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The Value of Stress Testing your Business

The act of “stress testing” banks, allows regulators to understand the effect on a bank’s economics during a severely adverse scenario, i.e. what is the likelihood that the institution will continue to transact business and survive a prolonged economic downturn.  Based on the results of the testing, regulators and bankers understand if the bank has the proper capitalization or alternatively what capital cushion is required to sustain itself.  Projecting an outcome based on a potential set of circumstances is a sound risk management approach.  Slightly modified, this approach can be and should be used to assess the impact of a stress on your business.  Does your business have the proper capital reserve cushion to adjust to a shock for a prolonged period?

For example, in the next three to twelve months, it is highly likely that the Federal Reserve will increase the federal funds rate.  This tool of monetary policy has an indirect impact on the prime rate, as the rates tend to move in lock-step.  As such, borrowers with variable rate loans will find their borrowing costs increase, i.e. a shock.  Since January 2009, the prime rate has been constant at 3.25%.  Yet 24 months prior, the prime rate was 5.0 percentage points higher, i.e. 8.25% (Source: Federal Reserve Board, Proprietary Bank Surveys).  At this point it is unclear if the Federal Reserve will begin a campaign to raise rates in 2015.  But once the campaign begins, how far will rates move up is not known.

To understand the potential impact of this shock, a business may perform the following testing -

Develop a proforma model based on the cash flow of your business.  Now increase your interest expense by 50% and then by 100%.  What is the impact on profitability as interest expenses increase?  Businesses that will be most impacted directly are entities that currently utilize a high amount of leverage and/or businesses that lay money out in advance of sales, for supplies and inventory.  While a business may have control over its leverage and purchases, it cannot control the economics of its customers and clients.   As rates increase, the economics of your customers may be disrupted which will have a trickle-down effect to its suppliers, i.e. you.  The natural outcome may be payment delays and an increase in your bad debt expense.

Based on your model, understand when issues will arise.  Quantify how much additional cash is required to ensure the proper cash reserve cushion is maintained.  Next proceed with one of three options -

Option #1 Least Impactful - Do nothing.  Understand the theoretical shortfall, but only make a change when you feel it is absolutely necessary.  I have seen many businesses use this wait and see approach.  It is not recommended.  Admittedly however, sometimes doing nothing works; but, other times it is disastrous.

Option #2 Most Impactful - Understand the cash reserve shortfall and discontinue any partner/owner distributions until the desired capitalization level is achieved.  This approach is very much in line with how the bank stress tests are performed.  If the bank passes the stress test, the Federal Reserve may allow it to make dividend distributions, share repurchases and major acquisitions/divestitures.

Option #3 Recommendation - Understand the cash reserve shortfall.  Investigate ways to increase the efficiency of your business.  Logical places to begin include -

  • Remove all non-value added costs - A non-value added cost is an expense that is incurred, but does not add to the value or perceived value of your product or service.  Simply stated, it is a cost your customers will not want to pay.
  • Ensure an appropriate pricing model - Pricing is a critical task that all businesses manage.  However, there are many different ways to approach the pricing requirement.
  • Review the demand for your product offerings - Periodically every business should review its product lines and services, to understand the profitability generated.  The natural result will be an emphasis on the most profitable activities; while de-emphasizing the less profitable or money loosing activities.
  • Remove discounts offered - Discounts have their place, but more often than not, they are used incorrectly.
  • Manage the vendor expense closely - Unchecked, vendor expenses can quickly become out of control. Are you spending more than you should be with your current vendors?
  • Review the profitability of customers - Obtaining a customer that becomes unprofitable is a common situation.  It only becomes an error of management if you do not periodically review these relationships, or ignore the results.

At this early stage, take advantage of the time you have to make adjustments to your business model to help absorb the shock and continue to thrive.  If you review the six areas listed, but are unable to find cost savings and efficiencies, you may need to fall back on either Option #1 or Option #2.