US Profits Just Peaked. That Usually Means Layoffs Are Coming

The fattest profits in 70 years have helped sustain a pandemic hiring spree by US business. Now, margins are shrinking — and that could signal harder times ahead in the jobs market.

(Bloomberg) — The fattest profits in 70 years have helped sustain a pandemic hiring spree by US business. Now, margins are shrinking — and that could signal harder times ahead in the jobs market.

As earnings season nears its end, corporate America’s two-year run of surging profits appears to be over. Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are still high by pre-pandemic standards, but they’re down 2.3% from the previous period — the first drop since 2020, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. Net income margins are poised to shrink for a second straight quarter.

When earnings decline it can be a sign that job cuts are in the pipeline, as companies seek to protect their margins by lowering labor costs.

But the strength of that connection is trickier-than-usual to figure out right now. Profit numbers – like so many pandemic datasets — are in more-or-less uncharted territory, still near multi-decade highs, and the jobs market has been behaving strangely too.

‘Trajectory Matters More’

Gina Martin Adams, chief equity strategist at Bloomberg Intelligence, expects the narrowing in corporate margins that’s now under way will lead to a wider retrenchment. The level of profits matters for employment, but “the trajectory matters more,” she says.

Adams points to technology companies that post higher margins than most of their peers, but have still been shedding staff. Tech firms, including industry giants like Inc., Meta Platforms Inc. and Google’s parent Alphabet Inc. have slashed more than 100,000 jobs since November. 

Those cost-cutting efforts helped tech companies shore up their share prices, and now “you’re starting to see layoffs spread a little bit” to other industries, she says. “If their revenues continue to decline, and they don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel, they will react and cut costs.”

One thing that may deter them, though, is how hard it’s been to find workers.

With the expense of hiring back after the pandemic fresh in the minds of corporate bosses, some businesses are hoarding labor — keeping people on their books through an expected recession until the economy turns upward again. 

The first jobs report of 2023 appeared to back up that notion. It showed employers were still hiring at a rapid clip, with more than half a million workers added in January, and the lowest unemployment rate in more than half a century.

‘Positioning for Recovery’

The construction industry may be an example. US housing markets are getting squeezed by high mortgage costs, but Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America, says more than two-thirds of its member firms expect to increase headcount this year.

“Many companies are probably positioning themselves for recovery,” he says. “The expectation generally seems to be that a recession will be mild and short — if there is one.”

The base case for economists is that there will be – though likely not a deep one. Unemployment is forecast to rise from 3.4% today to around 4.8% in a year’s time, as the Federal Reserve ratchets up interest rates to cool inflation. 

Some analysts are optimistic that the US can pull off a “soft landing” where inflation eases without a spike in unemployment. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. recently cut its recession odds over the coming year to 25%, and described corporate layoffs as “a ripple, not a wave.”

Helping Disinflation?

Through the end of last year, the US economy defied predictions of a serious slowdown. Government stimulus bolstered household finances, and that extra spending power translated into sky-high business earnings.

The surge in pandemic profits triggered some head-scratching among economists, including a debate about whether it’s among the causes of high inflation.

In a speech last month, Fed Vice Chair Lael Brainard pointed out that profits as a share of the economy “remain near postwar highs,” while the portion that goes to workers has shrunk. She suggested that businesses may scale back their price markups as consumer demand cools, and that “could contribute to disinflationary pressures.”

In the latest survey of business conditions by the National Association for Business Economics, firms said they were less likely to raise prices in the coming three months than any time since 2020. The share of companies saying their profit margins narrowed in the last quarter was the highest in almost three years. 

More ominously for workers: For the first time in at least two years, more respondents said they expect payrolls to fall over the coming three months than to rise.

“Profits have peaked, there will be greater retrenchment by businesses going forward and the next step is to pull back on hiring,” says Robert King, director of research at the Jerome Levy Forecasting Center in New York. “There’s a broken relationship right now between earnings power and hiring decisions. That relationship over time will reassert itself.”

–With assistance from Augusta Saraiva and Bailey Lipschultz.

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