EU payment regulation shake-up could boost supply chain finance in certain countries

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While European Union proposals to limit the time corporates have to make payments in commercial transactions will bring relief to some suppliers, many buyers will face higher debt and lower liquidity. Supply chain finance could be a practical and effective solution to managing working capital efficiently under the EU late payments directive, says Ugur Bitiren, Director, Corporate Advisory at RBS.

By Ugur Bitiren, Director, Corporate Advisory, RBS
The liquidity crunch caused by the credit crisis made corporates look for ways to optimise their supply chain without tying up too many funds for their working capital needs. This resulted in many larger companies extending their payment terms to prevent cash being tied up in their day-to-day operating cycles. An extended payment term helps in achieving efficient working capital management that is critical for many companies to manage financing as well as serving as a barometer for long-term health. However, extended payment terms are to be regulated by the EU late Payments Directive, (the implementation deadline was 16 March, 2013) that limits the time companies can take to make payments in commercial transactions. This directive is widely viewed as an aid to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), because it will limit the impact of so-called ‘late’ payments in an effort to free up hard-to-obtain working capital. On the flip side, cutting payment terms could have huge implications on the operating cycle of purchasing companies, effectively increasing debt and reducing short-term liquidity. Facing the impact of the new EU late Payments Directive, supply chain finance can serve as an effective solution. It enables purchasers to continue benefiting from extended payment terms while freeing up liquidity for suppliers at an early date, and frequently at a rate of interest far superior to the supplier’s own. The power of supply chain finance as a solution to ‘late’ payments has even been recognised by authorities, as evidenced by UK Government recommendations to accelerate its adoption. In May 2012, the UK Government gathered a number of leading global banks – including RBS – to promote supply chain finance as a vehicle to support liquidity for small and medium enterprises (SMEs). In October 2012, UK Prime Minister David Cameron launched an initiative on this. He described it as a ‘win-win’ and hoped that up to GBP20 billion of cheaper finance would be made available because of this programme. So far big names like Balfour Beatty, Rolls Royce, Tesco and Vodafone have already signed up, with many others intending to back it. The recent actions undertaken by some member states in the EU support our initial expectation that different countries would take different approaches in implementing this directive. For example, the Netherlands has set the payment period at a maximum of 30 days for private and public transactions and a maximum of 60 days for transactions between private parties. Sweden has kept a maximum of 30 days between private parties (unless agreed otherwise) while there is no extension for public parties. Some countries, on the other hand, are already managing the payment terms under similar laws (France, for example, has the ‘LME law’ that restricts the payment terms to 60 days). 

 

EU late payment concerns

The EU sees ‘late’ payments in commercial transactions as a major problem, in particular what the commission regards as large buyers forcing SMEs to accept payment terms detrimental to their working capital and cash flow. These concerns have risen in recent years as the level of working capital has increased. In the UK, for example, money owed to suppliers rose by 27 per cent in the two years to the end of 2011, reaching GBP113.1 billion (see chart above).

‘Many larger companies use payment terms to manage their cash flow. However, companies within their supply chains, typically SMEs, can struggle to raise working capital finance. For this reason, a suite of supply chain finance products has evolved to help companies manage cash flow within their supply chain. ... This would significantly improve the levels of liquidity within smaller companies in the UK. Only a handful of buyers currently use these products and we believe that this is an underutilised approach in the UK which has significant potential to improve the viability of SMEs.’


Boosting Finance Option for Business – Report from independent UK industry taskforce
 
This increase in payables is seen as particularly damaging for SMEs. As many large corporates have payment windows of more than 100 days with their suppliers, UK SMEs are now owed an all-time-high GBP33.6 billion by buyers (according to the Forum of Private Business). In addition, there is also a knock-on effect, with more than 60 per cent of small companies admitting that they in turn delay paying their suppliers. To tackle late payments, especially in cases where it is seen that the buyer is procuring additional liquidity at the expense of the creditor, the EU published Directive 2011/7/EU ‘On combating late payment in commercial transactions’. It will limit payment periods in commercial transactions between two or more European companies to 60 days, but extensions can be agreed if they are not grossly unfair to the creditor and are in line with good commercial practice. In addition, invoices will have to be settled within 30 days if no period is set. Though all the EU member states were expected to enact laws enforcing the Directive by 16 March 2013, only a few of the countries – like The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Italy and Lithuania – incorporated the necessary and required changes into related laws before the deadline. While nothing has explicitly been stated on this, it is safe to assume, given the political nature of the issue, that large companies forcing suppliers to agree to extend payment terms beyond 60 days, without the ability to receive funding earlier via supply chain finance, will be viewed as ‘grossly unfair’.

Effects of the EU Payments Directive

The Commission estimates its Directive will free up the equivalent of an extra GBP150 billion for businesses across Europe by improving cash flow and reducing SME exposures to late payment negotiations with larger customers. The downside will be felt by corporates which currently benefit from extended payables but which may now experience disruptions to operating cycles and a drop in liquidity. Also, few companies are likely to admit to such behaviour. Some may look at using suppliers from outside the EU, beyond the reach of the Directive.

Supply chain finance as a solution

Supply chain finance promotes efficient working capital management to purchasers, frees up liquidity for suppliers, and incentivises purchasers tocontinue to source from the European area. While supply chain finance has not been referred to as a clear solution within the EU Directive itself, and we expect there will be differences in interpretation between countries, the UK Government example shows supply chain finance is certainly being considered as an alternative solution to decreasing payment terms. As shown in the graph above, supply chain finance is a structured receivables discounting program that allows suppliers the option to discount receivables against a buyer. Suppliers can obtain liquidity at an earlier date – frequently at a rate of interest far superior to the supplier’s own. Compare the situation of two suppliers: Supplier A sells to the Buyer at 60-day terms as stipulated by the EU Directive. It has to finance itself from its liquidity sources at an interest rate of 8 per cent p.a. Supplier B also funds at 8 per cent p.a. and joins the same buyer’s supply chain finance programme. By taking part in this programme, supplier B agrees to 90-day payment terms, but then also elects to receive their cash in five days, discounted to the buyer’s superior funding cost of 3 per cent p.a. Though supplier B has longer standard payment terms, the ability to discount receivables at a better rate means it is much better off than supplier A – in this case by about 0.5 per cent of notional. Supply chain finance also removes the payment risk from the supplier’s balance sheet, and in addition reduces the need for expensive insurance cover. In fact, we have experienced a number of cases where a supplier has applied for bankruptcy, the court has allowed the funds received under a supply chain finance program to remain separated from the pool of assets while restructuring the company out of bankruptcy. Further, our experience in the business has revealed that suppliers who are part of a supplier finance transaction often enjoy a preferred status. We believe that there is sufficient room to suggest that the treatment of supplier B in its commercial relationship with the buyer cannot be seen as “grossly unfair”. With this reasoning, buyers should be able to maintain payment periods beyond 60 days and yet comply with the EU Directive.

How RBS can help

RBS can help you to structure the best supply chain financing solution for your organisation and your suppliers. With a team of supply chain finance advisors and specialists dedicated to supply chain finance for implementation, system integration, supplier on-boarding and processing, the bank is at the forefront of the business. The industry acknowledges our position: RBS has been named “Best Supply Chain Finance Bank in Europe” for the last three years in a row, and has won the “Global Best Implementation of a Supply Chain Finance Deal” award twice in this period. RBS also offers a full analysis on how to optimise your company’s working capital, from cash-to-trade solutions, and can help find the best solution for your organisation. 

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