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Industries Find Surging Profits in Deeper Cuts

By most measures, Harley-Davidson has been having a rough ride.

Motorcycle sales are falling in 2010, as they have for each of the last three years. The company does not expect a turnaround anytime soon.

But despite that drought, Harley’s profits are rising — soaring, in fact. Last week, Harley reported a $71 million profit in the second quarter, more than triple what it earned a year ago.

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This seeming contradiction — falling sales and rising profits — is one reason the mood on Wall Street is so much more buoyant than in households, where pessimism runs deep and joblessness shows few signs of easing.

Many companies are focusing on cost-cutting to keep profits growing, but the benefits are mostly going to shareholders instead of the broader economy, as management conserves cash rather than bolstering hiring and production. Harley, for example, has announced plans to cut 1,400 to 1,600 more jobs by the end of next year. That is on top of 2,000 job cuts last year — more than a fifth of its work force.

As companies this month report earnings for the second quarter, news of healthy profits has helped the stock market — the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index is up 7 percent for July — but the source of those gains raises deep questions about the sustainability of the growth, as well as the fate of more than 14 million unemployed workers hoping to rejoin the work force as the economy recovers.

“Because of high unemployment, management is using its leverage to get more hours out of workers,” said Robert C. Pozen, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and the former president of Fidelity Investments. “What’s worrisome is that American business has gotten used to being a lot leaner, and it could take a while before they start hiring again.”

And some of those businesses, including Harley-Davidson, are preparing for a future where they can prosper even if sales do not recover. Harley’s goal is to permanently be in a position to generate strong profits on a lower revenue base.

In some ways, the ability to raise profits in the face of declining sales is a triumph of productivity that makes the United States more globally competitive. The problem is that companies are not investing those earnings, instead letting cash pile up to levels not reached in nearly half a century.

“As long as corporations are reinvesting, the economy can grow,” said Ethan Harris, chief economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “But if they’re taking those profits and saving them, rather than buying new equipment, it hurts overall growth. The longer this goes on, the more you worry about income being diverted to a sector that’s not spending.”

“There’s no question that there is an income shift going on in the economy,” Mr. Harris added. “Companies are squeezing their labor costs to build profits.”

The trend is hardly limited to Harley. Giants like General Electric and JPMorgan Chase , as well as smaller companies like Hasbro, the toymaker, all improved their bottom lines despite slowing sales in the second quarter. Among the S.& P. 500 companies that have reported second-quarter results, more than one in 10 had higher profits on lower sales, nearly twice the number in a typical quarter before the recession, according to Thomson Reuters.

“Whole industries are operating at new levels of profitability,” said David J. Kostin, chief United States equity strategist at Goldman Sachs. “In the downturn, companies managed to maintain higher profit margins than ever before.”

Profit margins — the percentage of revenue left over after expenses — crumble in most recessions, as overall sales fall but fixed costs like infrastructure, commodities and rent remain the same. In 2002, during the recession that followed the bursting of the technology bubble in addition to the Sept. 11 attacks, margins sank to 4.7 percent. Although the most recent downturn was far more severe, profit margins bottomed out at 5.9 percent in 2009 and quickly rebounded. By next year, analysts expect margins to hit 8.9 percent, a record high.

The difference this time is that companies wrung more savings out of their work forces, said Neal Soss, chief economist for Credit Suisse in New York. In fact, while wages and salaries have barely budged from recession lows, profits have staged a vigorous recovery, jumping 40 percent between late 2008 and the first quarter of 2010.

Harley-Davidson’s profit gain last quarter was helped by a turnaround in its financing unit, as well as more efficient production, but the company is still cutting.

Harley has warned union employees at its Milwaukee factory that it would move production elsewhere in the United States if they did not agree to more flexible work rules and tens of millions in cost-saving measures.

Even if sales do improve, a surge in hiring is unlikely.

"Realities of the recession."

“The last thing we’re worried about is when are we going to have to add more capacity, because what we’re really doing is reconfiguring our entire operational system for greater flexibility,” Keith Wandell, the company’s chief executive, said on a conference call with analysts last week.

Harley-Davidson motorcycles are displayed inside the Chicago Harley-Davidson in Chicago, Illinois.
Getty Images
Harley-Davidson motorcycles are displayed inside the Chicago Harley-Davidson in Chicago, Illinois.

Harley’s evolution is part of longer-term shift in American manufacturing, said Rod Lache, an analyst with Deutsche Bank.

At Ford, revenue in its North American operations is down by $20 billion since 2005, but instead of a loss like it had that year, the unit is expected to earn more than $5 billion in 2010. In large part, that is because Ford has shrunk its North American work force by nearly 50 percent over the last five years.

“These companies have cracked the code of a successful industrial turnaround,” Mr. Lache said. “They’re shrinking the business to a size that’s defendable, and growing off that lower base.”

To be sure, sales are rising for many companies, albeit at a much slower pace than the increase in profits. Among the 175 companies in the S.& P. 500 that have reported earnings for the second quarter, revenues rose 6.9 percent on average while profits jumped 42.3 percent, according to Thomson Reuters.

Still, even at corporations where both the top and bottom lines are expanding, the focus remains on keeping profits high, not rebuilding work forces decimated by the recession.

When Alcoa reported a turnaround this month in profits and a 22 percent jump in revenue, its chief financial officer, Charles D. McLane Jr., assured investors that it was not eager to recall the 37,000 workers let go since late 2008. “We have a tight focus on spending as market activity increases, operating more effectively and minimizing rehires where possible,” he said. “We’re not only holding headcount levels, but are also driving restructuring this quarter that will result in further reductions.”

Michael E. Belwood, a spokesman for Alcoa, said more than 17,500 of the former workers were employed at units Alcoa has since sold, but added that the company “had to be resized to match the realities of the recession.”

“We’re keeping a close eye on costs because there is still uncertainty about the stability of this recovery,” he said.

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