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Reset and Refocus Cash Management in a Post-Pandemic Landscape

Executive Summary

For most executives, 2020 was consumed by short-term crisis management in the face of Covid-driven turbulence. Now, they are entering a period of reflection as their companies reposition themselves for sustainable growth in a transformed landscape.

Cash managers are no exception. They are grappling with competing pressures: managing heightened credit and liquidity risks in the short term, while paying close attention to longer-term concerns, such as sustainable investing and the impact of low interest rates.

To find out how cash managers are addressing these pressures, In 2020 State Street Advisors partnered with Longitude, a Financial Times company, to carry out a global survey of 300 senior executives with cash management responsibilities. We also conducted in-depth interviews with treasurers across a range of sectors, and with cash investment leaders at investment firms.

Time to Get Proactive

If 2020 has one takeaway for cash managers, it is this: they need to take a more proactive approach. Our research shows that there are three clear trends supporting that message: 

Cash Investing at a Time of Crisis

Seeking Shelter

Safety and liquidity were the watchwords for cash managers in 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the globe, with governments enforcing economic shutdowns and investors selling off risk assets. Cash allocations came under close scrutiny as both non-financial corporates and financial institutions sought to shore up liquidity.

We went through the same issues as many multinationals, with uncertainty about liquidity and where the pandemic was going to take us as a business. That prompted us to draw down on our credit revolver and issue debt at the same time - and place some of that into cash holdings.”

- US-based corporate treasurer in the transport sector

According to data from the International Investment Funds Association (IIFA), MMFs were the only type of fund to post an increase in net assets as well as inflows of cash in the first quarter of 2020.1 The International Statistical Release showed that MMFs remained in high demand in Q2, attracting EUR 441 billion in net new money worldwide, though this was down from EUR 829 billion in Q1 (see Figure 4).

Among our survey respondents, 70% increased their overall allocations to cash in response to Covid-19. Increased allocations were largely directed into government MMFs (72%) and bank deposits (53%); optimising for liquidity was the clear priority amid heightened credit and liquidity risks (see Figure 5).

Source: State Street Global Advisors Reset and Refocus 2020 survey of 300 cash managers between 20 August 2020 and 11 September 2020. Q: To what extent do you think your cash investments are currently optimized for the following outcomes? (% scoring 4–5 on 1–5 scale of optimization)

After extreme volatility in Q1 and a market rebound in Q2, Q3 was subdued in comparison. But as the rising numbers of Covid-19 cases provoked many governments to reimpose lockdown measures in Q4, volatility increased.

Continued caution and actions to build sufficient liquidity within cash portfolios will remain a priority. For many of our survey respondents, the ongoing market and economic impact of the pandemic is likely to trigger a more active approach to their cash strategies over the next 12 months (see Figure 6). 

Source: State Street Global Advisors Reset and Refocus 2020 survey of 300 cash managers between 20 August 2020 and 11 September 2020. Q: To what extent will the following factors make you take a more active approach to how your cash investments are allocated? Based on a scale 0–10, 0 being not interested at all — would not make us adopt a more active and 10 being very significant extent — would definitely make us adopt a more active. The above depicts percentage of respondents that responded 8–10 on the overall scale.

Escaping Low Returns

There is no escaping the need for caution in the short term. However, corporates and investment organisations may need to pursue opportunities for growth as they adapt to the post-pandemic environment.

Our survey finds that 39% of organisations expect to unwind their elevated cash allocations within the next six months; for asset management firms, the figure is 46% (see Figure 7). 

Source: State Street Global Advisors Reset and Refocus 2020 survey of 300 cash managers between 20 August 2020 and 11 September 2020. Q: Over what timeframe do you expect to unwind your organization’s increased allocations to cash made during the initial response to Covid-19?

Major central banks and policymakers seem to be coalescing around lower interest rates and heavy stimulus, so for some organisations holding excess cash may continue to be a cost, rather than a source of return.

Cash managers are approaching this dilemma in a variety of ways. “We’re basically trying to convert any cash that we have, because in some cases we’re getting charged for having any surplus cash on the account,” says a Europe-based head of treasury at an automotive company. “We want to utilise as much as possible on a daily basis to pay down our loans. We’ve also had some group companies able to issue commercial paper — usually very short term — and get paid for it. Investors are willing to pay us to take cash off their hands in some cases.”

Our survey results suggest that some organisations are uneasy about simply accepting negative yields from existing cash allocations as the low-rate environment looks set to continue. Those respondents planning to adjust cash allocations over the next 12 months say the potential for higher returns and increased awareness of alternative cash investment solutions will be key motivations, as well as responding to liquidity requirements (see Figure 8). Potential solutions could include enhanced-cash and ultra-short-term strategies, as well as separately managed accounts.

Source: State Street Global Advisors Reset and Refocus 2020 survey of 300 cash managers between 20 August 2020 and 11 September 2020. Q: What will be the motivations for changing the way your organization manages its cash allocations over the next 12 months?

Covid-19: A Catalyst for Change in the Corporate Treasury

If the pandemic has driven some corporate treasurers to reconsider their cash allocations, it has had an even more dramatic impact on how they view their operating models.

Digital initiatives such as modernising treasury management systems and cash forecasting tools have been on corporate treasurers’ agendas for some time. But the pandemic has increased the urgency of these projects because treasurers need to gain better visibility of liquidity risks, become more actively engaged with cash portfolios and keep their teams connected remotely.

The corporate treasurers we surveyed cite cashflow forecasting amid the turbulence and accessing relevant data from across the organisation as key challenges. Meanwhile, 67% of treasurers at non-financial corporates and 83% at insurers say that the exodus from offices has forced them to accelerate digital transformation plans. 

One corporate treasurer in the transport sector says that his company benefitted from rolling out a more robust treasury management system just before the crisis. “It enabled us to connect all of our treasury operations, and that has been massive because everyone around the globe has this ability to view cash-flow positions on a real-time basis,” he says. “It has improved our ability to forecast our needs before they arise, and we can use in real time excess cash that may otherwise sit idle in one location.”

Several corporate treasurers we interviewed believe that the demands of 2020 have also changed their profession for the long term: treasurers may need to be more tech-savvy and understand how they can improve real-time data flows. “We’ve actually carved out part of the team to focus on advanced technologies,” says a group treasurer at a European technology hardware company. “So programming certain bots, and machine learning activities, which will start with smaller business cases and then be rolled out more widely.”

To accompany this shift, senior treasurers’ roles may need to be elevated to a more strategic level. They need to play a part in deciding where to go next in terms of investment in technology, and in upgrading policies and procedures. 

ESG Edges Into the Mainstream

Accelerating ESG Integration

The pandemic has also sparked greater impetus for ESG integration across all asset classes - and cash managers are experiencing this too.

Even before the pandemic, demand for ESG money-market products was rising. Assets in the sector rose 15% to US $52 billion during the first half of 2019, after growing 1% through all of 2018.3 This is just a small slice of the US $6 trillion money market sector, but our survey suggests that ESG is set for a rapid climb in cash: 69% of respondents think that the integration of ESG into cash will be mainstream within the next three years, and 56% say the performance of ESG MMFs in the wake of Covid-19 has increased these funds’ attractiveness.

Pressure from clients and needing to align investment practices with wider organisational CSR commitments are strong drivers of ESG integration for corporate treasurers, while asset managers view the application of ESG as an important way to mitigate risk in their cash portfolios (see Figure 10).

“ We realise that ESG is here to stay and that it’s a fast-growing market. We have groups within our organisation that are very active on sustainability issues, and weare working through this as a company.”

-US-based corporate treasurer in the transport sector

The survey respondents who identify as having a proactive, strategic approach to their cash investments more broadly - a group that makes up only 30% of our survey sample - place the most importance on applying ESG to their portfolios (see Figure 11).

This is no surprise, but it suggests that the current drivers to apply ESG to cash, which are partly driven by heightened attention from internal and external stakeholders, may not translate into action as quickly as some anticipate. For ESG cash investments to surge, there needs to be deeper engagement with external fund managers and banking partners, along with more education on ESG integration processes in cash.

Source: State Street Global Advisors Reset and Refocus 2020 survey of 300 cash managers between 20 August 2020 and 11 September 2020. Q: What are the primary motivations for your organization to apply ESG factors to its cash investments? (% ranking in top three)

Source: State Street Global Advisors Reset and Refocus 2020 survey of 300 cash managers between 20 August 2020 and 11 September 2020. Q: How important is ESG to your firm’s money market investment strategy? Based on a scale 0–10, 0 not important and 10 extremely important. The above depicts percentage of respondents that responded 8–10 on the overall scale

Addressing the Complexities of ESG in Cash

Organisations may have the ambition of piling cash into ESG assets, but executing those ambitions in a way that meets investment, regulatory and stakeholder demands is far from straightforward. The top concerns among our survey respondents mainly relate to the technical and informational challenges of implementing ESG within cash funds (see Figure 12).

Source: State Street Global Advisors Reset and Refocus 2020 survey of 300 cash managers between 20 August 2020 and 11 September 2020. Q: What would be your primary concerns in integrating ESG into your cash investments? (% ranking in top three)

The nature of the underlying assets in cash funds presents particular challenges for ESG integration. For instance, prime funds, where most ESG integration has been focused to date, typically hold a high concentration of around 30 AA- or A-rated global banks that access the market daily. This means that approaches to scoring banks’ ESG performance tend to lean heavily toward a focus on governance — because it is difficult to accurately assess environmental and social factors for global bank assets.

What’s more, applying an ESG filter could exclude some banks from an MMF’s approved list, meaning that funds would need to increase their exposure to other prime instruments in order to meet requirements around issuer concentration. This poses other ESG monitoring challenges. More broadly, every investment into an ESG MMF should come with significant scrutiny of the ESG filter or approach. Each fund has its own methods, and these have to align with the investor’s own beliefs. This is something that cash managers will have to discuss in detail with their providers, because the sector currently has no standardised methodology.

The impact on liquidity within cash funds is a lesser concern among our survey respondents when it comes to ESG, but it is an important consideration given the nascency of the market and the relatively recent introduction of many ESG-labelled MMFs.

“In any case where our organisation’s accounts make up somewhere around 15% of the assets, we would want to be absolutely sure that the instruments within the MMF are fully liquid and that there are no other impediments to being able to quickly get a large chunk of money out,” says a US-based head of cash investments at a global asset management firm.

The group treasurer in the technology hardware industry takes a similar stance. “The priority for us would be ensuring that the fund is made liquid enough so that we could call the money daily if we needed to,” he says. “While holding instruments that satisfy sustainability criteria.”

Getting cash managers comfortable with these processes and their implications for the make-up of money market securities within funds is a key step toward deeper integration of ESG. 

What’s Next?

Cash has often been overlooked as a strategic asset class, with many organisations happy to settle for allocations that provide low risk and operational ease. But now, more than ever, there is a need for deeper engagement with cash strategies.

As we move into 2021, the role of cash managers may be under scrutiny like never before - and they must be ready to rise to these challenges. This is how: 

About State Street Global Advisors

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