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No Slam Dunk for Pension Fund Managers: Selling Leverage-Averse Boards on Overlays

The popularity of overlays is increasing in the US despite concerns of executive committees.

Leverage is something of a dirty word in the world of pension funds and that, perhaps, presents the biggest challenge that pension fund managers face when seeking to persuade their companies’ executive committees to use overlays that use derivatives as a fund-management tool.

At a roundtable of pension fund managers arranged by the NeuGroup, one participant said his team had begun to explore how to “de-risk” the plan more than three years ago, using a derivative overlay to hedge liabilities as one tool.

  • But the executive committee said no to derivatives and the leverage they often include. “So we had to go through an education process on their timeline. Since then, rates fell 50 basis points, and committee members asked, ‘Have you put on the overlay yet?’”

Laugh line. That produced chuckles in the room and prompted other roundtable participants to chime in about the difficulty of convincing executive committees about the benefits of overlay strategies. Such strategies use derivatives like swaps and treasury futures to gain, offset or substitute specific portfolio exposures beyond the portfolios’ physical assets.

The popularity of overlays is increasing in the US despite concerns of executive committees.

Leverage is something of a dirty word in the world of pension funds and that, perhaps, presents the biggest challenge that pension fund managers face when seeking to persuade their companies’ executive committees to use overlays that use derivatives as a fund-management tool.

At a roundtable of pension fund managers arranged by the NeuGroup, one participant said his team had begun to explore how to “de-risk” the plan more than three years ago, using a derivative overlay to hedge liabilities as one tool.

  • But the executive committee said no to derivatives and the leverage they often include. “So we had to go through an education process on their timeline. Since then, rates fell 50 basis points, and committee members asked, ‘Have you put on the overlay yet?’”

Laugh line. That produced chuckles in the room and prompted other roundtable participants to chime in about the difficulty of convincing executive committees about the benefits of overlay strategies. Such strategies use derivatives like swaps and treasury futures to gain, offset or substitute specific portfolio exposures beyond the portfolios’ physical assets.

Overlay rising. A banker attending the meeting noted that 10 years ago, few if any plans in the UK used overlay as a part of liability driven investment (LDI) strategies, but today nearly all do. He added that the approach has crossed the Atlantic, with a recent survey showing 75% of US plans using overlay compared to less than half five or so years ago.

An overlay argument. LDI strategies aim to accrue sufficient assets to cover all current and future liabilities, often requiring derivative overlays when physical assets are insufficient or inappropriate. Another member said that rolling out an LDI program generated “quite a discussion” with the executive committee.

  • Her team framed its argument by noting that the company’s greatest risk in terms of expense management and cash flow is its funded status volatility, emphasizing that implementing an LDI program reduces such volatility, even when derivatives introduce leverage.

Counterparty concerns. Aside from leverage, another issue stemming from overlays is the counterparty risk of over-the-counter swaps, a big concern during the financial crisis. But new regulations require daily margin calls on all the derivatives used, and “that risk has essentially gone away,” noted a roundtable member.

Leveraging up only assets is problematic. In an asset/liability context, however, using derivatives to increase the duration of the pension fund’s asset pool to offset the fund’s short liability position is actually delevering and decreasing risk. “The powerful thing about overlay,” he said, “is that it is leverage from a narrow, asset-only perspective, but from an asset/liability bent it is risk reducing.”

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Treasury Teams Taking to Heart the Force of the ESG Wave Barreling Across Atlantic

Discussing insurance, investing and BlackRock’s Larry Fink, NeuGroup members weighed in on ESG.

The potentially dramatic and varied impact on multinationals from the environmental, social and governance (ESG) wave barreling across the Atlantic from Europe is hitting home for a growing number of US finance teams. That was among the key takeaways from comments by treasurers gathered in Dallas for NeuGroup’s first meeting of 2020.

Thanks for the warning. One the most interesting revelations involved the effect of ESG on insurance.

  • One treasurer said a French insurer sought to “squeeze language” on a recent casualty policy renewal in light of the potential social concerns arising from the company’s defense industry products. Another member planning to implement an auto policy for his company’s European fleet appreciated the heads-up.
    • “We’re taking out all local policies, so it’s good to hear about your experience. We’ll probably run into that,” he said.
  • US insurers increasingly use ESG to help measure risk in the policies they’re underwriting so “if your company has a bad ESG score, then you’re probably going to pay a higher premium,” NeuGroup’s Scott Flieger said.

Discussing insurance, investing and BlackRock’s Larry Fink, NeuGroup members weigh in on ESG.

The potentially dramatic and varied impact on multinationals from the environmental, social and governance (ESG) wave barreling across the Atlantic from Europe is hitting home for a growing number of US finance teams. That was among the key takeaways from comments by treasurers gathered in Dallas for NeuGroup’s first meeting of 2020.

Thanks for the warning. One the most interesting revelations involved the effect of ESG on insurance.

  • One treasurer said a French insurer sought to “squeeze language” on a recent casualty policy renewal in light of the potential social concerns arising from the company’s defense industry products. Another member planning to implement an auto policy for his company’s European fleet appreciated the heads-up.
    • “We’re taking out all local policies, so it’s good to hear about your experience. We’ll probably run into that,” he said.
  • US insurers increasingly use ESG to help measure risk in the policies they’re underwriting so “if your company has a bad ESG score, then you’re probably going to pay a higher premium,” NeuGroup’s Scott Flieger said.

The Fink Effect. The meeting took place just three weeks after BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, in his annual letter to CEOs, announced initiatives placing sustainability at the center of the giant asset manager’s investment approach, including exiting incompatible investments and launching new products that screen fossil fuels.

  • One treasurer, underscoring the significance of the letter, said, “If your company is publicly rated, BlackRock is probably one of your top five shareholders, and if it wants to see what you’re doing in that space, then ESG is coming.”
    • The possible implications of what’s coming include something already seen in Europe: ESG pricing grids that borrowers may encounter alongside credit grids on their credit facilities.

Risk alarm bell. Mr. Flieger made the point that screening for ESG can pay off for investors beyond doing what’s beneficial for society. “Investors are using these ESG scores not only for socially responsible sustainable investments, but to identify which might be susceptible to a significant tail-risk event,” he said.

Avoid controversy. Strong ESG scores can be undermined by “controversy” scores, generated by the frequency of a company’s negative press. Funds likely won’t share the ESG reports they pay the scoring firms for, but treasury executives should ask them for details. “Because if I’m going to be invested in ESG, my company better be in those funds,” one member said.

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Mike Likes It, but Would Your Team Vote for an Open-Office Plan?

Open-office plans like the one Mike Bloomberg adopted at City Hall have fans and skeptics. Where do you stand (sit)?

Presidential hopeful Mike Bloomberg in December tweeted the picture above of the “bullpen” office he had as New York City mayor and wrote, “I’ll turn the East Room into an open-office plan, where I’ll sit with our team.”

No one can say if that will ever happen, of course. But the subject of open-office plans definitely sparked interest at a NeuGroup meeting this month when one member asked how others organize their office space.

Breaking down walls. One member surprised peers by saying that within a few months his company will move completely to open space, with no walls between people, and that arrangement will apply also to top executives, including the CEO, CFO and legal counsel.

Open-office plans like the one Mike Bloomberg adopted at City Hall have fans and skeptics. Where do you stand (sit)?

Presidential hopeful Mike Bloomberg in December tweeted the picture above of the “bullpen” office he had as New York City mayor and wrote, “I’ll turn the East Room into an open-office plan, where I’ll sit with our team.”

No one can say if that will ever happen, of course. But the subject of open-office plans definitely sparked interest at a NeuGroup meeting this month when one member asked how others organize their office space.

Breaking down walls. One member surprised peers by saying that within a few months his company will move completely to open space, with no walls between people, and that arrangement will apply also to top executives, including the CEO, CFO and legal counsel.

  • “If you want to exchange confidential information, there will be a room, but you won’t be allowed to sit there all day,” he said.
  • Another member called his firm’s environment open, “but we do have individually assigned desks, so we’re not completely free.”

Backlash. The concept of open-space seating has been around for decades, especially among technology companies that have viewed open-space environments as conducive to exchanging ideas.

  • More recently, however, there has been something of a backlash, with studies like one in 2018 by Harvard researchers showing that open-space workplaces can significantly reduce employee productivity.

Alternatives. Another meeting participant’s company had expressed interest in open space, but for now employees remain in cubicles with low walls, and managers have offices.

  • Its finance arm’s building is being renovated, however, and the result will be low-wall cubicles and every manager’s office will be the same size, no matter their rank.

Still, meeting members suggested most treasury departments remain conservative on the seating front, with team members sitting in cubicles with high walls—a “legacy thing,” as one person put it.

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Margin Bells Will Soon Toll for More Pension Funds

Pension funds need to prepare for margin rules covering the OTC derivatives they use.

Corporate pension-fund managers may soon have initial-margin responsibilities for the over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives they use to manage those funds, even if their parent companies are exempt.

Background. Following the financial crisis, global regulators established variation and initial margin rules for OTC derivatives to provide greater transparency into counterparty risk.

  • Those requirements first became effective in 2016 for financial firms with more than $3 trillion in notional derivatives exposure and were extended in stages to firms with smaller notionals, reaching those with $750 billion in exposure in 2019.
  • While most corporate end-users of OTC derivatives were exempted from margin requirements, their employee-benefits plans, under the Employee Retirement Income and Security Act (ERISA), were not. Consequently, most corporate pension plans will soon be subject to margin rules, and several fund managers raised issues at a recent NeuGroup meeting:

Pension funds need to prepare for margin rules covering the OTC derivatives they use.

Corporate pension fund managers may soon have initial-margin responsibilities for the over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives they use to manage those funds, even if their parent companies are exempt.

Background. Following the financial crisis, global regulators established variation and initial margin rules for OTC derivatives to provide greater transparency into counterparty risk.

  • Those requirements first became effective in 2016 for financial firms with more than $3 trillion in notional derivatives exposure and were extended in stages to firms with smaller notionals, reaching those with $750 billion in exposure in 2019.

While most corporate end-users of OTC derivatives were exempted from margin requirements, their employee-benefits plans, under the Employee Retirement Income and Security Act (ERISA), were not. Consequently, most corporate pension plans will soon be subject to margin rules, and several fund managers raised issues at a recent NeuGroup meeting:

  • When? The threshold for posting margin drops this year to financial end users with more than $50 billion in notional exposure, and in 2021 will include market participants with more than $8 billion in OTC notional.
  • Covering margin calls. A member of the roundtable noted the need for a policy for raising cash to cover margin calls. Another participant recounted addressing that issue when her company began its overlay program, so it decided to perform a VAR analysis to size its collateral at 99% for a one-month stress test.
    • “It wouldn’t have covered where we landed in the global financial crisis for equity, but for every other scenario there was sufficient cash,” she said.
  • Cash or Treasuries? The participant added that her company is holding the collateral as cash, which it then “equitizes,” or places in short-term investments such as ETFs. Depending on the instrument, she said, the cash can generally also be held in Treasuries, providing a bit of income.
  • Administration? No way. Tracking daily margin and posting margin is an administrative hassle, which the roundtable member said she leaves to her ERISA manager.
    • “There’s no way I would ever want to do that. I just make sure there’s enough cash in the account with the manager to cover the amount of collateral we feel is sufficient,” she said.

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Mining Merchant Services for Today’s Gold: Data

Founder’s Edition by Joseph Neu

The drive to access and leverage data from credit card and other transactions is transforming merchant services.

Merchant services are fast becoming a key value driver for transaction banks, fintechs and other financial services institutions. The key reason is the importance of capturing data at the point of sale, along with facilitating frictionless transactions. What takes place under the heading of merchant services is worth your attention because:

  1. It’s the beginning of the data-rich order-to-cash cycle for most companies, which is vital to understanding their cash flow models, their businesses, and their credit risks.
  2. It’s a vital source of data to understand what consumers buy, how much they spend, how they pay, and where and when they pay—which, in turn, can be used to verify identity and mitigate fraud.
  3. It offers a critical opportunity to influence—by using what is learned from the data—how customers pay, which enables effective loyalty programs and promotional incentives and, potentially, the reduction of merchant transaction fees (see below).

Founder’s Edition by Joseph Neu

The drive to access and leverage data from credit card and other transactions is transforming merchant services.

Merchant services are fast becoming a key value driver for transaction banks, fintechs and other financial services institutions. The key reason is the importance of capturing data at the point of sale, along with facilitating frictionless transactions. What takes place under the heading of merchant services is worth your attention because:

  1. It’s the beginning of the data-rich order-to-cash cycle for most companies, which is vital to understanding their cash flow models, their businesses, and their credit risks.
  2. It’s a vital source of data to understand what consumers buy, how much they spend, how they pay, and where and when they pay—which, in turn, can be used to verify identity and mitigate fraud.
  3. It offers a critical opportunity to influence—by using what is learned from the data—how customers pay, which enables effective loyalty programs and promotional incentives and, potentially, the reduction of merchant transaction fees (see below).

The value of data is why e-commerce giants like Alibaba in China have moved quickly to dominate in a wide variety of merchant services, including digital payments. It may have started with helping customers pay with less friction, but now the data is more important.

  • China + data. The experience in China, where Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay have totally disrupted banks on consumer payments and other merchant services, is one reason transaction banks outside China are trying hard to disrupt merchant services themselves. But like the e-commerce giants, they’re also eying the value of data.

A major problem with merchant services has been its fragmentation—too many players serving different segments of the market; there was also a general lack of integration end-to-end. This creates inefficiencies and higher fees, but it also means that a lot of data gets lost.

  • Creating end-to-end platforms. Hence, the desire for players in merchant services to create end-to-end platforms, either through acquisition rollups or greenfield investment.

Banks, particularly those with a strong retail presence already, are looking at creating end-to-end global payment and merchant services platforms as potential cores to their broader transaction services businesses. “Payments are now nonlinear,” said one banker who heads global merchant services sales for such a bank, “so you need to own the payment system end to end. You also want to be able to serve all clients from smallest to largest, across segments.”

In theory, this push toward single platforms also will help merchants and consumers get something in return for the data they end up sharing at the point of sale.

  • Consumers, for example, could be offered more choices for rewards depending on the form of payment—e.g., use this card and you will get a $50 credit on your next purchase at that store, bypassing the typical 1%, 2% or 3% cash back.
  • Merchants, meanwhile, may be able to drive more sales with loyalty programs and targeted incentives, but also tap into a broader pool of data to manage inventory and product selection. This will also allow them to share more of the value in interchange fees and lower them via the data capture (e.g., so-called level 3 data such as invoice and order numbers).

Watch this space!

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Negative-Rate Concerns Spreading to Pension Funds

US MNCs with European pension funds are being forced to contend with negative rates in Europe.

Although the likelihood of negative interest rates in the US still seems remote, in Europe they’ve been a reality for several years, and pension funds are now grappling with what that means. 

In a recent NeuGroup meeting, the head of pension investments at a multinational corporation (MNC) with several European funds noted that for the first time the company will have to use negative interest rates to value liabilities, specifically in a Swiss fund.

This treasurer noted that he reviewed IFRS accounting rules that apply to European companies, and concluded a negative number must be used in those calculations, “even though it doesn’t sound right. You promised a $100 pension to someone, and you knew it wouldn’t be more than that, but today you have to say that my liability is $105.”

US MNCs with European pension funds are being forced to contend with negative rates in Europe.

Although the likelihood of negative interest rates in the US still seems remote, in Europe they’ve been a reality for several years, and pension funds are now grappling with what that means. 

In a recent NeuGroup meeting, the head of pension investments at a multinational corporation (MNC) with several European funds noted that for the first time the company will have to use negative interest rates to value liabilities, specifically in a Swiss fund.

This treasurer noted that he reviewed IFRS accounting rules that apply to European companies, and concluded a negative number must be used in those calculations, “even though it doesn’t sound right. You promised a $100 pension to someone, and you knew it wouldn’t be more than that, but today you have to say that my liability is $105.”
 
Falling rates are no fun either. Other participants noted that falling rates, even if not yet negative, are also problematic given the growing pressure they put on banks, and ultimately their services. One member noted the impact of falling rates on her company’s P&L and said her team is now concentrating on investment manager searches and debating the value of passive versus active managers. “Do we think active management would provide us with a bit more of a defensive posture, in our equity line up?” she said. 

Cutting costs. The topic of centralizing pension plans across European countries also arose during the meeting. This was in regard to enabling pensions facing the challenge of negative rates to cut costs while potentially smoothing out imbalances when some of an MNC’s funds across different countries are well funded while others are in the red. A participant noted that Belgian law permits pooling pension fund assets, and his team has considered the move with respect to funds in smaller European countries—Belgium and Austria, for example—but the complexity has hindered progress. “We don’t see blending Germany and the UK, Switzerland and the UK, or those in other large countries,” he said. 

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For Property & Casualty: Look Past the First Tier

If you’re not getting the premium reductions your’e looking for, shop around and check out low-cost brokers.

When thinking about top-tier insurance brokers for corporates the usual suspects come to mind: Hub International, Marsh & McLennan Cos., Willis Towers Watson, Aon PLC and the like. But after a quick look beyond that upper slot, one comes across unfamiliar names. Take for instance a broker called Oswald Companies.

  • Not a well-recognized insurance broker among treasurers attending a recent NeuGroup meeting, the Cleveland-based Oswald actually has a long track record, since 1893, that stems from its high quality, low cost services.

At least that’s what one treasurer told peers, noting his company’s existing market-leading broker had declined to reduce premiums by the requested 20%. Even with revenues of nearly $4.5 billion in 2019, “We felt we were not a big enough client, either inside or outside the US” to get the proper respect and that 20% reduction, the treasurer said.

If you’re not getting the premium reductions your’e looking for, shop around and check out low-cost brokers.

When thinking about top-tier insurance brokers for corporates the usual suspects come to mind: Hub International, Marsh & McLennan Cos., Willis Towers Watson, Aon PLC and the like. But after a quick look beyond that upper slot, one comes across unfamiliar names. Take for instance a broker called Oswald Companies.

  • Not a well-recognized insurance broker among treasurers attending a recent NeuGroup meeting, the Cleveland-based Oswald actually has a long track record, since 1893, that stems from its high quality, low cost services.

Request denied. At least that’s what one treasurer told peers, noting his company’s existing market-leading broker had declined to reduce premiums by the requested 20%. Even with revenues of nearly $4.5 billion in 2019, “We felt we were not a big enough client, either inside or outside the US” to get the proper respect and that 20% reduction, the treasurer said.

That prompted a search beyond the biggest names. “We went with Oswald, a tier 2 broker that has alliances overseas that its customers can access and is hungry for business. They cut our premiums by almost $2 million,” the member said, to the audible gasps of fellow treasurers. “Almost 40% in one year.”

In return, Oswald received a base fee and a percentage of premium savings.

Coverage quality still good. Asked if coverage quality suffered, the member said the level of coverage remained largely the same, as did the carrier group—Chubb Limited, Aegon N.V., etc. “And they were able to come to us and say, ‘Here’s the data you’ll need, here’s how to put it together, and this is what the insurance companies are looking for,” he said, adding, “They did a lot of heavy lifting.”

Related risk management. The member also noted Oswald’s ancillary risk management services, such as implementing driver monitor and safety programs for auto-insurance policies related to the company’s transportation needs.

Fast. The member said his treasury group moved quickly to replace its current policies, and Oswald kept pace, replacing policies “within a quarter.”

Go long. One member asked if peers recently renewing their property and casualty policies had done so annually or for multiple years, and the consensus was a combination, although today’s rising premium environment favors longer rather than shorter. A couple of members said their brokers had locked them into two-year contracts that had worked out well. “Insurers have been hit very hard recently,” noted one. “The industry is saying we need to make money on these products.”

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Making Bank on Receivables

Founder’s Edition by Joseph Neu

Investor demand for receivables-backed securities presents opportunities for banks that harness data, technology.

Last week, I noted how supply chain finance (reverse factoring et al) was raising concerns with accountants, rating agencies and regulators because it allows unscrupulous firms to potentially extend payables to fund their working capital without considering it to be debt.

This week I focus on the positive sides of trade finance and, especially, supply chain finance: Thinking about receivables plus data opens exponential possibilities to secure financing, usually at lower rates than many imagine. Here’s the story as it applies to reverse factoring:

Investors want trade receivables. Attending a bank session last month, I learned that every asset manager and insurance company (and probably a sizable segment of other smart investors) wants receivables-backed investment opportunities from credible supply chain programs. They are coming to banks asking to put $10 billion or more to work and the banks are asking themselves how to satisfy this investor demand. The banker leading the trade finance session said there is an estimated $1.5 trillion gap between supply and demand for trade finance paper. The gap will soon climb another trillion as SMEs become more integrated into supply chains.

Why trade receivables? What investors really want are securities backed by diverse pools of trade receivables that have mitigated credit risk due to commercial relationships. Critical suppliers to strong- credit buyers are a good risk, because the buyer is not going to let a good supplier go under by not paying an invoice; the payment ensures the cash flow that supports the security the investor purchases.

Has the invoice been approved? Clearly, if the invoice has been approved, then the credit risk is further diminished. Thus, a whole ecosystem of machine learning and AI has emerged to help predict which invoices are expected to receive approval. Some solutions are said to be accurate enough to win a government guarantee based on their predictions of whether and when the invoices will be approved.

Data as a risk mitigant. Of course, the predictive power of technology is very reliant on the data accessible to it. Indeed, the data is quickly becoming as or more valuable than the receivable itself. The more data a supply chain finance vendor/arranger has that indicates when buyers approve and pay which suppliers, not to mention the commercial importance of the transaction, the more confidence investors will have in the certainty and timing of the underlying cash flows.

Founder’s Edition by Joseph Neu

Investor demand for receivables-backed securities presents opportunities for banks that harness data, technology.

Last week, I noted how supply chain finance (reverse factoring et al) was raising concerns with accountants, rating agencies and regulators because it allows unscrupulous firms to potentially extend payables to fund their working capital without considering it to be debt.

This week I focus on the positive sides of trade finance and, especially, supply chain finance: Thinking about receivables plus data opens exponential possibilities to secure financing, usually at lower rates than many imagine. Here’s the story as it applies to reverse factoring:

  • Investors want trade receivables. Attending a bank session last month, I learned that every asset manager and insurance company (and probably a sizable segment of other smart investors) wants receivables-backed investment opportunities from credible supply chain programs. They are coming to banks asking to put $10 billion or more to work and the banks are asking themselves how to satisfy this investor demand. The banker leading the trade finance session said there is an estimated $1.5 trillion gap between supply and demand for trade finance paper. The gap will soon climb another trillion as SMEs become more integrated into supply chains.
  • Why trade receivables? What investors really want are securities backed by diverse pools of trade receivables that have mitigated credit risk due to commercial relationships. Critical suppliers to strong- credit buyers are a good risk, because the buyer is not going to let a good supplier go under by not paying an invoice; the payment ensures the cash flow that supports the security the investor purchases.
  • Has the invoice been approved? Clearly, if the invoice has been approved, then the credit risk is further diminished. Thus, a whole ecosystem of machine learning and AI has emerged to help predict which invoices are expected to receive approval. Some solutions are said to be accurate enough to win a government guarantee based on their predictions of whether and when the invoices will be approved.
  • Data as a risk mitigant. Of course, the predictive power of technology is very reliant on the data accessible to it. Indeed, the data is quickly becoming as or more valuable than the receivable itself. The more data a supply chain finance vendor/arranger has that indicates when buyers approve and pay which suppliers, not to mention the commercial importance of the transaction, the more confidence investors will have in the certainty and timing of the underlying cash flows.
  • New value in data sources. This data, unfortunately for banks, resides mostly in ERP systems and not in the banking system. This explains the opportunity for ERP vendors and fintechs to partner to source this data to reduce trade friction and mitigate credit risk. If every invoice that gains approval were updated in the ERP and that information was made available instantly to a bank or securitization pool, the world would be a different place.
  • Trusted intermediary for the data. With concern growing about who has access to what data, especially when it involves historical relationships between trusted counterparties, who plays the role of intermediary for receivables data matter.
    • Banks would be one option, but they are limited in how many counterparties they can onboard to their systems (and how quickly) due to KYC regulations. Unregulated fintechs have more scope to onboard, but do they have the trust factor?
    • Another option might be platforms like Marco Polo or Voltran (now Contour), that could use their distributed ledger/blockchain to provide secure intermediation of the transactions and the data.
  • Who provides balance sheet? Corporates in the Fortune 50 that look at supply chain finance programs also want to have someone else’s balance sheet behind them. “If the whole thing goes upside down, they want to know that there is a backer able to write a half-billion-dollar check,” said one banker. Yet no bank wants to support a platform that is not exclusively theirs and no corporate wants their supply chain dependent on one bank. Bolero and Swift efforts have shown the challenges of pleasing all constituencies.

Meanwhile, the opportunity to package trade receivables and the underlying data to create optimal pools of receivables at scale to meet investor demand remains.

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Treasurers Educate HighRadius on Cash Forecasting Needs

NeuGroup members give to get by providing feedback on AI-based cash forecasting solutions.

Treasurers at a NeuGroup meeting in Texas sponsored by HighRadius provided feedback to the Houston-based technology company on what they’d like to see from cash forecasting solutions that use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to improve accuracy, reduce treasury’s need to input data and allow a wider variety of pertinent data.

  • HighRadius has long provided forecasting services for accounts receivable (AR), the biggest component of cash forecasting, that make use of ML. It now is applying the methodology to accounts payable and other cash forecasting components.

Input wanted. HighRadius executives eagerly sought input on the company’s cash forecasting solution now being developed, and here’s some of what they heard from NeuGroup members:

NeuGroup members give to get by providing feedback on AI-based cash forecasting solutions.

Treasurers at a NeuGroup meeting in Texas sponsored by HighRadius provided feedback to the Houston-based technology company on what they’d like to see from cash forecasting solutions that use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to improve accuracy, reduce treasury’s need to input data and allow a wider variety of pertinent data.

  • HighRadius has long provided forecasting services for accounts receivable (AR), the biggest component of cash forecasting, that make use of ML. It now is applying the methodology to accounts payable and other cash forecasting components.

Input wanted. HighRadius executives eagerly sought input on the company’s cash forecasting solution now being developed, and here’s some of what they heard from NeuGroup members:

  • Drill down to the invoice level. The HighRadius app enables companies to explore which of dozens of variables—business line, currency, country—generate most of the variance between forecasted and actual cash. A NeuGroup member suggested going deeper still, to reveal which customers generate the variance.
    • A HighRadius representative said the firm’s technology already predicts payments by individual customers on the collection side, and “we’ve been debating how far to take it” with cash forecasting.
  • A longer tail. Orders for goods and services would be another helpful variable, one member said, because they look out further than invoices.
  • Size matters. Another member suggested that HighRadius include the ability to drill down to customers responsible for 80% to 90% of a company’s AR and provide details on those accounts.
  • Override. The app allows for manual overrides when, for example, a major customer wants to pay early, prompting one meeting participant to say it should identify the customer and explain the reason for early payment.
    • “We’ve heard similar requests, so it’s on the roadmap,” a HighRadius rep responded.
  • Cross-company learnings. A corporate customer may historically pay its annual invoice on time but face challenges this year that aren’t captured by historical data. A member asked whether HighRadius’ app incorporates that company’s more recent payment history with other clients, indicating potential troubles ahead.
    • That will come as High Radius’ customer base grows, a rep said, since “learnings from one company could apply to others.”
  • Sales forecasts? Yes, said a HighRadius rep, sales forecasts provided by a company’s FP&A group could be included in the model to generate long-term forecasts.
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Steps on a Technology Journey to Data-Driven Decisions, Actions

A detailed look at the progression of one tech company’s digital transformation.

Building and using a data lake that is a centralized source of data is a key part of the modernization and technology journey for treasury at one leading tech company; a progression from being data aware to data proficient to data savvy to achieving data-driven decisions and actions.

  • A treasury cash operations manager presenting details of this journey at a NeuGroup meeting said a top priority was “wading into the data lake despite the complexity” because treasury is “tired of pulling data from multiple systems.” Among the goals are data transparency, standardization and control.

Data analytics. This company’s treasury adopted Power BI (everyone is trained to use it) for creating standardized dashboards with drill-down capabilities so it could address questions immediately but also create a more self-serve environment. Using the tool’s capabilities to do data analytics, the member said, reveals both data-driven answers and, initially, data shortcomings.

  • Hence the benefit of the data lake. And as other NeuGroup members have noted, treasury’s ability to use AI and machine learning for cash flow forecasting and other purposes depends on having data that has depth and detail.

A detailed look at the progression of one tech company’s digital transformation.

Building and using a data lake that is a centralized source of data is a key part of the modernization and technology journey for treasury at one leading tech company; a progression from being data aware to data proficient to data savvy to achieving data-driven decisions and actions.

  • A treasury cash operations manager presenting details of this journey at a NeuGroup meeting said a top priority was “wading into the data lake despite the complexity” because treasury is “tired of pulling data from multiple systems.” Among the goals are data transparency, standardization and control.

Data analytics. This company’s treasury adopted Power BI (everyone is trained to use it) for creating standardized dashboards with drill-down capabilities so it could address questions immediately but also create a more self-serve environment. Using the tool’s capabilities to do data analytics, the member said, reveals both data-driven answers and, initially, data shortcomings.

  • Hence the benefit of the data lake. And as other NeuGroup members have noted, treasury’s ability to use AI and machine learning for cash flow forecasting and other purposes depends on having data that has depth and detail.  

The role of the cloud. The presenter said that moving treasury applications to the cloud to co-locate data reduced IT’s footprint by 60%. Treasury has about 40 applications; 24 of them are first-party apps (meaning the company builds and maintains them in-house), and the rest are third-party apps. The first-party apps address:

  • Cash forecasting
  • Cash visibility
  • Bank account management
  • Intercompany loan management
  • Wire requests and tracking

SWIFT gpi and transparency. The company was an early adopter of SWIFT gpi, which allows treasury to track wires once they leave treasury’s banking partner. One member said this is good news for her treasury. “This will be very beneficial to us as we have limited visibility to transactions once they leave our banks,” she said. “SWIFT gpi will provide more transparency on payment statuses.”

SWIFT and the cloud. The company and SWIFT have worked together on a cloud-native project that allows SWIFT wire transfers to be done over the cloud. The teams have enabled SWIFT wire transfers on this setup. The company is the first cloud provider working with SWIFT to build public cloud connectivity and will work toward making this solution available to the industry. 

How it works. Treasury sends a wire instruction through a web app on the cloud, which is validated by using machine-learning algorithms.

  • Once validated for authenticity, these wires are sent to SWIFT via the company’s SWIFT installation on the cloud. SWIFT validates the wire instructions and sends it off to the appropriate bank. Once the bank carries out the wire instruction, it sends confirmation through to treasury.

Machine learning. Treasury built a machine-learning forecasting solution that is addressing a key FX exposure for the company while improving forecast accuracy of AR and operational efficiency for the team.

  • Historical data in the cloud was cleaned and used to create the solution using the R programming language and other tools.
  • Cumulative forecasting of notional exposure improved by 6%.
  • Volatility of FX impact on other income and expense was reduced by ~25%.

The people part. Like many treasury teams, this one is trying to strike the right balance between people in possession of core treasury knowledge and skills and those who are more adept at data analytics and have advanced quantitative abilities. In addition to everyone learning Power BI, treasury recently hired its own data analysts.

The problem remains, though, that some staff lack the skills, ability or interest to learn new tools and technology at a point when data science is increasingly critical. The treasury team highly encourages employees to take courses to increase their skills in the data analytics space and provides sponsorship to help them achieve these goals.

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Tales from the Cyber Crypt

Assistant treasurers exchange recent scary cyber tales of success and failure.

In a breakout session at NeuGroup’s Assistant Treasurers’ Leadership Group focusing on securing companies from cyberattacks, members recounted recent experiences and the conundrums they face combating them.

Digital protection, à la carte. NeuGroup’s own Scott Flieger, director of peer groups, said a fellow member of a college board who runs a cybersecurity advisory firm recommends companies make a menu of their digital assets, from bank accounts onward, and seek to value them. Then ask how much the company is willing to pay to protect that asset. He added that few understand a company’s digital assets better than assistant treasurers. “Being the person in treasury who has an inventory of the digital assets and can value their importance—that’s an important position,” Mr. Flieger said.

Assistant treasurers exchange recent scary cyber tales of success and failure.

In a breakout session at NeuGroup’s Assistant Treasurers’ Leadership Group focusing on securing companies from cyberattacks, members recounted recent experiences and the conundrums they face combating them.

Digital protection, à la carte. NeuGroup’s own Scott Flieger, director of peer groups, said a fellow member of a college board who runs a cybersecurity advisory firm recommends companies make a menu of their digital assets, from bank accounts onward, and seek to value them. Then ask how much the company is willing to pay to protect that asset. He added that few understand a company’s digital assets better than assistant treasurers. “Being the person in treasury who has an inventory of the digital assets and can value their importance—that’s an important position,” Mr. Flieger said.

Bad timing. The email system of a NeuGroup member firm’s collections team was compromised, revealing all its customer contacts. The fraudsters then sent realistically scripted emails to customers requesting payments be sent to a different bank and providing the necessary details.

The member’s security team wanted to alert customers, but it was two weeks from quarter end, “and you don’t want to spook customers so they don’t pay you—a real treasury issue,” the member said.

Cyber reticence. Companies develop their cybersecurity plans internally, but then what? “One of our biggest challenges was that people don’t want to talk about cybersecurity,” one participant said, noting wariness about discussing the plan with third parties.

  • “We had a hard time finding peers to benchmark against, and we were paranoid as well, creating a special NDA that we made all of our banking partners sign before talking about our cybersecurity,” he said. Even his team’s discussion about how to store the plan was challenging, “because we effectively created a playbook for how to hack us.”

Cryptocurrency conundrum. A ransomware attacker may demand the transfer of $50,000 in Bitcoin to a cryptocurrency account to unfreeze a company’s system. If news breaks on CNBC about the attack, pressure will mount to meet that demand, but opening cryptocurrency accounts takes time. Companies may open cryptocurrency accounts in preparation for an attack, but would this information becoming public in an earnings call invite such attacks? And should any payment be made at all, given that the attacker could be a terrorist organization?

  • One solution: “We back up all our data, even on the desktops, so if we get locked out of our primary system, we can just reload everything,” one member said.
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Crisis Management Brings Executives Together

Having a crisis response plan can help make the company more resilient now and later.

Following a framework for crisis response planning that engages management as well as the board can create significant political capital for internal audit, not to mention better prepare the company for crises that may arise.

Having a crisis response plan can help make the company more resilient now and later.

Following a framework for crisis response planning that engages management as well as the board can create significant political capital for internal audit, not to mention better prepare the company for crises that may arise.

Multipurpose framework. The head of internal audit at a major government contractor said in a recent NeuGroup meeting that his company uses the National Fire Protection Association 1600 Standard on Continuity, Emergency and Crisis Management. He described it as a “fairly transferable” framework that can be used across a variety of scenarios, from fire drills to much more complex and resource-intensive corporate initiatives. Most members participating in the meeting were unfamiliar with the NFPA document and listened raptly as the IA chief describe the benefits.

The member noted that the company’s risk committee chairman had required adopting the framework and given the nature of the company’s business, most of its provisions were already in place.

What not to do. The member said a fascinating outcome of crisis response planning is understanding better what executives are not supposed to do or say, “particularly for the C-suite, where it’s not uncommon to have lots of type A personalities.” The exercise clarifies what each executive’s role is and emphasizes letting the crisis manager inform them about developments so they can better determine their next steps.

By promoting understanding of the various scenarios and analyzing what to report versus what to disclose, the requirements and the cadence of reporting, “We really challenged management to think about that, and it was very helpful,” he said.

Muscle memory. “Every time we went through the exercise, whether [for a major initiative], or for cyber, or an inside threat, we’d learn something new, or ask questions we hadn’t thought to ask before,” the member said. The future will always bring situations that can’t be anticipated, and he recounted a few humorous ones. “There’s always something you don’t think about, but the more you do it, it builds muscle memory,” he said.

Political capital. The member noted that facilitating these conversations in his capacity as IA was highly rewarding. “It engaged management at different levels and created political capital that has paid dividends in so many different areas for IA,” he said.

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Appealing to Millennials and Gen Zers: The Academic Perspective

Insights from the Foster School of Business on what today’s MBAs want—and what treasurers have to say.

Corporates who want to hire MBA finance graduates face a highly competitive market and are well served by knowing what the current crop of millennials and Gen Zers value most when weighing job offers. That was among the key takeaways from a presentation by faculty and administrators at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business to the members of a group of treasurers at mega-cap companies. Here’s what matters most:

Insights from the Foster School of Business on what today’s MBAs want—and what treasurers have to say.

Corporates who want to hire MBA finance graduates face a highly competitive market and are well served by knowing what the current crop of millennials and Gen Zers value most when weighing job offers. That was among the key takeaways from a presentation by faculty and administrators at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business to the members of a group of treasurers at mega-cap companies. Here’s what matters most:

  • Strategic thinking
  • Business decision-making
    • A Foster School assistant dean later elaborated: “New graduates are seeking jobs in strategic positions that impact a company’s present and future direction. They are savvy in technology, use of communication networks, and see both the present and the future in how they think, so where they can exercise these attributes and skills makes a difference to them.  They think with innovation in mind and have a global sense of their potential impact.”
  • Cross-functional teams
  • Salary
    • The average salary for Foster’s 2018 MBA finance graduates was about $115,000, plus a signing bonus of $25,000.
  • Flexibility/work balance.
  • Promotions.
    • In an earlier session, one treasurer asked his peers if they found that new hires expected a promotion every year. He said that’s unrealistic and his approach is to tell people the company is “going to get you where you ultimately want to go,” but don’t expect a promotion every year. Another treasurer said finance has a 70% retention rate and warned, “You’ll lose them if they’re not advancing.”
  • Frequent feedback. The Foster School professors added that MBAs want contact with senior leadership.

How to engage potential recruits. The Foster School presentation recommended members take these actions to appeal to MBA students:

  • Give a guest lecture or serve on a panel at the school.
  • Host a group of students for a tour or talk.
  • Sponsor a spring analytics project.
  • Mentor a student.
  • The obvious: Hold on-campus recruiting events.

The corporate perspective. Not all the treasurers present said they favored MBA graduates. In fact, one member said MBA grads who are on rotations in the company’s leadership program usually don’t return to finance roles because they “want to do exciting business stuff, sexy biz dev stuff.” It’s easier, he said, to retain undergraduates who start in finance. “I love the leadership program when we get undergrads,” he said.

  • Another treasurer asked, “How do we make finance sexier?” He noted that corporates are often competing against investment banks for top talent.
  • The first treasurer said that when he does hire MBAs, he takes graduates from “second tier” schools who did well and are intent on proving themselves, as opposed to trying to recruit Ivy League MBAs. “Let them go to McKinsey or Goldman Sachs,” he said.
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Supply Chain Finance Faces Rising Regulatory Scrutiny

Founder’s Edition, by Joseph Neu

Making sense of calls to increase debt classification and disclosure requirements for reverse factoring.

I received an email recently from a consultant giving me a heads-up about a potential financial reporting change that could adversely impact the multibillion-dollar market for supply chain finance.

Founder’s Edition, by Joseph Neu

Making sense of calls to increase debt classification and disclosure requirements for reverse factoring.

I received an email recently from a consultant giving me a heads-up about a potential financial reporting change that could adversely impact the multibillion-dollar market for supply chain finance.

  • Extended payables vs. debt. At issue is the ability of companies to use a financial intermediary to pay suppliers at a discount while extending their payments terms to the suppliers (sometimes in conjunction with raising financing against their own receivables, too), or simply extend payables beyond the norm to preserve cash (aka reverse factoring, payables financing or supply chain finance). Many such transactions are not recorded as debt but rather as trade payables.

The collapse of the UK construction firm Carillion in early 2018, linked by critics to its misuse of supply chain finance, is seen as one tipping point. But the broader use of reverse financing to help firms fund themselves at lower cost that is being promoted by a growing number of financial intermediaries is also driving regulatory scrutiny. Here are some recent examples:

  • Big Four ask for guidance. The Big Four accounting firms in October took the rare step of sending the FASB a joint letter, asking it to weigh in on how companies should classify various supply chain financing transactions and what details they should disclose.
  • Rating agencies. Fitch has a formula it uses to adjust company debt ratios to reflect their use of supply-chain finance. Moody’s has issued a warning.
  • SEC calls for MD&A disclosures. At the American Institute of CPAs conference in December, SEC Corporation Finance Deputy Chief Accountant Lindsay McCord said businesses needed to use the Management Discussion and Analysis section of their financial statements to give investors insight on their use of supplier finance programs that might change their financial condition.

To get the views of our members, I reached out to a few who manage significant supply chain finance programs.

  • Transparency and standardization needed. “The significant variations among accounting professionals in how they treat SCF reporting, even within the same accounting firm, does create external reporting challenges,” one member said. He would support standardization of interpretation and transparency of reporting.
  • The ESG component. Standardization would support good governance “to remove financial engineering and creativity merely for the sake of metrics reporting (for MNCs and large corporates) that are not necessarily beneficial to the overall business environment,” the member said. SMEs can be especially victimized by extraordinary extended terms (240-360 days), he added, with settlement delays of another 30-60 days in some countries.
  • Are new rules really needed? In another member’s opinion, “Any hack analyst can tell what is going on. Yes, it is a bit of a trick with the ratings agency’s metrics, but they too know exactly what is happening.”

I think it is fair to say that audit firms should be able to come up with a more consistent application of the current principles-based approach—i.e., the extent to which an intermediary’s involvement changes the nature, amount, and timing of payables, plus the direct economic benefit the entity receives—even without the intervention of those who set accounting standards.

  • We should all support disclosures that are sufficient to determine adherence to this principal and make clear how financing techniques affect the statement of cash flows. Reputation risk and ESG ratings related to the treatment of suppliers will also help prevent abuse if capital providers are paying attention.

To see what such disclosures might look like, take a look at examples from Masco and Keurig Dr Pepper in their responses to SEC staff comment letters.

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Managing FX in Currency Tiers to Control Cost, Workload

Why one company’s treasury spreads currency management among teams for large exposures, currency clusters and “tier two” currencies.

At a recent NeuGroup meeting of treasurers in Europe, one member shared how his company manages FX risk management-related costs and workload by considering currencies in tiers.

Why one company’s treasury spreads currency management among teams for large exposures, currency clusters and “tier two” currencies.

At a recent NeuGroup meeting of treasurers in Europe, one member shared how his company manages FX risk management-related costs and workload by considering currencies in tiers.

Global policy, local execution. Generally speaking, at this company, corporate treasury at HQ is responsible for the framework and policies and the global hedging approach, but local (in-country) treasury staff implement the hedging strategy with advice and approval from HQ.

Big countries have their own treasury organization. Some countries in the global group are so large relative to the size of the company and have their own currencies that they will have their own treasury. Other countries together form a “cluster” that also can be managed on its own.

But “tier two” countries don’t. Various tier two countries can be served directly by corporate treasury. Here, local treasury and in-country project controllers forecast and monitor FX risks resulting from purchase orders, sales orders and tender offers, but the exposure is hedged at the group level by corporate treasury.

Other tier two countries are served by local treasury, such as India, China, South America and Africa; here, risk identification is done as above but the exposure is hedged with local banks by local treasury. (However, the valuation of the local third-party hedges is performed by corporate treasury.)

Group guidance promotes the use of global currencies like USD or EUR for project tenders in emerging markets but when that is not possible, negotiators need to ensure that currency fluctuation clauses are in the contracts. Failing contracts in global currencies, local treasury consults closely with corporate treasury to monitor risk and manage the cost of hedging.

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Smoother Sailing: The Benefits of Dynamic Discounting

How C2FO’s solution helps one company’s treasury team smooth its cash flows.

Successfully adopting dynamic discounting (DD) to execute early payments requires internal alignment across multiple functions in a corporate’s organization—as well as finding the right vendor and solution. However, the technology’s many benefits, including smoothing out cash flow for both the company and its suppliers, provide a persuasive argument.

How C2FO’s solution helps one company’s treasury team smooth its cash flows.

Successfully adopting dynamic discounting (DD) to execute early payments requires internal alignment across multiple functions in a corporate’s organization—as well as finding the right vendor and solution. However, the technology’s many benefits, including smoothing out cash flow for both the company and its suppliers, provide a persuasive argument.

A treasury executive from a major technology company explained her firm’s challenges and the benefits of implementing C2FO’s DD platform at a recent NeuGroup meeting sponsored by the Kansas City-based fintech.

The biggest challenge. The member said that aligning top executives internally was probably the most time-consuming aspect of the adoption, noting that there were multiple areas and teams impacted whose cooperation was critical. Besides the initial IT investment, the implementation required changing the company’s procurement and accounts payable processes.

  • The assessment and ultimately the recommendation to adopt C2FO were made by an executive committee comprising representatives from finance, treasury, IT, supply chain, procurement, and credit and collection. Ultimately the company’s CFO signed off on the project.

Three choices. The company considered employing the traditional discounting model, in which vendors receiving early payment within a certain number of days would accept a specified discount. Also contemplated: a sliding-scale model that tied the discount percentage to how many days early the vendors were paid.

  • Those approaches typically require extensive negotiations with suppliers and allow limited flexibility. The company chose the dynamic-discounting model, which lets it define the amount and timing of cash it deploys into the program and enables vendors to bid on the discount percentage they are willing to provide.

Smoothing out cash flows. The flexibility of the C2FO platform allows the company to better manage its cash flows, making the model especially attractive given the transactional, potentially volatile nature of the company’s business.

Benefits across the company. Treasury’s DD benefits include a risk-free investment opportunity, optimizing working capital and payment-term extensions. In addition to being a tool highly leveraged by treasury, there were benefits in other areas too:

  • Procurement: Stronger supplier relationships; standardized processes and payments; no more negotiating one-off discount terms.
  • IT: Minimal support required; a secure SaaS platform; easy user experience with minimal training; operations on multiple ERP systems.
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Share Repurchases: Don’t Wait for the Sell-off

The case for spending all (or almost all) the cash allocated to buybacks right away.

Monday’s stock market sell-off provides an opportunity to revist an insight on stock buybacks from a NeuGroup meeting last spring: A risk management expert at Deutsche Bank argued that waiting for dips is not the most effective way to repurchase shares. That’s worth considering given that many companies only buy back their stock when the price dips below what they consider its intrinsic value.

The case for spending all (or almost all) the cash allocated to buybacks right away.

Monday’s stock market sell-off provides an opportunity to revist an insight on stock buybacks from a NeuGroup meeting last spring: A risk management expert at Deutsche Bank argued that waiting for dips is not the most effective way to repurchase shares. That’s worth considering given that many companies only buy back their stock when the price dips below what they consider its intrinsic value.

Danger in waiting. Research by Deutsche Bank suggests that for almost all sectors, more shares are repurchased (at a lower price per share) if companies buy as soon as cash becomes available instead of waiting until the stock declines.

“Management is notoriously optimistic about its undervaluation,” the Deutsche Bank expert said. But given the commitment companies make to repurchase shares, they have to buy them back eventually, even the dip never comes, he said. “So the danger is waiting.”

Methodology. The back-testing research assumes that if the required dip does not occur after one year, the company starts spending incremental cash flow on share repurchases because “we assume that no more than one year of cash flow can be retained,” the banker said.

Dollar cost averaging. In simple terms, the problem with spreading out buybacks over a longer period of time is that stock prices have risen over the long term, the banker said. And while dollar cost averaging makes sense on an emotional level, “It’s best to spend the money as soon as it’s available.” The one caveat, he added, is that it’s smart for companies to have a liquidity reserve in case of severe downturns.

Buyback ups and downs. S&P Dow Jones Indices in December reported that share buybacks for S&P 500 companies reached $175.9 billion in the third quarter of 2019, 6.3% higher than Q2 2019, 13.7% lower than Q3 2018, and 21.1% lower than the $223 billion record set in Q4 2018. Numbers for Q4 2019 aren’t available but S&P says most estimates call for $189 billion.

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Activist Investors Who Care About More Than One Kind of Green

Founder’s Edition, by Joseph Neu

Takeaways from a fireside chat with ValueAct founder Jeffrey Ubben.

Based on a head’s up from a top Wall Street activist defense adviser, I went to an event earlier this month hosted by Refinitiv and Reuters Breakingviews that featured a fireside chat with ValueAct co-founder Jeffrey Ubben. Mr. Ubben has stopped trying to increase his net worth and is now focused on making the world a better place (at least according to his worldview). One of the vehicles for him to do this is the ValueAct Spring Fund launched in 2018, which invests in companies aiming to address environmental and social problems.

Founder’s Edition, by Joseph Neu

Takeaways from a fireside chat with ValueAct founder Jeffrey Ubben.

Based on a head’s up from a top Wall Street activist defense adviser, I went to an event earlier this month hosted by Refinitiv and Reuters Breakingviews that featured a fireside chat with ValueAct co-founder Jeffrey Ubben. Mr. Ubben has stopped trying to increase his net worth and is now focused on making the world a better place (at least according to his worldview). One of the vehicles for him to do this is the ValueAct Spring Fund launched in 2018, which invests in companies aiming to address environmental and social problems.

  • Inspired by Silent Spring. According to Ubben, the Spring Fund name was inspired by the Rachel Carson environmental science book published in 1962.
  • What makes the fund unique. It’s run by one of the leading activist investors at a firm with $16 billion under management that’s famous for, among other thing, forcing its way onto the board of Microsoft, proving mega-caps were not off limits. “It takes a profit maximizer to know a profit maximizer,” Mr. Ubben said. Bringing an activist mindset to an environmental and social investment mandate has appeal, and Mr. Ubben has raised $1 billion in capital so far.

Here are some key insights from Mr. Ubben:

  • Larry Fink’s letter ups the ante substantially. BlackRock Chairman and CEO Larry Fink’s latest annual letter to CEOs ups the ante on sustainability, calling for “a fundamental reshaping of finance.”
  • Building on multi-stakeholder and corporate purpose mandates. Climate risk as investment risk and putting sustainability at the center of investment mandates may be the most powerful driver of the multi-stakeholder, corporate purpose mandate that Mr. Fink helped usher into modern thinking in his earlier letter.
  • Sustainability is a way to get the long term back. The constituency to support sustainability includes at least two-thirds of CEOs who see it as a way to win back a long-term view from shareholders—give me more than a quarter to reallocate capital to save the world before showing returns on that investment. There are probably one-third of those that are really driven to save the world.
  • Profit maximization over decades. To make the case for profit-driven investment in sustainability, investors need to understand that the time frames must extend 30 to 40 years. Decisions made based on current values, versus terminal values, will lead to investments that will destroy capital over the next generation. They are not conducive to long-term profits.
  • Change the investor base. Thus, companies that want to embrace sustainability and long-term profitability in their corporate purpose need to move toward investors who share that purpose.
  •  This is the window to move. Not only is more research convincing more people to believe in climate risk and the need for action, but the cost of capital in the current lower-for-longer interest rate environment is conducive to making new investments and reallocating capital. As Mr. Ubben notes, we have moved from the traditional situation of being short financing to being short human, social and environmental capital.
  • The effort is capital intensive. Ultimately, the transition to sustainability will be capital intensive. Such a capital-intensive effort will require the capital structures of existing large companies. For this reason, Mr. Ubben is not a fan of villanization.
  • Big Oil capital budgets needed.  One of his investments is in Nikola Motor, for example, which is developing hydrogen fuel cells for long-haul trucking.  To move to this future, there needs to be substantial capital invested in refueling platforms and distribution. “We will need the capital budgets of a Shell or a BP to do this over the next 30 to 40 years,” he said.
  • Shifting value propositions. While shifting to long-term value propositions is one necessity for the fundamental reshaping of capitalist economies, another is a change in perception of value and unit economics. As an example, Mr. Ubben said that if biodiesel becomes mainstream, it would make sense for McDonald’s to pay customers to order french fries to generate more used frying oil to convert into fuel.
  • Utilities need pristine governance.  The grid is the most important asset in the energy economy, including a clean energy one. So it’s imperative that utilities embrace a multi-stakeholder model and adopt the best possible governance. If customers have no choice but to be utility customers, then the economy must rely on regulators and government to sustain their ESG viability. This drives Mr. Ubben’s activist investment in Hawaiian Electric Industries and his calls for a management shake-up. He favors performance-based ratemaking for utilities, encouraging them to become asset light and deploy micro grids.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to know if green activist investors like Mr. Ubben are motivated mostly by a philanthropic desire to fix a system they helped create and make capitalism work for society, or are using the increasing embrace of ESG to profit from green activism. It’s probably a bit of each. Regardless, finance professionals at multinationals have no choice but to pay attention and take action.

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Do You Need Outside Help for TMS Implementation? Maybe

Consultants can help TMS implementations, but practitioners retain some skepticism.

Implementing treasury management systems (TMS) is an arduous and complicated task that can benefit significantly from outside expertise but maintaining a skeptical eye can optimize the outcome.

Consultants can help TMS implementations, but practitioners retain some skepticism.

Implementing treasury management systems (TMS) is an arduous and complicated task that can benefit significantly from outside expertise but maintaining a skeptical eye can optimize the outcome.

ATLG members who had implemented TMSs expressed horror at the notion of returning to Excel spreadsheets. Nevertheless, TMS vendor consolidation and other factors have worsened already sketchy vendor support services, increasing the need for outside help and expertise. The peer group of assistant treasurers exchanged insights on how to best go about that:

Self-implementation is best. A member considering a new TMS said that while he’s comfortable using consultants on the front end to analyze current processes and potential treasury transformation opportunities as well as the RFP process, he and his team are debating whether to lean on outside resources to help with implementation. Another assistant treasurer (AT), whose experience included installing four TMSs, recommended treasury implement as much as possible to best understand how the system works. Be prepared for vendors’ poor after-sale service.

Some exceptions. NeuGroup members generally agreed with that advice, although one participant said her team did use a consultant to implement SAP’s treasury module, since the vendor’s “mindset” tends to be focused on enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems rather than treasury.

Consulting on infrastructure. Consultants can be especially helpful in early-on TMS implementation decisions, specifically when it comes to setting up the TMS infrastructure–such as static data, including entity and account structures, naming conventions and a variety of other items that can be difficult to change. “Things you have to live with forever,” said Tracey Ferguson Knight of HighRadius, whose prior experience spans sales, consulting and implementation services at Reval and Thomson Reuters’ TMS division.

RFP consulting concerns. A few members noted consultants’ familiarity with the range of TMS options and which may fit a company best. Ms. Knight cautioned about using consultants to guide the RFP process, however, given that many of their practices increasingly rely implementing systems. “Some are better than others, but they’re likely, even if subconsciously, to steer you toward solutions they know better, where they can earn more business on the implementation,” she said.

Make no promises. If a consultant’s systems selection help is necessary, don’t make any promises or even discuss the possibility of implementation work, to avoid potential bias throughout the implantation process, Ms. Knight said.

Just advice, please. Ms. Knight agreed that treasury should perform the bulk of the implementation itself, noting that consultants’ greatest value is advising treasury on how the TMS system works and applies to the specific business. The consultants at vendors, especially quickly growing ones, however, often have recently been hired and may not understand how to best tailor the TMS to the client company’s business. A third-party consulting firm may be a better bet, but make sure their staff is indeed experienced, since they, too—especially the biggest consulting firms—frequently bring on new hires.

One obvious solution. A participant noted her firm simply decided to hire one consultant for the RFP and a different firm for the implementation. “We selected a different one for implementation in part for price but also independence,” she said.

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What Would an AI-Driven Capital Allocation Look Like?

Perennial discussions of capital allocation tend to end up in essentially the same place.

My friend Tom Joyce at Deutsche Bank circulated the chart below last week in his “Chart of the Day” email. This one caught my eye because it shows how corporate uses of capital, at least at the S&P 500-company level, are pretty consistent year to year.

Founder’s Edition, by Joseph Neu

Perennial discussions of capital allocation tend to end up in essentially the same place.


My friend Tom Joyce at Deutsche Bank circulated the chart below last week in his “Chart of the Day” email. This one caught my eye because it shows how corporate uses of capital, at least at the S&P 500-company level, are pretty consistent year to year.

  • M&A and Buybacks. Tom calls out the changes:During the current M&A upcycle, which began in late 2014, M&A has risen as a percentage of total corporate capital allocation. Since the passage of US tax reform in December 2017, incremental earnings benefits have been disproportionately allocated toward stock buybacks.”
  • Marginal differences. Still, should we get that excited about sub-5% average increase in share buybacks? A one year 10% increase in M&A capital allocations?

It seems to me like there’s not much innovation going on with capital allocation decisions. Set your capex need based on where your products are in their life cycle, opportunistically look at liability management, set aside for anticipated M&A and then debate the merits of dividends vs. buybacks in line with your capital return guidance. Essentially a monkey could do it.

Yet, capital allocation is a perennial top project and topic for treasurers in our network. I hate to guess how many hours are spent deliberating and supporting capital allocation decisions with analysis.

  • Thought bubble. What would an AI come up with if it were tasked to optimize the allocation of corporate capital? Especially if it were not constrained with all the commonly held conventions and assumptions about how it is being done now?

If anyone has let an algo or AI loose on their capital allocation, real or hypothetical, I would love to know what that looked like. Or if you are aware of research or solutions in this area, please ping me to connect.

Capital allocation is already on the agenda for at least one of our upcoming treasurer meetings. I’d enjoy shaking up the discussion with something new and relish getting into the weeds on dividends vs. buybacks and the rest, but not if the discussions always lead people back to the same place. 

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A High Bar: Lowering Corporate Expectations and Under-delivering Successfully

Slower economic growth, tighter consumer credit put pressure on finance chiefs in Asia.

The subdued mood among participants at the recent NeuGroup meeting of CFOs in Asia reflected the difficulty many members say they are facing as China’s economic growth slows and business conditions worsen, while expectations for revenue growth at corporate headquarters remain unrealistically high.

Slower economic growth and tighter consumer credit put pressure on finance chiefs in Asia.

The subdued mood among participants at a recent NeuGroup meeting of CFOs in Asia reflected the difficulty many members say they are facing as China’s economic growth slows and business conditions worsen, while expectations for revenue growth at corporate headquarters remain unrealistically high.

Managing expectations. The key challenge, then, for some members is managing the expectations of those in the C-Suite who still want 10% revenue growth. In other words, CFOs and their teams need to figure out how to successfully under-deliver. This topic—and how to deal with failure—will be discussed at the group’s next meeting in April in Shanghai (email us about your eligibility to attend).

Tighter belts. Dealing with the fallout from lower production has meant implementing cost-cutting initiatives, and some members expect the challenging business climate and the need for belt-tightening to last three to five years.

Pressure to produce. As demand slows, members say Chinese authorities are exerting pressure on corporates to build inventory to reduce the impact on the economy and keep employment high. Much of this pressure is indirect, through so-called window guidance, which is a part of life in China and the way government agencies influence corporate behavior with unwritten rules.

Credit, not tariffs. Although trade tensions between the US and China have added to the region’s challenges, the tightening of consumer credit in China ranked as a more serious concern for many participants, based on comments during the projects and priorities session at the meeting.

  • Other concerns mentioned at the meeting include complying with China’s corporate social credit system and the wide-ranging reform of the country’s individual income tax that has implications for corporates.

Hope for the future. Members remain bullish on the long-term business prospects in China, thanks in part to the country’s population of 1.4 billion. But for now the pressure is on, and some members are searching for ways to reduce the stress. How else to explain why one finance team has created a “S— Happens Award?”

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What China’s Individual Income Tax Changes Mean for Corporates, Expats

CFOs with employees in the country need to plan for new residency rules and ensure compliance.

The most significant reform of China’s individual income tax (IIT) laws in 38 years has numerous implications for foreign workers and the multinational corporations that employ them. Michelle Zhou, a partner at KPMG, presented many of the critical elements of the changes to a group of CFOs at a recent NeuGroup meeting in Shanghai.

CFOs with employees in the country need to plan for new residency rules and ensure compliance.

The most significant reform of China’s individual income tax (IIT) laws in 38 years has numerous implications for foreign workers and the multinational corporations that employ them. Michelle Zhou, a partner at KPMG, presented many of the critical elements of the changes to a group of CFOs at a recent NeuGroup meeting in Shanghai.

Big picture. CFOs—who are responsible for income reporting—need to proactively dig into the details of the changes with tax advisors and coordinate closely with human resources departments to develop retention policies that address the potentially negative financial effects the new rules may have for some employees. These include changes in the treatment of annual bonuses and equity incentives—although not all details have been announced.

Defining residency. High on the list of takeaways is that an individual who lives in China for 183 days or more will now be considered a tax resident, instead of one year under the old rules. This has implications for whether the employee pays tax only on income sourced in China or on all of her worldwide income.
• A new “six-year rule” replaces the old five-year concession rule. Under the old policy, if a foreign worker stayed in China for five consecutive years, her worldwide income would be taxed in China. The new law extends the period to six years, allowing foreign workers in China more time to avoid paying taxes on income sourced overseas.
o Under the new rules, if the person leaves mainland China for more than 30 consecutive days at any point during the six years, the clock to count tax residency will be reset.

Tax-exempt benefits vs. itemized deductions. The new law allows foreign workers to take advantage of several new itemized deductions limited to specified amounts:
• Children’s education.
• Further education.
• Mortgage interest or housing rent
• Medical fees for serious illness.
• Elderly care.

Foreign workers who don’t take the deductions listed above can continue use tax-exempt benefits until the end of 2021 by claiming allowances of a “reasonable amount” for children’s education, language training fees, housing rental, home leave visits, relocation expenses, and meal and laundry expenses. Corporates need to make sure employees are aware of the choice and the pros and cons of their decision.

Greater Bay Area preferential tax policy. To attract highly skilled workers to a number of cities in Guangdong province, China is providing them with the incentive of an effective tax rate of 15% via a tax subsidy. The policy is effective until the end of 2023.

CFO checklist. KPMG identified several areas that fall within the CFO’s purview that require action:
• Review tax budgets and plans for the new IIT system, including interaction with payroll.
• Review compliance and implement robust policies and processes to mitigate risks; prepare for tax audit.
• Review the company’s obligation to employees, offer training on annual tax filing; work with HR on retention.
• Examine how the new rules affect business traveler risks.

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China’s Corporate Social Credit System: What Corporates Need to Know and Do Now

The implications and challenges for corporates facing a new world of ratings.

Full implementation of China’s corporate social credit system (SCS) is slated for the end of 2020—a reality with huge implications for multinationals doing business in the country. And that means more work for many CFOs and finance teams. • CFOs are often in charge of coordinating the final reporting of data provided by multiple areas of the company and ensuring there is no conflicting information. They’re also responsible for updates, the remediation of incorrect or invalid reporting, and follow-up with various agencies. It’s a huge job. Members of the NeuGroup’s Asia CFOs’ Peer Group got a helpful reality check on what corporate social credit ratings mean for them during a recent presentation by Björn Conrad, CEO of the China consulting firm Sinolytics.

The implications and challenges for corporates facing a new world of ratings.

Full implementation of China’s corporate social credit system (SCS) is slated for the end of 2020—a reality with huge implications for multinationals doing business in the country. And that means more work for many CFOs and finance teams.

  • CFOs are often in charge of coordinating the final reporting of data provided by multiple areas of the company and ensuring there is no conflicting information. They’re also responsible for updates, the remediation of incorrect or invalid reporting, and follow-up with various agencies. It’s a huge job.

Members of the NeuGroup’s Asia CFOs’ Peer Group got a helpful reality check on what corporate social credit ratings mean for them during a recent presentation by Björn Conrad, CEO of the China consulting firm Sinolytics.

The presentation included information from a study published in 2019 by Sinolytics and commissioned by the European Chamber of Commerce. In it, Chamber president Jörg Wuttke writes, For better or worse, China’s corporate SCS is here to stay and businesses in China need to prepare for the consequences, and they need to start now.”

The good news. It’s not too late to prepare. Sinolytics says “implementation gaps” will give companies time to make the necessary internal adjustments to manage their regulatory ratings and engage with government authorities on concerns, but notes that inquiries need to be detailed, concrete and technically precise. Corporate leaders need to:

  1. Understand exactly what the system requires from the business.
  2. Assess where their company stands regarding the requirements—and identify gaps.
  3. Design and implement effective internal adjustments.
  4. Continuously monitor further developments of the corporate SCS.

Hard facts. The corporate SCS assesses the behavior of companies through topic-specific regulatory ratings (e.g., tax, customs, environmental protection and product quality) and a parallel set of compliance records (e.g., anti-monopoly cases, data transfers, pricing and licenses). These ratings will be made public, meaning a company’s customers, suppliers and competitors will have access to information that may cause data privacy issues that are not yet resolved.

Sinolytics says:

  • The system covers virtually all aspects of a company’s business in China. A multinational is subject to approximately 30 different regulatory ratings—many industry-specific— and compliance records, most of which have already been implemented.
  • Each rating is computed based on a set of rating requirements. In total, an MNC can expect to be rated against approximately 300 such requirements.
  • Some requirements create strategic challenges for companies, including those relating to the behavior of business partners such as suppliers and service providers. This burdens companies with the responsibility of monitoring their partners’ trustworthiness.
  • The corporate SCS uses real-time monitoring and processing systems to collect and interpret big data, which allows immediate detection of compliance and determines a company’s social credit score.

Ratings reality. Sinolytics says algorithm-based ratings of companies will have direct consequences after the collected data is processed and rated against the defined requirements. A good rating leads to rewards and a negative performance is sanctioned.

  • Carrot: High corporate SCS scores can mean fewer audits (e.g., taxes, safety), better credit conditions, easier market access and more public procurement opportunities for corporates.
  • Stick: Low scores mean the opposite of the above, and for every negative rating, there’s already a set of sanctions in place, Sinolytics says.
    • Sanctions include penalty fees, court orders, higher inspection rates, targeted audits, restricted issuance of government approvals (e.g., land-use rights and investment permits), exclusion from preferential policies (e.g., subsidies and tax rebates), restrictions from public procurement, as well as public blaming and shaming. And don’t forget blacklisting. Sanctions can even personally affect the legal representative and key personnel of a company.

Will the system create a more level playing field?

Sinolytics says yes—in principle. “The requirements and consequences of the Corporate SCS apply to all companies registered in China, regardless of ownership structure. This might in fact translate into an advantage for international companies vis-à-vis their Chinese competitors, as many international companies feature more advanced internal compliance structures,” the study says. However, Sinolytics has these caveats:

  • The field may be more level but the game played on it will be more difficult and controlled than before.
  • The system has the potential for discriminatory use toward international companies as there is no guarantee that the ratings cannot be applied in a biased way, targeting specific companies with greater scrutiny.
  • Some of the rating requirements apply to all market participants but are more difficult for international companies to fulfill. “This appears to be the case for the State Administration for Market Regulation’s blacklisting mechanism for ‘heavily distrusted entities,’ which makes the SCS useable in trade conflicts.”
  • Chinese companies might have an advantage in navigating the intricacies of the system, and that’s potentially enhanced by better information flows from government authorities.
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Love It or Hate It, ESG Is a Key Theme for 2020

Reasons you can’t afford to leave ESG off your priority list.

ESG and related themes of sustainability and green finance are polarizing. Nearly everyone sits on a spectrum where one end thinks it’s all a bunch of hooey and the other argues it’s the key driver of finance for the next decade. Personally, I feel conflicted—one reason ESG didn’t make my initial list of key 2020 issues.

Founder’s Edition, by Joseph Neu

Reasons you can’t afford to leave ESG off your priority list.

ESG and related themes of sustainability and green finance are polarizing. Nearly everyone sits on a spectrum where one end thinks it’s all a bunch of hooey and the other argues it’s the key driver of finance for the next decade. Personally, I feel conflicted—one reason ESG didn’t make my initial list of key 2020 issues.

Mixed feelings aside, I’m convinced the decade ahead is a time to take ESG and all it brings with it seriously. As I noted in an earlier post on green finance, there’s a “tsunami” of sustainability-linked finance products coming, as a member treasurer at one company leading the way put it.

Skeptics coming around. A top M&A and activist advisor at a leading Wall Street firm confirms that even investment banking skeptics have come around to ESG and green finance being a key consideration. “We didn’t really take it that seriously until about six months ago,” he said. “Yet now it’s a strategic priority for the bank, with an executive level committee dedicated to ESG and related opportunities.”

M&A options. More specifically, ESG has opened up a lot of new thinking about what deals might win regulatory approval and political backing when presented through a sustainability lens. The advisor also said that the financing for an acquisition can be structured more favorably now if you look at sustainability finance options.

Activism. ESG was once viewed primarily as a tool for activists looking, for example, to pry open a seat on the board. Now it’s become a guiding strategy in and of itself. Look at Jeffrey Ubben’s ValueAct Spring Fund, which invests in companies aiming to address environmental and social problems. Mr. Ubben represents a new breed of ESG investors who, having made a fortune as activist investors, are now trying to make the world a better place by using their knowledge and experience—not to mention their activist aggressiveness.

Board focus. For these reasons and others, boards are also focused on ESG, so it makes sense for corporate leadership to focus on it, too. According to a recent Deloitte white paper on 2020 board agendas, “Perhaps the most dramatic development―or, rather, series of developments―that boards may need to consider in 2020 is the intense focus on the role of the corporation in society.” This includes “social purpose” but also “concerns about persistent economic inequality, climate change, and the availability and cost of healthcare, as well as concerns about the ability of governments to address these and other issues.”

Investors, workers. As a result, the paper says, ESG “has also garnered the attention of investors and others, who are increasingly asking whether and how companies are affecting and affected by environmental and social developments.” Employees are also asking. “The rise of employee activism during 2019, with actions such as work stoppages and shareholder proposals, has increased the stakes in these and other areas.”

Disclosures. Risks tend to be taken more seriously when they are disclosed prominently in public financial statements. As Deloitte notes, “Companies are being called upon by investors and others to provide disclosures concerning the ESG challenges they face and how they address those challenges.” One driver is “the rise of third parties―including so-called ‘rankers and raters’―who comment on companies’ efforts in this area, making it important for companies to tell their stories rather than let someone else do so.”

Storytelling. As more observers are noting, ESG-driven investing of corporate cash, 401(k) and pension plans, as well as corporate venture funds and M&A efforts by biz dev teams, are relatively cost effective ways to help companies tell this story. Sustainability-linked finance, given its embrace by key market participants, may be an even better way to do this. But whatever you do, put ESG on your 2020 priority list.

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Making Better Use of Data to Manage Risk

Cognitive risk sensing identifying and mitigating risk into dynamic process.

Cognitive risk sensing (CRS) is said to be the next frontier in terms of analyzing risk and addressing it in a dynamic fashion. But the approach, which should be especially helpful for internal audit (IA) and other risk functions, is still in its infancy for most organizations.

Cognitive risk sensing identifying and mitigating risk into dynamic process.

Cognitive risk sensing (CRS) is said to be the next frontier in terms of analyzing risk and addressing it in a dynamic fashion. But the approach, which should be especially helpful for internal audit (IA) and other risk functions, is still in its infancy for most organizations.

Neil White, risk and financial advisory principal and global internal audit analytics leader at Deloitte, said organizations have used structured data from areas such as operations and human capital to judge risk, often very effectively. However, such analysis tends to be backward looking.

Outside in. More recently, companies have started to tap unstructured data from outside the organization, an approach that has been used for some time in areas such as marketing and sales. But now is being applied to risk. Essentially that means pulling vast quantities of that data together from social media and other media sources, often using third-party aggregators. Quickly evolving technology such as natural language processing, machine learning and other forms of artificial intelligence now enables the analysis of that data that wasn’t possible before.

Room for growth. CRS is being applied by a still relatively small percentage of companies, according to a recent survey of C-suite ad other executives conducted by Deloitte. Just over 25.4% said their organizations collect and analyze external, open-source data as part of an IA function, and only 5.3% said they’re using it across the organization, with 30.6% saying they’re lagging.

Many of those companies using CRS today are likely in the financial services industry, which Mr. White said has been ahead of the game, adding Deloitte is also working with organizations in the healthcare and consumer-products space. A financial services firm, for example, can collect open-source and unstructured data about regulatory, technology and other issues impacting competitors, and using that information to determine how it, too, may be impacted.

Intelligent ML. “Now we’re starting to see risk insight being drawn from external data sources, with more intelligent ML learning models, resulting in a more resilient organization that can respond more quickly to those risks,” Mr. White said.

Since ML and similar technologies are more readily available and understood, Mr. White said. “We’re starting to see those applications into other parts of the risk world.”

For example, in the supply chain, domain specialists will use CRS for forward-looking insights to identify the potential commodities shortages in key markets or supply chain disrupted due to labor. “A large food distribution company using this for a more forward looking view on whether there will be disruptions to the underlying ingredients that go into those food products,” he said, adding that Deloitte is working with a medical device company using this approach to monitor potential risks in 14 different domains.

“It’s the first time we’re moving into a more forward-looking risk world and not relying entirely on the human knowledge within the organization,” Mr. White said, “And to me that’s what’s really exciting about this.

Dynamic response. He added that especially exciting is CRS enabling IA to get closer to the concept of real-time assurance, which, helps IA move a little closer to the genesis of the risk and respond more dynamically and provide more timely assurance.

“So it’s not just about a tool to peek over the horizon. Those companies who are doing CRS well are changing their entire risk response process and how they align talent, increasing the regularity with which they refresh their risk register and updating audit plans,” Mr. White said.

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Recent Stories

Sharing the Horse Race Information

Reasons to tell asset managers where they rank in the race against peers.

A discussion of asset manager scorecards at last week’s NeuGroup meeting on corporate cash investment management prompted the question of whether, during review meetings, you should tell external managers where they rank among peers on the performance metrics you track. In other words, should you reveal the results of the horse race to the horses?

  • Share results and compare to peers. The consensus was that yes, treasury should provide the information on win, place, show and below—although no one reveals the names of other asset managers in the horse race. Most tell the asset manager across the table which line was theirs so they can see how they stack up against peers.

Reasons to tell asset managers where they rank in the race against peers.

A discussion of asset manager scorecards at last week’s NeuGroup meeting on corporate cash investment management prompted the question of whether, during review meetings, you should tell external managers where they rank among peers on the performance metrics you track. In other words, should you reveal the results of the horse race to the horses?

  • Share results and compare to peers. The consensus was that yes, treasury should provide the information on win, place, show and below—although no one reveals the names of other asset managers in the horse race. Most tell the asset manager across the table which line was theirs so they can see how they stack up against peers.

Why share the information? According to members, the reason to reveal the results is to show the asset manager where they are doing well, e.g., return performance, and perhaps not so well, e.g., customer service. 

  • If the manager is a top performer, acknowledging that in the results table can motivate them to remain one, especially if they see where exactly others behind them stand (hopefully close). 
     
  • But it really helps if you need to fire a manager. Where the ranking reveal is most helpful is when it comes time to dismiss a manager, which members noted can be a hard thing to do.
    • “If you’ve shown that the manager is underperforming over multiple performance review meetings, they kind of know it’s coming, and it makes it much easier to relay the news,” as one member noted. Plus, you have given them the opportunity to improve.

Track the information to share. While portfolio performance on total return and other hard data can be obtained via Bloomberg or Clearwater, members suggested using a customer relationship management (CRM) tool to track various, soft scorecard criteria, such as the number of visits with the asset manager. Sharing the information in the review meeting also forces treasury to justify and add context to the results. 

  • A potential point of contention is if the manager was told not to invest in a certain name or names and that ends up affecting its result. Is it really fair to assess a manager’s performance if they are not given free rein within the mandate?

Beyond this stable. While this discussion applies to scorecards for external asset managers, the advice also serves for scoring any treasury relationship. So why not create scorecards for all those relationships—and then share the horse race results with everyone involved?

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The Double Whammy Threatening Corporate Pension Plans

Low rates may reduce asset returns and lower discount rates, hiking liabilities.

Lower interest rates may be great if you’re tapping the bond market. Not so much if you’re trying to fund a corporate pension plan. 

Low rates may reduce asset returns and lower discount rates, hiking liabilities.

Lower interest rates may be great if you’re tapping the bond market. Not so much if you’re trying to fund a corporate pension plan. 

Returns on assets fall. William Warlick at Fitch Ratings said the sudden dive in interest rates in July and August—10-year Treasuries fell below 2%, and by early September yielded about 1.5%—potentially creates a “double whammy.”

The first whammy is that yields remaining low for an extended period will eventually reduce returns on pension funds’ fixed-income portfolios, which have been growing as pension-fund managers shifted away from riskier equities. 

Liabilities grow. As the return on assets shrinks, pension-fund liabilities are likely to increase, also potentially widening plan funding gaps. When treasury and high-grade corporate bond yields fall, plan administrators’ discount rates fall along with them, so a given set of future cash flows related to plan-participant liabilities is discounted back at a lower interest rate. That’s the second whammy. 

“That means the present value of the liabilities is higher and the pension’s funded status could worsen,” Warlick said. “So the pension fund could either have a deficiency of asset returns or higher liabilities than expected.”

Good behavior lowers risk. Fortunately, lower tax rates and persistently solid investment returns have enabled most companies with large pension plans to significantly improve their funded status. The 150 companies Fitch reviews saw their median funded status improve to 85% from 81% between 2014 and 2018. 

The problem: “We could be entering an environment where, despite a recent period of voluntary contributions, required contribution could go up,” Mr. Warlick said. 

NeuGroup and BNY Mellon are hosting a Pensions & Benefit Roundtable in New York on October 2 for treasurers with oversight of pensions. If you would like to participate, please contact Chris Riordan at criordan@neugroup.com.

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SocGen: You Have Less Floating-Rate Debt Than You Think

One big eye-opener for many attendees at NeuGroup’s Tech20 2019 first-half meeting was sponsor Societe Generale’s suggestion that their floating-rate debt capacity was higher than they (most likely) currently thought it was—provided they hedge their FX, that is.

Why? Because, according to this view, the FX hedge program reduces one’s net floating-debt exposure. In addition, if you agree that a recession is coming, rates will be staying put or going lower, making floating debt even cheaper.

One big eye-opener for many attendees at NeuGroup’s Tech20 2019 first-half meeting was sponsor Societe Generale’s suggestion that their floating-rate debt capacity was higher than they (most likely) currently thought it was—provided they hedge their FX, that is.

Why? Because, according to this view, the FX hedge program reduces one’s net floating-debt exposure. In addition, if you agree that a recession is coming, rates will be staying put or going lower, making floating debt even cheaper.

It pays to favor floating-rate exposure to interest rates now. Treasurers often fight against the bias that locking in fixed-rate exposure to interest rates is best. In fact, most studies show that relying on floating-rate debt is cheaper. Backtesting by SocGen showed that since 1990, a 10-year floating strategy was cheaper 100% of the time, with average savings of around 3% vs. a fixed-rate strategy.

Now it may be even better. In the US, for instance, an anticipated rising rate environment was suddenly paused by the Fed, and monetary policy indicators increasingly suggest that not only are we unlikely to see interest rates normalize any time soon, but they may well be headed down again. When the yield curve flattens or inverts, moreover, as it has, the timing to increase floating-rate exposure to ride interest rates lower cannot be better.

Include FX hedging program in offsets. Disciplined asset-liability management seeks to offset floating-rate liability exposure with floating-rate assets. Depending on a firm’s risk profile and appetite, the offsets can match completely, or the floating-rate assets can be seen as a means to increase floating-rate liability further. This is where Societe Generale’s insight caught our members’ attention, namely that the FX hedging programs—factoring the cost of hedging long cash-flow and balance-sheet exposures—for many US firms represent a floating-rate liability offset.

How it works: Decreasing USD rates increase cost of hedging. Seen from the perspective of FX swap points that comprise the forward rates of foreign exchange, a US firm paying very low EUR rates and receiving higher USD rates (that could be trending lower) represents an offset to floating-rate debt exposure. The reduction in carry gain (e.g., on EUR) or increase in carry cost (on MXN, for example), from a 100bps decrease in USD rates increases the ALM capacity for floating-rate debt exposure.

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A Master Cash-Flow Model for All Firms

Efficient capital usage and building a cash culture to accurately forecast cash flow starts with building a model of how cash flows through your company.

With so much focus these days on transforming revenue models, finance teams also need to encourage their companies to build a model to better understand and improve visibility of how cash flows through the business—now and as it is transformed.

At a NeuGroup meeting last May, an AT member from a technology company shared her effort to model her firm’s cash flow. 

Why it matters. 

Efficient capital usage and building a cash culture to accurately forecast cash flow starts with building a model of how cash flows through your company.

With so much focus these days on transforming revenue models, finance teams also need to encourage their companies to build a model to better understand and improve visibility of how cash flows through the business—now and as it is transformed.

At a NeuGroup meeting last May, an AT member from a technology company shared her effort to model her firm’s cash flow. 

Why it matters. Here are three key reasons to build a master cash-flow model:

  1. A company’s long-term cash-flow model forms the basis of its capital structure and supports the capital allocation and deployment planning process—i.e., efficient use of capital requires it. 
     
  2. A model of firm cash flows can be a key educational tool to bolster the cash culture, shifting perspective from how earnings happen to free cash flow and how cash comes in and goes out. This perspective shift is exponentially enhanced if a firm discloses and provides guidance on cash flow to shareholders.
     
  3. A master model can streamline and standardize existing cash forecasting methodologies to improve cash forecasting. 

What to ask for. When our member AT queried different departments about whether and what cash-flow models they used, she asked what each did (its objective), how they sourced data, and to whom and when their output was sent to the executive suite and board. For example:

  • FP&A’s model was used to report the company’s P&L and cash position to the CFO; 
     
  • Corporate strategy employed a long-range forecast to understand the impact of M&A and other strategic moves. 

A need to bring it all together. “So, the company had many forecast models, but they often disagreed with each other, frustrating management,” the AT said. “Now corporate treasury has ownership and can reconcile a lot of these models.”

What to deliver? The AT asked each of her firm’s cash-flow-model users about the level of granularity they expect from a central cash model, including the forecast’s range, whether they just need it at the parent-company level or stepping down to the regional or legal-entity level, and how often the cash-flow model should be updated.

  • The result should not be a treasury model but a corporate model that can serve multiple constituencies and materially increase senior management’s confidence in its use to make important decisions.

Key Insight: There are too many pain points for treasury to establish a master cash-flow model for every part of a company on its own. Therefore, treasury, or whoever builds the master model, must share ownership of the inputs and outputs across corporate functions and levels—e.g., with FP&A—or incorporate these functions into a master cash operations function—expanding the scope of treasury in conjunction with FP&A, A/R and A/P. Shared responsibility for the model helps everyone share and learn about cash to build a cash culture.

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A SOFR Shortcoming: Where’s the Spread?

One difference between Libor and SOFR is the lack of a credit component.

The move to a SOFR rate benchmark without a credit component was described at recent NeuGroup meeting of bank treasurers as an assault on the regional banking business in a friendly, yet heated discussion with the panel of Libor-transition experts led by Tom Wipf, the Alternative Reference Rates Committee (ARRC) chair.

The conclusion emerged that overlaying a credit component on SOFR was not in the ARRC mandate, so regional banks should propose their own and advocate for a credit component overlay solution that would mitigate the issue of borrowers’ arbitration of a risk-free SOFR rate in the next crisis.

One difference between Libor and SOFR is the lack of a credit component.

The move to a SOFR rate benchmark without a credit component was described at recent NeuGroup meeting of bank treasurers as an assault on the regional banking business in a friendly, yet heated discussion with the panel of Libor-transition experts led by Tom Wipf, the Alternative Reference Rates Committee (ARRC) chair.

The conclusion emerged that overlaying a credit component on SOFR was not in the ARRC mandate, so regional banks should propose their own and advocate for a credit component overlay solution that would mitigate the issue of borrowers’ arbitration of a risk-free SOFR rate in the next crisis.

What the ARRC says. According to the ARRC recommendation, Libor and SOFR are different rates and thus the transition from Libor to SOFR will require a spread adjustment to
make the rate levels more comparable. As noted above, Libor is produced in various tenors and SOFR is currently only an overnight rate.

Another critical difference between Libor and SOFR is that Libor is based on unsecured transactions and is intended to include the price of bank credit risk. SOFR, on the other hand, is a near risk-free rate that does not include any bank credit component, as the transactions underpinning SOFR are fully secured by US Treasuries.

Looking ahead. A working group was formed at the meeting to coordinate with other working groups out there and explore proposals being surfaced to use TRACE data on either bank or customer borrowing rates to build a credit spread on top of SOFR. They might also turn to the USD ICE Bank Yield Index or the AFX Ameribor for ideas. (See A New ‘Bor on the Block)

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What Should Your Working Capital Be Used For?

Insights on how young, fast-growing companies should use their cash.

How is short-term cash funded? Treasurers at high-growth tech companies at a recent NeuGroup meeting discussed funding working capital and whether a company should target cash and short-term investment balances to cover anticipated working capital needs or pay for committed short-term bank credit facilities to cover seasonal or unexpected short-term funding requirements.

Part of this is communicating to management and shareholders that committed facilities have their own value as opposed to sitting on unproductive cash.

Insights on how young, fast-growing companies should use their cash.

How is short-term cash funded? Treasurers at high-growth tech companies at a recent NeuGroup meeting discussed funding working capital and whether a company should target cash and short-term investment balances to cover anticipated working capital needs or pay for committed short-term bank credit facilities to cover seasonal or unexpected short-term funding requirements.

Part of this is communicating to management and shareholders that committed facilities have their own value as opposed to sitting on unproductive cash.

Payables-receivables magic. Another opportunity the group identified was that increasing payables terms is just as valuable as decreasing receivables terms. Management often focuses on receivables given their important relationship to revenue, but overlooks the payables side of the equation. But cash flow is cash flow, whether it comes from the receivables or payables side of the ledger.

Growth and bank partners. Confronting the challenges of capital structure and working capital requires the right partners on the bank side. As a company grows, is its bank partner booting it out of its current group and into another? At different stages of growth, how do you know you have the right partners and how does treasury get a seat at the table?

This emphasizes the need for treasury to articulate what services it requires from the banks: global cash management infrastructure and the ability to syndicate a credit facility and provide access to capital markets, debt or equity.

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The Art of Managing Bank Expectations

How one treasurer gives banks in his revolver a share-of-wallet reality check.  Banks that agree to commit capital to a multinational’s revolving credit facility expect treasury to reward them with other, more lucrative work, such as bond underwriting. So treasurers have to deal with complaints when some bankers, inevitably, are not satisfied with their share of the company’s wallet. Ward off the whining. One large-cap treasurer told members at a recent NeuGroup meeting that his method for managing banker dissatisfaction around…

How one treasurer gives banks in his revolver a share-of-wallet reality check. 

Banks that agree to commit capital to a multinational’s revolving credit facility expect treasury to reward them with other, more lucrative work, such as bond underwriting. So treasurers have to deal with complaints when some bankers, inevitably, are not satisfied with their share of the company’s wallet.

Ward off the whining. One large-cap treasurer told members at a recent NeuGroup meeting that his method for managing banker dissatisfaction around share-of-wallet issues is to clearly communicate to each bank what they can—and cannot—expect from his company in terms of banking services.

Five tiers, clear lines. The first two tiers of this member’s five-tier revolver consist of banks that have made the largest capital commitment to the credit facility.

The banks in these tiers can expect to be named active or passive book runners in any of the company’s bond deals and play leading roles in any M&A transactions. They also would conduct interest-rate hedging transactions.

Tiers three, four and five. Banks in the third tier may be named senior co-managers or passive book runners in a capital markets transaction. Banks in the fourth tier might play a role in a bond deal depending on the size of the transaction.

Tier five banks, which commit the least to the revolver, underwrite letters of credit and may be used for FX hedging and cash investments.

The bottom line. The treasurer says the benefit of being explicit about what each bank can expect is that it allows each bank to run its model and get an accurate picture of what it will likely make over the next five years.To help treasurers figure out what banks expect to earn, check out How Much Money Banks Expect to Make to Be in Your Credit Facility.

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Does AI Mean Our Labor Days Are Over?

Founder’s Edition, by Joseph Neu

How finance leaders can keep their teams relevant as artificial intelligence transforms the world of work.

Jack Ma and Elon Musk created buzz last week debating at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai. And with Labor Day now behind us, this is a good time to think about how AI will change the work done by finance professionals.  

Founder’s Edition, by Joseph Neu

How finance leaders can keep their teams relevant as artificial intelligence transforms the world of work.

Jack Ma and Elon Musk created buzz last week debating at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai. And with Labor Day now behind us, this is a good time to think about how AI will change the work done by finance professionals.  

On the plus side, Mr. Ma, the Alibaba chairman and co-founder, claims AI will create more personal time:

  • A 12-hour work week. With AI, people should work three days a week, four hours a day, according to Mr. Ma. “I think that because of artificial intelligence, people will have more time to enjoy being human beings,” he said. 

The danger, says Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, is that AI may have no need for us:

  • Smarter than humans. Mr. Musk said that the biggest problem with AI is that humans will not be able to keep up. “I think generally people underestimate the capability of AI – they sort of think it’s a smart human,” he said “But it’s going to be much more than that. It will be much smarter than the smartest human.”  

How quickly AI is taking over the finance function will be a topic for NeuGroup meetings this fall, as we examine   the future of finance talent and the role of AI in it. 

To help prepare, I turned to “Exponential Organizations,” a best-selling book by Salim Ismail, the founding executive director of Singularity University and co-founder and chairman of OpenExO, which connects professionals with organizations seeking exponential growth. He argues that companies that adopt certain key attributes will tap digitalization to grow their businesses exponentially, much like Moore’s Law drove microchips. 

  • AI accounting and transaction management. Mr. Salim says AI will influence accounting and transaction activities to include automatic AP and AR, with software-enabling automatic reminders and payment, automatic tax management, and AI watching for errant behaviors in transaction flows.
     
  • Everything is a transaction. But AI will not stay in the back office: “Note that pretty much everything in the modern world is a transaction, be it communications, social agreements, and, not least, commerce.”

So what will be left for humans to do? 

  • Humans are needed for less logical, human pursuits.  As Jack Ma emphasized, AI is unsurpassable at things that have a logic to them, but humans may be needed for the things that don’t. Interacting with other people successfully (lovingly) is something that is often irrational and where we still work best. 

My thinking: If AI and other machine automation will give us more time to become more human, then we also will have more time to interact with one another and learn to do it better. As AI takes over more transactions, finance leaders should encourage their teams to engage in more human interactions and build skills based on what they learn in those exchanges—to ensure finance supports a broader human purpose. With that in mind, even as AI’s power grows, our work at NeuGroup—thankfully—has a future. 

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Trying to Make Sense of Bank Fees

The challenges of comparing fees when banks don’t use the same terms to describe similar services.

The problem for treasury teams at multinational corporations is not that they have to pay bank fees. It’s that they often don’t have enough visibility to compare those fees among banks or know what exactly they’re paying for or exactly how much something costs. GCBG members addressed these issues and discussed solutions with representatives of Greenwich Associates and Redbridge Debt & Treasury Advisory. Here are some highlights:

The challenges of comparing fees when banks don’t use the same terms to describe similar services.

The problem for treasury teams at multinational corporations is not that they have to pay bank fees. It’s that they often don’t have enough visibility to compare those fees among banks or know what exactly they’re paying for or exactly how much something costs. GCBG members addressed these issues and discussed solutions with representatives of Greenwich Associates and Redbridge Debt & Treasury Advisory. Here are some highlights:

The bank fee challenge. One member whose treasury has relationships with about 15 banks said, “We want to get our arms around” the fees they’re paying and to find out if “we are using all the things that we’re paying for.” Her company is considering using bank fee analysis services offered by Redbridge, NDepth (Treasury Strategies/Novantas) or Weiland BRMedge (Fiserv).

The Greenwich presentation included these comments from respondents to a survey about the biggest challenges with banks’ cash management fees: 

  • “One of the biggest challenges is understanding what a particular service represents on the analysis statement and then being able to compare that with a similar type service that you might be paying a fee for at another bank.”
     
  • “The biggest challenge is each bank seems to have different terms for different types of fees and weeding through an analysis statement to understand what exactly is being charged and how often it’s being used and if we’re using it.” 

The problem with AFP service codes. The problem with using codes from the Association of Financial Professionals (AFP) to compare fees among banks is that, as the Redbridge presenter said, “No two banks call an apple the same thing.” In other words, each bank uses a different description for services that are essentially equivalent. For example: 

  • Account maintenance
  • Monthly fee
  • Maintenance
  • Maintenance charge 

About three-quarters of the participants indicated they have used AFP codes, which the presenter said can be both a blessing and a curse. “The job of assigning standardized AFP codes to bank services usually falls to someone within the bank or is left to the practitioner to figure out,” he said. They’re “exactly the wrong people” to ensure the proper use of one standardized set of codes, he added. And this state of affairs means there is no way to answer key questions that are part of a bank fee audit, such as: 

  • Which of my banks is giving me the best price on these services?
  • How much is my company spending on maintenance fees as a whole?
  • Which countries are the most expensive for me to bank in? 

An accreditation solution. The Redbridge representative said the only true solution to the code problem is AFP’s creation of an accreditation service for banks that use standardized service identification codes. Redbridge is a partner with the AFP and is the designated facilitator of the AFP Service Code Accredited Provider program. Banks provide a list of all their billable services (current mappings, definitions of service, unit of measure, etc.) and AFP audits and assign US and Global AFP Codes to each service ID by geographical region.

The flat fee solution. One member of the group offered a different approach—paying banks a flat fee that covers everything for the year. The former banker said he’d done that when working in treasury and said at the end of three years an accountant is likely to ask if you overpaid. The Redbridge presenter said he’s seen examples of flat fee models that work.

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The Future of Treasury and Banking is APIs

Deutsche Bank explains what treasurers should know about APIs.

Even treasury professionals who know that API stands for application programming interface and that so-called open APIs have been touted as the future of payment technology may not really understand what an API is or why it matters for treasurers and their bankers. So a presentation by Deutsche Bank at NeuGroup’s Global Cash & Banking Group (GCBG) first-half meeting gave members both a refresher course and a deeper dive into APIs and why they should care about them.

Deutsche Bank explains what treasurers should know about APIs.

Even treasury professionals who know that API stands for application programming interface and that so-called open APIs have been touted as the future of payment technology may not really understand what an API is or why it matters for treasurers and their bankers. So a presentation by Deutsche Bank at NeuGroup’s Global Cash & Banking Group (GCBG) first-half meeting gave members both a refresher course and a deeper dive into APIs and why they should care about them.

Mega messengers. APIs enable one system to connect to another, acting like messengers, looping requests to one system and responses back to the originator. In many cases, APIs are being used to transmit information to and from bank portals. Deutsche Bank expects more than three-quarters of banks will have invested in API or open banking initiatives this year, pushing this technology further into the cash operations space.

Timing is ripe for treasury applications. Yes, APIs have been around for what seems like forever. But new regulations, better technology and a competitive landscape have all advanced the cause of using APIs to create faster, more efficient customer experiences. For treasury, this means more real-time payments and faster reconciliations. Additional benefits include payment tracking, push payments and “requests-to-pay,” various risk management features (i.e., counterparty verification and KYC data) and alternative payment methods (i.e., paying into a “wallet”).

Interoperability with SAP. The presenter said Deutsche Bank is working with SAP to create an app so services offered by the bank can be plugged into a corporate’s ERP/TMS. Apps are downloaded from a marketplace and installed on the ERP or made accessible from the ERP through the cloud. That lets clients work with Deutsche Bank directly within the ERP, allowing them to, for example, select invoices, pay automatically on the due date and track all payment flows for these invoices.

What’s next? One member indicated that SWIFT already uses APIs, so it feels as if she’s moving backwards if she sets up separate APIs with each of her banks. Deutsche Bank’s presenter was quick to point out that the flip side is that using bank APIs allows for faster, real-time communication across the board for better cash visibility. He stressed that BAI payment files will not change, just the communication surrounding the initiation and completion of payment.

Bye-bye bank portals? One member asked if Deutsche Bank saw the use of APIs eventually replacing direct use of banking portals and was, perhaps surprisingly, answered with a “yes!” The happy prospect of a possible future without bank portals ranked high on more than one member’s key takeaways from the meeting. 

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Bloomberg Exits KYC and the Market Moves On

Bloomberg Entity Exchange is closing up shop soon, but there are plenty of players out there. Bloomberg confirmed in early April that it plans to shut down Entity Exchange, a know-your-customer (KYC) solution that was supported by Citibank and adopted by multinational corporations including Coca-Cola. Industry insiders say an internal management change led to a review of Bloomberg’s product portfolio, with Entity Exchange and the company’s sell-side execution and order management solutions businesses getting cut. Bloomberg, they say, was looking…

Bloomberg Entity Exchange is closing up shop soon, but there are plenty of players out there.

Bloomberg confirmed in early April that it plans to shut down Entity Exchange, a know-your-customer (KYC) solution that was supported by Citibank and adopted by multinational corporations including Coca-Cola.

Industry insiders say an internal management change led to a review of Bloomberg’s product portfolio, with Entity Exchange and the company’s sell-side execution and order management solutions businesses getting cut. Bloomberg, they say, was looking to focus on its core offerings. A Bloomberg spokesperson would only say that “the company’s intention is to exit its KYC business.”

But a look at the current state of the AML/KYC sector (AML being anti-money laundering) shows that at least for KYC, Bloomberg was up against stiff competition and facing an uphill battle just to get into the market. Large, established players, lots of new technologies being adopted, and looming industry disruptors likely forced Bloomberg to conclude it was better to put the resources toward more profitable business lines.

REFINITIV LEADS
The current size of the AML/KYC market is about $750 million and growing, according Burton-Taylor, an international consulting firm. The market includes not just AML/KYC, but also services relating to financial crime and compliance activities. And it is “a major area for budget increases,” with estimated global spending projected to grow 18.3% in 2018, Burton-Taylor says, generating an estimated five-year compound annual growth rate of 17.5%.

Refinitiv’s AML/KYC solution, formerly a Thomson Reuters product, leads the industry with over a quarter market share, with Dow Jones, LexisNexis, Moody’s Analytics’ Bureau Van Dijk, Regulatory DataCorp and a handful of smaller players making up a large part of the rest of the market. Burton-Taylor says it considers Refinitiv “to be the largest provider of AML/KYC data and information in the world.”

Meanwhile, Bloomberg’s planned departure has intensified competition among other companies scrambling for market share.

Burton-Taylor reports that “M&A activity and in-house development” have had a big impact on the market in the last decade as providers look to “meet existing and new client needs with advanced technology and granular data.” This has meant a “new wave of technology-savvy market entrants is coming forward to supplement, and challenge, the offerings of more established, data-centric suppliers.”

Bloomberg was part of the smaller group of tech-savvy entrants, which includes info4c, Acuris Risk Intelligence, Arachnys, Opus, ComplyAdvantage, NominoData, and Kompli-Global. Also, SWIFT, the international payments network, said recently that beginning in Q4 2019, all 2,000 SWIFT-connected corporates will be able to join its KYC Registry and use it “to upload, maintain and share their KYC information with their banks.” All of these companies, both established and newcomers, bring different expertise to different areas of AML/KYC.

The established players have vast searchable databases while the newcomers offer innovative technology.

BLOCKCHAIN
Among the players hoping to gain momentum from Bloomberg’s departure are companies touting the benefits of solutions that don’t depend on a centralized “utility,” or third party that stands between a bank and a corporate client. Blockchain is the answer to solving the problem, they argue. “I strongly believe this is the moment for decentralized KYC solutions,” says Gene Vayngrib, CEO of Tradle, which has developed a blockchain-based KYC solution. “In addition to not having a central store, Tradle leaves the data in the hands of the rightful owners, the treasurers,” he said.

Another company that is trying to gain a foothold, Aptiv.IO, is using blockchain to create what it calls company “trust vaults that allow companies to distribute their private information on their terms.”

With a trust vault, “You decide how you want to communicate with the outside world,” says CEO Guy Mounier. “It’s ‘privacy by design’ and uses zero trust architecture,” he says. Zero trust architecture works by employing a network-centric data security strategy, which in turn provides specific access only to those who need it. So if a company is giving out sensitive information through blockchain, it can better control who has access to that data.

Although blockchain can be considered a disruptor of the current model of centralized data, “This is not replacing anything,” Mr. Mounier says. “It can fit into what you have and you can map out where the data goes. It’s data enrichment as a data service.” He adds that data can be auto-refreshed as people, data or situations change.

NOT JUST KNOWING YOUR CUSTOMER
While they are known as AML/KYC providers, it goes beyond that. Many companies also offer continuous monitoring of the web, the dark web and other so-called “darknets” like The Onion Routing project, Tor or Invisible Internet Project, for any negative news or mentions of a company or the sale of IP or customer data.

“Companies don’t just want these static databases that just sit there,” says Jennifer Milton, an analyst at Burton-Taylor and author of the firm’s research on AML/KYC. “They want dynamic databases that can constantly search the web and the dark web.” She adds that machine learning is helping shape this kind of technology, where context can help detect references to companies even if the names are spelled incorrectly or hidden in some way.

THE LEGACY OF ENTITY EXCHANGE?
The end of Bloomberg Entity Exchange doesn’t mean the end of the influence it may have on the market. Several competitors say the company helped shine a light on KYC’s importance. Prior to the last couple of years, companies were reluctant to invest significantly in a cost center like compliance. “But now they are forced to spend,” says Jennifer Milton, an analyst at Burton-Taylor. “Who are you dealing with and how do you know them are important questions that companies can run into trouble with if they don’t have the answers; if there’s not an audit trail of transactions.”

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The Five Cash Management Initiatives Treasurers Should Consider

When it comes to cash management, treasurers must keep their focus on ways to make it more efficient and cost effective.

The year 2014 has been one focused on efficiency and innovation as treasurers consider outside-the-box strategies for unlocking working capital and improving the tactical aspects of treasury. Major initiatives including SEPA and the internationalization of the renminbi (RMB) have proven to be catalysts for greater global change both from a strategic and practical treasury perspective.

When it comes to cash management, treasurers must keep their focus on ways to make it more efficient and cost effective.

Editor’s note: This article was originally posted on iTreasurer.com on October 09, 2014.

The year 2014 has been one focused on efficiency and innovation as treasurers consider outside-the-box strategies for unlocking working capital and improving the tactical aspects of treasury. Major initiatives including SEPA and the internationalization of the renminbi (RMB) have proven to be catalysts for greater global change both from a strategic and practical treasury perspective.

Looking ahead to 2015, structural rationalization is the major topic as treasurers continue to review all aspects of their global treasury strategy to ensure the most efficient, most cost-effective structure possible.

“Rationalization is still a big theme,” says Martin Runow, Head of Cash Management Corporates Americas, Global Transaction Banking, Deutsche Bank. “It is one of those areas everyone’s looking at; how to become more efficient and get more control.”

So where should treasurers spend their time and resources in 2015? What projects will provide the greatest value? According to Mr. Runow and colleague, Arthur Brieske, Regional Head of Trade Finance and Cash Management Corporates Global Solutions Americas, Global Transaction Banking, Deutsche Bank, the following five initiatives should be part of treasurers’ overall budget and resource planning process for 2015.

  • Going Beyond SEPA
  • Global Account Rationalization
  • In-House Bank Structures
  • Maximizing Excess Cash
  • RMB Internationalization

GOING BEYOND SEPA
Initially rolled out as an approach for risk mitigation for commercial payment transactions in euro, SEPA adopters have found that SEPA, or the Single Euro Payments Area, provides a more efficient way to transfer and collect funds across borders without managing all the different legal payment frameworks of each country.

SEPA has allowed corporate treasurers to consolidate accounts and improve process efficiencies with the use of the new ISO20022 XML format to ensure the highest level of standardization across their SWIFT network. This format provides consistency in the financial messaging exchange between counterparties and is expected to gain greater efficiencies going forward. According to Mr. Runow the launch of SEPA has driven a lot of efficiencies that most corporate treasurers have been seeking for years. “It has taken ten years to get it up and running,” he says, “but we are there now and there is a lot of good to come of it.”

Many companies have used SEPA as an opportunity to consolidate accounts, allowing for simplification and optimization of structures including centralized accounts payable and accounts receivable, cash pooling and in-house bank structures.

But despite the many bright spots of SEPA, “reconciliation can still be a challenge,” says Mr. Brieske. Seeing a need for a single account with a single currency and a single infrastructure, Mr. Brieske says Deutsche Bank created a solution called Accounts Receivable Manager (ARM) for SEPA, which, according to Deutsche Bank is an automated payer identification solution that enables auto-reconciliation of incoming SEPA credit transfers and reduces the need to maintain multiple bank accounts for separate lines of businesses.

In fact, SEPA has been such a force for change that Deutsche Bank is rolling out this ARM solution so that companies can use it outside of the eurozone. “This model is going to expand beyond SEPA, in India for example, where banking can be complicated for companies,” Mr. Brieske says.

There are still “many more benefits to be had” with SEPA, Mr. Runow notes, but as of now, “a lot of large companies are reaping the benefits of their investment in SEPA and a lot of people are getting true value out of this beyond Europe.”

GLOBAL ACCOUNT RATIONALIZATION
As noted above, the SEPA initiative has acted as the catalyst for other global projects, with high priority placed on account rationalization. By reducing accounts across Europe, many large US multinational corporations are realizing significant savings in both hard- and soft-dollar costs. “In the SEPA environment, all corporates need is one account for payments and one account for receivables across the SEPA landscape,” says Mr. Brieske.

The downstream effect of reducing the number of physical bank accounts accentuates the ongoing challenge of managing banking relationships around the globe. Issues like overall cost, allocation of bank wallet, management of counterparty risk, and supporting the needs of the operating business, are all equally important when deciding which bank provider receives what level of business within your organization.

Keeping every bank happy is a tough job, if not impossible. However, being able to spread the wallet across fewer banks is one of the positive by-products of a bank consolidation.

IN-HOUSE BANK STRUCTURES
Treasurers have continued to find ways to alleviate the growing cash balances that have become strategically more important to their organizations as they face increased pressure to refine their cash management initiatives to provide more efficient movement of these cash balances.

Based on recent NeuGroup peer group survey results, nearly 70 percent of respondents have up to 50 percent of their total cash “trapped,” with everyone putting a focus on the ability to use these trapped balances when local entities require funding. Structures like in-house banks (IHBs) are becoming more commonplace as organizations take the next step to further enhance their global liquidity models. Many times these structures can bring a significant amount of processing efficiency and can help unlock trapped cash by allowing the funds to be loaned out across participating subsidiaries, thus reducing trapped cash.

Considerations for establishing an IHB start with choosing a favorable location, along with important tax structure considerations, local regulations and withholding tax impacts. These primary areas of focus should be defined prior to kicking off an IHB project.

The practical considerations for the evolution of the IHB can be directly attributed to global expansion and increased revenue mix overseas in addition to complexities related to time zones, language, growth of regional shared services and decision execution.

Traditionally, IHBs have been set up to alleviate the voluminous amount of intercompany transactions between legal entities and to comply with tax policies. The natural evolution of these structures then focused on cross-entity liquidity management, while maintaining clear segregation to avoid commingling of funds. Next, was the consolidation of cash balances on a regional level with centralized oversight using tools like notional pools to add efficiency. Structures continued to evolve to include centralized cash forecasting and foreign exchange management with the final phase of development being one of global consolidation with one global account for pay on-behalf-of (POBO) and one for collections on-behalf-of (COBO) across all business units.

The Dodd-Frank Act and Basel III regulations have placed greater scrutiny on banks and have mandated stricter guidelines on the amount of capital a bank must hold for certain types of transaction activity. As a result of this and other regulations focused on anti-money-laundering, banks have placed stricter compliance requirements on their KYC process.

Mr. Brieske says, “The challenges IHBs will confront are likely to stem from the challenges banks are facing with increased regulation. So indirectly, regulations will impact them, but it is the banks that will be responsible for the regulations.”

Mr. Runow adds that those MNCs that establish an IHB structure will need to ensure everything is tightly buttoned-up and that reconciliations and account reporting are thorough and diligent. “There’s no room for sloppiness, no cutting corners,” he says.

RMB INTERNATIONALIZATION
As a result of the ongoing RMB regulatory changes, there has been a significant improvement in the ease of making cross-border RMB payments via China. “Chinese regulators have certainly shown that they have a strong interest in RMB payments going global by making it easier to transact in RMB,” says Mr. Runow. But the RMB is still a fairly new currency on the international scene.

He acknowledges that “flows are going through the roof;” however, they are still modest compared to the US dollar or euro.” Despite this, Mr. Runow and Mr. Brieske expects this will change in the next few years.

The RMB can now be integrated as part of a corporation’s overall liquidity management strategies with pooling of RMB and cross-border RMB lending becoming commonplace. On February 20, 2014, the People’s Bank of China announced its support of the expansion of RMB cross-border usage in the China (Shanghai) Free Trade Zone (Shanghai FTZ), which now allows for the following activities:

  • Simplified document check requirements for current and direct investments in the Shanghai FTZ
  • Cross-border borrowing for corporates and non-bank financial institutions registered in the Shanghai FTZ
  • Two-way RMB cross-border cash pooling
  • Cross-border RMB POBO/COBO

The RMB internationalization project has begun to pick up steam over the second half of 2014, with many global MNCs looking to launch new cash management strategies in Asia. Those who are taking the time to create these new structures are able to unlock China’s previously “trapped cash” challenge, and optimize their cash held in this part of the world where many opportunities lie for them.

According to Mr. Brieske, the loosening of these regulations will eventually have a downstream effect moving from very large corporations to small local businesses. “As deregulation happens, you will not have to wait to see the pent up demand to kick in — it is already happening.” The result will be a rapid increase in payment volumes, which is likely to result in the RMB moving to the top five SWIFT currencies within the next several years.

MAXIMIZING EXCESS CASH
According to Mr. Runow, most MNCs today are still very risk-averse and focused on principal preservation. “The dilemma is corporates are looking for yield but there is little appetite to go into risky assets,” he says. Mr. Runow adds that from what he has seen investment policies actually have become “stricter rather than more lenient.”

This has been supported by feedback from recent NeuGroup peer group meetings. With the continuation of low yields, it is little wonder that cash portfolio asset allocations are heavily weighted toward money market funds, US Treasuries and agency debt, corporate bonds above the single-A threshold and corporate commercial paper and certificates of deposit.

Mr. Runow says, “Corporates continue to be very strict and highly conservative, tending to seek return of invested money over return on investment.”

With the continuation of low rates expected through a good part of 2015, treasurers may be well served to consider implementing an IHB so that their growing levels of excess cash can work harder around the globe versus sitting in a very low-yielding investment asset.

LOOKING AHEAD
The tagline “less is more” has been the mantra for practitioners since the onset of the economic crisis and now well into the recovery; unfortunately, for most it looks like it will remain the mandate for some time to come. Therefore, treasurers will have to continue to work smarter when it comes to rationalizing structures, cutting expenses and most importantly, getting the company’s cash to safely work harder. They will also have to remain alert to new possibilities of maximizing cash where it is sometimes considered trapped. With this in mind, extra attention will have to be paid to the RMB and its continued growth and ease of use.

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Fintechs Transforming Supply Chain Finance

Fintech companies continue to streamline the buyer-supplier experience, eliminating age-old tensions and adding powerful new tools.

Multinational corporations (MNCs) face a myriad of challenges and arguably the most important one is staying competitive during periods of uncertainty and increasing regulation, as global interconnectedness continues.

Fintech companies continue to streamline the buyer-supplier experience, eliminating age-old tensions and adding powerful new tools.

Editor’s Note: This story originally ran on iTreasurer.com on December 19, 2016.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
Multinational corporations (MNCs) face a myriad of challenges and arguably the most important one is staying competitive during periods of uncertainty and increasing regulation, as global interconnectedness continues. In order to successfully navigate this uncertain environment, MNCs must develop sustainable working capital strategies and build cash positions that underpin these strategies, whether they are for expansion, M&A, dividends or buybacks.

One way they can succeed is through the company’s supply chain via supply chain finance (SCF). It is here where treasurers can take what was once a one dimensional program used to release working capital and can now implement a new sophisticated, multifaceted strategy to deploy flexible financing, optimize working capital and create competitive yield. Suppliers can gain access to low cost financing and both parties benefit with improved technology, program scalability and advances in automated invoicing and payment processing.

Yet despite these obvious benefits, MNCs have not rushed to implement such programs. Anecdotal evidence and survey data from The NeuGroup suggest many companies do not have structured supply chain finance programs, although many have some of the components. Many still cling to old and manual trade finance processes and practices, which have the potential of weakening their supply chains. Moreover, despite this becoming more of a cash and working capital play, treasurers in many cases are still not involved.

But with the growth of fintech, companies are beginning to listen. New players are changing how buyers and suppliers approach their supply chain. Leveraging technology, these fintech companies are alleviating the age old tensions between buyer and supplier, making it easier to capture SCF’s benefits by making it more efficient and more equitable for both sides. Buyers can pay when they want without putting their suppliers’ cash position at risk, and suppliers can choose to get paid earlier at a cost of financing that would otherwise not be available to them.

Fintechs also provide accumulated data to help companies streamline their supply chains and help both buyer and supplier select the most beneficial payment terms.

As buyers and suppliers get more comfortable with these programs, there will less money tied up in DSO and DPO. MNCs stand to lose out on billions of dollars in revenue trapped in their financial supply chain if they do not take action now.

UNLOCKING THE VALUE IN THE SUPPLY CHAIN
Today’s multinational corporations face no shortage of challenges when it comes to staying globally competitive. Since the financial crisis and prior, MNCs have faced uncertainty and with an ever evolving business climate, now more than ever, MNCs must maintain and protect their company’s financial position and manage working capital to support business operations.

As new ideas to improve working capital arise, treasurers are more than eager to listen. One area that treasurers have been focusing on over the last few years is unlocking value from the company’s supply chain via supply chain finance. The emergence of SCF began when large companies wanted to extend payment terms and needed an offset mechanism. This continued as these companies look to meet two objectives: first, becoming more commercially lean through releasing working capital and driving down costs and, two, offering affordable liquidity to their entire supply chain, recognizing the need to support them. Further, companies recognize that this responsibility must be managed internally versus banks to ensure healthier, stronger relationships with their suppliers.

New entrants to the supply chain finance world are enabling companies to maximize the value of their supply chains by utilizing a technology-led approach. These fintech companies have been showing multinational corporations that through technology, true program scalability can be reached and a tremendous financial opportunity can be uncovered from their supply chain. But beyond scalability and the financial benefits, these new entrants are also helping companies creates stronger and healthier supply chains by smoothing out tension that can exist between buyer and supplier.

THE BUYER-SUPPLIER DANCE
Historically, companies delayed payments to their suppliers as a strategy to extend DPO. According to a recent survey of The NeuGroup’s Assistant Treasurers Peer Group Large Cap, extending payment terms (82%) and accelerating collections (41%) were the most common approaches to improving working capital.

This was particularly true after the 2008 financial crisis when the term cash preservation was the leading mantra of many cash management programs. The treasurer’s duty then was to keep a healthy cash pile available for any possible merger, acquisition, or other downturn. Paying suppliers was one victim of this thinking, with payments going from 30 days to 45 days or in other cases, from 60 to 90 days.

“There is a centuries old friction between suppliers and buyers,” says Maex Ament, Cofounder and Chief Strategy Officer at Taulia, the financial supply chain company. “Suppliers want to get paid as early as possible, while buyers want to pay as late as possible.” A study conducted by Taulia last year showed that small and midsized business suppliers are waiting longer and longer to be paid after delivering goods. This trend has a big impact on operations because cash flow is one of the biggest concerns facing small and midsized businesses, Taulia noted in its study.

However, the “delay pay strategy” does not create a healthy environment in which the supply chain can operate, irrespective of the size of the supplier company. In fact, delaying payment to hold on to cash longer can negatively affect suppliers’ cash flow and puts them at risk of going out of business, resulting in unnecessary pressure on the supply chain.

Alleviating this pressure is one area where fintech companies have been making great strides by providing more affordable financing options to more suppliers. These supplier finance facilitators, along with companies and banks, are working together to help suppliers stay healthy while enabling companies to unlock the cash potential from their supply chains.

By taking the “delay” out of the equation, fintechs are creating a win-win situation for both suppliers and buyers. Fintechs are leveling the playing field so that more suppliers, including smaller businesses that were previously excluded, can now participate in these next generation supply chain finance programs, which historically only focused on the largest suppliers.

“We democratize access to supplier financing,” says Cedric Bru, Chief Executive Officer at Taulia. Through an innovative platform and technology that enables true scale, buyers can provide access to supplier financing products to their entire supply chain, “any supplier, regardless of size and regardless of spend. They can join our program, and do it unbelievably easily.”

CHANGE AGENTS
The true fintech revolution in supply chain finance began shortly after the 2008 financial crisis. The financial regulations that followed the crisis created an opportunity for fintechs to step in and help banks and businesses manage the rules and make compliance easier.

Mr. Ament noted that the financial crisis was an awakening and a catalyst for fintech growth. “Banks were made safer, which was good for the financial system, but bad for companies needing cash as it left a gap.” This resulted in making a highly regulated space—finance, banking, and insurance—“ripe for disruption.”

Fast forward to 2016 and fintech companies are transforming supply chains all over the world. Banks, having struggled under the burden of regulation for several years, which hampered their innovation efforts, have joined forces with fintechs.

This has led to companies, like Taulia, Ariba and C2FO, transforming the supply chain process, and facilitating transactions between buyers and their suppliers. By offering a wide array of automated products, like electronic invoicing, supplier financing and supplier self-services, they enable both the buyer and supplier to improve their working capital, improve their yields and lower their operating costs. This includes providing flexibility to when a buyer pays and a supplier gets paid. This benefits both sides, providing greater liquidity and less variability in the timing of payments.

Feedback from The NeuGroup peer group meetings as well as some research suggests this is the case. Members of several peer groups have said the main driver for implementing a supply chain finance program was working capital improvement.

In the Assistant Treasurers Group of 30 (AT30), while only a third of respondents have a supply chain finance program, nearly all of those respondents said the incentive was working capital improvement. And in a survey of members of The NeuGroup’s Assistant Treasurers’ Leadership Group (ATLG), most respondents cited extended payment terms (84%) as the main tool they used to maximize working capital; accelerating collections was the next most used at 41.2%.

One member of The NeuGroup’s Asia Treasurers’ Peer Group (ATPG) said using his company’s strong cash rich balance sheet to gain discounts on supplies was a better use of short term cash than investing in treasuries, money market funds, commercial paper or short term bonds. For this company, a US tech firm, early payment discounts translated into the positive business impact of improved yield on current idle cash, without taking on credit or counterparty risk. And for its suppliers, it was an alternative source of funds, which was cheaper, quicker and more reliable.

ONBOARDING
Another area where fintechs have made a big impact is in the onboarding process for suppliers joining a supply chain finance program. Not only have these buyers managed to offer access to more suppliers, they also made the process faster, easier, and more efficient. Often in traditional supplier programs, the onboarding process can be cumbersome because of the amount of paperwork and outdated manual processes. This requires an enormous amount of resources, such as people, time and money.

Because of these tedious processes, a legacy supply chain finance program sometimes can only onboard a buyer’s top 50 or 100 suppliers. Latest technology developments have made it possible for the onboarding process to be less than 90 seconds per supplier, eliminating manual processes. This enables companies to onboard thousands of suppliers in the same time it might take banks to onboard a few. For example, Vodafone, a Fortune Global 500 company and winner of the 2016 Supply Chain Finance Award, leveraged the Taulia platform to quickly ramp supplier adoption, leading to over 1,400 suppliers onboarded in just 9 months. Taulia’s platform is also agnostic with where the financing comes from; financing can come from banks, funds, pension funds or from the buyers themselves.

Fintechs have also greatly improved the buyer-supplier interface to make it easier to understand and navigate. Their intent has been to create a platform that can easily scale to thousands of suppliers and make it incredibly simple to use.

This gives suppliers true transparency fast: the ability to easily login and view all outstanding invoices immediately, their statuses, and options for early payments. “That was Taulia’s aim,” says Mr. Bru. “Suppliers can onboard to our platform within 90 seconds and be fully eligible to take early payments immediately.”

DATA ANALYTICS
Not only are fintechs transforming slow, manual processes to be faster and more efficient, they also have years of accumulated trade data. For companies like Taulia, this means they can go beyond its core supplier financing mandate and offer more predictive analytics and problem solving. This means enhancing its technology offerings by, for example, helping buyers streamline their list of suppliers and mapping out the best approach to their financial supply chain. Buyers are able to decide on “who, how and why” they might invite certain suppliers to a specific program.

For instance, in The NeuGroup’s Assistant Treasurers Group of Thirty (AT30), one member described how his company had to decide on the best way to pay a supplier. Buyers have many ways to pay suppliers depending on the type of product or service, the size and frequency of the transactions, or the type and size of the supplier. In some cases there may be concern that one payment method would be less favorable to a supplier than another method. In the AT30 member’s case, the company was worried that there would be exposure by putting some suppliers on a payment card program when there was a better SCF program available. The upshot is that suppliers need to be reviewed and carefully assigned the appropriate payment method, or perhaps even be given appropriate options. This is where analytics can help.

On Taulia’s platform, data can also provide companies with insights into the number of suppliers that might choose to opt in for automatic acceleration (e.g., all invoices, all the time with no need to request payments) versus manual acceleration (e.g., select invoices, one at a time) for early payment offers. And Taulia’s own research confirms that suppliers in most instances automatically accelerate more than 50% of early payments. This demonstrates the need for suppliers to access cash consistently.

MONEY LEFT ON THE TABLE
While companies and treasurers in particular are turning to technology to help them in a world where running lean departments is the norm, there is still not enough being done to extract value from the supply chain.

According to survey results from NeuGroup surveys, accounts payable balances remain a substantial component of the capital deployed for the companies, approaching almost 40% of the outstanding debt and almost 10% of total assets. On the receivables side, trade receivable balances also are a substantial component of the capital deployed, approaching 35% of the outstanding debt and almost 10% of total assets. So there is plenty of money there to justify the effort.

And with the help of fintech companies, setting up programs to extract value from the supply chain is getting a lot faster and more efficient. For buyers, that means increased DPO and the ability to redeploy capital into other more profitable areas of the business, cost reduction in the company’s financial supply chain and the ability to provide suppliers with a less costly form of financing to help reduce transaction costs and potentially negotiate a product discount.

On the supplier side, comfort levels are rising when it comes to participating in buyer programs, especially when they stand to profit or keep their balance sheets healthy. According to Factor Chain International, global factoring is over $2.3 trillion annually and still rising so suppliers are financing already. That means faster repayment and reduced DSO by discounting invoices due any time prior to maturity and vastly improved cash flow forecasting; it also equates to lower financing costs, which means access to higher levels of working capital financing.

As global multinational corporations continue to streamline working capital management to make every dollar work harder and more efficiently, the effort should include mastering and extracting value from the supply chain. In the end, benefits will continue to grow for all sides of global trade transactions.

RECOMMENDED NEXT STEPS
Four key steps to take in understanding whether SCF is something that you as a treasurer need to consider, and if so, how a fintech solution might help deliver the required goals and benefits sought:

  • Treasurers should seek to engage internally to understand the financial priorities. Is this centered around working capital management, yield, supply chain liquidity, or more?
  • Review what strategies and operations are already in place to deliver these goals—are they working? Engage with our key stakeholders to determine the wider business strategies focused on the supply chain—Procurement, Accounts Payable and Finance.
  • Evaluate the market to understand how/whether fintech may play a complementary role to enhance or kick-start programs.
  • Quantify potential projects through hard business cases.

While this is by no means a comprehensive project plan, it is designed as a simple check list to get thoughts and actions moving.

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Beware Zero-Based Floors

Chatham: Banks embedding zero-based floors in the fine-print on some floating debt.

With rates going negative around the world, banks are embedding zero-based floors into the floating-rate loans they provide, and while on the surface that seems like a plus, they can end up carrying a big price.

Chatham: Banks embedding zero-based floors in the fine-print on some floating debt.

With rates going negative around the world, banks are embedding zero-based floors into the floating-rate loans they provide, and while on the surface that seems like a plus, they can end up carrying a big price.

That was one of several insights on today’s uncertain financial markets that Kennett Square, PA-headquartered Chatham Financial provided in a recent market update titled. “Global uncertainty packs a local punch.”

Zero-based floors are valuable when interest rates are falling, because when they drop below zero, as they have across the Eurozone as well as in Japan, the borrower is obligated to pay the loan spread but zero interest on the floating rate component.

“On the surface, this seems like a pretty good deal. If rates go below zero, the borrower only pays its loan spread,” said Casey Irwin, a hedging consultant at Chatham, who conducted the recent webinar along with Amol Dhargalkar, managing director and head of Chatham’s global corporate sector.

Ms. Irwin noted that most banks “are not very upfront about” such floors effectively embedding the derivative into the company’s loan agreement, that the derivative is a sold floor, and that the floor can have a meaningful amount of value. “Unfortunately, clients discover the full value of these floors when they go to hedge these loans from floating to fixed,” Ms. Irwin said.

She added that in order to perfectly hedge a loan holding an embedded floor with a swap, the borrower must buy back the sold floor, and the cost of the floor is typically embedded back into the rate. Buying back the floor on a swap effectively locks in the interest rate at a static amount, Ms. Irwin said, adding that instead proceeding with the sale of the floor removes the loan’s ability to pay the borrower interest in the event the index resets below zero.

The borrower “is not only paying the agreed upon fixed strike of a vanilla swap to its counterparty, but it’s also going to owe the difference between zero percent and the [index] reset rate to the swap counterparty,” she said. “This is because its loan isn’t reflecting that negative interest rate.”

Buying back the sold floor is more expensive than selling the floor and proceeding with a straight vanilla swap, since it’s a one-sided market and most market participants are looking to buy back the floors. So is it worth it?

In an example provided by Chatham, a 10-year Euribor swap with a swap rate of 20 bps adds 40 bps to the rate when the borrower buys back the zero-based floor. Ms. Irwin noted that when the Euribor rate is a positive 1%, the only difference in the borrower’s net effective rate if it doesn’t buy back the floor—the vanilla swap scenario—is the additional cost of buying back the floor, or that 40 bps.

But if Euribor resets below zero, say at a negative 1%, the borrower will have to make an additional payment to the swap counterparty, resulting in an effective rate of 120 bps, or twice what it would have owed if it had bought back the floor. “So the mismatch between your hedge and your debt is actually creating interest-rate risk, because the more negative the index resets at, the higher your interest expense becomes,” she said.

In a brief case study, Mr. Dhargalkar noted a Chatham client that had entered into a term loan extension and was considering hedging it. The corporate client didn’t anticipate the amendment would in any way change the terms of the loan, but after showing the agreement to Chatham it became clear that the USD loan now contained a zero-based floor. The advisory firm discussed the various options with the client, and ultimately it was able to work with the client and the lending group to put in place a conditional floor that would only apply if the loan were not hedged.

“That had a huge impact on the transaction the client was looking to put in place; specifically, it saved several million dollars on the hedge from a structuring standpoint, and it also gave them a nice template for future dealings with their bank,” Mr. Dhargalkar said.”

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On-Behalf-Of Structures: Lessons Learned

More companies are moving to streamline their payments and collections with on-behalf-of structures. Here are some lessons from the field.

Being a trailblazer is always nice but sometimes it pays to be the one who comes along next and learns from the trailblazer’s mistakes. And certainly, the more multifaceted the effort, the bigger the lessons learned. Such is the case with corporate payment and collections, part of the growing importance of supply-chain management and global cash management in general.

Corporates have long recognized the benefits of channeling payments and collections through a single legal entity via an on-behalf-of set up (POBO/COBO). They see reduced bank fees, simplified banking relationships, better operational efficiency and more control and visibility. Deutsche Bank has been one bank at the forefront of implementing on-behalf-of structures and has strengthened its product and advisory offerings in this area. iTreasurer asked Drew Arnold, Director, Trade Finance and Cash Management Corporates – Global Solutions Americas, Deutsche Bank, to explain some of the lessons learned in his experience implementing POBO/COBO structures. Mr. Arnold said that while all companies are different, there are some lessons that just about all companies can learn.

More companies are moving to streamline their payments and collections with on-behalf-of structures. Here are some lessons from the field.

(Editor’s Note—Original publication date: May 5, 2015)

Being a trailblazer is always nice but sometimes it pays to be the one who comes along next and learns from the trailblazer’s mistakes. And certainly, the more multifaceted the effort, the bigger the lessons learned. Such is the case with corporate payment and collections, part of the growing importance of supply-chain management and global cash management in general.

Corporates have long recognized the benefits of channeling payments and collections through a single legal entity via an on-behalf-of set up (POBO/COBO). They see reduced bank fees, simplified banking relationships, better operational efficiency and more control and visibility. Deutsche Bank has been one bank at the forefront of implementing on-behalf-of structures and has strengthened its product and advisory offerings in this area. iTreasurer asked Drew Arnold, Director, Trade Finance and Cash Management Corporates – Global Solutions Americas, Deutsche Bank, to explain some of the lessons learned in his experience implementing POBO/COBO structures. Mr. Arnold said that while all companies are different, there are some lessons that just about all companies can learn.

More Complex, More Benefit
One lesson that Mr. Arnold has drawn from years of helping corporations navigate the path to both POBO and COBO structures is that companies often shy away from them because they think their organizations are too complex.

Very often, Mr. Arnold said, he hears from companies that say, “We’re too complex” or “We have too many operating companies.” But what’s ironic, he said, is that “the more complex [a company is] the greater benefit they can get from an on-behalf-of model; that complexity shouldn’t be a hurdle to doing an on-behalf-of model.”

It will mean performing more due diligence, however, Mr. Arnold acknowledged. But for doing that extra legwork companies can get “much greater benefit than someone who has a more simplified organization. In fact, he said, if a company has a very simplified legal entity structure, “there might not be any benefit to doing an on-behalf-of model, or the benefits are so low they don’t justify the costs of doing it.”

On the other hand, if it does seem too daunting or perhaps the resources aren’t available for a full-blown POBO/COBO campaign, another route is to take it one country or one subsidiary at a time. If one country has a lot of legal hoops to jump through, Mr. Arnold said, then companies should consider moving on to a different country that’s easier to navigate. As for subsidiaries, they can also be added piecemeal.

“You don’t have to include one hundred percent of your legal entities in a structure to be able to get the cost-benefit equation that makes sense for you,” Mr. Arnold said. “If a company can include 50 percent [of its subs] in a structure, and they’re going to see great cost savings and efficiencies by including that 50 percent, that alone may justify putting in an on-behalf-of model.”

And then over time if it makes sense to include other entities or if regulations or market practice change in the previously bypassed countries, they can be added as they make sense. “So one hundred percent inclusion of countries or legal entities is not a requirement to be able to build a business case that justifies going ahead with an on-behalf-of model,” Mr. Arnold said.

Worth the Effort
Similarly, Mr. Arnold observed that many companies finish the POBO/COBO process and say that it was the toughest implementation they’ve ever been through. But, he added, no one who has gone through the set up ever regrets it.

“Many people say they were not aware of how long it would take,” Mr. Arnold added. They go on at length about all the difficulties, the challenges “not realizing how long it would take to put in service level agreements (SLA) between businesses or to define services or get the IT to work.” The challenges and work is definitely more than they expect, which is usually the case on any big project, Mr. Arnold said. “But then I always ask the question, ‘Knowing what you know now of what you had to go through to get where you are today, would you make the same decision?’ And they always say, ‘Absolutely.’”

This is certainly not something that one hears after many other large implementations, Mr. Arnold pointed out.

Welcome to Documentation
One of the more cumbersome areas in the work load—and one that Mr. Arnold said companies underestimate—is documentation. When companies use banks for payments and collections or they open an account, the bank provides the documentation that the client reads, signs and sends back to the bank. In other words it lays out all the terms and conditions and other relevant items.

“But when you go to an on-behalf-of model [now], that legal entity no longer signs all of its bank documentation, so instead of getting documents from the bank you now get them from the in-house bank,” Mr. Arnold said. “And the complexity is that there is no documentation that exists; it has to be done from scratch—SLAs, fee schedules (i.e. transfer pricing) and whatever it may be, because there is this arm’s-length relationship between the in-house and the legal entity. It’s sort of out-insourcing.”

Companies now have to do all this documentation on their own and between themselves, which can take time for a company to create. On the bright side, however, once the documentation is established the work is much less, but at the beginning it can be very complicated and time-consuming.

And again, Mr. Arnold said, it can vary by country which is one of the reasons bank documentation is so complex in the first place. “It’s not because we love complex documentation it’s just because of regulatory challenges in countries, and so now with an on-behalf-of model, companies have to take care of this themselves.”

Laying the groundwork
Like most big corporate projects, success depends a lot on the effort put in at the beginning. As Abe Lincoln famously said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” And so it should be in setting up a POBO/COBO structure. Getting the right team together and including all the parties from the outset will make the job easier to do and lessen the headaches along the way.

POBO/COBO “is highly complex and touches on many different parts of an organization,” Mr. Arnold said, “from treasury, to payables and collections teams, service centers, tax, legal, and both at the global and regional levels as well.”

Of those parts of the company, Mr. Arnold stresses it is the tax department that often can prove most critical. That’s because much of a corporate’s global strategy includes tax—if not actually built around tax issues. “All global corporates have developed their legal entity structure with a lot of input from tax,” he said, “So when moving to an on-behalf-of model you have to make sure that whatever you do will not in any way endanger or call into question the tax and legal-entity structure of the corporation.”

Mr. Arnold added that he’s seen several instances where treasury gets excited about doing a POBO/COBO project and after spending a considerable amount of time on it, brings it to the tax department where it gets shot down. “Tax takes the position that it has things set up in a certain way and you can’t go changing things,” he noted. “But if tax is involved early on in the discussion and it hears from a third party about what other companies have done… it becomes a lot easier.”

Mr. Arnold also stressed that POBO/COBO should not be sold as anything more than “an efficiency play.”

“The on-behalf-of model is not set up for any legal entity or tax optimization strategy,” Mr. Arnold said. “It’s purely an efficiency play: efficiency of making payments, collecting payments, managing the company’s liquidity, reporting at the entity level for the correct legal and tax reporting. So it’s efficiency; it’s cost savings.”

It is also a risk mitigation tool because you have greater visibility and greater centralized control, Mr. Arnold added, so you have reduced risk and a greater view into counterparty risk. “Once tax sees that, they’re more receptive to it.” Another consideration of laying the groundwork is to consider making it a long-range goal. “If you think you’re going to go to an on-behalf-of model anywhere in the near future, or within 5 years, you have to put in the building blocks.”

When opportunity knocks
When is the best time to start the project? Mr. Arnold said it’s often best to embark on a POBO/ROBO project when there is another big project coming up or when there’s a bank change coming.

“If you’re going to go through some major bank changes due to acquisition or divestiture or because you’re moving businesses between relationship banks” then it can be good idea,” Mr. Arnold said. In an acquisition, for instance, treasury will have to open up new accounts, set up all new payment flows using the current set up in any case, so why not start up that new acquisition right away with an on-behalf-of model? “Why go through all the set up and then a year later… go to an on-behalf-of model? Why not combine them?”

Overall, what a company should do is clearly lay out the as-is structures and processes and then lay out the perfect-world scenario, or what Mr. Arnold calls “the blue sky to be.” And then break down that journey into phases. “Define the objectives very clearly in how they’re going to get there and put in that plan,” he said. “That plan might take multiple years to get to where they’re going.”

Strategic opportunity
POBO/COBO structures are increasingly recognized as an efficient way to manage global cash. Although the initial set up of such a structure requires close coordination with tax and other partners, the ongoing benefits thereafter are well worth the initial legwork. That’s because it allows to treasurers to stop spending time on some of the mundane tactical responsibilities, allowing them to focus on the strategic, which ultimately adds more value to the company.

Sponsored by Deutsche Bank

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Treasury Center as Profit Center

The silver lining in the new scrutiny of global transfer pricing is that treasury might finally escape from its cost center box.

The context here is the mess treasury is going to face with tax, cleaning up after the OECD BEPS Actions. The silver lining is that the new scrutiny of global transfer pricing might serve as justification for treasury to become a profit center, or at least set up treasury centers and in-house banks that get better compensated based on arm’s-length pricing for services rendered. Few external banks are offering a treasury services where they don’t earn a profit, unless the services are part of an overall “wallet” that is profitable–so why should an in-house bank not be generating profit when providing treasury services for group affiliates?

The silver lining in the new scrutiny of global transfer pricing is that treasury might finally escape from its cost center box.

(Editor’s Note—Original publication date: March 17, 2015)

The context here is the mess treasury is going to face with tax, cleaning up after the OECD BEPS Actions. The silver lining is that the new scrutiny of global transfer pricing might serve as justification for treasury to become a profit center, or at least set up treasury centers and in-house banks that get better compensated based on arm’s-length pricing for services rendered. Few external banks are offering a treasury services where they don’t earn a profit, unless the services are part of an overall “wallet” that is profitable–so why should an in-house bank not be generating profit when providing treasury services for group affiliates?

The context here is the mess treasury faces with tax, cleaning up after the OECD BEPS Actions. The silver lining is that the new scrutiny of global transfer pricing might serve as justification for treasury to become a profit center, or at least set up treasury centers and in-house banks that get better compensated based on arm’s-length pricing for services rendered. Few external banks are offering a treasury services where they don’t earn a profit, unless the services are part of an overall “wallet” that is profitable–so why should an in-house bank not be generating profit when providing treasury services for group affiliates?

Arm’s length = profit
To say that an arm’s-length price must have a profit margin in it, may be simplifying things a bit, but it helps get to the argument that treasurers should be overseeing profit centers in response to growing scrutiny on transfer pricing. They should make this argument because it helps them with the biggest issue they face: being starved for resources despite the huge value-added role treasury plays, because they have only relatively soft performance metrics to point to (compared to profits) when asked to cut costs.

Here is just one service where arm’s length pricing should generate a profit for treasury:

Centralized exposure management for affiliates. Paragraph 69 of the OECD Discussion Draft on BEPS Actions 8, 9 and 10 (on revisions to Chapter 1 of the Transfer Pricing Guidelines, including risk, recharacterisation and special measures) lays out the logic [bold is our emphasis]:

“Often a MNE group will centralise treasury functions with the result that the implementation of risk mitigation strategies relating to interest rate and currency risks are performed centrally in order to improve efficiency and effectiveness. It may be the case that the operating company reports in accordance with group policy a currency exposure, and the centralised treasury function organises a financial instrument that the operating company enters into. As a result, the centralised function can be seen as providing a service to the operating company, for which it should receive compensation on arm’s length terms. More difficult transfer pricing issues may arise, however, if the financial instrument is entered into by the centralised function or another group company, with the result that the positions are not matched within the same company, although the group position is protected. In such a case, an analysis of the conduct of the parties may suggest that the treasury function is not entering into speculative arrangements on its own account, but is taking steps to hedge the specific exposure of the operating company and has entered into the instrument essentially on behalf of the operating subsidiary. As a consequence the treasury company provides a service…”

Risk is an important component of proposed transfer pricing revisions, since the entity that assumes the risk (as does the entity that receives capital) should have a capability to add value with it (a new take on substance). This gets to transfer pricing rewarding the entity with the capability, not just one contracted to assume risk (or capital). [Note: There will be a public consultation on these transfer pricing matters on March 19-20 at the OECD Conference Centre in Paris.]

Treasury is often the function with the most capability to manage financial risk and thus arm’s-length transfer pricing should reward treasury for the services it provides in managing it, especially when it involves risk transfer between affiliates, but even risk management done on their behalf.

High value vs. low value-adding services
In contrast to high value-adding risk management activities, there are low value-adding services that require arm’s length transfer pricing: Enough to reflect the service rendered, but not so much to shift profits unfairly by charging well in excess of their value add. The discussion draft for BEPS Action 10 (on Proposed Modifications to Chapter VII of the Transfer Pricing Guidelines Related to Low Value-Adding Intra-Group Services) suggests that financial transactions would fall outside the definition of low value-adding services, which may have transfer pricing determined on a more simplified cost-center basis.

However, one comment letter from bMoxie, a boutique Belgian professional services firm specializing in tax and transfer pricing, notes that financial transactions can be wide ranging, and thus not all treasury services would be high value:

“It is unclear what is meant with financial transactions. We tend to strictly define this is as the exchange of (financial) assets, and accordingly not be as broad as the full spectrum of financial services or services that relate to the financial position of companies. Indeed many multinational groups organize their financial services or treasury departments centrally to enable an efficient and effective service to the group members, which may include the execution of financial transactions, but also certain financial services. These services in turn may be fitting or not fitting the definition of low value-adding services. It is not uncommon that group treasury centers also provide auxiliary services that fit the examples of what is provided in paragraph 7.48 – i.e. that are merely of an accounting or administrative nature, and that do entail processing and managing of accounts receivable and account payable. In other words, the scope of a treasury department typically includes investment and funding activities, and may include other financial services that do require the assumption or control of substantial or significant risk, but may very well include services that could be considered low value-adding services, in the view of bMoxie.

Taking it one step further, even for instance in the light of a cash pool, that entails the exchange of assets, it may well be that the cash pool manager is only to be considered economically to be performing a pure clerical function when it contractually vis-à-vis the cash pool bank and the participants does not assume any risk, however in practice this would not unlikely be the case that the cash pool manager. We just wanted to make the point that even in the light of services auxiliary to financial transactions, there may be a certain division of activities amongst stakeholders that could lead one of the service providers rendering services that could technically qualify as low value-adding services.”

This sort of thinking will not get treasury out of its cost center box. It may also warrant more careful consideration going forward of what activities get put in a treasury center or in-house bank (e.g., payment and collection activities) vs. a shared services center, merely to keep the transfer pricing categorizations clean and the treasury-as-profit-center silver lining intact.

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Checklist: What You Should Know About ISDAs

Understanding the standard document used to govern over-the-counter derivatives transactions.

Based on many discussions with practitioners in The NeuGroups’s peer groups here is a checklist of things to consider when implementing ISDAs.

One of the first considerations is whether it is worth bothering to set up an ISDA with every counterparty.

Understanding the standard document used to govern over-the-counter derivatives transactions.

Based on many discussions with practitioners in NeuGroup peer groups, here is a checklist of things to consider when implementing ISDA Master Agreements (ISDAs).

One of the first considerations is whether it is worth bothering to set up an ISDA with every counterparty.

  • Only value-add banks, please. With limited trading capacity to spread around—as well as treasury bandwidth—practitioners agreed that firms should focus on the banks that are able to add real value from an dealer standpoint. If they don’t, why waste time and energy on negotiating an ISDA?
  • Invest in a good ISDA template. Many treasurers also agreed that it is worth the money to pay a specialist attorney to create an ISDA template. This could be used as a starting point for negotiations with counterparties (or ending point, if firms are prepared to walk away if a bank does not accept the basic tenets of the template agreement).

Consensus has it that a template should be doable for anywhere from $50-100K in legal fees (fees should be coming down as more corporates turn to ISDAs and the more corporate-oriented clauses become part of law firms starter templates).

The need to involve internal counsel to cross-check these templates might raise the legal costs. Finally, while the first instinct might be to limit the ISDA to FX, it usually is more effective to consider the broader counterparty risk across asset classes, when preparing the template.

  • Choose your vintage. It pays to keep track of what the major differences are between the different “vintages” of ISDA templates (in practice, 1992 or 2002; see sidebar below), and be prepared to argue for the “preferred” one. Several members have mentioned how hard it is these days to have all their banks of the same vintage but that they have still been reasonably successful.

“We try to keep them standard,” said a treasury head whose company is “99 percent” on 2002 ISDAs; another has managed to keep all its banks to 1992 ISDAs. Marc A. Horwitz, an attorney formerly with Baker McKenzie (now with DLA Piper), noted: “For end users (corporates), we prefer 1992, particularly for FX trading.”

  • Banks are different. Each bank has a different risk tolerance and will focus on different areas, such as the definition of early termination, settlement, or credit committee concerns. Overall, members agree that non-US banks are harder than US banks, and Japanese banks, for example, are very conservative.
  • Don’t hesitate to stick to your guns. Treasury should not be afraid to play hardball with banks when negotiating their ISDAs, or if they are up for renewal. One way is the template approach; another is to flag the clauses that are a source for concern and stand firm regarding those. Check with senior management of course, but if you don’t like the terms a bank is offering, be prepared to say “no thanks” and walk away.

Also, just as banks have their pet peeves about what they consider important aspects of the ISDA to protect themselves, in the end, said one FX risk director, “you have to carve out various aspects of the [ISDA] contract you don’t like.”

  • Beware multiple-branch clauses. When specifying entities covered by the ISDA in the “schedule,” it is also important to be clear on the language on multiple branches, as this can help determine whether it’s better to book trades, for example, with the local Citi branch or Citi New York. One FX director noted that no matter which branch executes his company’s deals they are always “booked” with the London entity of the trading bank. One of his peers in the NeuGroup’s European Treasurers’ Peer Group (EuroTPG) agreed: “We insist on dealing with the main bank or branch, nobody else.”

Whether pricing is influenced by where the trade is executed is something to watch out for. A firm in the large-cap bracket with a bank in one region of the world may be covered by the medium-cap group in another, due to the relative size of its presence there. This could be true for one or several banks.

Banks should also not be allowed to book trades from branches located in jurisdictions which prohibit offshore FX transactions unless the ISDA is in the name of the onshore sub.

OTHER CRITICAL CONSIDERATIONS

  • Cross-default thresholds. A cross-default provision (under which all outstanding trades covered by the ISDA can be terminated if the counterparty defaults on third-party debt) can be elected in the ISDA schedule, but firms should consider whether to have it. When opting for the provision, it is important to set a threshold amount such that a cross default is not triggered unnecessarily by technical but not material events, and is not lower than existing credit agreements’ cross-default thresholds.
  • Termination settlements. In the 1992 ISDA form (see below), there are two methods for calculating an early termination settlement (triggered by “default” and “termination” events defined in the contract):

1) “Loss” (or “unpaid amounts”); and

2) “Market quotation.”

The former considers the amount that would make the counterparty whole on the trade. The latter requires four market quotes and the ultimate price is the average of the two middle quotes.

“Some corporates take strong views on which they prefer,” noted Mr. Horwitz, based on their experience with closeouts or what types of trade they plan to use most.

Market quotes work well for vanilla trades because it’s considered likely the trades will be priced fairly. The “loss” method works better for highly structured trades.

  • Confirmation supersedes ISDA. After a few corporate derivatives debacles in the 1990s, banks favor inserting a “non-reliance clause” into the 1992 ISDA (it is in the pre-printed 2002 form) in which the bank basically says “you (the company) know what you’re doing, so we’re not responsible.”

Very few corporates manage to negotiate out of the non-reliance clause. Because trade confirmations supersede ISDAs, those that don’t have the clause should take extra care that the clause does not get reinserted into the trade confirmations.

On the other hand (and this is another “score” for SWIFT), a corporate practitioner pointed out that using SWIFT confirmations helps in this regard as there is “not much room for sticking in additional terms or changes.”

THE TABLES ARE TURNED

While ISDAs may have been insisted on by banks in the past, it is now corporates that are scrutinizing them to ensure they are properly protected when banks look vulnerable. Firms, therefore, should take extra precautions to guard against events that may work against them at some future point in a trading relationship, when banks again look less vulnerable, starting with a mutually agreeable ISDA.

WINE AND ISDAS: VINTAGE MATTERS
Should a firm opt for the 1992 or 2002 form of ISDA? The major differences between the two, said Baker McKenzie (now DLA Piper) attorney Marc. A. Horwitz, are:

Grace period for failure to pay. The grace period in the 1992 form is three business days, in the 2002, only one. For treasuries with limited bandwidth, three days’ grace can prevent mistakes and non-payments not due to credit default events from unduly punishing the firm or result in terminated trades.

Scope. The 2002 form includes a broader range of specified transactions, such as repos, reverse repos and securities loans. “For corporates, we generally prefer 1992; you don’t want an unexpected event in a non-ISDA trade to permit the bank to unwind this ISDA trade,” Mr. Horwitz said.

Force majeure. The 2002 form has a force majeure clause which governs termination of trades that are impossible to make payments on, after an eight business-day waiting period.

Right of set-off. The pre-printed 2002 form includes a set-off provision, which the 1992 form does not (it can be inserted).

Settlement. The 1992 form permits “loss” or “market quotation” as basis for the settlement price upon early termination. The 2002 form has a pre-determined method, a “hybrid” between the two, which doesn’t require four market quotes. There have been efforts within ISDA to migrate end users to the close-out amount, and while firms on the 1992 form can opt for this protocol, it “hasn’t taken that well with corporates,” Mr. Horwitz noted.

ELECTIVE EARLY TERMINATION
As counterparty risk concerns remain pronounced both on the corporate and the bank side, corporates are reporting that banks are showing increasing interest in inserting an elective-termination clause into the ISDA (in the Other Provisions section).

For example, one bank has requested to insert it into a 1992 ISDA master with a corporate, which would allow either side to terminate a derivative six months after inception, and every six months thereafter.

The concern with such a clause is that the company is at risk of the bank terminating a long-term hedge by invoking this clause, leaving the company unhedged. This could cause unintended cash-flow consequences and, more importantly, problems with the hedge qualifying for hedge accounting treatment even at inception.

While the ISDA forms have specified “default” and “termination” events that are standard and bilateral, elective early termination clauses are not common, nor are they recommended in an ISDA governing a relationship, and that may cover a multitude of trades over a long period of time. Former Baker McKenzie (now DLA Piper) ISDA attorney Marc A. Horwitz pointed out that, absent a compelling regulatory or credit reason for such a clause, corporates should push back on banks trying to insert it.

A hedge, after all, is for protecting the corporation, not the bank, as a risk manager pointed out, and corporates already have a way to get out of hedges: by unwinding them; this, however, should be the firm’s decision, not the bank’s.

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Crossborder Pooling: Notional vs. ZBA

For many MNCs, an emphasis on effective management of working capital has translated into renewed urgency in rationalizing liquidity structures.

The tight credit market—combined with general economic weakness—has forced a strong focus on cash and liquidity management for both cash-rich and cash-poor companies.

As the ability to generate cash (or borrow it) has declined, MNCs report an increased need to have a clear view of their cash position globally. Visibility, however, is not enough. Treasurers also need effective techniques and procedures to manage their global liquidity. That task increases in complexity as a result of geographical spread, multiplicity of banking relationships, cross-currency flows and corporate structure issues (e.g., tax).

For many MNCs, an emphasis on effective management of working capital has translated into renewed urgency in rationalizing liquidity structures.

(Editor’s Note—Original publication date: June 16, 2003)

The tight credit market—combined with general economic weakness—has forced a strong focus on cash and liquidity management for both cash-rich and cash-poor companies.

As the ability to generate cash (or borrow it) has declined, MNCs report an increased need to have a clear view of their cash position globally. Visibility, however, is not enough. Treasurers also need effective techniques and procedures to manage their global liquidity. That task increases in complexity as a result of geographical spread, multiplicity of banking relationships, cross-currency flows and corporate structure issues (e.g., tax).

A consolidated view of cash

One of the most useful liquidity-management tools in the treasury toolbox is cash “pooling,” an arrangement whereby the credit/debit positions of different accounts are viewed from a single summary perspective.

This approach gives treasurers a chance to view cash on a regional and global basis, at the same time allowing affiliates to utilize their collective liquidity more effectively (i.e., instead of one subsidiary borrowing while the other is flush with cash).

Companies planning to centralize cash for multiple international subsidiaries have two basic options available:

• Zero balance accounts (ZBAs); or

• Notional cash pooling.

While both achieve the same ultimate objective, there are technical differences, which can then have significant organizational and tax consequences to either approach.

Zero-balance accounts (ZBAs)

ZBAs refer to linked accounts at the same bank and in the same currency and country. Funds are physically transferred in/out (zero-balanced) from subaccounts to a main account daily.

ZBAs: Key Aspects

The following are the key characteristics of a ZBA pooling arrangement:

• Same bank/same branch

• Same country

• Same currency

• Segregation of subaccounts which are then linked to a main account

• Completely automatic (bank), no manual transfers required

• Intercompany lending arrangements if separate legal entities participate, which means an arm’s-length interest rate must be assessed.

This primary account is usually held in the name of the Corporate Parent, Country or Area Headquarters/Holding Company or a Regional Treasury Center, such as a BCC, IFSC or OHQ.

If the subaccount holders are divisions of the same legal entity (such as branches, sales offices or plants), there are no tax issues. Indeed, often companies use ZBAs as a simple method to segregate different types of activities, such as receipts and disbursements, even if there is no regional or organizational segregation already in place.

However, if the subaccount holders are separate legal entities (i.e., subsidiaries), the funds movement into the main account constitutes an intercompany loan from the subsidiary to the main account holder and vice versa; this, in turn, generates some tax and accounting issues.

Audit trail and accounting. For example, documentation must be maintained for audit trail purposes and the main account holder (e.g., central treasury) must charge an “arm’s length” interest rate to the participating subsidiaries. Although banks provide separate statements for each subaccount, they will not typically do the accounting, manage the loan portfolio or assess/pay interest. (Some banks do run separate businesses which provide these services on an outsourced basis, usually out of Dublin.)

So unless this aspect of recordkeeping etc. is handled by a bank or third-party outsourced service, it must be done internally. Many treasury workstations and ERPs provide intracompany loan-management functionality as part of their core offerings. If the activity is at all substantial, spreadsheet solutions may not be sufficient (and certainly won’t provide the layer of automation of both interest allocation/payment and reporting that makes this cost effective).

Cost benefits. In-country ZBA arrangements are very common and have been a staple of managing US cash for years. Yet they are not universally possible. In certain countries, such as Korea, ZBAs may not be permissible at all, and in countries where there is an assessment of debit tax on transactions out of a bank account, such as Australia, a ZBA arrangement may end up being not cost effective.

For treasurers managing subsidiaries in multiple countries/currencies, the ZBA structure can be set up as an overlay, but funds must first be physically transferred from country A, B or C to the concentration location.

Two-tier approach. Often there is a daily pooling/ZBA in the originating country first, and then a sweep or manual transfer to the location of the main account, with less frequency. Thus the cross-border ZBA is usually a two-tiered structure. Weekly transfers are fairly standard. Daily transfers cannot be cost justified except with the very largest multinationals.

Therefore, in assessing the efficacy of overlay ZBA arrangements, a cost/benefit analysis is essential to establish the target level of cash required at the local level, and the frequency of transfer to the main account. Also overlay options may require opening additional in-country accounts, which can get expensive.

But perhaps the main drawback or limitation of ZBAs is that they’re only available on a single-currency basis. Thus, at the treasury level, there must be a main account for each separate currency.

Notional cash pooling

That’s where notional cash pooling enters the picture. With notional pooling, there is no physical movement of funds between accounts; rather, credit and debit interest are offset. Interest is paid/charged on the net balance position, but the legal/tax separation of separate subsidiaries owned by the same parent is maintained.

The initial (or direct) benefits of pooling come from the reduction of overdraft interest expense by centralizing the company’s liquidity position (see example in table below).

Legal hurdles. Notional pooling is great in theory. In practice, however, this pooling arrangement is not permitted in all countries. In these countries ZBA arrangements are used.

The big benefit to this arrangement, however, in the countries where it is most common, such as the UK, Netherlands and Belgium, is that there’s minimal or no withholding tax on interest earned. Often, too, (unlike physical pooling/ZBA arrangements) it’s not necessary to have a main or header account; the offset is simply among the participants. However, some countries (such as France) do require that there is a holding company in place.

The key advantage of notional pooling is that it allows for a multicurrency view of cash.

Notional: Key Aspects

The following are the key characteristics of a notional pooling arrangement:

• Same bank/ different branches

• Same country is most common

• Multicurrency pooling is extremely sensitive from a tax and accounting perspective—Spain can’t participate, for example due to local tax regulations

• Cross guarantees are required by the bank, regardless of the cash position of the participants

• Interest actually charged/paid to participants is optional—but may be advisable from a tax perspective.

However, in order to pay/charge interest on a single consolidated basis, the bank will use an interest rate differential to avoid currency conversion, similar to how a short-dated swap is handled. From a company’s perspective, this may ultimately affect the cost effectiveness of the arrangement. The company typically ends up paying forward points, thus reducing the interest-rate earned for a positive consolidated balance.

There is also a risk factor involved, as treasury is actually outsourcing this activity (to a bank). This means treasury may lose some control over the counterparties involved in the transaction.

Virtual pooling. In reality (or in virtual reality), treasury can achieve similar effects by using internal systems to execute the loans or interest offsets, and then generating the appropriate entries into the accounting system (i.e., an in-house bank). Also the rates achieved for investing excess cash would be higher. In fact, although a few large banks do offer multicurrency pooling, they are not entirely comfortable with it. (One of the very large banks simply decided not to offer notional pooling, only ZBAs are used; notional pooling was too fraught with difficulties).

In all cases, however, the bank will not act as a tax advisor, will insist on a sign-off from the company’s tax counsel and require cross guarantees between the participants. (That’s a hurdle for many MNCs.)

Loan by every other name. Pooling ostensibly gets around the issue of putting intercompany loans into place, because it is notional. However, it is a variant of a short-term intercompany loan arrangement, allowing a bank service to handle the periodic cash-reserve ups and downs of different entities.

If there were a permanent or long-term mismatch in liquidity, companies would more effectively use intercompany loans as the mechanisms. That’s why tax authorities will look carefully at pooling arrangements, and still may require some type of arm’s length interest depending on the amount and tenor of the offsets.

Also, if the company is always in an excess cash position, the concept of a notional offset makes no sense. And using a notional multicurrency pool as an investment vehicle is counterproductive, as the interest raid paid on the pool will be far lower than what individual currency pools will be able to achieve.

As a treasury management technique, cross border pooling is primarily used in Europe and to a more limited extent on Asia, where there are still regulatory issues that limit the participation of certain countries.

It is not used at all in Latin America (regionally) where there are significant regulatory issues and withholding tax restrictions on intercompany lending. Thus, the essential first step in evaluating any cross-border pooling arrangements is to focus on the management structure of the company and what tax implications may arise.

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