How Businesses Can Hedge Against Increasing Inflation

Inflation is on the rise. According to a recent Economic News Release from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the Producer Price Index for final demand grew by 1 percent in March. February saw “final demand prices” grow by 0.5 percent; and January’s final demand prices increased by 1.3.

According to BLS, the Producer Price Index (PPI) consists of many indicators and evaluates the mean difference over a period of time for the “selling prices received by domestic producers of goods and services.” In other words, PPI is a way to gauge how much manufacturers and similar businesses face in increased costs due to inflation.

This inflation gauge takes a broad survey of approximately 10,000 unique manufactured items and the amount of inflation businesses face. The BLS’ PPI measure looks at items produced by fisheries, food growers, miners, manufacturers, etc. It also includes 72 percent of production of the service sector, as the 2007 Economic Census found.

Hedging with Futures  

One way to reduce risk is by hedging. A popular example is with futures contracts. Much like buying an insurance policy, futures contracts can reduce the impact of a negative event, such as a spike in commodity prices.

If a company is worried about the price of oil for their planes or coffee for their cafes, they can enter into a futures contract to buy a designated quantity of that particular commodity at an agreed-upon price, with the ability to exercise it on or before the expiration date.

With a futures contract, a company can better plan its budget based on the contract’s parameters and the cost of the contract. If the price of the commodity rises in the future due to increased demand or limited supplies, the business can save money by taking delivery of the particular commodity at the originally agreed upon price through the futures contract.

Since the goal of hedging is to protect against losses, it’s important to weigh the cost of the futures contract. If the price of the commodity falls for the above-mentioned futures contract example, the company would still be forced to buy the commodity at the contract’s price, which would be a poor investment. If, however, it sells the futures contract before its expiration to avoid receiving the physical commodity at a poor price, that would lead to a loss. Having a contingency plan to reduce losses in futures contracts is always a good part of a hedging strategy.

Negotiate with Suppliers

Much like businesses enter into specified timeframes with suppliers, companies can do the same with their purchased supplies to provide more predictable prices. When the PPI measurement is used, the purchasing company can contract with its supplier to settle on the initial product’s price, and how price fluctuations will be determined going forward. Since the PPI is released monthly, the price can adjust accordingly (decrease or increase, depending on the PPI) for the supplier and purchasing company. It can be re-evaluated every three, six or 12 months, for example.

While there’s no predicting the future and if and how much commodity prices may rise and impact businesses, the more tools that businesses have to mitigate increased costs, the more likely they are to survive rising inflation.

Sources

https://www.bls.gov/ppi/ppifaq.htm

https://leg.mt.gov/bills/2007/fnpdf/HB0204.pdf

https://www.bls.gov/news.release/ppi.nr0.htm

How Companies Can Become More Nimble During the Product Lifecycle

Product LifecycleThe majority of U.S. industrial product company CFOs have shared concerns that COVID-19 would impact their businesses negatively. For companies that develop and manufacture products, understanding the product lifecycle and how to work around crises like the COVID-19 pandemic can be effective to help improve the longevity and success of companies.

Market Development Stage

According to the Harvard Business Review (HBR), the first stage of the product lifecycle is market development. This normally happens when a company introduces a new product for sale. There is usually little demand at this point; instead, demand has to be cultivated among consumers.

Factors that impact the rate of introduction include the product’s novelty; how practical it is for consumers’ existing problems; and how the new product impacts the demand of existing products. For example, if there’s a proven cure for a chronic medical condition, the product would have a more effective ability to penetrate the market versus an unproven product – be it a medical device, cell phone, etc.

Market Growth Stage

HBR calls the second stage the market growth stage or takeoff stage. When a product is successful, it enters this stage because demand begins to grow exponentially due to consumers expressing interest in the new product.

From there, competitors looking to leverage the “used apple policy” will produce either knock-offs or improved versions of the new product. Businesses competing in this product category begin standing apart – via their product and/or brand. Ongoing adaptation is fluid and contingent based on what competitors are doing, normally through balancing pricing or optimizing distribution channels.

Market Maturity Stage

This stage sees equilibrium in consumer demand. The best way to understand when this is achieved is when the target demographics are consuming the intended products. Competing companies will focus on standing out in the market by providing niche solutions through customer service, comprehensive warranties, etc. Producers are maintaining relationships with distribution outlets for in-store product promotion and shelf space; also, more favorable distribution agreements normally occur during this stage.

Market Decline Stage

This stage is evident when consumers fall out of love with an item and stop buying it. As too much capacity for the product floods the market and fewer and fewer producers survive, businesses might propose mergers for survival.

Ways to Extend the Product Lifecycle

While the Covid-19 pandemic has taught everyone how to live and work as safely as possible, it’s also shown that businesses need to be constantly reviewing how they can make their product lifecycles more agile.

One way to extend the product lifecycle for a new product is by creating a positive, memorable first impression. An unfavorable first experience might create negative repercussions beyond what would be normal.

For example, how the product was delivered to the customer can make an impact on the customer’s experience. HBR gives the example of companies that produce home appliances. If a small, independent network of family-run appliance stores can deliver white glove service for customers (going above and beyond to make a lasting, positive first impression, including implementing COVID-19 safe practices), they can make a positive first impression. This will increase the likelihood of customers wanting to share their good experience with others.

However, when it comes to merchandising the product, using a more segmented distribution channel via independent appliance stores will take a lot more effort compared to larger, corporate resellers with turnkey distribution capabilities.

Another way, especially to be mindful of COVID-19 safety precautions, is to remove the chance for miscommunication. When working remotely and using chat and/or video conferencing tools, it is important to document all processes, including sample layouts and designs, to ensure different departments are on the same page.

Staying in communication with existing and potential clients is crucial for product launches – either new or enhanced versions. Looking at the next 90 days ahead, evaluate how each customer’s business is doing – are they fighting for survival or is it nearly business as usual? If a customer is all-hands-on-deck to get cashflow to stay in business, it might not be the right time for deployment. But if the new product or enhancement can increase efficiency, it might be right to contact them ASAP.

While every product lifecycle is unique, taking steps to become more nimble can potentially make the difference between a company surviving or thriving during a crisis.

Sources

https://www.pwc.com/us/en/library/covid-19/manufacturing-operations-strategy-coronavirus.html

https://www.pwc.com/us/en/library/covid-19/pwc-covid-19-cfo-pulse-survey.html

https://hbr.org/1965/11/exploit-the-product-life-cycle

Some Businesses Rely on Line of Credit to Escape Damages Caused by Pandemic

As businesses attempt to work their way through to a post-pandemic world, there are various means to bridge the financial gap. As recommended by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), some companies can use a line of credit to reach international customers or opportunities outside the United States to make up for the damage COVID-19 caused with fewer domestic sales. How can businesses use a line of credit to increase their chance of survival and pivot to profitability as we move through 2021?

According to Debt.org, a business line of credit functions like any other line of credit that uses revolving debt. Businesses use a portion of their line of credit to meet financial obligations and repay based on the lender’s terms. Common lines of credit borrowing limits can range from $1,000 to $250,000 and are generally not secured against the business’ assets, accounts receivables, etc.

As a U.S. Bank study found, via the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), 82 percent of companies that go out of business do so because of inadequate cash flow management. The NFIB and U.S. Bank study explains that an inability to purchase inventory, satisfy employee payroll, on-board workers, or obtain some sort of financing increases the likelihood of a business failing.

However, businesses that are approved for and use a line of credit for meeting payroll, purchasing raw materials and items necessary to keep their business running (including rent or lease payments), greatly increases the business’s chance of survival. So, as revenues and profits shrink, employers can tap their line of credit to increase the chances of surviving.

Business Survivability Considerations

Continuous access to funds allows owners to have greater control over a business’s finances and helps them make better growth-driven decisions. For example, Noam Wasserman, a Harvard Business School professor, explains that oftentimes outside investors force founders out of their company – only half of founders were still the CEO three years after the business’s inception. If a line of credit gives the business enough financial flexibility, then the founders can stay in control.

Another way to leverage a line of credit is highlighted in the SBA export assistance programs due to COVID-19-related losses. Small business owners that export products directly, or indirectly to a third party that does the exporting, may be eligible.

Prior to a company completing a sale to an international client, or for prospecting for new international export markets, businesses can apply for a line of credit or a term note, up to $500,000, under the SBA’s Export Express loan program.

Through the SBA’s Export Working Capital loan program, approved applicants can obtain as much as $5 million in financing or a revolving line of credit related to the firm’s export-related business. This assistance also can help businesses better fulfill export orders as well as provide financial assistance for additional ex-U.S. sales. The financing can assist in keeping international orders through more favorable payment options for their foreign customers.

While there is never a guarantee that a business will survive, today’s companies that take advantage of different lending options, such as a line of credit, have a better chance to set themselves up for the post-COVID-19 recovery.

Sources

https://www.sba.gov/page/coronavirus-covid-19-small-business-guidance-loan-resources

Personal Lines of Credit

Why Do Small Businesses Fail?

https://hbr.org/2008/02/the-founders-dilemma

COVID-19 Vaccination Considerations for Employers

Looking at a 2009 letter from the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), employers may be able to require their employees to take the COVID-19 vaccine, with a few exceptions (such as the likelihood of a life-threatening reaction to it). With the COVID-19 vaccine being rolled out, how can employers balance workplace safety, maintain productivity and stay within the law?

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), the early vaccination stages will likely focus on those who are at particular risk of severe and life-threatening complications from COVID-19. This is expected to include elderly individuals, especially those who live in nursing homes. It’s also expected to include frontline healthcare workers who may be exposed to COVID-19 and could expose patients to COVID-19.

Looking to the Past for Guidance on Employer Vaccine Mandates

The natural question for employers is if and how they are able to mandate a COVID-19 vaccination for employees. When it comes to OSHA and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), neither agency has given any actionable guidance on mandating the COVID-19 vaccine.

In light of an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, further government agency direction is likely to follow over the next few months. Until there is more definitive guidance, the most relevant and likely direction is to look back at how the different agencies handled this same question with the H1N1 epidemic.

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

In 2009, the EEOC provided guidance based on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which state that employers are within their right to mandate that workers take the flu shot. However, for workers with disabilities that prevent them from receiving inoculations and for workers objecting to vaccines according to their religious beliefs, their employer must provide a “reasonable accommodation.”

If a reasonable accommodation is available, the employer is responsible for providing it. However, according to the ADA, if a reasonable accommodation is not available; it would create an “undue hardship” for the business; or if the worker would “pose a direct threat” to their coworkers’ well-being and welfare that isn’t able to be reduced via the reasonable accommodation, employers aren’t required to provide that reasonable accommodation.

When it comes to the subjective reasonable accommodation and undue hardship test, the employer must look at the worker’s individual disability, his role and what responsibilities it entails, the type of vaccine being mandated, and the employer’s circumstances. For example, if someone cannot be vaccinated, they may be accommodated by continuing to work remotely, work within the constraints of social distancing guidelines, face masks, etc. However, if the worker’s role requires close contact with others, the ability of the employer to accommodate the employee will be more in question.

Title VII similarly requires business owners who mandate vaccines as a requirement of employment to make reasonable accommodations for workers who assert a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance that prevents the worker from accepting a vaccine. In this case, employers may ask the employee who claims a religious exemption for reliable documentation attesting to the religious objection.

Much like the ADA, Title VII also states that if the reasonable accommodation causes an undue hardship, the employer is not required to make such an accommodation. One distinction for this exception under Title VII is that the undue hardship standard is met when the “more than de minimis cost” to the business is reached. For the ADA’s undue hardship threshold to be met, the accommodation in question must create significant difficulty or expense. For employees who have non-religious beliefs that they explain prevents them from taking a vaccination, this is not covered under Federal Law but might be applicable in certain states.

Looking back to 2009, an OSHA letter stated that businesses can require employees to take a seasonal flu vaccine, with some caveats. One exception is if they have a pre-existing medical condition that can cause grave illness or death, they may qualify for an exemption. As the EEOC suggests, asking and not mandating that employees get vaccinated might garner good results before there’s any pushback from a vaccination mandate.

Businesses can offer vaccines at their place of work, paying for it for every employee who wants it. However, in the course of offering vaccines for workers, logistics must be considered because things are still evolving as the two vaccines (and others) are projected to become more and more available. Employers must consider the time frame of availability for vaccines (depending on the business’ industry, workers’ ages, etc.), pay for time spent on vaccination (potentially if there’s a reaction, etc.), how payment for vaccines will work, delivery and storage of the vaccine, etc.

While the rollout for the COVID-19 vaccine is ongoing, now is the time for employers to determine how they will handle the inoculation with their employees. 

Sources

https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/standardinterpretations/2009-11-09

https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/pandemic-preparedness-workplace-and-americans-disabilities-act

https://www.eeoc.gov/foia/eeoc-informal-discussion-letter-254

How Businesses Can Adapt, Grow During COVID-19

In order to survive – and even thrive – during these unprecedented times, small businesses have had to find new ways to make money. The UPS Store’s Small Biz Buzz survey found that 41 percent of small businesses in the United States took steps to modify their businesses in hopes of survival. Fifteen percent provided customers with curbside delivery options, 28 percent moved to online sales as their primary source of sales, and 65 percent made a concerted effort to grow their e-commerce capabilities.

More than 50 percent of those polled by a U.S. Census Bureau Small Business Pulse Survey said it would be at least half a year before pre-COVID levels of business come back. Looking at overall economic recovery, and we could be waiting five years or more for things to return to where they were before. When it comes to small businesses, it might take even more time; however, businesses that adapt will be more likely to succeed.

In order to increase the chances of the pivot being successful, Harvard Business Review recommends doing so based on the newly created conditions of the crisis. In the case of the pandemic, it’s created more telecommuting, disrupted supply chains, and required everyone to socially distance for work, leisure, and daily tasks. In light of these circumstances, there are three factors for a pivot to be successful.

Social Distancing Opportunities

With the pandemic demanding less contact, chiefly through social distancing, businesses must find ways to work around the new circumstances. One example is how dating websites have added video dating for users. Other examples include grocery stores limiting in-store customers, requiring workers and customers to wear masks, and adding more and wider delivery areas for groceries and other products.

Building on Original Business Concept

The second recommendation by HBR is that businesses examine how additional and different services or products complement the original business concept.

Let’s consider Airbnb; when travel and resulting bookings collapsed, the platform’s hosts received financial assistance that helped facilitate guest relations virtually. In a shift from its non-hotel lodging option via homeowners and apartment dwellers offering their abode for rent, Airbnb moved to provide hosts with the ability to hold online events, such as cooking classes, art therapy, virtual tours, or other activities.

Looking to the future and building on the opportunity for growth, tourists could learn about new places to travel and things to do and learn while visiting the new destination.

Adapting to Change by Adding Value

The final ingredient of a successful pivot, according to HBR, is that the move demonstrates how well a company can adapt, work through problems and adjust to market forces while proving profitable and resonating as a value in the consumer’s view.

Before the lockdown orders, Spotify placed a sizeable portion of its business model on having primarily free customers stream music on personal devices. Spotify would benefit in two ways – they wouldn’t have to send out Spotify-specific devices, along with relying on receiving advertisers’ income that free users would listen to in exchange for a free Spotify membership. However, when the pandemic hit, Spotify’s advertisers cut their marketing budgets, making this business model difficult for Spotify to sustain.

Spotify’s pivot offered podcasts for users from music artists, talk show hosts, celebrities, etc. By offering premium subscriptions for its podcasts, along with curated, niche programming, Spotify gave customers more control and a better value over previous media offerings.

While the pandemic doesn’t necessarily mean a “going out of business sign” for companies, it could spell the end of the road for those that don’t adapt to the new economy.

Sources

https://www.uschamber.com/co/start/strategy/metlife-us-chamber-small-business-index-covid-19

https://hbr.org/2020/07/how-businesses-have-successfully-pivoted-during-the-pandemic

https://www.uschamber.com/co/start/strategy/pivoting-your-business-to-survive-pandemic

How to Effectively On-board & Train Employees Virtually

With COVID-19 still requiring remote working, companies that effectively on-board new workers retain their workers longer, have better worker performance, and increase their profits by almost 100 percent, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. However, there are many considerations that companies should take during this important process.

For remote orientations, a welcome package that discusses the company’s products or services can be emailed to attendees prior to the live introduction. It’s also imperative that essential employees for the new hires (training and supervisors, for example) and existing employees who they will be working with are on the virtual meeting for introductions.  

Other considerations include maintaining a sense of professionalism. If a company has a dress code, training managers should serve as an example by dressing appropriately and communicating the requirement to new hires. This also can apply to the physical background of remote workers – having a professional-looking environment with muted colors.

Equip Workers With Varied Communication Tools

While almost everyone uses email to communicate, Harvard Business Review (HBR) suggests that email should not be the sole method of communication for remote workers. Along with team communication platforms, video conferencing benefits workers because communicating with body language helps normalize the remote work experience. Video conferencing with recording capabilities also can be used for online training so that employees may access this resource at their own convenience.

Managing Virtual Communication

Regardless of how virtual employees communicate, there needs to be some structure to find the right balance for efficiency. Examples could include using instant messages for urgent but simple communication needs. When it comes to video conferencing, consider touching base for 10 to 15 minutes once a day for a check-in or feedback session. Determining communication frequency depends on when workers work (different time zones, staggered shifts, etc.) and what’s effective for managers and employees.

Schedule a check-in phone call – either once a day or perhaps once in the morning and once in the late afternoon. It can be modified depending on the individual or the type of worker, be it a call with a single employee or an entire group if they are used to working together.

HBR says that workers are heavily influenced on how to deal with abrupt changes or crises based on their leaders’ actions. Whether a manager is calm and collected or anxious and not in control, those they are supervising will act similarly. Regardless of the situation, managers who empathize with feelings of uncertainty and give verbal encouragement will impart a sense of confidence to the entire team.

Regardless of how social a person is during office hours, the lack of morning greetings, break room conversations, water cooler chat, and saying goodbye when leaving the office reinforces the isolation of working remotely – and that can affect anyone.

Therefore, weaving in time for employees to build rapport is also recommended by HBR. Whether it’s going around virtually to ask how everyone’s weekend was, or having the company deliver a meal to remote workers for a virtual office party, it’s been reported that these types of activities relieve feelings of isolation and garner goodwill with the company.

Businesses that take the appropriate steps to build and develop a balanced remote workforce can survive and thrive, but only by adapting to the very different demands of working virtually.

Sources

https://www.uschamber.com/co/run/human-resources/onboard-employees-during-covid-19

https://hbr.org/2020/03/a-guide-to-managing-your-newly-remote-workers