Sunday, August 15, 2010

The "Two-Feet-Deep" Danger

We’ve all heard the one about a man (hopefully a statistician) drowning in a river that is, on average, only two feet deep.

It’s not that the information about average depth is either inaccurate or unimportant. It’s just that it’s not ENOUGH information if you happen to be crossing at the wrong point.

In my last post I said that I’d write next about the 2nd quarter figures in the “National Summary of Domestic Trade Receivables” published by the Credit Research Foundation. The CRF has published this survey quarterly for 50 years.

I’ll only make broad comments because the material is copyrighted. See for subscription information and other products and services offered.

The CRF has devised and publishes a “Collection Effectiveness Index”, which is a single-figure indicator of the general health of the domestic trade receivables market.

That measure showed a significant improvement in 2Q-2010 compared to 1Q and a small improvement over the year-ago period. Most other aggregate measures they report showed similar improvements:

a) decreasing days-sales-outstanding,

b) decreasing delinquencies,

c) increasing percentage of accounts current, and

d) decreasing percentage of accounts over 91 days past due.

These high-level, market-wide measures are useful indicators that nevertheless have to be understood in the context of potential lag-effect, bias from sample size and bias from self-reporting.

The breakdown provided by industry group can be more valuable since it reveals substantial variances from the reported medians.

For example, in the category of “% Current” the range among industries in 2Q-2010 was from 39.13% to 94.76%.

Of particular interest to me as I studied the results was the disconnect between the improving picture painted in the CRF report and the anecdotal information that I’ve been hearing recently from clients and others. The message I’m hearing is that there has been a continued deterioration in the ability to collect money owed to small and mid-sized businesses.

I’ve written in prior posts about an organized and concerted movement by Wall Street houses to educate large, credit-worthy businesses on the virtue of substantially lengthening payment terms to their suppliers and then offering to accelerate payments at a discount.

This “squeeze the little guy” campaign demonstrates a cynical disregard for the long-term damage to the SMB community, which is so important a source of job creation. Its openly-stated purpose is to leverage the large companies’ access to cheap capital as a tool to force suppliers to reduce effective prices.

Let me add a few, admittedly anecdotal, data points from conversations I’ve had in just the past week:

1. A colleague told me the other day that he had knowledge that a large, multi-national company had instituted a new, purposely-draconian, “reject the invoice” policy. The AP staff of this company will now reject any invoice for ANY deviance from its increasingly complex and difficult-to-understand invoicing policy; requiring a revision and re-submission. And, of course, stringing out the time to payment.

2. A client told me this week that one of their customers; an architectural firm that had done a substantial amount of work for a large public hospital; had had to fight for over 120 days to get a check, which then bounced.

3. A colleague reported that a large, national customer recently notified a certain class of supplier that it suspected that there had been fraud on the part of some of those suppliers and so had put a freeze on ALL payments to ALL suppliers in that category until an audit could be completed. Completion of the audit is not expected until YEAR-END!

4. A professional services firm that has been in business since 1914 has had to enter into a workout payment arrangement with a subcontractor on some UNDISPUTED bills to a large municipal school construction agency that have been unpaid for nearly a YEAR.

5. A painting contractor that has been doing a significant volume of work for one of the largest residential property management firms in the area for over 20 years now has about 75% of its receivables at over 90 days.

These are just a few items that have come up in the past week.

It’s certainly possible that my experience reflects a regional bias. It’s possible that the lag effect is a partial explanation. It’s also possible that it reflects a bias toward the kind of client I typically deal with in my spot-factoring business.

But the anecdotal reports that I’ve been getting certainly paint a picture that is at variance with that of the 2Q CRF report.

I do not question the CRF results. I think that the information they compile and analyze is valuable and important and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in top-line industry trends. It might well be that the next quarterly report will show the sort of softening that current anecdotal information hints at.

What I do suggest is that the need for liquidity in the SMB market and, specifically, for acceleration of receivable collections in that market, continues to be among the top two or three problems facing business owners.

And that’s good for prospecting by the TRE Seller-marketing group.

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