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August 17, 2018

Cash Forecasting Data Visualisations

Data visualisation is an important step in any form of data analysis. Presenting data in a graphical format often helps to highlight trends, identify anomalies, and uncover insights that will be missed when simply reading through raw data. The same is true when analysing the data produced as part of a cash forecasting process.

To illustrate how data visualisation can help with data analysis, this post will review three potential ways to visualise cash forecast data. These three options are;

  • Cash Walk Through Visualisation (shows how cash moves from an opening position to a closing position)
  • Forecast Versus Actual Visualisation (quickly understand forecast variances)
  • Time Series Visualisation (analyse accuracy across multiple versions of a forecast)

However, it is important to note that these examples are not exhaustive, and that many other formats of visualising cash forecasting data are available.

Cash Walk Through Graph

A cash walk through visualisation breaks the journey from opening cash balance to closing cash balance into a series of steps that identify the most significant contributors/detractors to the net cash balance.

In the example below, we can see the three headline cash inflow categories highlighted in yellow (Customer Receipts, Investing Inflow, Dividend Receipts). The four headline outflow categories are highlighted in green (Supplier Payments, Tax, Payroll, Debt Payments).

Cash walk through visualisation - system view

One of the key benefits of this method of data visualisation is that it highlights the extent to which each category of cash flow affects the cash balance in an easy to understand visual. This means attention can be focused on the element(s) that will have the greatest impact. For example, in the graph above we can quickly see that supplier payments (which total $10million in outgoings) cancel out the positive contributions from customer receipts, investing inflow, and dividend receipts combined.

Forecast vs Actual Variance Visualisation

The graph below visualises a comparison of forecast versus actual data for a variety of reporting entities. It breaks the measure into two categories, percentage variance and amount variance. (Here, the different reporting entities’ variances are transposed to a common currency, US dollars).

Forecast vs actual variance visualisation - system view

One of the key benefits of this method of data visualisation is that it allows material variances to be quickly identified and put into context with other entities’ percentage accuracy. This means that attention can be paid to the variations that have the greatest impact. For example, in the instance above, Brazil had a major deviation between forecast and actual (92%) but this only equated to a variance amount of £1.3million. Whereas in China, where forecast accuracy was better (though still poor as China had an 83% divergence from the actuals), the value of this discrepancy  was $4.0million. This means that an increase in the accuracy of forecasts produced by the Chinese entity (where there is considerable scope for improvement) would have a far greater impact on overall, company-wide forecast accuracy than focusing on the most inaccurate forecasting entity.

Time Series Visualisation

A Time Series Visualisation allows variance analysis to be carried out across multiple forecast versions and it is usually best displayed in a table such as the one below.

Actual vs forecast matrix visualisation graph

Here, the table shows how multiple forecast versions compare to the actual data (in bold):

  • y axis: shows versions of the forecast (when they were produced)
  • x axis: shows the month each forecast is projecting the closing balance of
  • Each data point on the chart corresponds to a forecast or actual (actuals are in bold) closing cash position
  • Taking the Feb-18 forecast version as an example, scanning along the row we can see that this submission captured the actual closing balance for JAN 2018, and forecast closing balances for FEB – JUNE 2018.

The advantage of capturing the data in this format is that enables easy comparison of multiple forecast versions. This means that trends in the data can be easily identified and therefore addressed to improve accuracy.

For example, the table above shows that while forecast accuracy broadly improved as the forecast horizon reduced, there remained a tendency to underestimate the actuals. If we review the submission made in Apr-18, we can see that the actual captured for the March 2018 closing balance was 154,000. Included in this submission were forecasts for the April 2018 closing balance (which it underestimated by 19,000), a forecast for May 2018 (underestimated by 100,000) and a forecast for June 2018 (underestimated by 134,000). As there is enough data captured (in the table we can see 36 forecasts and six closing balances) it can by hypothesised that this is not a natural variance but rather a trend that is the result of a fundamental area of the forecast being miscalculated. This might be higher than expected sales volumes, lower overheads, perhaps a recent reduction in business rates was secured by the company but this wasn’t reflected in forecast calculations, for example. In any case, once this trend is identified its underlying cause can be investigated, identified, then corrected. Thereby improving forecast accuracy.

Benefits of data visualisation

As mentioned at the beginning of this post, data visualisation is a necessary part of any data analysis. Presenting the information graphically enables an analyst to quickly spot trends, identify anomalies, and helps to uncover the underlying causes of any flaws in the process. For a treasury team, this means that these insights can then be presented back to the business in a clear and concise format for easy interpretation by senior management. This therefore positions treasury as a strategic department within the business.

Data visualisation software and tools

As with all parts of a cash and liquidity forecasting process, data visualisation options can be greatly improved with the use of specialised software tools. We have helped many companies to automate their cash forecasting processes, to increase forecast accuracy, and set up a new cash forecasting process altogether. If you are looking to improve the impact of cash forecasting in your organisation, contact us to see a demo of our specialised software.

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August 10, 2018

CashAnalytics Summary Series: ECB Economic Bulletin August 2018

The CashAnalytics Summary Series takes major Central Banks’ extensive reports (often well over 150 pages), and summarises them into five minute reads.

This release summarises the 5th edition of the ECB Economic Bulletin for 2018, which was released on the 9th August.

The key points covered in the report include:

  • The euro area economy is proceeding along a solid and broad-based growth path.
  • Key ECB interest rates were unchanged and are expected to remain at present levels through the summer of 2019.
  • Net asset purchases are to continue at €30 billion per month until the end of September 2018. After which, subject to incoming data, monthly purchases will reduce to €15 billion until the end of December 2018 and then end.
  • The Governing Council intends to maintain its policy of reinvesting the principal payments from maturing securities for an extended period after the end of the APP.

To read the summary of the ECB Economic Bulletin, please click here.

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August 01, 2018

13 Week Cash Flow

When setting up a new cash flow forecasting process, it is vital to select the right time horizon. This article will form part of a series we are producing which discusses how various different time horizons can be used in cash forecasting. This post will explore the 13 week cash flow forecast in detail.

Selecting the right time horizon for a forecast depends very much on the business objectives of the forecast. By exploring the uses, benefits and drawbacks of the 13 week cash flow model, you should be able to ascertain whether it is suitable for your business needs.

Uses of a 13 week cash flow model

We chose to start this series of articles with the 13-week cash flow model because of its broad uses. Corporate senior management, including the CFO, are familiar with 13-week forecasts as they will use them in various forms of quarterly strategy and planning sessions. Similarly, investors often prefer the 13-week horizon as it gives them a reasonable view of the health of the company in which they are invested. The same holds true if a company finds itself in a distressed situation. In this instance a 13-week cash forecast should be able to identify when and how any potential liquidity shortfalls should hit a company. This therefore offers the ability to prepare for, if not rectify, any issues before they occur. A 13-week cash forecast is also often a requirement for bank reporting, or when submitting any lending requests. In short, while a 13-week cash flow forecast isn’t suitable for all requirements, it does have a broad range of applications. We will discuss these in further detail below.

Advantages of a 13 week cash flow forecast

Striking a balance

The time horizon of the 13-week cashflow model is short enough to support agile, tactical decision making, but also takes a long enough view to drive longer term decisions. The 13-week cash flow forecast also helps strike a balance between accuracy and range. It is a universal truth in forecasting that the accuracy of a forecast degrades the further it extends into the future. 13 weeks provides enough sight to have an impact on strategic decision making, while remaining short-term enough to be able to provide a high degree of accuracy.

Planning for the medium-term without interrupting plans for the longer term

13 weeks of visibility allows a CFO, treasurer, or financial controller to make medium-term cash management plans. This could include debt drawdowns and repayments, short term investments, or other management decisions.

Taking a longer-term view, while 13 weeks is sufficient for medium term and month-to-month cash planning, it won’t overlap with longer-term plans which can extend years into the future. Because of this, there is little reconciliation required between plans. Medium and short-term planning decisions can be assisted by the 13-week forecast, whereas longer term planning remains in the purview of the overall business planning process.

Avoiding the short-term planning gap

Most planning processes in companies produce monthly forecasts and budgets, offering limited short-term visibility. A 13-week cash flow forecasting process is usually broken down into weekly reporting periods, therefore offering four times greater granularity. This means that any short-term planning shortfalls can be addressed with a detailed look-through.

Liquidity risk forecasting

Risk management is a key part of any cash forecasting process. Forecasting with a 13-week horizon should be accurate enough to identify any potential liquidity issues, while still offering enough time to take action to resolve those issues. For example, if a potential liquidity shortfall is identified with 10 weeks’ notice, the treasury team have ample time to prepare by arranging bank funding or reviewing intercompany lending options.

Matching business requirements

By covering a full quarter in scope, a weekly rolling 13-week cash flow forecast will always provide cash balance visibility on the next key reporting date or next quarter end. This is extremely valuable for the business, as senior management will always want reporting on cash balances that coordinate with their own key reporting dates.

Suitable for banks and investors

Depending on the ownership structure, debts, bank relationships, or investment status, a company may be compelled to produce a liquidity forecast with at least 13 weeks duration in place. It’s a key measure of good financial control and, from a bank’s or investor’s perspective, it provides clear visibility of the company’s working capital.

When is a 13-week cash flow forecast not suitable?

Short term liquidity planning

A shorter forecast horizon (perhaps of 10 business days) might be better suited if the business objectives are focused more closely on short-term liquidity planning. A shorter-term forecast could have a daily reporting granularity and therefore be able to report on high-level flows and balances with a high degree of accuracy at a more precise date in the very near term.

Longer term liquidity risk management

While medium term liquidity issues can be identified and actioned with a 13-week forecast horizon, a 6-month forecast horizon (broken into weekly for 13 weeks and then monthly for the following 3 months) might be better at flagging up longer-term liquidity risk issues.

How to choose the right time horizon

Take an “objectives first” approach

As referenced at the beginning of this article, it is important to identify the right time horizon in order to produce the desired forecasts. Considering what the objectives of the forecasting process are, then selecting a time horizon which produces forecasts that meet those needs, is the right approach.

The benefits of software

Using specialised cash flow forecasting software can improve the accuracy and quality, remove the administrative burden, and increase confidence in a company’s cash and liquidity forecasts. For example, with rolling 13 week flow model, the weekly forecasts produced can be analysed at the touch of a button. Quick and easy forecast vs forecast, and forecast vs actual, accuracy measurement enables biases to be identified and adjustments and corrections made as necessary.

Setting up a new process?

If you are considering setting up a new cash forecasting process, we have written a cashflow forecasting setup guide, which we welcome you to download. The guide discusses; the practicalities of designing a forecasting model, what is required in preparation for the project launch date, as well as what comes after go-live.

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July 26, 2018

Setting up a cash flow forecasting process

For a head office treasury or finance team, setting up new cash forecasting process or refreshing an existing process can bring many benefits. Being able to accurately forecast a company’s future cash position reduces risk of future liquidity issues and minimises the opportunity cost of holding uninvested cash. Also, having fast access to reliable cash flow data allows the treasury and finance team to consistently contribute to the strategic decisions being made within their organisation.

However, designing and rolling out any new reporting process in a large organisation can be challenging. Especially if adequate preparation is not done in advance. Dealing with multiple peoples in multiple places using multiple systems might seem like a daunting task, but taking a structured approach to the design and roll-out of a new process, as well as carefully managing the communication with all stakeholders, will enable a smooth roll-out and ongoing operation.

CashAnalytics has created an in-depth guide to assist people who want to set-up a cash forecasting process in their company. This guide follows a number of straightforward stages and mirrors the successful roadmap we use with our own clients. This roadmap covers five key areas:

1. Setting business objectives
2. Designing a forecasting model
3. Scoping and planning
4. Process set-up
5. Communication and roll-out

1. Setting Business Objectives

The business objectives are the reason the new cash forecasting process is being put in place. Cash forecasting supports a range of high value business activities, and the business case for putting a process in place can have a number of dimensions.

The headline activities supported by cash forecasting often include:

Activity

Description

Working Capital Management

Ensuring the short-term cash and working capital needs of the business are adequately planned and provisioned for.

Debt and Interest Reduction

Gaining the required forecast visibility to confidently and safely use excess cash to reduce debt levels and interest costs.

Covenant and Key Date Visibility

Being able to accurately project expected cash levels on key reporting dates, thereby understanding the impact on covenant levels.

Liquidity Risk Management

Cash forecasting may not instigate a direct action but, in many cases, it is used simply as an early warning signal of future problems.

2. Designing a forecasting model

The design of the forecasting model itself is a critical task. At a basic level, the forecast model outlines the level of reporting detail required and the forecast time horizon.

Often the level of reporting detail in a cash forecast mirrors the level of detail in management reporting packs. This, at the very least, is a useful starting point.

It’s always a good idea to start with the simplest model first. One that provides the base level of required information. This can then be scaled to a more detailed or complex model over time.

3. Scoping and Planning

Once the business objectives have been set and the forecast model designed, the next step is to scope the project and set a plan.

This planning process won’t be much different to planning for any other project, but it remains an important consideration. A planning document should identify:

  • Required timelines and other events that may impact the delivery of the project (e.g. year-end closing)
  • Key stakeholders and their availability.
  • Other dependent systems and data sources.
  • Setting the project team and assigning responsibilities.

4. Process Set-up

The process set-up is a practical step that brings the requirements outlined in the design, scoping and planning stages to life. Whether using a manual tool such as excel or a dedicated cash flow forecasting software solution designed to automate the manual parts of the process, the three steps outlined below will need to be covered.

Step 1: Tool Configuration

Configure the chosen tool so that it mirrors the required reporting structure and maps to the correct master file data (business unit names, etc.)

Step 2: Map to Data Sources

Mapping to other data sources such as ERP systems is a key automation step than needs to be considered, but is often left until after the base reporting process is in place.

Step 3: Testing

The testing phase ensures that the implemented structures produce the required reporting output, and that the data interfaces are working correctly.

5. Communication and roll-out

Clear communication to all stakeholders will be required throughout the project. However, communication is particularly important in and around the time the process is ready to be rolled out to the wider organisation.

It is a factor that is sometimes overlooked but clear and consistent communication with stakeholders, particularly those people contributing forecast information, is key success factor in both the initial roll-out and ongoing operation of the forecasting process.

During the roll-out part of the project, training will need to be provided to everyone involved. This typically takes the form of webinars supported by training documentation. On an ongoing basis, dialogue and communication will centre on feedback, business analysis and the continuous improvement of forecast quality.

To download the full pdf of the Cashflow Forecasting Setup Guide, along with many of our other whitepapers, please follow this link to our resources section.

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July 23, 2018

Bridging the business analytics skills gap

It is the responsibility of any business leader to focus resources on the highest value activities. Lower value activities, on the other hand, are to be automated or eliminated completely. CFOs, Finance Directors and Financial Controllers in companies of all sizes have been driving technology projects over the last decade aimed at removing administrative overheads and freeing resources to invest in these higher value activities.

The vision of most senior finance leaders is to have their teams focused on analytical tasks. Tasks that feed directly into strategic planning and decision making, as opposed to spending time on recurring, manual processes. This focus on analysing and interrogating data, rather than simply collecting and organising it, is a key differentiator between high and low performing teams. Automation plays a key role in realising this vision but the other headline consideration, that can sometime be overlooked, is deciding which tasks and jobs help a company move to this higher value focus. And, do the people moving into these new roles have the skillsets needed to fulfil them?

A common challenge

A common challenge faced by most companies is that the time freed up by the removal of slow/manual/administrative tasks, is not always allocated to the strategic/analytical ones they had planned. Instead, one set of administrative tasks is replaced with another. There are a couple of potential reasons for this; the psychology of returning to the familiar perhaps, or maybe the demands of the business mean that as soon one burden is lifted it is replaced before any repositioning can occur.

Traditional finance skill sets

The traditional skills required to be a top finance professional are well established. Gaining accounting qualifications, for example, requires a vast amount of work. It is a competitive field to get into, therefore the bar is set high. When embarking on their careers, accountants will then pick up further skills. Over time, as accounting the professional builds his or her career, developing these skills and rising in seniority, they become established, an expert at the top of their game. Now, senior in their post, they are increasingly being asked to review, remodel and analyse the data they once helped produce. Their job therefore requires skills that are separate from the ones that helped them to succeed through their careers so far.

Analytics skill sets

To excel at the new, analytical, advisory, strategic responsibilities that automation has unlocked, the CFO or Financial Controller will realise that there are new areas of skills required for their team. In our experience, those departments that truly succeed are the ones with broad analytical skill sets to supplement their traditional financial ones. It is important to note that it is a skill set that is required, rather than one, highly refined, skill.

Initially, it is the technical skills that need to be developed. Though a good professional is likely to be highly proficient in some elements of excel from extensive spreadsheet work, they will now need to develop enhanced database and data modelling skills. After this, it is the analytical skills (the core of the upskilling requirement) that need to be developed. Analytical skills involve the ability to read, interpret and understand complex data sets. A good understanding of the business then helps to turn these understandings into actionable insights. Finally, communication skills come into play. Without these skills the value of the new insights may be lost in communication.

What skills do my team need?

A range of jobs and roles exist within the data analysis sphere. In order for a CFO or Financial Controller to understand the skillsets they need on their team, it’s useful to look at the different types of data roles and what skills are needed for each role.

  • Business Analyst. A business analyst focuses on turning data insights into business actions and are a valuable addition to any finance team. Business Analysts will need a solid command of database and visualisation tools as well as being good data modellers.
  • Data Analyst. A data analyst is comfortable managing and querying large data sets with the goal of answering specific business questions. Data Analysts are database querying experts, SQL at a minimum, with a strong maths and stats background.
  • Database Administrator. Valuable data analysis relies on a reliable source of high quality data. Database administrators ensure that all data is managed properly and is available to whomever needs it. Database Administrators have skills covering data design, data security and data recovery.

Upskilling

There are now many ways to both upskill and keep your skills sharp. Aside from traditional degree or certificate-based qualifications, offered by established universities and colleges, there are now a broad range of options to help with upskilling and keeping skills sharp. These include:

Online Courses

Numerous Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) websites have been launched in recent years that make courses offered by Universities such as Harvard and Stanford available in an online format. Some of the most popular MOOCs are Coursera and edX which offer numerous analytics courses including:

Short Courses

Short courses, structured on or offsite, can be a great to gain a deep understanding of a new topic in a short period of time. These courses typically last no longer than a few days and can often be spread over a number of weeks. Short courses in the area include:

Professional Qualifications

There are a number of business analysis professional qualifications offered by various bodies. While more of a commitment than an online or short course, they may suit someone interested in building a career in the area. Professional qualifications are offered by the following bodies:

Hiring considerations

For a CFO or Financial Controller seeking to increase the analytical capabilities of their team, hiring considerations may be explored alongside upskilling options for the current team. When this is the case it is important the person building out the job spec doesn’t simply dust off an old version and tack on a couple of bullet points on data modelling and analytics. Instead they should be looking at the core of what they are seeking to achieve with the new position.

After a review, it may become apparent that the best approach is to go for someone with a hybrid, analytical/accounting skill set, or it might be that the current team has enough of the accounting skills in place already to seek out a pure analytical candidate, and/or a purely technical one. As automation increases the capabilities and strategic input of the team, the business case for greater investment in the department becomes clear. Making sure that this investment, and the subsequent increase in headcount, is deployed effectively, then solidifies the departments position as a strategic business function.

Skills of the future

Beyond analytics, every department in every company in the world is looking at what skills they need to include to stay ahead of (or even perhaps keep pace with) an ever-evolving world. Because of this, the buzzwords of today shape the job specs of tomorrow. The need for a firm to keep abreast of the potential that Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) can bring, means that every department is seeing the need to incorporate data scientists in their teams. It is no longer just the technology department that is seeing these changes, now that the potential has been seen they are being rolled out across a company. The finance and account departments are no different. They too will feel the need to be bolstered by these new skills.

The way forward

The CFO’s vision is clear. Use automation to remove low-value, manual processes and change focus to high-value, strategic, analytic tasks. However, as mentioned earlier in the article, there are traps a department can fall into once the automation is in place. The way to avoid those pitfalls, and to truly see the benefits of automation, is in the preparation. This is the upskilling groundwork done before the newly automated processes are implemented. It is only when the skills gap has been bridged that the firm can truly progress.

This article, written by Conor Deegan – Managing Director of CashAnalytics, originally appeared in the International Accounting Bulletin.

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July 16, 2018

How has tax reform altered the corporate treasury landscape?

It has been over six months since President Trump signed his Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) into law. The act reduced a range of business and personal taxes, however they most eye-catching was the reduction of the headline corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%. Before this cut, the U.S. had the highest tax rate of any OECD country. It now ranks in the lower half of the corporate tax table.

Few areas of the business world have felt the impact of these tax cuts, from a practical perspective, more than the corporate treasury departments of large multi-national companies. While much of the media focus since the cuts has been on the cash returned to investors via share buy backs and dividends, there has been huge amount of behind-the-scenes activity in addition to these headline grabbing developments. The resultant fundamental structural changes will shape corporate balance sheets and Corporate Treasury for years to come. 

What’s happened since December?

Corporate treasury and tax departments were readying themselves far in advance of the TCJA coming into law in December. This is borne out by the numbers since then, which has shown a significant uptick in certain activities:

Cash Repatriations

It is estimated that U.S. companies hold over $2 trillion offshore. The TCJA imposed a once off charge on cash repatriations, but JP Morgan estimates that $217 billion has been brought back to the U.S. in the first quarter of this year alone. The U.S. Federal reserve estimates that foreign earnings held abroad fell by an annualised $633 billion in the same period, an almost threefold increase on 2017.

Liquidating Offshore Bond Holdings

As early as February, Bank of America Merrill Lynch was reporting an increase in corporate bond spreads. They put this down to companies liquidating their offshore bond holdings in anticipation of repatriation. This has led to the bond holdings held by companies dropping significantly since December, with big players such as Apple shrinking their corporate bond portfolio for the first time in years.

Share Buy Backs & Cash Purchases

Last month, CNN reported that U.S. companies completed a record $201.3 billion of stock buybacks and cash takeovers in May. This means that repatriated cash is being returned to investors and put to work quickly by companies. Share buybacks alone hit $178 billion in the first quarter of 2018, topping the previous record set in 2007, just before the economic crash, according to the New York Times.

What to Expect in the Future

While it’s interesting to note the pick-up in certain activities since December, it’s perhaps more interesting to analyse how the TCJA will impact Corporate Treasury into the future. Below we’ve outlined some things to expect:

Less Cash

The headline impact of the TCJA from a Corporate Treasury perspective is that companies’ will now hold less cash. The TCJA reduces the need to hold foreign profits offshore, with the expectation that cash will now be put to a more productive use. Share buybacks, dividends, acquisitions, and capital expenditure will all reduce the aggregate cash balances held by companies.

Less Tax Risk

The management of tax risk is a big driver of day-to-day Corporate Treasury Activity. Treasury teams typically work very closely with their tax colleagues to map out funding routes designed to minimise tax expense. While this collaboration will continue, the penalty for getting this wrong will be lower due to the greater alignment between European and U.S. tax rates.

More fluid capital flows

Bringing cash into the U.S. from certain foreign locations is now less expensive and therefore the flow of cash between foreign entities within the same business will become more fluid. The lower risk and administrative overhead is expected to grease the wheels of cross border capital flows.

Lower Debt Levels

Most corporate debt is rolled over on maturity by issuing a new debt instrument or raising bank funding. Now U.S. companies, flush with cash, plan to repay debt fully, either before it matures or on maturation. A survey in 2017 by Bank of America Merrill Lynch showed that paying down debt was expected to be the number one use of repatriated cash, ahead of share repurchase and capital expenditure.

Planning for the Future

All of the above is good news for Corporate Treasury. The imbalances created by disparate tax rates in Western economies will be eroded as balance sheets adjust to the new environment. Corporate Treasury is now in a position to drive significant investment into their operations, safeguarding its role as a strategic partner. To do so, it must reinvigorate its way of operating, and question what’s been taken for granted in the past. Businesses, especially those in the U.S., are now more dependent on Corporate Treasury than ever before. This provides a massive opportunity that must not be missed.

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July 09, 2018

Cash forecasting automation: a practical guide

Working with treasury and finance teams across the globe, we see a large number of cash forecasting processes with varying degrees of automation. Some are fully automated, “no touch” processes, some deploy automation at key steps in the process, while others are fully manual, labour intensive processes. In this post we look at what forecasting automation is, what the benefits of automation are, which components of the process can be automated, and how cash forecasting automation can be achieved.

What is cash forecasting automation?

There are many workflows, data inputs, and communications and reporting exercises that make up a cash forecasting process. Cash forecasting automation may refer to automating the process in its entirety or may refer to the automation of the constituent parts of this process.

As mentioned above, the extent to which the process is automated, and indeed how the process is automated, fall on a spectrum. Some parts of the cash forecasting process may be automated with Machine Learning (ML) or Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies, or those technologies may be used at the end of the process and deployed more on the output. This post focuses on how cash forecasting processes can be automated without ML/AI. For further reading on how ML/AI can be used in cash forecasting, we have written an article discussing how ML/AI methods of forecasting compare with traditional statistical ones, which explores the topic in further detail.

How can automation benefit treasury and finance teams?

Automating the cash flow forecasting process brings many benefits, namely:

  • Risk reduction. Automating part or all of the process reduces the risk of human error, thereby improving confidence in the forecast.
  • Increased efficiency. Treasury teams, even those in the largest organisations, are often small. Automation can therefore increase efficiency and alleviate an overburdened workload. In turn, this changes the focus of activities from administration to analytics.
  • Improved quality. When the process is carefully designed and mapped from the outset, automation can leverage data already in the corporate technology infrastructure (TMS systems, ERP systems, bank systems, etc.). This, when combined with the factors listed above, means that automation can substantially improve the quality of the forecasts produced.

The result of these benefits is that automation doesn’t just mean fewer mistakes, when applied well, it leads to a roundly improved, best practice forecasting process.

Input data automation

Typically, there are two sets of data collected in a cash forecasting process, the forecast data and the actual data. Automating the input of this data to the process encompasses both the collection and classification of this data. This be achieved by either algorithmic or rules-based classification.

Forecast cash flow data

  • Accounts payable/accounts receivable. Forecasting AP and AR is an integral part of the cash forecasting process. Quite often, short-term payable and receivables are already recorded in ERP/accounts systems. If this data is available, it is therefore beneficial to include it in the forecast process. For more information, read our post on increasing accounts receivable forecasting accuracy.
  • Budgeting/planning systems. Longer-term forecasted cashflows may be contained in budgeting/planning systems.
  • Treasury Management Systems (TMS). Depending on the system, and how it is being used, the TMS can also hold some of the required forecast cashflow (such as financing or intercompany cashflows).

Actual cash flow data

  • Bank account data. Most commonly stored in MT940 or BAI2 files, automating bank account inputs means identifying and extracting the relevant information automatically.
  • ERP/TMS systems. In a similar way, actual cash flow data can be pulled automatically from these systems and fed directly into the cash forecasting process.

Workflow automation

Without automation a cashflow forecasting process for head office teams can involve significant manual work, therefore automating key workflows can alleviate much of this administrative burden.

Input workflows

  • Automated submission management. When a new submission cycle is due, an automated process; sets up the new version, triggers any required actions (such as reminder emails), and catalogues the version accordingly. This automatic versioning enables an easier forecast vs forecast, and forecast vs actual analysis, once the version is complete.
  • Automated workflow triggers. For example, one of the key workflows at the beginning of the process is to send reminder emails to all contributors, informing them that a new submission is due, prompting them to input any and all required data. With automated workflow triggers, these emails can be generated and sent within the system automatically. In addition, approaching a deadline date, users can be prompted by further automated reminders.
  • Variance justification. Where users have submitted data that exceeds a predetermined threshold, an automated system can detect the variance and prohibit it from being submitted without a comment to explain the variance. In this instance, a user would be required to provide feedback on why the threshold had been exceeded before the submission could be made.
  • Intercompany reconciliation. Intercompany reconciliation can be a very time consuming and laborious task for a company’s head office finance team. To automate this element of the process, the full process must be designed in a way that considers the automation of intercompany reconciliation up front. For example, the system could be built to include a full counterparty driven process or process where the reconciliation and variance reporting is systemised.

Output workflows

  • Real time feedback. When actual cash flows are updated (whether manually or collected automatically) a feedback notification can be issued automatically informing the user of any variation to the forecast. This enables quick and easy amendments to forecast figures, thereby improving accuracy.
  • Reporting and analytics automation. Where the process is automated, scheduled reporting, can be automatically generated from the system and circulated to key stakeholders as required. For example this might consist of a weekly or daily cashflow report, bank account reports, or reports on funding requirements.

Using specialist software

As discussed above, a cash forecasting process can be automated in its entirety, or it can be separated into its constituent parts, which can each be automated in isolation. In either case, automation is difficult if not impossible to achieve without the use of specialist cash flow forecasting software.

If you are setting up a new cash flow forecasting process, please read our Cashflow Forecasting Setup Guide.

If you have any questions, or would like any advice on how to automate any or all of the elements of your cash forecasting process, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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July 02, 2018

Cash forecasting: skills needed to be a superforecaster

Behavioural scientist Philip Tetlock groups forecasters into two categories; hedgehogs and foxes. He introduces these categories – borrowed from Isaiah Berlin – in his 2015 book Superforecastering: The Art and Science of Prediction. Tetlock, who currently teaches at the Wharton School of Business, has spent 20 years of studying the impact of human judgement of political decision making and uses the book to make the assertion that forecasting, at least in the short term, can be performed with a high degree of accuracy.

He categorises hedgehogs as forecasters whose judgement is based on big theories, such as the outbreak of a war or a natural disaster, and foxes as basing their judgement on a series of smaller theories which are continuously adjusted as new information becomes available.

Tetlock found that foxes, on aggregate, were far superior forecasters to hedgehogs. While their predictions were initially less satisfying to narrative demanding audiences, such as government policy makers or a mainstream press looking for sensational headlines, they ultimately proved considerably more reliable.

Forecasting in a business environment, and cash forecasting in particular, is subject to a similar dynamic. Although, for day to day business and cash forecasting, the dynamic is shaped less by the judgement of the forecaster and more by the range of skills they possess. The hedgehogs of the business forecasting world have a single, highly refined, forecasting skill, while the foxes have a range of skills.

Forecasting is a specialist skillset that is, in essence, a combination of other skills. The skill of the person or analyst creating the forecast is the primary factor influencing the quality of the forecast itself. The fact that good forecasting requires multiple skills is often overlooked. As a result, the task is often outsourced to someone with a high degree of skill in one area – for example data modelling – but without the required skills in other areas.

Core forecasting skills

In CashAnalytics, we’ve worked with many companies over the years to help them establish cash forecasting processes that continuously generate a high-quality output. During this time, we’ve identified the following as the core skills needed to be a good forecaster:

1. Business understanding

An excellent knowledge and understanding of the business underlying dynamics of a business are required to be a good forecaster. Without an understanding of what drives and influences the business, such as customer payment behaviour or future sales projections, a forecast won’t be anchored in reality.

2. Technical knowledge

Forecasting in large companies typically requires the gathering of information from a number of sources, such as ERP and Treasury Management Systems. To do this in an efficient way, and on an ongoing basis, requires a base level of knowledge of these systems and a technical understanding of how to extract the required data from them.

3. Data modelling skills

A forecaster will need the ability not only to collate the data collected, but also to model future events and scenarios. Alongside the application of business knowledge, this is perhaps where the most value is added to a forecasting process. However, simply focusing on data modelling alone won’t allow the forecaster to generate a high-quality forecast.

4. Communication

Forecasts are neither created nor used in isolation. The ability to communicate and interact with a range of people within an organisation is an essential skill required by any forecaster. If a large amount of time and effort is invested in creating a high-quality forecast, but the output and findings are poorly communicated to key decision makers, the forecasting process will ultimately fail.

A hybrid approach using specialist software

As CFO or Treasurer, you may question who on your team possesses all of these skills? Or, as the forecaster you may feel you lack a particular skill or simply don’t have the time to carry out every task effectively.

However, when each of the forecasting tasks is broken down into its constituent parts it becomes clear that much of the data gathering, consolidation and base reporting tasks can be automated using specialist software, freeing up time that the forecaster to spend on the highest value activities such as data analysis and interpretation.

This hybrid approach, of combining specialist forecasting software with the refined skillsets of a forecaster, will ensure that finance and treasury teams are able to contribute to the strategic conversations within their organisation.

As Tetlock suggests, the skills needed to be a super-forecaster can be learned. However, to continue his metaphor, the fox knows that assumptions must change in light of new data. With that in mind, perhaps is it time to consider your companies approach to forecasting?

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June 28, 2018

CashAnalytics Summary Series: ECB Economic Bulletin June 2018

The CashAnalytics Summary Series takes major Central Banks’ extensive reports (often well over 150 pages), and summarises them into 5 minute reads.

This release summarises the 4th edition of the ECB Economic Bulletin for 2018, which was released on the 28th June.

The key points covered in the report include:

  • Key ECB interest rates were unchanged and are expected to remain at present levels “through the summer of 2019 and in any case for as long as necessary.”
  • Net asset purchases are to continue “at the current monthly pace of €30 billion until the end of September 2018.” After which, subject to incoming data, the Governing Council “will reduce the monthly pace of the net asset purchases to €15 billion until the end of December 2018 and then end net purchases.”
  • The Governing Council intends to “maintain its policy of reinvesting the principal payments from maturing securities purchased under the APP for an extended period of time after the end of its net asset purchases.”

To read the summary of the ECB Economic Bulletin, please click here.

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June 22, 2018

“Simple” forecasting methods are still better

In 1979, the Greek academic Spyros Makridakis published an article in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. The article showed that showed simple (traditional statistical) methods of forecasting outperformed more complex methods. At the time, the increase in readily accessible computing power had allowed newer, computational, and apparently more accurate methods of forecasting to proliferate in business and academia. Makridakis, who was by this stage a Professor at Insead, was sceptical about the true value of these more complex forecasting methods, which prompted him to embark on the extensive empirical study behind the article.

The results of Makridakis’s study were widely criticised at the time, primarily due to the belief that complexity and greater computing power must produce more accurate results. The subsequent disagreement led to the creation of the “M” series of forecasting competitions which set out to find the most accurate forecasting methods for different types of predictions. There has been a total of four “M-Competitions” since 1982 with the most recent concluding in May of this year. The winner of this competition will be announced in October.

Fast forward 40 years and a similar debate has been sparked by a paper released by the same author. In his latest study, which was released in March of this year, Makridakis and his colleagues compared the effectiveness of eight Machine Learning (“ML”) methods versus eight simpler statistical methods, used for time series forecasting.

The most recent study was prompted by the increasing popularity of ML methods in forecasting, despite the lack of sufficient evidence of their superiority over traditional, statistical methods. For this reason, the authors set out to test whether their original assertion, that simple forecasting methods are more accurate than complex computational ones, was still true.

Key Terms

In broad terms, the authors sought to measure forecast performance against two metrics, accuracy and computational requirements. To help define these metrics, the authors use a number of key terms that outline how these measurements were made.

  • Computational Complexity – The time needed to train a given ML using historic data.
  • Model Fitting – A measure of how well a model “fits” historic data.
  • Measures of Accuracy – Two measures of forecasting performance are used in the study:
    • symmetric Mean Absolute Percentage Error (sMAPE)
    • Mean Absolute Scaled Error (MASE)
  • Data Preprocessing – The work that needs to be done on a data set before it can be used for ML modelling purposes.

Key Findings

The paper itself stretches to over 20 pages with a detailed breakdown and comparison of the accuracy of the different forecasting methods analysed.  Some of the key findings of the study conclude:

1. Simple is Still Better

The research contained in this study showed that the simpler statistical forecasting methods “dominated” ML methods across both accuracy measures used for all forecasting horizons examined. The simplest method of statistical forecasting was the naïve method, which is essentially a rollover of historical data. The naïve method performed better than all but three of the ML methods for a one-step ahead forecast, using both measures of accuracy, with far less Computational Complexity.

2. Computational Complexity

The authors highlight the excessive computational complexity of some of the ML methods as being be a barrier to their practical application. For these methods to be used in business and other fields, “their computational requirements must be reduced considerably.” The report suggests deseasonalizing data, using simpler models and limiting the number of training iterations as ways to reduce computational complexity.

3. The Best Fitting Models Don’t Produce Best Forecasts

ML forecasting techniques typically “fit” a line or a model to historical data and use this to extrapolate into the future. One measure of the effectiveness of an ML technique is how closely it can fit this model to historical data. This study shows that methods or models that best fit a data set did not necessarily result in more accurate forecasts.

4. Need to Crack Open the Black Box

One of the key suggestions in this paper is that for ML forecasting methods to be become useful in practical business applications, the way they work and how they produce results needs to be clearer to users. The researchers stated that “obtaining numbers from a black box is not acceptable to practitioners who need to know how forecasts arise and how they can be influenced or adjusted to arrive at workable predictions.”

5. Automate Preprocessing Tasks

The preprocessing of historical data is time consuming and requires decisions by the user that add to the complexity of the overall forecasting process. The automation of these preprocessing tasks is seen as key to ML forecasting techniques becoming useful to users, on a day-to-day basis.

Working towards Specialised Algorithms

While the paper shines a light on the shortcomings of ML forecasting methods, Makridakis and his colleagues do highlight the “great potential of ML for forecasting applications.” The conclusion of this paper reiterates this point and mentions that “specialised algorithms”, unique to forecasting, may be required to justify ML as a viable forecasting technique. For now, however, the most effective methods of time series forecasting are the simple, statistical ones.

Using the Latest Technologies

In CashAnalytics we believe, as is alluded to in the paper, that forecasting is like no other business discipline or task. Unlike many other business processes, the end result is measured in degrees of accuracy (and other factors), rather than a binary right or wrong.

As a technology company, and as dedicated liquidity forecasting specialists, it is our duty to be at the cutting edge to ensure our clients benefit from the best that technology has to offer. This means thoroughly testing the application of new technologies, and measuring their advantages and disadvantages. Like Makridakis, we believe that empirical analysis is the best measure of effectiveness.

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June 15, 2018

Cash management in a crisis

A crisis needn’t hit your company directly for you to be impacted. The recent outage on the Visa network across Europe was the start of what could have been a considerable problem for many treasury teams across the globe. In the end, this problem didn’t escalate into a full-blown crisis, but an outage on a key payment channel during a busy time of the week presents a substantial risk to the cash flow of a business. Had it lasted more than a few hours, drastic action would have been needed.

For a large, multinational company, there is always a crisis looming around the corner. Scale brings many advantages, but it adds exposure to many more risks. Having a high profile increases a company’s likelihood of being a target for a cyber-attack, having a global presence increases geo-political risk, heavy reliance on haulage and shipping can make a company vulnerable to wild fluctuations in oil prices, the list goes on.

Not every risk will become realised, of course, but inevitably there are some that will hit, and some that will miss. In this blog post we explore what a treasury department can do to ensure that it is ready, when the worst happens.

When disaster strikes

Carillion’s collapse in January caused huge problems, not just for its suppliers but also for companies seen as operating similar business models. Carillion’s customers faced an immediate cash crunch, leading to the failure of numerous businesses. Carillion’s contemporaries faced intense market scrutiny, leading to falling share prices and major questions over their long-term viability.

Incidents of this scale are rare, but disaster can strike in a variety of ways. It can hit you directly, like the NotPetya cyber-attack struck Maersk in June last year, costing $300 million. Or it might be a data breach, such as the incident at Equifax, which could be the most costly in corporate history (estimates currently sit at over $600 million). Alternatively, it might be internal practices that trip the company up, like the emissions scandal that rocked VW, costing a whopping $30 billion. In all of these instances, from a treasury perspective, it is the impact on cash flow and how you can respond that matters.

How does this affect Treasury?

Treasury is a department familiar with managing and mitigating financial risk. A crisis in the business will ultimately have a financial impact, and therefore the attention will quickly turn to the Treasury department.

When the crisis hits, and the focus quickly turns to cash, the executive leadership and other key stakeholders (banks, shareholders etc.) will ask:

  1. What damage has been done? (How has this affected cashflow/working capital?)
  2. What action needs to be taken now, if any? (Is fundraising required to shore up liquidity?)
  3. What further damage may be done if the issue continues? (What are the effects on cash flow of continued disruption to this revenue stream?)
  4. How can we alleviate that damage as much as possible? (What changes can be made to absorb the impact?)

If the cash and liquidity processes are running like a well-oiled machine, the treasurer will be able to give confident answers to these questions. As with any good crisis response, the key is preparation.

What do you need first? A cheat-sheet

First and foremost, managing cash in a crisis is about knowledge and fast access to information. While the Visa network issue a couple of weeks ago didn’t cause a full-blown crisis, it would have directly impacted the liquidity of many businesses and had it lasted longer would have no doubt caused a crisis for some.

In this situation, an understanding of the following would be necessary:

  1. How much revenue is collected through the Visa network daily?
  2. How much of this was in the affected areas?
  3. For the hours of the outage, what could be the maximum impact if no revenue was collected through Visa?
  4. Assuming there’s a lag in receiving cash from Visa, on what day will the drop-in revenue be felt?

Reaching out to the business quickly to gather on-the-ground analysis of the true impact will be central to the message delivered to executives while also allowing a plan of action to be crafted quickly.

For the top four or five potential threats to any business, be it a payment channel outage or a cyber-attack, a similar cheat sheet of KPIs will be needed to ensure treasury’s response is as valuable as possible.

How can you respond?

Ultimately, the response to the crisis, over and above quantifying the potential impact, will be the headline measure of treasury’s effectiveness. The response to a cash crisis will typically rest on access to internal and external liquidity.

You’ll want to know your current cash reserves (across all business units, in all locations and all currencies), and you’ll want to know them in real-time. That way you’ll know where you stand at the point of impact, and how much runway you have left.

From an external point of view, you’ll need to know how much undrawn liquidity is immediately available and how much support will financial backers provide if the situation deteriorates. Getting cash quickly into the business is the only action that will stave off a true crisis. Banks will want to know the potential impact on covenant and profitability levels so these will need to be close at hand.

How can you prepare?

Preparation is all about making sure that all of your cash and liquidity processes are running smoothly and your cash reporting and forecasting is comprehensive and accurate. A good cash forecasting process will include a clear view of accounts receivable, so you’ll be able to quickly factor that in to your incomings. A good forecast will also show what your accounts payable are, and where they can be delayed. Finally, you should be able to easily factor into the cash forecast which revenue streams have been shut off (or diminished) and what impact the impact on working capital will be.

When is the right time?

Unfortunately, however, if disaster strikes now and you aren’t fully prepared, if your cash flow reporting and forecasting processes are manual, slow, and inaccurate, it will be too late. Making sure the house is in order before a crisis hits will enable Treasury to respond confidently when called upon.

Setting up a new cash flow forecasting process can be achieved within a few weeks. The key to managing the roll-out project smoothly is to have buy-in from key personnel from the outset. Outlining the value that can be added in a crisis is a good way to contextualise the benefits the new process will bring.

Should you use software?

Many treasurers still run their cash forecasting processes manually on spreadsheets. However, in a crisis scenario, the CFO will want real-time reporting, across all business units, and a degree of forecasting accuracy that just cannot be achieved without the use of specialised software. To ensure a best-in-class cash forecasting process, it is therefore best to use dedicated cash flow forecasting software.

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June 07, 2018

How to increase accounts receivable forecasting accuracy

Accounts receivable forecasting is one of the most important, and the most challenging, elements of a cash flow forecasting process for head office finance and treasury teams.

It is the element of a company’s cash flow forecast that estimates the amount of cash it is due to receive over a set period. The majority of these receivables will come from the company’s customers.

In this blog post we’ll outline some simple steps for increasing the accuracy of accounts receivable forecasts.

Why is accounts receivable forecasting important?

Accurate and reliable accounts receivable forecasting can have a large impact on the working capital of a business. In particular, clarity on short term upcoming accounts receivable can reduce reliance on short term external financing facilities. Therefore, improved accounts receivable forecasting not only allows a business to be become more nimble and efficient with regards to how they use cash, it also directly impacts the bottom line.

Why is accounts receivable forecasting difficult?

The challenges for a head office team managing a forecasting process are numerous due to the sheer volume of data, range of systems, and number of entities involved. Accounts receivable forecasting is particularly challenging as much of it is out of the receiving company’s hands. While payment terms are agreed, they may not always be adhered to.

It is easiest to break receivables forecasting into two parts: short-term and long-term. Long-term forecasting tends to be more straightforward as customers will, by and large, eventually pay their bills. Short-term forecasting is more difficult because there can be variability in when those bills are paid as well as variability on when cash will actually be received. A customer may delay payments because of difficulties in the supply chain (i.e. they themselves are awaiting payments from third party vendors), because they are holding cash for reporting purposes, or for many other reasons.

How to improve short term accounts receivable forecasting

As forecasting is a forward looking activity there is no silver bullet that will solve all issues. However, based on our experience helping large companies to set-up and manage forecasting processes, taking the following basic steps can dramatically improve the quality and accuracy of accounts receivable forecasts.

Step 1 – historic data analysis

Developing an understanding of past accounts receivable behaviour is the first step in trying to more accurately forecast future customer receipts. There is no hard and fast method for this analysis but ultimately what is learned is more important than how it is done.

At a base level, an analysis of historic accounts receivable data should highlight:

  1. Problematic areas within the receivables ledger, such as customers who consistently don’t pay to term.
  2. The largest customers and their payment behaviour.
  3. The most volatile components of the receivables ledger (e.g. certain business units, product lines or customers).
  4. Seasonality at both a macro and micro level.

The goal of this exercise is to define what areas of the receivables ledger cause the most problems and are the most difficult to forecast. This will allow improvement efforts to be focused on these areas. Applying the 80:20 rule to all aspects of this analysis will significantly speed up the process.

Step 2 – split accounts receivables into sub-categories

The historic analysis will facilitate the accounts receivable ledger to be broken into various reporting sub-categories, depending on what needs to be focused on and improved.

A common sub-categorisation is based on customer size. Looking at accounts receivable as a single number is challenging as, even in mid-sized companies, it comprises many moving parts. A simple 80:20 split will quickly focus the analysis on the largest customers and their payment behaviour.

Further or additional customer categories can include:

  • Payment terms
  • Time of week or month when payment is expected (e.g. last week of month)
  • Credit quality/score

This type of categorisation is key to the efficient ongoing analysis of accounts receivable behaviour.

Step 3 – monitor and adjust assumptions

Accounts receivable analysis and forecasting is an ongoing exercise. The steps outlined above lay the foundation for ongoing analysis which in turn leads to adjustments to forecast assumptions, or to actions that improve cash flow collections.

Variance analysis is the primary piece of analysis that will be carried out as part of any effort to improve accounts receivable forecasting. Variance analysis demonstrates how forecasts perform versus actual data. This in turn shows how assumptions have performed and what needs to be changed for the next forecast iteration.

This process of ‘monitor – update – iterate’ will help cash forecasting accuracy measurement and move a forecast from low to high quality, over a relatively short period of time.

Using specialised forecasting tools

As with most parts of the cash forecasting process, accounts receivable forecasting can be done manually on spreadsheets by collating all of the required input data and entering it into your models.

However, the use of specialised software can help not only by automating the data collection/collation process across numerous data sources, but also with analysing and improving accuracy. The use of specialised software also enables predictive analytics as a method of analysis, offering in-depth insight into what may be affecting forecast accuracy.

Reviewing your cash forecasting process

If you are considering setting up a new cash forecasting process, we have written a cashflow forecasting setup guide, which we welcome you to download.

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May 18, 2018

CashAnalytics at the ACT Annual Conference

We were pleased to exhibit at the ACT Annual Conference in Liverpool on the 15th and 16th May 2018, and were delighted to be visited by some of our clients who took the opportunity to visit our stand and let us know how well they are getting on with our software.

The conference gave us the opportunity to engage with prominent figures within the industry and hear the key issues that corporate treasurers are currently facing.

The panel discussions in particular offered some great insights into how the industry as a whole is changing.

If you were at the conference but missed the chance to see a demo of our software, please contact us by clicking here.

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