Enterprise funds distinguish between current and non-current assets and liabilities. It is possible to take advantage of this distinction to calculate working capital (i.e., current assets less current liabilities). The measure of working capital indicates the relatively liquid portion of total enterprise fund capital, which constitutes a margin or buffer for meeting obligations.
It is essential that a government maintain adequate levels of working capital in its enterprise funds to mitigate current and future risks (e.g., revenue shortfalls and unanticipated expenses) and to ensure stable services and fees.
Working capital is a crucial consideration, too, in long-term financial planning. Credit rating agencies consider the availability of working capital in their evaluations of continued creditworthiness. Likewise, laws and regulations may speak to appropriate levels of working capital for some enterprise funds.
GFOA recommends that local governments adopt a target amount of working capital to maintain in each of their enterprise funds. Ideally, targets would be formally described in a financial policy and/or financial plan.
GFOA recommends that governments use working capital as the measure of available margin or buffer in enterprise funds. Although as previously stated, working capital is defined as current assets minus current liabilities, government finance officers should be aware of certain characteristics of working capital that affect its use as a measure. Specifically, the “current assets” portion of working capital includes assets or resources that are reasonably expected to be realized in cash (e.g., accounts receivable) or consumed (e.g., inventories and prepaids) within a year, which leads to two considerations for an accurate calculation of working capital:
- Strength of collection practices. An appropriate allowance for uncollectibles should be established and the amount of the receivable that is expected to be collected in cash within one year should be determined in a manner that is consistent with the collection practices of the government. If the accounts receivable collection practices of the enterprise fund are inconsistent or weak, then less of the accounts receivable amount should be reported as current assets.
- Historical consumption of inventories and prepaids. The amount of inventories and prepaids included in current assets should be a realistic estimate of the amount that will be consumed in one year based on a historical usage pattern and current operating levels (inventories) or based on the time periods to which the items relate (prepaids).
Because the purposes, customers, and other characteristics of enterprise funds can vary widely, GFOA recommends that governments develop a target amount of working capital that best fits local conditions for each fund. However, GFOA recommends that under no circumstances should the target for working capital be less than forty-five (45) days worth of annual operating expenses1 and other working capital needs of the enterprise fund.* A target of 45-days would only be appropriate for those enterprise funds with the least amount of need for cushion or buffer.
In order to arrive at a customized target amount of working capital, governments should start with a baseline of ninety (90) days worth of working capital and then adjust the target based on the particular characteristics of the enterprise fund in question (using 45 days as the minimum acceptable level). The primary characteristics to think about when customizing a working capital target are presented below. The appendix to this Best Practices provides more detailed considerations for these characteristics as they pertain to common types of government enterprise funds.
- Support from general government. Some enterprise funds may be supported by general taxes or transfers from a general government. These enterprise funds may require lower levels of working capital if they are supported by these contributors. For a heavily subsidized enterprise fund the 45-day minimum working capital recommendation contained in this Best Practice might be met through support from the general government, if a financial buffer or cushion for the enterprise fund is to be provided by the general government (or other outside contributor).
- Transfers out. If the enterprise fund is expected to make a transfer to the general government or to some other fund, then this sort of claim on the enterprise fund’s assets may call for higher levels of working capital to maintain flexibility. Transfers could include an enterprise fund’s contributions to overhead/support functions, subsidies granted to other operations, or any other transfer of resources. Regardless of the rationale of the transfer, governments should take into account the claim on working capital when setting a target amount.
- Cash cycles. Does the enterprise fund experience large peaks and valleys in its cash position during the year? For example, a water enterprise fund may experience significantly higher levels of cash on hand during the summer months compared to the winter. Volatile cash cycles call for higher levels of working capital. Another consideration is the length of the billing cycle. A longer billing cycle would call for higher levels of working capital because the enterprise fund will have longer durations between major infusions of cash.
- Customer concentration. Is the enterprise fund dependent on a few customers for a large portion of its revenues or is the customer base diversified? For example, a port enterprise fund may be dependent on a few major shippers or commerce in a niche product. Lower customer concentration may mean that the enterprise fund can safely operate with lower levels of working capital.
- Demand for services. Does the enterprise fund face a steady demand for service or is demand potentially volatile, thereby leading to volatility in of income? For example, the demand for utility services is steady compared to demand for air travel. Also consider the impact of competitive position on demand. Direct competitors or the availability of reasonable substitutes could lead to greater volatility in demand for the enterprise fund’s services. More volatility implies greater need for working capital margins.
- Control over rates and revenues. Does the enterprise fund have the ability to change rates, implement new charges, or otherwise raise revenues from its customers in a simple fashion? For example, transit enterprise funds are often constrained from raising rates by political pressure. Other enterprise funds may be subject to a rate control board. Those that face competitors in their market may have less effective control over their rates and revenues. More revenue constrained enterprise funds may need higher levels of working capital.
- Asset age and condition. What is the age and condition of the enterprise fund's infrastructure? Older infrastructure has greater exposure to extraordinary repair needs. Enterprise funds with newer and/or well maintained capital assets may be able to operate with less working capital than other enterprise funds.
- Volatility of expenses. Are the expenses of the enterprise fund volatile or does the enterprise fund have a high degree of control over its expenses? For example, the expenses of a solid waste enterprise fund tend to be fairly stable throughout the year. In another example, water or sewer enterprise funds may be more vulnerable to large expense spikes from extreme weather. Enterprise funds with more stable expenses can safely operate with less working capital than other enterprise funds.
- Control over expenses. Consider the enterprise fund’s level of fixed and variable costs and the ability to reduce variable costs in response to lower revenues. For instance, if a convention center does not book an event, it does not need to hire temporary help and incur other expenditures in support of the event. An enterprise fund with a high percentage of operational costs which vary depending upon revenues or operating levels may operate with lower levels of working capital.
- Management plans for working capital. Working capital includes assets, which can include both truly unrestricted resources and resources that have internal limitations placed upon them (e.g., board-designated) and/or that may be committed for future capital spending. These amounts may appear as unrestricted on the balance sheet but, in actuality, may be unavailable in the future to serve as a buffer or tool to help manage financial risk. If these types of limitations exist, the working capital target should be adjusted to arrive at an amount that represents a true amount available as a tool to manage financial risk.
- Separate targets for operating and capital needs. Depending on the nature of the enterprise fund, governments might also consider designating separate targets for operating and capital needs, especially when the enterprise fund is very capital intensive. For example, there might be a separate amount identified for equipment replacement or debt service. In such a case, targets should be separately evaluated based on the particular features of the isolated amounts.
- Debt position. Enterprise funds often carry significant amounts of debt, which is used to acquire capital assets. The amount and type of debt an enterprise fund carries can have important ramifications for working capital targets. For example, an enterprise fund with a large amount of variable rate debt may need additional buffer to manage the risk associated with interest rate volatility. In addition, uneven and increasing or lump-sum debt principal payments to be made in future years may raise the amount of working capital that the enterprise fund should maintain. Viewing the amount of working capital in this broader context will help ensure that resources are available to make debt payments as they come due.
1 The recommendation is to use annual operating expenses which include depreciation expense. If, however, annual depreciation expense is significantly more or less than the anticipated capital outlays of the next period to be paid from working capital consideration should be given to adjusting the benchmark. An appropriate adjusted benchmark may be annual operating expenses – annual depreciation expense + capital outlays of the next period to be paid from working capital.
* Subject to the exception for heavily subsidized enterprises, described later in this Best Practice.