Money Matters

What is working capital?

Explore the ins and outs of working capital: from definition to management, ratios, and changes. Boost your financial knowledge and business acuity

people in office

Understanding your business’s financial health is essential, but the terminology can sometimes feel overwhelming. If you’ve ever peered into the financials of a business, you’ve likely come across terms like “assets,” “liabilities,” and “working capital.” While these may seem like complex jargon, understanding them is vital to maintaining the financial health of your company.

Today, we’re going to zero in on one of these critical terms: working capital.

This concept may seem daunting at first, but as we break it down, you’ll find it’s quite accessible. We’ll review the definition, delve into the crucial working capital ratio, explore how it changes, and discuss practical strategies for managing working capital. By the end, you’ll have a clear understanding of what working capital is and how it can help you run a more financially stable and efficient business.

What is working capital? A simple definition

Working capital, at its core, is the difference between a company’s current assets and current liabilities. Current assets are resources a business can readily convert into cash within a year, like inventory, accounts receivable, and cash. On the other hand, current liabilities are debts or obligations that need to be paid within the same timeframe, such as accounts payable, wages, and short-term loans.

In simpler terms, working capital provides a snapshot of a company’s short-term financial health and operational efficiency. It indicates if a business has enough assets to cover its short-term debts while also funding day-to-day operations. This ‘snapshot’ tells us whether a business can comfortably cover all its upcoming obligations—such as supplier payments, salaries, rent, and other operational costs—with the assets the business currently holds.

For instance, if a retail business has enough working capital, it can easily pay its suppliers and employees, restock its shelves, and keep the lights on without needing to borrow more money or sell off long-term assets. In contrast, a company with negative working capital might struggle to make ends meet, potentially leading to a slowdown in operations or even insolvency.

Moreover, a business’s working capital balance can also hint at its operational efficiency. A company that swiftly converts its inventory into sales and collects payments from customers will generally maintain a healthier working capital than a business that struggles with slow-moving inventory or late-paying customers.

In other words, working capital is not just about survival—it’s also about the smooth sailing of day-to-day operations. It’s the financial fuel that powers the ongoing activities of a business, making it an essential barometer for short-term financial health and operational effectiveness.

How do you calculate working capital?

Crunching numbers can be daunting, but when it comes to calculating working capital, the process is actually pretty straightforward. As mentioned earlier, working capital is the difference between a company’s current assets and current liabilities.

Once you have identified the current assets and current liabilities, calculating working capital is as simple as:

Working Capital = Current Assets – Current Liabilities

Let’s illustrate this with a hypothetical example. Suppose a company has current assets of £2 million, which include cash, accounts receivable, and inventory. The same company has current liabilities, including accounts payable and short-term debts, amounting to £1.2 million.

By plugging these numbers into our formula, we get:

Working Capital = £2,000,000 (Current Assets) – £1,200,000 (Current Liabilities) = £800,000

So, the working capital of this company is £800,000. It indicates the company has ample short-term assets to meet its short-term obligations while funding its daily operations, thus pointing towards good financial health and operational efficiency.

Remember, negative working capital (where liabilities exceed assets) could signal potential financial distress, while excessively high working capital might suggest that a company isn’t using its assets effectively. It’s all about finding the right balance to support ongoing business operations without tying up excessive resources.

Understanding the working capital ratio

Now that we’ve defined working capital, let’s look at another key term: the working capital ratio. This ratio is a key measure of a company’s liquidity and short-term financial health.

The working capital ratio formula is:

Working Capital Ratio = Current Assets / Current Liabilities

A working capital ratio of 1.0 means that a company’s assets exactly match its liabilities. If the ratio is above 1.0, the business has more assets than liabilities, a sign of good financial health. However, a ratio that’s too high (e.g. above 2.0) might indicate the company isn’t investing its assets efficiently. Conversely, a ratio under 1.0 shows that liabilities exceed assets, which could signal potential financial troubles.

The importance of working capital management

Once you understand the definition and ratio of working capital, the next step is mastering working capital management. This involves managing your company’s current assets and current liabilities to ensure operational efficiency, profitability, and maintain a healthy working capital ratio.

Good working capital management can help companies improve their cash flow, reduce costs, and even increase their profitability. It includes strategies like efficient inventory management, timely collection of receivables, and scheduled payments of bills.

An additional layer to the significance of working capital management lies in the balancing act it requires. On one side of the scale, we have the need to maintain liquidity and ensure that short-term debts can be paid promptly. On the other side, a company wants to maximize the use of its resources for growth and expansion.

Too little working capital and a business risks insolvency (the inability to pay its debts). Too much working capital, and the business could be missing opportunities for growth because assets are tied up in cash or not being used efficiently.

Effective working capital management helps maintain this delicate balance, ensuring a company has the cash it needs for day-to-day operations without jeopardising its long-term strategic goals. It’s about striking the right balance between safety and growth, stability and ambition, the present and the future.

Change in working capital and its significance

Businesses are dynamic, and so is their working capital. The change in working capital is a key metric that helps you track alterations over time. This might be due to changes in your current assets, current liabilities, or both.

To find this change, you need to subtract the previous period’s working capital from the current period’s working capital. An increase could mean that your current assets have grown, or your current liabilities have shrunk—either way, it’s generally good news. Conversely, a decrease might suggest potential financial difficulties ahead.

Suppose you’re running a business that began last year with £500,000 in current assets and £300,000 in current liabilities, resulting in a working capital of £200,000. Now, let’s fast-forward to this year. Your business has grown its current assets to £700,000, and current liabilities have increased to £350,000. This leaves you with working capital of £350,000.

To find the change in working capital, subtract last year’s working capital from this year’s. That’s £350,000 (this year’s working capital) – £200,000 (last year’s working capital), which gives us £150,000.

This positive change in working capital is a favorable sign—it means that your business has successfully grown its current assets faster than its liabilities. You’ve managed to increase the buffer of resources you have on hand to meet short-term obligations and fund day-to-day operations, providing greater stability and potential for future growth.

Operating working capital for businesses

Operating working capital is a more specific term. It refers to the working capital that a business requires for its daily operations. In other words, it excludes short-term debts and financial investments. Operating working capital is calculated by subtracting non-interest-bearing current liabilities (like trade creditors and accrued expenses) from current assets.

By focusing on the working capital needed for core operations, this measure can provide a clearer picture of a business’s day-to-day operational efficiency and financial health.

Working capital example: Let’s put it into context

Assume that Widget Co. has current assets totaling £1,000,000, including cash, accounts receivable, and inventory. Of its total current liabilities of £600,000, £500,000 are non-interest-bearing current liabilities, such as accounts payable and accrued expenses.

So, to find the operating working capital, we subtract these non-interest-bearing liabilities from the current assets:

Operating Working Capital = Current Assets – Non-Interest-Bearing Current Liabilities

Operating Working Capital = £1,000,000 (Current Assets) – £500,000 (Non-Interest-Bearing Current Liabilities) = $500,000

In this case, Widget Co.’s operating working capital is £500,000, which represents the funds that the company has readily available for day-to-day operations once it has met its immediate financial obligations. By monitoring this metric, Widget Co. can get a clearer picture of its operational efficiency and financial flexibility, ensuring that it’s well-positioned to handle its ongoing business activities.

Final thoughts: The pillars of working capital

Understanding working capital—its definition, ratio, management strategies, and the implications of changes—is fundamental for business owners and financial professionals. It provides key insights into a company’s short-term financial health, operational efficiency, and potential growth.

By keeping an eye on your working capital and actively managing it, you can ensure your business remains solvent, operates smoothly, and is positioned to seize new growth opportunities as they arise. So whether you’re a budding entrepreneur or an experienced businessperson, mastering the intricacies of working capital is a worthy investment in your company’s future.

Subscribe to the Sage Advice newsletter

Join more than 500,000 UK readers and get the best business admin strategies and tactics, as well as actionable advice to help your company thrive, in your inbox every month.