【英语财经】财务管理人员走向前台 Corporate gnomes become kings of the cash mountain

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2014-6-20 06:16

小艾摘要: 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.“Traditionall ...
Corporate gnomes become kings of the cash mountain
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.

十年前,财务管理人员都是隐藏在公司里的“宝藏守护人”。他们在后台部门辛勤地工作,为公司管理资金流与现金。但他们很少出现在聚光灯下。

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。”

时代变迁得太快了。近期AFP还发布了一份对其会员的调查报告(每年两次),结果显示“宝藏守护人”突然得到了老板更多的钟爱。约84%的财务管理人员表示,过去两年他们的角色发生了显著变化,因为他们被拉入范围更广的战略讨论;他们不再仅仅管理现金,还开始就税务政策、并购和供应链管理等问题发表意见。事实上,他们现在非常受关注,有四分之三的人表示,他们有“很大”或“非常好”的机会进入“首席某某官系列”;83%的人预计未来5年里,他们的角色甚至将变得更重要、更具战略性。

这一变化十分明显,以致行业组织纷纷做出回应。尽管AFP以往关注组合投资等传统的财务管理技能,但现在也强调“领导力”和“沟通”培训;这些长期被忽视的“宝藏守护人”突然被置于聚光灯下,显然需要帮助。AFP负责人克雷格?马丁(Craig Martin)表示:“财务管理人员告诉我们,过去3到5年他们的角色的确发生了变化。”

人们似乎很容易忽略掉这一趋势,认为它只是公司人类学的细微波澜;在公司中,角色发生转变的群体肯定不仅限于财务管理人员。正如霍尼韦尔(Honeywell)的公司财务主管约翰?图斯(John Tus)所认为,十年前开始实施《萨班斯-奥克斯利法》(Sarbanes-Oxley)规定的会计准则时,美国公司“内审人员”的角色也发生了变化。

当前这一趋势反映出一种更宏观的变化。推动因素之一,是2008年的信贷危机迫使高管们更关注低概率、高冲击的风险;在那些冲击之后,财务管理人员已被拖入了范围更广的风险讨论中。

推动这一转变的另一个因素在于宏观金融世界所处的特殊状态——正如日前欧洲央行(ECB)史无前例的举动所体现的那样。自从2009年以来,公司现金流猛增,但公司的投资水平一直很低,同时也没有向股东返还多少现金。美联储(Fed)和咨询公司Treasury Strategies的数据显示,结果是,去年年底美国公司的现金池规模达到了创纪录的近2万亿美元,较2007年增加了50%;其他渠道估算的数字甚至更高。

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”。

这些后台部门的“宝藏守护人”正被要求变成“巫师”。换言之,辉瑞(Pfizer)和苹果(Apple)等公司采用的处理积压现金或管理资产负债表的非正统手法,正在被大规模复制。

聚光灯投向财务管理人员是好事吗?是的,如果你认为公司应采取更综合的思路处理自身事务的话,或者如果你是有野心的财务管理人员或者努力推销建议的管理顾问的话。

但谁也不应忘记,这一趋势也是当前金融世界深度扭曲的必然产物。如果美国的企业税法不那么荒谬,那么公司进行套利活动的动机也不会那么强。同时,如果高管们对经济前景更有信心——无论在欧元区还是其他地区——那么他们会把更多现金投资于工厂和员工,而不是求助于“非常规的商业机会”。

或许这只是一个过渡阶段(有趣的是,AFP数据显示,美国公司现金储备量目前的增长速度慢于去年)。但只要央行继续进行非常规货币实验——与欧洲央行齐头并进——一个副作用将是,公司财务管理人员将面临越来越大的压力,不得不变得更有“创造性”。

但愿这些“宝藏守护人”在新趋势中最终不要把谨慎完全抛掉;不然的话,他们在未来的曝光度可能很高,但原因都不光彩。

译者/邢嵬

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