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REDRESSING THE CFO BALANCE OF POWER

Chris Daniel, Mapping Advisor at Leading Edge Forum, outlines a mechanism that can help CFOs regain their correct position in the balance of power. 

The CFO, without question, is always deemed to be one of the most important people in an organisation, sometimes even more powerful than the CEO, because they control the money.  They act as financial stewards, ensuring that company resources are used in the best possible way.  They decide which departments thrive, which projects are within the company’s budget and which are too expensive.

The CFO has the power to block projects, but if the project is in line with stakeholder expectations, should only do so with very good reasons.  To prioritize projects accurately, CFOs need a deeper understanding of the business domain, relying on others to provide them with the right data, and working together to make the right judgements.  Because part of the CFO role is to bridge numbers and value, the CFO that loses sight of value gives up control and can create a serious power imbalance, that may damage the relationship with the rest of the company. 

Start with the basics

Classic project evaluation rules favour calculation of a Net Present Value (NPV) of any given project, to estimate how that project will contribute to the value of a company, expressed in today’s money. From a mathematical perspective, it is a fairly simple task that most people can easily do, and popular spreadsheets have built-in formulas supporting these calculations. The difficulty is not the arithmetic, but the ability to predict and evaluate the impact of a project, and express it as a financial measurement.

Imagine a situation where you are about to start competing with banks by delivering a particular service 30 percent cheaper.  NPV, and indeed most analyses, would fail to acknowledge that the banks can – and would – fight back, and that the lifespan of your service would be limited.

It is the CFO’s responsibility to ensure that a project starts only after adequate analysis of delivered value.  Inevitably, some of the key variables will not be known in advance, and therefore it is necessary to assume their value. It is vital to make those assumptions explicit for the sake of further project verification (to answer such questions as is it still on track? and has the environment changed?). The knowledge resulting from this analysis should be widely distributed among the project team, so each team member is equipped to raise a hand if something unexpected happens.

A short, correctly structured, meeting is enough to clarify what is known, what needs to be researched and what is unknown. It may turn out that the market has yet to be created (i.e., uncertainty is high), in which case there is no way of estimating the NPV, and the company has to accept this project as an experiment and be ready to lose all the investment.

Get uncertainty under control

No project can be totally predictable. When a completely new solution appears, it has no customers and nobody knows how to use it. It is highly uncertain. Well established solutions have well defined markets, but those markets prevent significant changes – consumers do not want to change unless absolutely necessary.

This creates a spectrum of anticipation – within a project, there are parts that are highly predictable, with assumptions that can be easily validated, and there are parts that are highly uncertain, with unremovable assumptions that can only be anticipated to be wrong.

There are  four major categories, which reflect four stages along the component Evolution spectrum – from uncertain Genesis, through Custom-Built and Product/Rental, to end up in the Commodity/Utility space.

Each of these has different characteristics and associated risks, and should be handled in different ways, also from the financial standpoint. Enumerating the components, understanding their nature and expected behaviour not only allows for improving project handling, but also constitutes a shared understanding building exercise.

Situational awareness is critical

The previous section introduced a method of assessing project risks and potential rewards (through uncertainty-market maturity correlation). With that knowledge, it is possible to prioritize projects and cancel them early if they do not meet expectations.  Visualizing the project through a range of tools such as value chain diagrams or Wardley Maps can help even more in breaking large projects into small, manageable parts and identifying the uncertainty associated with them. This process creates high situational awareness – you learn in the process what will be done, what is the cost structure and what are the key risks. That situational awareness helps different teams to take decisions, plan or test marketing campaigns, research relevant legal cases or even cancel the project if it does not build enough value.

And, repeat.

The process of identifying key project stakeholders, making them identify components and their characteristics and exposing their assumptions, can and should be embedded into corporate culture.

The CFO, through a spend control mechanism, can ensure that key uncertainties and assumptions will be exposed before projects above a certain threshold are approved.

The CFO should exercise this power – it is in the company’s best interest, and in the best interest of the CFO, because it is a unique opportunity to understand the value of projects, not just their financial aspects.

Understanding gives the CFO power

Power stems from control over rare assets, regardless of what those assets are – finances, authority, knowledge. Not knowing or not understanding what is happening in your immediate environment is a big risk. It is not enough to be a financial expert, or any expert whatsoever, unless that expertise is put to work for the benefit of your organization. Indeed, the willingness to learn and to extract knowledge outside of our primary domain and outside of our comfort zone is one of the key aspects that makes us powerful enough to live up to our responsibilities.

You can learn about product categories and mapping techniques to support you as a CFO, by downloading the Leading Edge Forum practice paper “Restoring The Proper Balance of Power”.

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Business

IS YOUR OFFICE LEASE CRUSHING YOUR BOTTOM LINE? YOU HAVE OPTIONS

By Jonathan Wasserstrum, Founder / CEO, SquareFoot

These are unprecedented times for us all. Nobody has a playbook to get through it. Every company right now is undergoing a series of budget cuts and enduring difficult questions, trying to trim wherever it possibly can to help withstand the profound pressures and unique challenges that the covid scare haqs brought with it from an economic standpoint.

Companies looking to avoid having to make significant layoffs to offset their expenses are having to find other budget items that they can slash or reconsider. For many companies, especially those on the smaller side, that relief may come through renegotiating or rethinking their office lease. Especially at a time like this, when there’s so much uncertainty on how long this pandemic might last, and with staffers working from home indefinitely, this sizable area of cost to the business doesn’t make sense for some businesses to carry.

At SquareFoot, the commercial real estate company I founded in 2011, near the beginning of a decade of positive economic outlook, I envisioned helping growing companies to find office space. And I staffed up with a talented team of in-house brokers to show offices in NYC, and to work on deals in 30 other major U.S. cities.

I raise this background to offer some context for how dire the situation is now with regard to commercial real estate, when it’s not possible to show available office spaces to interested parties. Just a month ago, we were looking ahead at a very promising 2020, on track to act on and to achieve goals we had set. Because of this current economic downturn that has hit us all, we’ve also had to shift priorities accordingly.

Jonathan Wasserstrum

We’ve instructed our brokers – effective immediately – to make themselves available to all concerned business owners as trusted advisers to walk them through their current leases and to outline for them all of their options. Even if they never do a transaction with us, I want my team to step up and provide some expertise to stressed-out executives. This is our small but significant way of helping to prevent other companies from having to let go of key staffers. We want to make this an easy choice for entrepreneurs. But, first, it requires them to understand what options they can move on.

We are already working closely with a number of businesses to review and to summarize their current leases, giving them some clarity and greater comprehension of what is set in stone and what can be adjusted in the wake of this crisis. Among the options that I and the team are exploring on behalf of those who have reached out include:

  • Checking with your insurance agent about your Business Interruption Insurance coverage;
  • Subletting the space. It’s not an optimal time to find a subtenant, but it’s still something worth pursuing to salvage the situation at hand;
  • Post empty desks on PivotDesk, a business unit that SquareFoot owns and operates to rent out (as a host) a small number of desks within an office (to a guest) to share the space;
  • Propose a rent abatement now from the landlord and arrange for a term at a higher escalated rent on the back end; or
  • Walking away. Closing up shop and declaring bankruptcy isn’t anyone’s first option, but handing back the keys and letting the landlord keep your security deposit is a path forward for the most desperate of clients.

Obviously, this is not a situation that anyone hoped to be in or had prepared for. We don’t proclaim to have all of the answers for every company, but we do hope that giving some knowledge and sharing some wisdom with those in the most vulnerable of positions right now would leave them better off than without it. In addition to the specifics of the situation for each individual client, we can also step back and have offered some additional background on what to expect from the real estate market in the coming months.

For instance, we anticipate that subleasing will emerge as increasingly important to fill spaces quickly. Amid the 2008 financial crash, subleases went from 20% of the market to 45% of the real estate market after the stock market market crashed. If that’s the direction we’re heading again – and it seems we might – it’s perhaps wisest for those holding onto long term leases to act quickly.

Once the quarantine is lifted, it’s possible that everyone else will catch up and get wise to this opportunity in the market and they will likely request these types of discounted transactions in a rush all at once; subleases could flood the market, driving costs straight up.

Moreover, if similar effects on the office market emerge soon the way they did during the 2008 financial crisis then there will likely be a sharp increase in the number of tenants looking to:

  • Renew their lease
  • Arrange for a short-term extension of their lease

This is the lowest risk strategy for any tenant, of course. Lease renewals are likely to be incredibly popular in the coming months. We expect that landlords will be working closely and compassionately with tenants at this time to offer existing tenants who are looking for short-term extensions to offer incentives, in the form of free or reduced rents.

As the markets go sideways, you can likely find better value on the space you already have. Whether you work with my team and me, or with someone else, we still advise that you should act quickly. Right now, it’s all about reducing costs to keep people in place. Your office lease is a better place to start the discussion than anywhere else on that long list of expenses.

 

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Business

CAPITAL MARKETS – LIQUIDITY MANAGEMENT DURING COVID-19

COVID-19

Tony Farnfield, Partner at management and technology consultancy, BearingPoint

 

When “Dr. Doom” predicted the 2008 financial crisis back in 2006, and spoke of a necessitated market correction and was calling for the repricing of riskier assets; predicting a continuation of a global financial slowdown, or even a global recession starting in 2020, this prediction was based on known factors affecting the global economy. The unforeseen outbreak of Covid-19 and the increased volatility this has brought to global financial markets was not taken into account.

Three months on from the initial outbreak, and we have already witnessed the biggest intraday drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The outbreak, coupled with the oil price shock, triggered responses from the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and Central Bank of Canada to cut benchmarks rates in an effort to even out the shock to the wider economies.

There is a high degree of uncertainty on how the coronavirus crisis will unfold. We could experience only a temporary disruption – lasting from a few weeks to a few months, or a prolonged stress in markets, assuming that it will be months until vaccine clinical trials begin and with rate cuts (already reaching bottom) having limited effects on the required stimulus.

Banks have undeniably improved their liquidity following regulatory guidance post financial crisis; however, treasury departments will need to prepare and caveat for a wide range of possible outcomes. Traditional stress testing, scenario development and re-calibration have not taken into account conditions such as the ones experienced with the Covid-19 outbreak or the speed with which things evolved.

At a generic level, there are three key steps Treasurer’s should look to take:

 

  1. Convert uncertainties into emerging and quantifiable risks

This is already being considered by some of the larger financial institutions under their crisis management responses. However, it’s important to highlight that even for those that have triggered the crisis management process, the forecasting, rebalancing and risk assessment should be continuous, taking into account new developments in the following manner:

Continuous forecasting

Continuously monitor and develop scenarios of potential sources that could disrupt funding and liquidity usage. With the right analytical capability, cash-flow projections should adapt to changing scenarios, including scenarios coming from the different business lines. Scenario sources could include unexpected credit usage that could encourage either large prepayments or defaults, or changing corporate customer behaviour – deposit inflows from corporates and depositors affecting leverage-constrained institutions. Also, there should be some consideration given to the availability of funding sources or, for wholesale funding, acceleration or reduction of funding plans.

Continuous re-balancing

Take immediate actions in increasing liquidity and cash holdings in the short term to cover for the uncertainty.

Continuous risk assessment

Account for emerging risks previously not accounted for, such as the temporary closure of operations or reduced capacity of market utilities. Assess those scenarios and how these are captured and factored in stress tests. Intraday liquidity should be the primary focus to understand immediate cash requirements.

 

  1. Refine your liquidity risk measurement

Better identification, measurement and analysis of key liquidity drivers should become core for an institution’s ability to effectively manage and mitigate particularly unique risks not previously considered. To do this, Treasurers should consider the frequency of their monitoring, and increase levels to daily stress tests and daily Early Warning Indicator testing to include daily developments.

In-depth analysis of risks

Re-run your liquidity risk identification exercise to understand better your current exposures, especially examining certain instances of this outbreak crisis, e.g. oil-related exposures, airline, marine or supply chain related exposures etc.

Re-calibrate based on new understanding

Re-assess existing scenarios or add new scenarios in covering a range of events and timeframes (e.g. sustained spread of the virus over x months vs limited spread and containment). Revisit your Early Warning Indicators to monitor emerging risks. At a later point, revisit these to assess if market signals existed and if they were picked up by your indicators.

 

  1. Review your mitigation plan

Identification, assessment and measurement is only part of the overall response. Stresses or risks that can be crystallised need to be accompanied by mitigative actions, agile and feasible enough under the current market conditions. Contingency funding actions might need to be revisited to determine if additional actions need to be considered.

Revisit and verify the availability of near real time reports, such as positions of securities holdings reports. Such information should be readily available and synthesised in the event that you will need to communicate clear and concise plans to investors, regulators or other market participants in relation to liquidity management strategies to foster confidence in the market.

In summary, reviewing and preserving an institution’s liquidity under extreme and volatile circumstances is the core responsibility of any treasurer. However, we know that any scenario or contingency planning is unlikely to be fully predictive of unprecedented scenarios such as this. Re-visiting already set practices and testing their efficacy and completeness should be the first step before considering inserting new scenarios and new actions into the mix. Nothing tried and tested can always remain true.

 

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