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Working Capital Doesn't Mean What You Think It Does

Working Capital

Although the phrase “working capital” is common in business and finance circles, it is often very misunderstood.  Here’s an example: if I was to ask you if you would rather own a business with a lot of working capital instead of a little working capital, what would be your answer?  Most people would prefer the business with a lot of working capital.  But the answer is not that simple, and, in many cases, smaller working capital actually indicates better management and cash flow generation.  I will take a few paragraphs to discuss the two main reasons why working capital is misunderstood and then discuss the best measurement tool I know to monitor it.


Working capital is often misunderstood for cash.  Working capital is the difference between all of your current assets (cash, accounts receivable, etc.) and your current liabilities (accounts payable, accrued expenses, etc.).  Notice that cash is actually only a part of this equation, and it is usually a smaller part at that.  So, what in the world is working capital?

working capitalThe easiest way to explain it is in terms of the number of days difference between when you pay for things and when you get paid.  Here is a simplified example:

Cash goes out to pay for parts and labor to build a widget.  After 10 days the widget is ready to be sold.  It takes another 20 days to sell the widget to a customer on credit (net 30 terms).  The customer pays early – in 25 days.  The total working capital cycle is 55 days.  Hence, the business needs to have enough “working capital” to fund this transaction until it gets paid. 


Based on the example above, a business will need a certain amount of “working capital” to handle this 55-day cycle.  But what if the company can improve its manufacturing process and get paid a little earlier, reducing its working capital days to 42?  This means the comapny would need less working capital to fund its operations.  Since most people confuse working capital for cash, we think a bigger number is better.  But companies that run an efficient working capital cycle require lower working capital, the sign of a well-run and efficient business.


There are lots of measurements that comprise working capital - days sales outstanding, inventory days, payables days, and more.  Trying to look at all of these and make sense of the company’s working capital progress is tough.  So, we use a ratio that measures working capital days – one number to illuminate the entire working capital cycle.  This puts the number into context and makes it easy to initially spot issues and challenges.

Very simply, the formula for working capital days is:

(Average working capital for a period/sales for the period)*(# of days in the period) 

If I told you that you have a working capital balance of $500,000, it would be hard to understand if that was good or bad until you compare it to other periods of time in your business.  If you are growing or shrinking, it becomes more difficult to know if your working capital cycle is accelerating or decelerating, or if you are squeezing more or less cash out of your operations.  Here is a quick application of a real company’s working capital days:

CFO University 12.02.09 - Working Capital Mgmt


Financing working capital is actually quite simple once we understand the working captal days ratio.  At a company’s maximum efficiency, there is a minimum number of days in its working capital cycle – maybe it is 15 days, or maybe it is 60 days.  Regardless of the number, this part of working capital should usually be funded with permanent debt or equity. 

I have yet to see a business that can function at their most efficient working capital cycle for very long.  This is caused by spikes and drops in sales as well as new opportunities and new challenges that often arise daily.  The days in the working capital cycle above this most efficient level is usually best financed with lines of credit or other revolving debt facilities.  Sometimes it is financed with retained earnings or equity, but that may not be the most effective use of the firm’s capital.


Working capital is a measure of the firm’s ability to streamline its operations to generating cash as quickly as possible.  When understood in this light, less is actually more.  Business is, ultimately, about cash generation.  The working capital cycle of a business can either gobble up more than its fair share of cash or it can be managed as an efficient cash flow system.  If managed, it can become one of the company’s most significant competitive advantages.


david waltz
Title: Assistant Treasurer
Company: Integrys Energy Group
(Assistant Treasurer, Integrys Energy Group) |


Depending on the context, working capital might mean different things and be defined in different ways.

From a day to day operating perspective, the above definition allows someone to identify and potentially track the level and changes in order to serve forecasting purposes.

From an "what type of investment is required" perspective, for use in NPV and ROIC type calculations, cash and any debt in the current liabilities section is normally excluded.

If you interested in additional Working Capital articles, I wrote a 5-part series on the Cash Conversion Cycle and each of it's elements on my Treasury Cafe blog. The link to the last entry (you can get links to the others in that post) is below:


Ken Kaufman
Title: CFO
Company: Community Dental Partners
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, Community Dental Partners) |

David, you are exactly right. Thanks for calling out the different perspectives different people take when calculating and using working capital to make business and cash flow decisions.

david waltz
Title: Assistant Treasurer
Company: Integrys Energy Group
(Assistant Treasurer, Integrys Energy Group) |


Thanks for the response!

With respect to the financing of working capital, I am reminded of a graph I saw in the Brealy & Myers textbook which showed different levels of working capital financing (ranging from all short-term-borrow-all-the-time to all long-term-have-cash-all-the-time) as being a result or consequence of the "risk appetite" of the firm.

Annie Godfrey
Title: Search and Social Executive
(Search and Social Executive , |

Interesting! Thanks for sharing, Ken.

Title: CFO
Company: C-Suite Services
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, C-Suite Services) |

One measure that is NOT popular (used) in the West (and popular/used in Asian companies) is Cash Velocity or Cash Turnover! It is basically a company's ability to speed up reuse of capital productively. Where "activity" is more important than the rate of return on the capital itself. Of course certain industries benefit more than others in the use but generally, I think this is also important.

Gary Honig
Title: President
Company: Creative Capital Associates Factoring Co..
LinkedIn Profile
(President, Creative Capital Associates Factoring Company) |

Tweeted it! Thanks Ken for the good information.