Adecade ago, treasurers were the hidden gnomes of the ?corporate world. They toiled in back offices, managing company financial flows and cash. But they rarely appeared in the spotlight.
“Traditionally, a successful treasury department was one that remained invisible,” a report from the sector’s own trade body, the Association for Financial Professionals, noted wryly this week. “If it performed its tasks successfully .?.?.?senior management paid little to no attention.”
How times change. This week the AFP also released a twice yearly survey of its members, which suggests those treasury gnomes are suddenly receiving more love from their bosses. Some 84 per cent of treasurers say their role has changed significantly in the past couple of years because they have been pulled into wider strategic debates; instead of just managing cash they are opining on issues such as tax policy, mergers and acquisitions and supply chain management too. In fact, they are attracting so much attention, that three-quarters of treasurers say they have “strong” or “excellent” access to the C-suite, and 83 per cent expect their role to become even more important – and strategic – in the next five years.
The change is so marked that trade bodies are scrambling to respond. though the AFP used to focus on traditional treasury skills, such as portfolio investment, it is now emphasising “leadership” and “communication” training; apparently, those long-ignored gnomes need help with being suddenly thrust into the spotlight. “Treasurers tell us that in the last three to five years, their role has really changed,” observes Craig Martin, head of the AFP.
It might seem tempting to dismiss this as just a minor wrinkle of corporate anthropology; treasurers are certainly not the only business species to have seen a shifting mandate. As John Tus, the corporate treasurer of Honeywell, observes, the role of the company “controller” also altered a decade ago in America, when the Sarbanes-Oxley accounting rules were ushered in.
The current trend reflects a wider tale. One factor driving this is that the 2008 credit crisis forced executives to pay more attention to low-probability, high-impact risks; in the aftermath of those shocks, treasurers have been roped into a wider debate about risk.
Another reason for the shift is the peculiar state of the wider financial world – as demonstrated by yesterday’s unprecedented action from the European Central Bank. Since 2009 corporate cash flows have surged, but corporate investment has been low and companies have not handed much to shareholders. As a result, US corporate cash pools hit a record high of almost $2tn at the end of last year, a 50 per cent increase from their level in 2007, according to data from the Federal Reserve and Treasury Strategies; other estimates put the number even higher.
This means that treasurers face growing pressure to deploy cash. But with interest rates at rock bottom lows – or partly negative in the eurozone – it is tough to find returns. Hence treasurers are being asked to “critically evaluate and optimise the various strategic uses of cash”, and explore “operational alternatives such as capital expenditures, acquisitions or product development”, says Alex Wittenberg, a partner at Oliver Wyman, a consultancy. They are also turning to “unconventional business opportunities such as supplier finance, peer-to-peer lending or customer loyalty and payment strategies”, he says.
Those back office gnomes are being asked to become wizards. Or to put it another way, the unorthodox tactics being used by companies such as Pfizer and Apple to deal with trapped cash or manage their balance sheets are being widely copied.
Is this new spotlight on treasurers a good thing? Yes, if you believe that companies should take a more integrated approach in managing their affairs – or if you are an ambitious treasurer, or a management consultant trying to sell advice.
But no one should forget that this trend is also a corollary of a deeply distorted financial world. If America had a less nonsensical corporate tax code, there would be less incentive for arbitrage games. And if executives felt more confident about the economic outlook – in the eurozone or anywhere else – they would be using more of their cash to invest in factories and staff, instead of resorting to “unconventional business opportunities”.
Perhaps this is just a passing phase (intriguingly, AFP data suggests that American corporate cash piles are now growing at a slower pace than last year). But as long as central banks keep engaging in unconventional monetary experiments – pace the ECB – one side effect will be that corporate treasurers will face pressure to become more “creative”.
Better just hope that the gnomes do not end up throwing all caution to the wind in the process; if so, they could end up visible in the future, for all the wrong reasons.
行业组织美国财务管理专业人士协会（Association of Financial Professional，简称AFP）近期发布的一份报告冷幽默地指出：“传统上，成功的财务管理部门是能够一直让自己不引起注意的部门。如果该部门成功地履行了职能……则高级管理层几乎不会关注它。”
这意味着，财务管理人员面对的现金管理压力日益加大。但由于利率维持在极低水平——欧元区甚至出现部分负利率——要实现现金回报非常困难。奥纬咨询(Oliver Wyman)合伙人亚历克斯?威滕伯格(Alex Wittenberg)表示，因此财务管理人员被要求“认真评估并优化不同的现金使用策略”，并探索“资本支出、收购、产品开发等其他投资经营活动”。他表示，财务管理人员也开始转而尝试“供应商融资、点对点(P2P)贷款或顾客忠诚度与支付策略等非常规的商业机会”。