Today's job growth is more than twice as slow as it was after the 1990-91 recession and slower than during any recovery since World War II, analysts say.
Carlton Guthrie sees bright times ahead. After weathering the 2001 recession, his manufacturing company has made enough money to pay off some debts and position itself to expand.
But he’s not planning to add jobs.
“I don’t see us hiring anytime soon,” said Guthrie, co-chairman of Detroit Chassis, which makes chassis for motor homes. “I see tremendous amount of room for us becoming more efficient.”
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Guthrie’s ability to expand his business without enlarging the payroll — a feat achieved by many executives — helps explain why job creation remains sluggish even while the economy appears to be booming.
The U.S. economy grew at a brisk 4.4 percent clip last year, but the number of jobs recovered to the levels of early 2001 only last month. Today’s job growth is more than twice as slow as it was after the 1990-91 recession and slower than during any recovery since World War II, analysts say.
The disparity is fueling a growing debate about whether such low employment growth is a harbinger of a world in which businesses can rake in rising profits without trickling much of it down to workers.
“Until now, this recovery has been all about businesses,” said economist Mark Zandi of Economy.com, an economic research firm in West Chester, Pa. “Businesses are in about as good a financial shape as I’ve seen them.”
Instead of aggressively adding workers, corporations have been buying labor-saving equipment, banking cash, distributing record dividends, buying back stock or undertaking ambitious mergers that often lead to job losses.
There is a wide range of reasons for this. Manufacturers like Guthrie are pinched by price competition and continually required to cut costs.
Other executives are wary about expanding payrolls while health-care premiums balloon. Companies are cautious about bloating their staffs, remembering the excesses of the late 1990s. And “offshoring” still seems cheaper than paying American salaries.
The high level of corporate profits and cash leads many analysts to forecast that more jobs will inevitably be created. History shows, they argue, that excess cash is eventually spent, creating opportunities for workers.
The last time the country fretted about a “jobless recovery” was during the early 1990s, just before an avalanche of employment stemming from the tech boom.
Another important factor that may soon lead to more job growth: slowing gains in productivity. Companies have squeezed just about all they can out of existing workers though labor-saving technology and efficient management, analysts say.
Skeptics point to the fact wages remain relatively flat, growing slower last year than the rate of inflation — translating into a cut in take-home pay for many workers. That stagnation indicates to skeptics that the traditional business cycle — in which growth leads to a tight labor market that bids up wages — may be a thing of the past.
Drew Brosseau, managing director of investment company S.G. Cowen, thinks he has an answer: Money is increasingly being invested in high-technology sectors that do not require as many people as do old-fashioned factory jobs.
“A lot of the information industries that are drivers of growth these days are not as person-intensive as manufacturing,” Brosseau said.
Detroit Chassis, though a manufacturer, also has become less person-intensive.
After the 9/11 attacks, the recreational-vehicle market collapsed. With orders plummeting, Co-Chairman Guthrie laid off about 50 employees and cut salaries 30 percent across the board, including management. He’s revamped the way his plant assembles vehicle frames to squeeze every ounce of efficiency out of his staff, boosting output by about 30 percent.
Revenues have improved enough for him to bring pay levels back to where they were before the attacks. And he’s retired about 30 percent of his company’s $8 million debt.
“We’re doing well,” he said.
Now, Guthrie said, workers are finding new efficiencies every day. In return, he’s not cutting jobs but redeploying employees to new ventures, such as creating new safety products for RVs and trucks. “We’re running at warp speed right now,” he said.
But those new endeavors will not require more employees quite yet, Guthrie said. He said he could hire more people by year-end if the ventures do well, but, for now, improvements in technology and organization will allow him to make new products with the same staff.
Guthrie’s not alone.
Businesses have increased productivity mightily in the past three years, with 4 percent gains or more annually — the highest since World War II, economists say. That, coupled with persistent consumer demands for their products, has allowed companies to turn profits without adding many jobs.
To see how businesses hold back hiring, analysts say, just look in their bank accounts.
Corporations are sitting on $4.7 trillion in liquid assets, according to a survey by Treasury Strategies, a Chicago company that studies business liquidity. That’s well above $3.6 trillion in 1999, but down slightly from the $5 trillion high in 2003.
But as much as 30 percent of the money and cash equivalents is invested in instruments that will mature in one year or more, a sign that cash will remain stashed away awhile longer, said Tony Carfan of Treasury Strategies.
“There is a lot of cash out there,” said David Huether, chief economist with the National Association of Manufacturers. “Profits have picked up a bit, but I think that firms still are a little conservative in terms of expanding plants and equipment.”
Not all businesses are reluctant to add jobs. W.W. Grainger, a Lake Forest, Ill.-based retailer of manufacturing products, is expanding its sales force and added 800 jobs last year.
But Jim Ryan, the company’s group president, said that was atypical. “We’re still seeing some conservatism in the economy,” he said.
Such conservatism, analysts say, could push workers to rein in their spending. Because consumer spending has driven the economic expansion, any pullback could increase the risk of “a deceleration of economic activity,” said John Lonski, chief economist for credit-rating firm Moody’s Investors Service.
Lonski, however, said he doesn’t see that happening. In fact, he argued the hiring aversion may lead to an unexpected labor shortage later this year.
And businesses still have all that cash.
“It’s difficult to be gloomy about employment prospects,” Lonski said, “when we’re in a virtual ocean of liquidity.”
But that liquidity can go to places other than the labor market.
For years, Microsoft was growing so quickly and making so much money that its cash piled up. In December, the software giant released a chunk of the money — $32.6 billion in dividend payments to its shareholders, a sum so immense it drove up the nation’s personal income that month.
Brosseau of S.G. Cowen, who follows the company, said it wouldn’t make sense for Microsoft to pour that cash into hiring more programmers.
“It doesn’t matter how much money they spend on Windows, you can only create a new version of Windows so fast,” Brousseau said. “The PC industry is now, arguably, 25 years old and has matured to the point where you shouldn’t be expecting that to be a growth industry anymore.”
Brosseau said Microsoft is expanding into new areas and invests more in its work force than other technology companies. Microsoft has said it expects to hire several thousand workers in this fiscal year ending in June.