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Disappearing Working Capital: Implications for Accounting Research Open Access

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This dissertation examines the implications of technological advances on the net working capital balance of U.S. firms over the past five decades. I find that the annual mean value of the net working capital balance of U.S. firms has sharply declined, from 28.9% of average total assets in the 1970s to 6.5% in the 2010s. I also show that an increase in IT spending is associated with a reduction in net working capital balance, after controlling for alternative explanations. This real (vis-à-vis accounting) change in net working capital balance has significant implications for practical financial management and accounting research. On one hand, companies have become more efficient in managing their working capital and thus in conserving cash, leading to an increased cash savings at U.S. firms. On the other, the declining working capital balance has reduced accounting current accruals from 18.8% to 5.4% of earnings, which, in turn, has reduced the explanatory power of the Jones (1991) model from 23.7% to 3.7% and increased the correlation between earnings and cash flows from 0.689 to 0.947 over time. Such a structural change is worth noting for accounting research addressing the relationship between accruals, cash flows, and earnings.

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