Is your Christmas budget precariously based on the bill that you hope your biggest client will settle in a few days' time, despite their record of tardy payment? If so, firstly, welcome to one of Hong Kong's biggest unofficial clubs. And, secondly, "invoice finance" might be for you. If you are acquainted with the concept, you'll know how beneficial it can be to cash flow.
However, if you're a finance industry professional, invoice finance is worth eyeing for 2012. It's a growth area, and does particularly well during economic downturns.
"Invoice financing is a widely-used form of short-term borrowing against already-issued invoices that companies use to enhance their working capital position," says Anand Pande, head of product management for Asia Pacific at the Royal Bank of Scotland's (RBS) global transaction services. "This form of financing [enables] companies to react quickly to cover working-capital shortfalls."
Given the times we're in, invoice finance is well positioned. "Export-oriented Asian businesses might face lower trade volume and sales to their major trade partners in the United States and Europe. This, in turn, would reduce the need for financing," Pande says.
However, some companies may face delayed payments from their clients or buyers as a result of the current subdued economic outlook, which would cause a shortfall in cash flow. These companies may then choose to use invoice financing to improve their working capital.
While invoice finance is already widely entrenched in Hong Kong commerce, it is set for growth. "As the global economic and trade outlook remain uncertain, corporations need to quickly develop strong supply-chain finance management that will provide the flexibility to unlock working capital and maximise returns from trade assets, which support the financing needs of their key suppliers to avoid supply chain disruption," Pande says.
"RBS has been steadily growing its invoice finance service through its global transaction banking franchise in Asia. We have invested in attracting the right talent to further grow the business and support our clients' needs," says Pande. "Looking at the broader picture, current trade and industry forecasts are showing that Asia will be leading economic growth globally. This should translate well into career opportunities within the industry."
As for the kind of hire that is being sought for invoice finance, Pande explains that transaction banking has traditionally been an industry that requires a mix of technical and financial expertise, backed and bolstered by strong client solutions skills.
A new invoice finance player in Hong Kong is Bibby Financial Services, which is headquartered in Liverpool, England, and has offices in 14 countries.
Jackey Chu, managing director of Bibby Financial Services (Asia), heads the Hong Kong office, which has a staff of around a dozen.
He's upbeat about the apparently economically cloudy future. "When the economy tightens, banks get more cautious with their lending, and businesses experience problems extending credit," he says. "At these times, invoice finance presents an elegant solution, and we are able to realistically meet our clients' needs in a way that maximises their existing and anticipated capital.
"We are one of those recession-proof companies that do well right through the business cycle, and so are looking to increase our headcount in coming months."
What would Bibby Financial be looking for in candidates? "A background in commercial banking would be useful, [as well as] adaptability and initiative," Chu says.
One of the rationales for establishing an office in Hong Kong, Chu explains, is to benefit from Hong Kong being a gateway to China.
"The relatively new Hong Kong office is a bridgehead to [the goal of a mainland China] office," he says.
"SMEs are greatly dependent on this structure of finance, and so are importers and exporters - companies that experience unduly long periods of payment. These are the people we can help," adds Chu. "We want to double the size of our office within a year or so."