WASHINGTON Weakening demand is forcing new and accelerated cost reductions at companies from Bank of America and Hewlett-Packard to Staples and Eastman Kodak, dimming the outlook for an already struggling U.S. labor market.
Even as consumer confidence and housing show signs of recovering, sales for businesses in the Standard & Poors 500 Index fell 0.9 percent from a year earlier in July through September, the second consecutive quarterly drop and biggest decline since 2009, according to analyst forecasts compiled by Bloomberg. A 1.2 percent gain projected for October-December still is smaller than the 5.4 percent rise in this years first three months.
A global slowdown triggered by Europes debt crisis is exacerbated by the potential impact of the impending U.S. fiscal cliff of changes in taxes and government spending. All this is pushing finance chiefs back to the drawing board, with some limiting hiring and investment and others slashing more jobs than originally announced. Such belt-tightening will dominate employment prospects for the rest of the year.
These cost controls are one of the key reasons job growth remains relatively weak, said Charles Lieberman, chief investment officer at Advisors Capital Management in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., and former head of monetary analysis at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Companies will avoid hiring until orders have strengthened and they cannot meet demand with their existing workforce.
Its just going to be a long, hard slog, said Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at Maria Fiorini Ramirez Inc. in New York. The economy is weak and is going to stay weak. The labor market will continue to struggle.
Bank of America, the second-biggest U.S. lender, is speeding up a 2011 plan to trim $8 billion in expenses and more than 30,000 positions. Hewlett-Packard, the worlds largest personal-computer maker, will slash 29,000 jobs instead of the 27,000 it announced in May. Staples is accelerating its shutdown of 15 American stores as consumers shift to using fewer traditional office products such as folders.
The headwinds we are flying into will likely dominate in the next few months, said Harry Holzer, a public-policy professor at Georgetown University in Washington and former chief economist at the Labor Department. In addition to corporate cutbacks, the public sectors at the state and local levels continue to shed jobs. A real turnaround from recent months that is, something well over 150,000 for the rest of the year is unlikely, he said, referring to monthly payrolls.
This poses a hurdle for consumer spending which accounts for about 70 percent of GDP at a time when other pillars of growth are starting to slacken. Exports decreased 1 percent in July after rising in May and June. Orders for durable goods other than transportation equipment dropped in August for a third consecutive month, signaling slowing business investment. The slowdown in manufacturing is real, and the uncertainty costs associated with the fiscal cliff are mounting, said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial in Chicago. I am hearing a lot more pessimism than I did a year ago. We could easily see some weaker job figures prior to the end of the year.
These risks to the expansion help explain why Fed policymakers announced on Sept. 13 their third round of large-scale asset purchases since 2008. Chairman Ben Bernanke, for the first time, pledged the central bank will buy bonds until the economy gets closer to his goals, signaling the battle against unemployment eclipses concerns about inflation for now.
Some companies own woes are prompting renewed expense control. Rochester, N.Y.-based Kodak said on Sept. 28 it will eliminate at least 200 more jobs in 2012, on top of the 1,000 cuts it announced on Sept. 10, as the bankrupt photography pioneer shrinks into a commercial-printing-focused business. That follows a global reduction of 2,700 this year.
Small companies are responsible for most of the hiring even as big businesses shed jobs, said Lieberman of Advisors Capital, adding that his firm took on a few people this year without issuing a press release. The big corporate layoffs always make the news, he said.