managers interested in picking up additional yield for short-duration cash are not yet returning to prime money market funds (MMFs) that they exited as the coronavirus pandemic emerged. That was one of the key takeaways at a NeuGroup virtual meeting this week where several managers expressed interest in what one of their peers is doing: Using separately managed accounts (SMAs) for liquidity investing.

  • None of the participants is currently invested in prime funds. “We got out and went into more government funds and stayed there,” one member said. Several others used almost the exact same phrase.

  • The speed of the fixed-income market’s reaction to COVID-19 reflected that, in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, “Everyone had a playbook for duration, counterparty risk and prime funds,” one investment manager said. “Once they realized it was for real, they acted on it quickly.

After fleeing prime funds, corporates are asking if now is the time to return.

Treasury investment managers interested in picking up additional yield for short-duration cash are not yet returning to prime money market funds (MMFs) that they exited as the coronavirus pandemic emerged. That was one of the key takeaways at a NeuGroup virtual meeting this week where several managers expressed interest in what one of their peers is doing: Using separately managed accounts (SMAs) for liquidity investing.

  • None of the participants is currently invested in prime funds. “We got out and went into more government funds and stayed there,” one member said. Several others used almost the exact same phrase.
  • The speed of the fixed-income market’s reaction to COVID-19 reflected that, in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, “Everyone had a playbook for duration, counterparty risk and prime funds,” one investment manager said. “Once they realized it was for real, they acted on it quickly.

Now what? Now that credit markets have stabilized, “We are curious about prime,” one member said. No wonder: The Federal Reserve’s moves to support markets with backstops for MMFs and commercial paper have some corporates wondering if the risk of prime funds is nearly comparable to that of government funds, making it worthwhile to take the extra yield offered by prime.

Prime problem. One reason to avoid prime funds, members said, is the gates that temporarily impose restrictions on redemptions if the funds breach weekly or daily liquidity requirements. Despite the Fed’s support, there are “still concerns,” one member said, adding that in the current situation you may unfortunately find out that you “have cash but don’t have the cash.”

  • He noted that Goldman Sachs and Bank of New York Mellon pumped money into their prime funds in March as redemptions surged.
  • An asset manager addressing the peer group told the managers, “If I had your jobs, I would not have a dollar outside the government funds” that is earmarked for a short-term, liquidity bucket. He said the floating or variable NAV of prime funds “can cause panic” in volatile markets.
    • As for the Fed’s backstop facilities, he said that when investing in commercial paper or other debt, “I want to buy a credit because it’s a credit that I think is solid and a fair valuation—not because the Fed is providing a backstop.” In short, he added, “There is no substitute to credit work.”

The SMA option. Several participants were happy to hear from one member that using SMAs for cash invested for as little as two-months can be worth the cost of hiring an external manager. That’s thanks to a “strong relationship with a manager” who charges a “very low fee,” the member said.

  • “I had always viewed the SMA route only for a weighted average life of a year or so,” one member commented. “But even for shorter duration it seems compelling now.”

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COVID-19 Puts Another Lens on ESG—and an Opportunity for Treasury to Lead

Mega-cap treasurers discuss treasury’s role in promoting ESG and the fragmented ratings landscape.

COVID-19 has moved the subject of ESG ratings and financing to the back burner for many businesses. One banker speaking at a NeuGroup meeting called ESG “a luxury” that many companies can’t afford now. But the issue is not going away, and the pandemic offers another lens to view how corporations affect the world and society, and how businesses respond to crises and the needs of employees, customers and other stakeholders.

  • The issue of where ESG fits in the current climate surfaced at a recent NeuGroup meeting of mega-cap treasurers that included presentations by MSCI, a provider of ESG ratings, and BNP Paribas. Highlights:

Mega-cap treasurers discuss treasury’s role in promoting ESG and the fragmented ratings landscape.

COVID-19 has moved the subject of ESG ratings and financing to the back burner for many businesses. One banker speaking at a NeuGroup meeting called ESG “a luxury” that many companies can’t afford now. But the issue is not going away, and the pandemic offers another lens to view how corporations affect the world and society, and how businesses respond to crises and the needs of employees, customers and other stakeholders.

  • The issue of where ESG fits in the current climate surfaced at a recent NeuGroup meeting of mega-cap treasurers that included presentations by MSCI, a provider of ESG ratings, and BNP Paribas. Highlights:

Prepare for acceleration. A banker from BNP Paribas discussing sustainability-linked finance acknowledged that the pandemic meant that ESG would not be “top of mind” for several months. Before the crisis, the bank forecasted that 100% of finance would become sustainable finance within five years.

  • Once the world is “back in rhythm,” he asserted, “what we have gone through will accelerate this move.” Expect to see more sustainability-linked loans, ESG-linked derivatives and continued interest in green bonds.

Treasury’s role. The treasurer of a large tech company told peers, “All of us in treasury can do some simple things to move the needle” on ESG. He mentioned:

  • “Changing the way we invest,” such as eliminating coal, tobacco and firearms.
  • Including minority-owned firms in all US bond offerings and more use of the firms in all activity.
  • Issuing green bonds.
  • Committing funds to affordable housing programs.

Another treasurer said his company used the issuance of a green bond to focus on the “e” in ESG both “internally and externally.” He said treasury drove the data accumulation to support the use of proceeds assertions for the bond.

  • The first treasurer told the group that corporate sustainability teams can’t tackle the ESG issue by themselves and that he would love to see other treasurers help rally their companies, promote a “sense of urgency” and get buy-in from their boards.

A lack of standards. The ESG ratings landscape is difficult to navigate for corporates seeking relative certainty and standards akin to what exists in the credit rating industry.

  • MSCI and Sustainalytics, two prominent ESG ratings firms, have “very different approaches,” said one ESG leader at the meeting who described MSCI’s ratings methodology as “in depth;” she said Sustainalytics uses a “huge number of metrics” and collects a “vast amount of information without prioritization.”
  • Another ESG specialist said his team put together a spread sheet with 700 different metrics tracked by 20 different agencies, underscoring the lack of uniformity among raters and the resulting confusion for companies.
  • That company and others are developing their own internal standards by, among other things, reaching out to their largest shareholders and bondholders as well as ESG investors to ask what they find most important from an sustainability perspective.

Be proactive. In the same vein, corporates should consider the path taken by one ESG leader who said her company is “really branching out” as it shifts from a “very reactive” stance to ratings to one that emphasizes “developing a strong point of view of what matters,” as her team does its own so-called gap analysis and digs “into where we might be able to improve disclosure.”

Connect with raters. Part of becoming proactive means taking the initiative with MSCI, Sustainalytics and other influencers in the ESG space. MSCI offers an issuer portal and Sustainalytics plans to roll one out in May. Treasury needs to be in the loop on who at the company connects with these firms as the importance of ESG for both investors and issuers increases.

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A Closer Look: ESG Ratings, KPIs and Second-Party Opinions

Sustainalytics discusses ESG trends, ratings and aligning internal KPIs with established principles.

Treasurers exploring the rapidly expanding land of environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria quickly encounter Sustainalytics, a well-established provider of ESG ratings to institutional investors and so-called second-party opinions used by issuers of green bonds to give confidence to investors that bond proceeds will finance environmental or social projects.

  • At a recent NeuGroup virtual meeting, representatives from Sustainalytics described the company’s ratings and methodology, answered questions from members and discussed current trends in the sustainable finance space, which includes sustainability-linked loans, where the proceeds are used for general corporate purposes but the interest rate decreases as sustainability targets are met.

Sustainalytics discusses ESG trends, ratings and aligning internal KPIs with established principles.

Treasurers exploring the rapidly expanding land of environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria quickly encounter Sustainalytics, a well-established provider of ESG ratings to institutional investors and so-called second-party opinions used by issuers of green bonds to give confidence to investors that bond proceeds will finance environmental or social projects.

  • At a recent NeuGroup virtual meeting, representatives from Sustainalytics described the company’s ratings and methodology, answered questions from members and discussed current trends in the sustainable finance space, which includes sustainability-linked loans, where the proceeds are used for general corporate purposes but the interest rate decreases as sustainability targets are met.

Market practice. Second-party opinions are not a requirement but are “increasingly becoming market practice when issuing ESG bonds,” Heather Lang, executive director of sustainable finance solutions at Sustainalytics, told members.

  • “As new industries enter the market, there is a high degree of scrutiny regarding which uses of proceeds qualify as green or socially impactful,” she said. “An external reviewer is well positioned to attest to the alignment of projects and activities to market standards and investor expectations, not to mention the credibility of the issuer.”
  • “Some clients will even license their ESG rating from us around the time of a bond issuance because they know that investors, especially responsible investors, will want to look at a company’s overall ESG performance alongside reviewing the use of proceeds,” Ms. Lang said.
  • Green bonds continue to drive the ESG market, accounting for about $260 billion in issuance in 2019. At the end of 2018, investors managed more than $30 trillion in ESG assets.

KPI considerations. One NeuGroup member considering a sustainability-linked, undrawn revolver said his company may license an ESG rating. The company’s sustainability report contains both audited and unaudited key performance indicators (KPIs), and the member asked Sustainalytics which KPIs banks and investors value the most.

  • Ms. Lang said companies’ internally tracked KPIs receive more scrutiny, especially if they’re not audited.
  • She highlighted the importance of aligning with the Sustainability Linked Loan Principles published in March 2019 by three global syndicated loan associations. They provide guidelines for capturing the fundamental characteristics of sustainability-linked loans, enabling a borrower to develop KPIs closely aligned with the company’s sustainability profile.

Levels of review. Sustainalytics and other ESG analysis firms can review selected KPIs to determine their materiality given a company’s subindustry and operating regions.

  • “That’s a way to combine involving a credible external party while also being able to focus on internally tracked KPIs,” Ms. Lang said, adding that some companies have combined internal KPIs with a holistic external ESG rating.
  • “Revolving credit facilities are very common for sustainability-linked loans,” she noted.

Corporate ratings use. ESG ratings are more prevalent in Europe but increasingly so in the US, Ms. Lang said, and are now being used by corporates in a variety of ways.

  • For one, they’re essential for companies seeking to be included in ESG investment indices, to diversify their investor base and include more international and “responsibility-tilted” sources of capital.
  • Ms. Lang said companies are increasingly publishing their ESG ratings externally, beyond just institutional investors to the more general public and employees.
  • Some companies are using ratings to identify ESG risks in the supply chain, and others are linking executive compensation to them.

What’s your company’s score? Two-thirds of NeuGroup members polled at the recent meeting did not know their Sustainalytics ratings.

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Seizing Opportunities, Waiting for More and Getting Back to Work

Quick Takes, COVID-19 edition: A roundup of news, notes and notions from the NeuGroup Network.

Strategic Acquistions: Waiting for Small Biotechs to Adjust to Lower Values
Here’s some post-meeting follow-up from a treasurer in the biotech industry on his expectations for a “resetting of asset prices” and opportunities for strategic acquisitions as markets gyrate.

“I would characterize it as an emerging opportunity. So far, you have had price adjustments (lower stock prices) for smaller biotechs. But you need two parties to make a deal. What needs to happen in the future is that those same smaller biotechs need to become acclimated to their new prices.

Quick Takes, COVID-19 edition: A roundup of news, notes and notions from the NeuGroup Network.

Strategic Acquistions: Waiting for Small Biotechs to Adjust to Lower Values
Here’s some post-meeting follow-up from a treasurer in the biotech industry on his expectations for a “resetting of asset prices” and opportunities for strategic acquisitions as markets gyrate.

“I would characterize it as an emerging opportunity. So far, you have had price adjustments (lower stock prices) for smaller biotechs. But you need two parties to make a deal. What needs to happen in the future is that those same smaller biotechs need to become acclimated to their new prices.

  • Right now, many [executives at small biotechs] believe the price will recover as this is a temporary phenomenon; but if the recovery is not a sharp, V-shaped recovery it will begin to impact management’s views on price. Additionally, those without a large cash cushion will not be able to fund using equity issuance. They will begin to feel the pain sooner.

Until the market makes progress on the last two steps, I don’t see immediate deal opportunities. Let’s see how the market moves in the 30-60 days.”

A Treasury Investment Manager Seizes Opportunities, Adjusts for Uncertainty in the Business
The head of global investments at a NeuGroup member company described how his team has navigated volatile financial markets and shared his insights on the phases of financial crises like the one we’re in now. Here’s what he said:

“I think of financial crises in three stages:

  1. Dash for cash/forced liquidation. Market participants want to own the shortest term, highest quality securities possible. However, it takes two parties to make a trade, if no one is buying, no one can sell – in trader speak “No bid.” No primary transactions occur.
  2. Illiquidity. Capital markets are frozen or sticky. Issuers can get deals done at a premium.
  3. Balance sheet rebuilding. Most issuers can access the market to repair balance sheets that were wrecked during the previous two stages.

We were fortunate:

  • The balance sheet investments had the lowest duration and highest quality in nine years.
  • The internally managed liquidity portfolio (investment-grade corporate credit) had the most assets ever.
  • We had significant maturities every week.
  • Once we understood there wasn’t an immediate cash need by the company, we were able to take advantage of “dash for cash” and purchase high quality commercial paper at crazy yields; as I recall Boeing was offering two-week CP north of 4%. Those opportunities are fleeting.

We also shifted our money market funds to government-only to avoid the risk of gates.

Over the past two weeks, we’ve seen more normalcy in the markets. We can pick up extra yield by investing in non-marquis issuers. The rating agencies started the downgrade cycle which always provides opportunities.

  • For us, the biggest challenge is the uncertainty in the business. Every [similar] company that has announced earnings has given no forward guidance. Due to the uncertainty, we have to stay short and forego opportunities even three months out.”

Back to Work: Not So Fast
Most members on a recent COVID-19 check-in call for NeuGroup’s Internal Auditors’ Peer Group are beginning the process of getting employees back to work. It’s anything but straightforward. Here’s some of what we heard:

  • Manage the return. The idea is to “control the process” using a phased or staggered approach, one member said. Another said his company was looking at the process and doing “re-entry modeling.” The current plan at this business is to allow back the most critically needed people—such as engineers—and then go down the chain from there. The main workforce would return in shifts to better manage spacing and social distancing rules.
  • No uniformity. This phased-in approach takes on added complexity since companies have to account for different rules in different US states as well as in other countries. India—where many companies have call centers or shared service centers—is almost in full lockdown mode, members noted. So even getting “essential employees” back to work could be a challenge.
  • The kid factor. Another member mentioned that in many areas, school will be cancelled for the rest of the year. And since summer camps and other programs haven’t started yet, it might not be feasible for parents to just jump back into work.
  • Permanent remote for some? There are also real estate considerations, said one member. The thinking at this company was that in certain places, perhaps remote work made more sense and renting office space was not economically practical. Management is asking, “Can we reduce our footprint?”

The process of companies getting people back to work could raise unforeseen problems. A member of a NeuGroup teasurers’ group recently wondered if the company would be liable financially if a worker went back to his job and then became ill with COVID-19.

Distressed Customers and Other Priorities for a Tech Treasurer
Here’s what one NeuGroup member tells us he and his team are working on in the current, COVID-19 climate:

  • Liquidity needs for the rest of the year
  • Stress test around liquidity from revenues, expenses, margin compression, etc
  • Staying on top of capital markets
  • Working with teams on A/R programs for distressed customers
  • Forecasting cash needs around the globe
  • Analyzing investment portfolios to understand unrealized losses and making adjustment where needed
  • And, of course, day-to-day operations
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