Interest and opportunity

By Ken Tysiac

Low interest rates provide opportunities and challenges for corporate finance professionals. These tips can help businesses succeed in a low-interest-rate environment.

Choose the right opportunity. Any new, low-cost capital opportunities created by low interest rates must be considered within the context of benchmarks set by the company. Often a board will establish a return-on-invested-capital (ROIC) standard that reflects the organization's risk appetite. This benchmark and other metrics that may be set by the board generally apply regardless of the cost of capital.

"Your rate of return first of all should be based on the risk of the project you're investing in," said Mark Mishler, CPA, the CFO and a principal at CFO Resource Management in Morristown, N.J. "You're not wanting to change that rate of return necessarily as interest rates change. Come up with a standard rate of return that you feel is risk-appropriate for ROIC."

Prioritize projects over portfolios. Because returns in an investment portfolio can be small in an environment with low interest rates, some companies look for opportunities to invest in projects that may bring larger returns.

"We will look more to self-finance something as opposed to borrowing because we don't have to incur the debt and we feel we can get a better return off the project we're doing than by putting it in the bank," said Bob Sannerud, CPA, CGMA, the CFO of Life Link III, a Minnesota provider of emergency air medical transportation.

Refinance, but only when appropriate. A refinancing of debt obligations makes sense when the math exercise results in net savings without sacrificing covenant restrictions and while enhancing future opportunities or expanded credit relationships, said Lisa Kelley, CPA, CGMA, managing director of the Floating Interest Corporation, a consulting firm whose services include temporary CFO services. Refinancing can be the right choice if it results in improved financial results and lowered risks or exposure, she said, adding that the senior leadership and the board need to be aligned to play a role in the execution.

"Develop a game plan, including current banks and debt holders, and engage new banks," she said. "Depending on the size of the debt and possible consortium of banks, the company may send the package out for bid to obtain not only competitive rates but improved, less restrictive covenants and other clauses."

Consider your competitors. During all market conditions and in all environments, companies need to assess competitors' products and services, geographies, pricing, and possible expansion plans, Kelley said. Constant evaluation of the needs of customers, suppliers, investors, and even the company's mission is essential.

In an environment with low interest rates, Mishler said he looks at competitors — particularly if they are public — to see if they have entered into a large credit facility. This could indicate they are making an acquisition or a big investment in a new technology or business line.

"I look at that as an early warning sign that they could end up changing the industry dynamics," he said.

— By Ken Tysiac, the JofA's editorial director. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com.

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