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Working Capital Cycle

Step-by-Step Guide to Understanding Working Capital Cycle

Last Updated April 21, 2024

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Working Capital Cycle

How Does the Working Capital Cycle Work?

The working capital cycle monitors the operational efficiency and near-term liquidity risk of a given company.

The working capital cycle, or “cash conversion cycle,” counts the number of days needed by a company to fulfill its unmet current operating liabilities and collect the cash proceeds from customers on its earned revenue.

By monitoring a company’s working capital cycle metric, the inefficiencies in its business model and opportunities for improvement for value creation can be understood.

Therefore, the working capital cycle is a practical method to analyze the operating efficiency and liquidity of a particular company, including its near-term risks.

In practice, the most common use cases for which corporations and investors alike measure the working capital cycle metric for include:

  • Historical Trend Analysis → The trajectory in the working capital cycle can be tracked to confirm that a company’s operating efficiency is moving in the right direction.
  • Industry Benchmark Analysis – The working capital cycle of a particular company – including each individual component – can be compared to the industry average (or sector) to determine its relative standing with regard to its industry peers.
  • Liquidity Analysis → Since the change in net working capital (NWC) impacts free cash flow (FCF), measuring the working capital cycle is a method used to understand the current financial state of a company in terms of liquidity risk. A prolonged working capital cycle implies more cash is tied up in working capital, resulting in less free cash flow (FCF) and the necessity to perhaps consider raising external financing.

How to Calculate Working Capital Cycle

The process to calculate the working capital cycle can be broken into five steps.

  1. Calculate Days Inventory Outstanding (DIO) → The days inventory outstanding (DIO), or “Inventory Days,” is the estimated time a company needs to replace its inventory.
  2. Calculate Days Sales Outstanding (DSO) → The days sales outstanding (DSO), or “A/R Days”, is the estimated number of days needed by a company to collect cash from customers who paid on credit.
  3. Determine Operating Cycle → The operating cycle is the sum of a company’s days inventory outstanding (DIO) and days sales outstanding (DSO).
  4. Calculate Days Payable Outstanding (DPO) → The days payable outstanding (DPO), or “A/P Days,” is the approximate number of days it requires a company to meet its unpaid invoices owed to suppliers.
  5. Calculate Working Capital Cycle → The final step to compute a company’s working capital cycle is to deduct the operating cycle by days payable outstanding (DPO).

Components of the Working Capital Cycle

If a company’s net working capital (NWC) increases, its free cash flow (FCF) declines, while an increase causes its free cash flow to rise.

  • Increase in Net Working Capital (NWC) → Less Free Cash Flow (FCF)
  • Decrease in Net Working Capital (NWC) → Greater Free Cash Flow (FCF)

General Rules of Thumb

  • Increase in Accounts Receivable and Inventory → Cash Outflow (“Use”)
  • Increase in Accounts Payable → Cash Inflow (“Source”)
  • Decrease in Accounts Receivable and Inventory → Cash Inflow (“Source”)
  • Decrease in Accounts Payable → Cash Outflow (“Use”)

Working Capital Cycle Formula

The working capital cycle formula is as follows.

Working Capital Cycle = Days Inventory Outstanding (DIO) + Days Sales Outstanding (DSO)Days Payable Outstanding (DPO)

The components of the working capital cycle metric are each listed in the following section.

  • Days Inventory Outstanding (DIO) = (Average Inventory ÷ Cost of Goods Sold) × 365 Days
  • Days Sales Outstanding (DSO) = (Average Accounts Receivable ÷ Revenue) × 365 Days
  • Operating Cycle = Days Inventory Outstanding (DIO) + Days Sales Outstanding (DSO)
  • Days Payable Outstanding (DPO) = (Average Accounts Payable ÷ Cost of Goods Sold) × 365 Days

What is a Good Working Capital Cycle?

The working capital cycle matters because the change in net working capital (NWC) impacts a company’s free cash flow (FCF) profile and liquidity.

For the most part, a shorter working capital cycle is perceived positively as a sign of operational efficiency, and vice versa for a longer cycle.

  • Shorter Conversion Cycle → The shorter the working capital cycle, the less time a company needs to convert its operating current assets into cash on hand.
  • Longer Conversion Cycle → On the other hand, a longer working capital cycle signifies inefficient business practices and poor cash management. If there is a considerable time lag between the date on which revenue is “earned” (and recognized) and the date of cash collection, there are likely inefficiencies that must be fixed.

If the working capital cycle is trending downward relative to that in the past, that tends to be viewed as a positive sign, whereas upward movement points towards operational inefficiencies.

How to Improve the Working Capital Cycle

The core drivers that can improve the working capital cycle of a company include the following factors:

Working Capital Changes Description
Reduction in Days Inventory Outstanding (DIO)
  • The time in which inventory sits idle in the company’s possession is reduced. The effective management of inventory (and avoiding stockpiling) requires understanding historical demand and placing orders accordingly.
  • Furthermore, the management team must adjust the size of orders based on seasonality, cyclicality, and fluctuations in consumer demand in the market.
Contraction in Days Sales Outstanding (DSO)
  • The company retrieves cash from customers who paid on credit more quickly.
  • For instance, the implementation of an automated invoice system that notifies customers of their outstanding balance could improve the efficiency at which a company collects cash payments.
Extension in Days Payable Outstanding (DPO)
  • Given increased scale and bargaining power with suppliers, “stretching” the date by which a payment is due becomes more of an option to a company.
  • The contractual terms with suppliers and vendors are more favorable for companies of a larger size.
  • In particular, suppliers with a limited number of customers are more likely to agree to unfavorable terms to mitigate the risk of losing a critical customer.

Nuances in Interpreting Working Capital Cycle

The underlying drivers of the working capital metric must be analyzed to confirm the validity of the findings.

  • Increase in A/R Days → The receivables of a company could increase substantially after a shift in its business model, where customers can now pay in installment payments. While the pace of the cash conversion might have declined, the trade-off could be worth the increase in near-term liquidity risk.
  • Increase in Days Payable → A company’s days payable outstanding (DPO) is normally a positive sign, unless the extension stems from its inability to pay its suppliers or vendors on time. Said differently, sometimes, the company cannot meet its short-term obligations even if it wanted to because of insufficient cash, i.e. the “stretching” of payables was not by choice.

Working Capital Cycle Calculator

We’ll now move to a modeling exercise, which you can access by filling out the form below.


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Working Capital Cycle Calculation Example

Suppose we’re tasked with calculating the working capital cycle of a company to measure its operational efficiency on a pro forma basis.

In Year 1, the company had the following working capital metrics, which will serve as our starting point.

Working Capital Components

  • Days Inventory Outstanding (DIO) = 20
  • Days Sales Outstanding (DSO) = 80
  • Days Payable Outstanding (DPO) = 40

Given those initial assumptions, a potential interpretation – in the absence of industry data – is that the weak point in the company’s business model is the collection of cash from customers who paid on credit.

On the other hand, the company’s working capital management for inventory and payables seems reasonable.

In Year 1, the company’s working capital cycle is 60 days, which is the time needed to convert inventory into cash, collect cash from credit purchases, and fulfill its outstanding payables to suppliers or vendors.

  • Working Capital Cycle = 20 DIO + 80 DSO – 40 DPO = 60 Days

Working Capital Cycle Calculation Example

Starting in Year 2, we’ll insert a step function based on the following assumptions on the year-over-year (YoY) change in each metric.

Working Capital Step Function

  • Days Inventory Outstanding (DIO) = (0.5)
  • Days Sales Outstanding (DSO) = (1.0)
  • Days Payable Outstanding (DPO) = 2.0

Since inventory days and A/R days are projected to decrease, the impact on working capital days should be positive (i.e. more operational efficiency). In contrast, the company’s days payable are expected to increase.

By the end of the forecast period, the company’s working capital cycle decreased by 14 days, from 60 days to 46 days in Years 1 and 5, respectively.

Working Capital Cycle Calculator

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