This is the sixth article in a series on buy-side considerations. In this series, we will cover buy-side topics from the perspective of middle-market companies looking to enter the acquisition market. If you wish to read the rest of the series, click here.

In middle market transactions, some of the most crucial points of negotiation are the net working capital targets agreed upon by the buyer and seller. Net working capital targets set a defined minimum amount of working capital that the buyer requires the seller to leave in the business at the close of a transaction.

Given that net working capital targets can have a direct effect on the final purchase price of a transaction, understanding the how and why of these types of negotiations is crucial for buyers looking to negotiate deals that not only look good at closing but also pass the test as the buyer takes over the operation of the newly acquired business.

Defining Net Working Capital

Before negotiating working capital targets and benchmarks, it is important that the buyers, sellers, and their advisors in a deal setting have a clear understanding of what will and won’t be included in net working capital for the purposes of closing the deal.

By the book, net working capital is defined as current assets less current liabilities. While this definition is acceptable for financial statement analysis and other accounting-adjacent applications, in the M&A universe, the most commonly used measure of net working capital is cash-free, debt-free net working capital. This is the standard definition of net working capital in a deal setting because it assumes that a seller will retain the cash in the business after paying off any short-term debts that the business owes. These debts could potentially include related party notes and lines of credit with banks.

In an M&A transaction, net working capital and net working capital targets are often defined terms in both the letter of intent and the purchase agreement. For buyers, it is crucial to understand these definitions because the basis of the net working capital calculation could directly affect the final purchase price.

Why Are Net Working Capital Negotiations Necessary in a Deal?

Net working capital targets are necessary in deal settings because the amount of net working capital in a business often fluctuates from month-to-month and even week-to-week. Therefore, it is important that a benchmark or base level of net working capital to be left in the business at closing is agreed upon by both the buyer and the seller.

For example, a seller could aggressively collect accounts receivable in the months leading to closing in an effort to convert these receivables into cash. Conversely, a seller could let accounts payable inflate in the months leading to closing and theoretically retain a higher amount of cash. Even absent any sort of concentrated effort to impact the working capital, most companies have some level of fluctuation in their various balance sheet accounts. Setting a net working capital target negates the impact of these fluctuations and prevents the seller from “gaming” cash and working capital levels in anticipation of a transaction.

If net working capital levels at closing are not in line with the targets established in the negotiation process, an adjustment to the purchase price can be triggered.

The purchase price adjustment related to net working capital is typically applied after the close of the transaction – based on a final accounting as of the closing date. Usually, a defined amount of the purchase price is set aside in a short-term escrow specifically for any negative adjustment related to the final net working capital balance. If the final determination of net working capital comes in below the established threshold, then the buyer retains funds from the escrow to make up for this shortfall. If the final net working capital figure is above the threshold, the buyer makes an additional payment to the seller for the excess amount.

From the buyer’s perspective, it is important to negotiate an escrow amount that is large enough to cover any potential swings in net working capital that could result at closing.

Negotiating Net Working Capital Targets

The most practical and commonly used method of setting net working capital targets and benchmarks is to calculate a historical average amount of net working capital needed to fund a company’s operations. This is most often done by calculating the average net working capital on a monthly basis over the twelve months preceding the valuation date used in the transaction.

Calculating an average over a historical period removes any seasonality effects and reveals a “normalized” level of net working capital needed to support the company’s ongoing operations with no capital disruption. Since valuations are typically predicated on trailing twelve months EBITDA (or some other measure of earnings), it is typical that the lookback period for the net working capital target calculation coincides with the twelve-month period in which EBITDA is calculated. In other words, the calculation of a net working capital target should be on the same historical basis as that of the measure of earnings used to support the transaction value.

In situations where EBITDA from the most recent period is deemed to be unsustainable or if there is significant short-term growth underlying the transaction value, it might be necessary to calculate the net working capital benchmark by applying a percentage (based on historical averages) to an ongoing revenue figure in order to consider that net working capital needs will change as revenue either declines or increases post-closing.

While conducting due diligence, buyers may find potential adjustments to certain balance sheet items that comprise net working capital, which can affect the calculation of the net working capital target. Buyers will want to confirm that the seller has properly accrued (both historically and at closing) for certain items such as accrued vacation, payroll, bonuses, warranty obligations, etc. These potential adjustments can add another layer of complexity to the negotiation of net working capital targets, as buyers may find that there is an excess or deficiency of net working capital at certain points in the historical lookback period.

Sellers will often make the argument that they have historically operated with excess working capital based on comparisons to industry averages. Buyers should always approach any “excess” adjustment of this type with caution. It can be difficult to understand why the selling company would have operated with this “excess” when the capital could have been paid out to shareholders or invested in another way. With further analysis, there is often an explanation as to why the “excess” working capital has historically been carried on the company’s balance sheet.

As an example, the “excess” could have historically resulted from a quick turnover of payables such that the company has lower current liabilities than the industry average. The quick payments may have earned the company discounts from its vendors, which likely equated to higher profit margins. If the cash flow figures underlying the transaction value include the benefit of these discounts, then it could be double counting to adjust the net working capital to a “normalized” level.

One question that will arise in the negotiations is whether a specific dollar amount or a range should be utilized as the net working capital target. The logic of applying a range is straightforward – it prevents minor variances from creating a post-closing adjustment and reduces the likelihood of disagreements between the buyer and seller regarding the calculation of net working capital to the specific dollar. A word of caution on ranges: if the range is left too wide, it invites the same type of balance sheet “gaming” from the seller that the setting of a target was meant to prevent in the first place.

Our experience has been that, if a range is preferred, it should be tight enough that any amount that would be potentially gained from the closing working capital figure falling at the bottom or top of the range should be immaterial to both the buyer and the seller.

Concluding Thoughts

Having a team of seasoned advisors to assist with the acquisition and due diligence process can ensure buyers that the net working capital targets, and thus the purchase price, are set at levels that are appropriate and fair to the buyer. Mercer Capital has acted in this capacity in hundreds of transactions over our 30+ years of existence. If you are looking for an experienced team of professionals to assist in the due diligence and negotiation process, please reach out to one of our Transaction Advisory Group professionals to assist.

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