Debt as a Source of Risk in the Supply Chain

What debt conditions, putting pressure on our global economy , should procurement pros make themselves familiar with? And how can we mitigate supplier risk? 

This blog was written by William B. Danner

Two leading authorities on corporate financial health, Dr. Edward Altman, Professor of Finance, Emeritus, at New York University’s Stern School of Business and creator of the Altman Score, and CreditRiskMonitor Founder and CEO Jerry Flum, recently presented a webinar to hundreds of supply chain and credit professionals about today’s mammoth corporate debt problem.

As the primary point of contact between their company and suppliers – not to mention a first line of defense against third party risk – procurement and supply chain professionals should be concerned with the degree to which public companies are leveraged today.

Dr. Altman and Jerry Flum identified three unprecedented debt-related conditions, putting pressure on the global economy today that procurement should be aware of from a risk mitigation perspective:

1. Compare debt to GDP

One of the best ways to put debt levels into perspective is to compare debt to GDP. In the U.S., total debt is currently at a historically huge 3.5 times GDP. Of this total, corporate debt is large and growing. Overall debt levels are so large we must be concerned about the investors who own this debt, not just the borrowers. A 10% decline in value would destroy wealth equivalent to 35% of GDP, with a major effect on spending. Junk debt (high-yield bonds and leveraged loans) has soared to $2.5 – 3.0 trillion world-wide.

2. Benign credit cycle

Now in the 8th year of what is usually a 4-7 “benign credit cycle”, many executive teams have let their guard down, forgetting the lessons of the past. As Dr. Altman explained in the webinar, a ‘benign credit cycle’ has four characteristics:

  • Low default rates
  • High recovery rates when bonds default
  • Low interest rates, yields, and spreads
  • High liquidity

In other words, credit is cheap and easily available to publicly traded companies, which leads many companies to take on more debt. A great deal of debt has been issued to pay dividends and buy back stock, making corporations riskier.

3. Corporate valuations

Corporate valuations are inflated, with market values far higher than historical norms. Private equity firms are paying as much as 10 to 11 times cash flow for acquisitions. High stock prices make corporations less risky, but stock prices can fall.

Whether companies give in to the mania or make a disciplined choice to break free from the pack, procurement and supply chain professionals can take action to mitigate supplier risk and prepare their companies to handle the downturn when the next recession inevitably comes.

Suggested Steps for Supply Chain Professionals to Mitigate Supplier Risk :

1. Build in a monitoring process

Don’t stop with an initial vendor screening. Companies’ financial health can change and even a periodic review simply isn’t good enough. Avoid surprises and react quickly to change.

2. Get to know the vendors you do business with well

Ask questions such as:

  • “Who is the corporation we are paying? Is it under a different name?”
  • “Are they actually manufacturing the product or is someone else?”
  • “Where are their operations?”

Be cautious, especially if you are not getting clear answers.

3. Don’t over-do it

Not all your vendors will present a problem if they enter financial risk. Ask yourself:

  • “Is the commodity/product easy to replace? Is this a one-time contract?”
  • “Or, could this vendor create a major issue with our ability to ship on time, the quality of our product, or with our customer satisfaction?”

Only if you find that it’s a “yes” to the second question do you need extensive review.

4. Incorporate financial analysis in your key vendor review process

Be sure to include multiple periods of financial statements in your review to see trends. If you are finding it difficult to get financial information, be wary. 

5. Compare your vendors with the financial condition of their peers

You may find more secure sources of supply.

6. When appropriate, take a hard look at the financial stability of your vendor’s suppliers

They are part of your supply chain and could be a significant exposure.

7. Have an open and honest communications process

You’ll want to explore with your vendor the performance factors that directly impact you such as shipping reliability, product quality, etc. but also financial stability. Knowledge is power and knowing all the facts gives you the time to identify and prepare alternative source(s) of supply.

8. Look at more radical options if a vendor looks too weak

  • Make vs. buy decision
  • Engineer a stronger vendor into the supply chain
  • Buy the troubled vendor, or
  • Help arrange for a preferred vendor to purchase the troubled vendor.

The fact of the matter is that today’s debt situation is historically unprecedented. We can’t be certain of the timing of a change in the financial markets, or what will serve as the trigger, but a shift is coming – so now is the time to prepare and put your processes and procedures in place.

The full webinar can be viewed here.

William B. Danner has been president of CreditRiskMonitor since May 2007. Bill has more than 35 years of financial and information services experience. 

Prior to CreditRiskMonitor he worked in brand strategy and business development consulting for financial services clients at his own firm, Danner Marketing. Previously he was at Citigate Albert Frank, a marketing communications company in New York City, where he worked on a variety of leading financial services accounts including Reuters Instinet and the CFA Institute. From 1997 to 2001, Bill was Vice President of Market Development at MetLife’s employee-benefits business. Before joining MetLife, he was at Dun & Bradstreet, most recently as VP Strategic Planning. He spent the first decade of his career at GE Information Services and GE Capital.

Bill earned a BA in economics from Harvard College and an MBA from Harvard Business School.