Nortel Networks could have avoided a calamitous inventory buildup, mountains of bad debt and a $19 billion quarterly loss if its executives had talked to their customers' treasurers instead of their salespeople, CEO John

Roth said recently. The treasurers, he noted, knew "that they were having difficulty in raising the money" to pay their suppliers.

Much of corporate America revved up supply as late as last year's fourth quarter, egged on by customer demand and Wall Street enthusiasm. Corporate treasurers were surely surprised by the suddenness with which orders hit a wall as the year turned, but anecdotal evidence suggests that you and your finance departments received the first troublesome signs.

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