Overtrading happens when a business expands too quickly without having the financial resources to support such a quick expansion.

  • If suitable sources of finance are not obtained, overtrading can lead to business failure.
  • Importantly, overtrading can occur even when a business is profitable. It is an issue of working capital and cash flow.
  • Overtrading is, therefore, essentially a problem of growth.
  • It is particularly associated with retail businesses who attempt to grow too fast.

Overtrading is most likely to happen when

  • Growth is achieved by making significant capital investment in production or operations capacity before revenues are generated
  • Sales are made on credit and customers take too long to settle amounts owed
  • Significant growth in inventories is required in order to trade from the expanding capacity
  • A long-term contract requires a business to incur substantial costs before payments are made by customers under the contract

Classic symptoms of overtrading

  • High revenue growth but low gross and operating profit margins
  • Persistent use of bank overdraft facilities
  • Significant increases in payables days and receivables days ratios
  • Significant increase in the current ratio
  • Very low inventory turnover ratio
  • Low levels of capacity utilisation

Managing the risk of overtrading

  • The most effective steps to avoid overtrading are essentially those that would be taken as part of a sensible cash flow and working capital management

  • Reducing inventory levels

  • Scaling back the pace of revenue growth until profit margins and cash reserves have improved

  • Leasing rather than buying capital equipment

  • Obtaining better payment terms from suppliers

  • Enforcing better payment terms with customers (eg, through prompt-payment discounts)