One of the more complex components of an M&A transaction is a seller’s net working capital, hereinafter referred to as working capital. Working capital is a financial term used as a measurement of a business’s ability to meet its financial obligations over the coming business cycle (typically 12 months). The consideration of working capital is typically performed during the due diligence period. The calculation of working capital requires the assessment of two areas: current assets and current liabilities.
- Current assets are the assets of the business that the owner(s) anticipate using for normal operations within the next business cycle. The most significant components of current assets are typically cash, accounts receivable, and inventory.
- Current liabilities are the obligations of the business that the owner(s) anticipate satisfying within the next business cycle. The most significant components of current liabilities are typically accounts payable, accrued expenses, and the current portion of the business’s debt.
The logic of corporate finance works on the premise that current assets are used to pay off current liabilities. While working capital is not defined under the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), it is commonly calculated using this formula:
Working Capital = Current Assets – Current Liabilities
Why does working capital matter?
As previously mentioned, working capital is used as a measurement of a business’s ability to meet its financial obligations over the coming business cycle. Another way to consider working capital is that it is a measure of a business’s liquidity. A liquid business should not have problems meeting its short-term financial obligations if all things remain constant. It is unlikely that the owners of a liquid business will be required to invest additional capital or seek outside financing (e.g., debt) to satisfy the needs of the business in the subsequent 12 months.
How much working capital is the right amount?
If a buyer and seller agreed that $2,000,000 is an acceptable working capital level, and a seller delivers lower working capital to the buyer, then often there is a mechanism in the purchase agreement to lower the purchase price of the business. The reduction would generally be dollar-for-dollar (i.e., each dollar required to get the working capital to an acceptable level will likely lead to a dollar reduction in the amount to be paid to the seller). Conversely, if the working capital is higher than what is agreed on as the acceptable level to provide at closing, then there often would be a dollar-for-dollar increase to the purchase price to the seller.
The letter of intent typically clarifies the buyer’s expectation with regard to the required level of working capital to be left in the business, or the proposed methodology in determining working capital. Often, though, working capital is a point of negotiation up until finalization of the purchase agreement. There are a variety of options for setting the agreed upon working capital, but these are the two most common methods:
- The buyer will want some number of “months” as a cushion. If the business’s total expenses for the year are $1,200,000 and the business will be expected to spend $100,000 per month, then a buyer wanting “three months of cushion” for this business would thus require working capital to be at least $300,000 at closing.
- The buyer will want the working capital to be equal to “historical levels.” Historical levels can be calculated by averaging the working capital on each of the previous 12 months’ balance sheets.
Both methodologies provide a guideline in arriving at an acceptable level as part of negotiation between the buyer and seller. No two businesses or deals are alike, but a company’s working capital—just like the various line items from which it is drawn—are assets of the business and, as such, represent part of what is to be sold.
What can the seller do about working capital?
In the event the seller has his/her mindset on what to exclude when the sale occurs, the seller should work with its professional advisors to determine whether the specific items that could be removed from the proposed working capital terms and how that will impact the deal structure. In doing so, the seller must keep in mind that the specific item may be considered by the buyer as necessary to keep the business generating revenue—and if so, he/she might view the retention by the seller as something having a major impact on valuation. If, on the other hand, the asset is not deemed as useful to provide a reasonable buffer for “months of working capital” or a similar metric, or to be used for a specific business function, and its absence will therefore not impact operations nor require the buyer to invest additional capital into the business, the asset can typically be removed with little effect on valuation.
When addressing working capital, it’s important for the seller to always consider the total cost of the deal to the buyer and the buyer’s perception of the risk associated with the business. This is key area of negotiation, and understanding the different methods to determine working capital and what is important for both the seller and buyer is a critical element to reaching a successful close.
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