NEW YORK -- Despite high unemployment and a largely languishing real estate market, U.S. businesses are more profitable than ever, according to federal figures released on Friday.
U.S. corporate profits hit an all-time high at the end of 2010, with financial firms showing some of the biggest gains, data from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis show. Corporations reported an annualized $1.68 trillion in profit in the fourth quarter. The previous record, without being adjusted for inflation, was $1.65 trillion in the third quarter of 2006.
Many of the nation's preeminent companies have posted massive increases in profits this year. General Electric posted worldwide profits of $14.2 billion, while profits at JPMorgan Chase were up 47 percent to $4.8 billion.
Corporate profits steadily increased last year as companies continued holding onto record amounts of cash and other liquid assets while cutting costs, laying off workers and wringing more productivity -- defined as the amount of output that comes from an hour of work -- from remaining staff, even as the recession eased.
To put that in perspective, said Lynn Reaser, the chief economist at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, it's important to note that companies were able to bring production back up to pre-recession levels without hiring any more workers.
"We have now recovered all of the output lost in the recession, but we are still down by 7.5 million workers," she said.
In addition to layoffs, some companies continued to cut wages and benefits last year. Sub-Zero, the freezer and refrigerator manufacturer, told workers last year that factories in Wisconsin would have to be shut down, with 500 employees losing their jobs, unless staff took a 20 percent pay cut, The New York Times reported.
Workers were expected to put in more hours without overtime pay, while staff facing fewer hours of work due to furloughs were expected to do as much as they would have in a full workday, according to NPR.
But, economists said, companies may have squeezed as much as they can out of workers, with a decline in profits for non-financial companies in the fourth quarter of last year suggesting that to improve production, companies will have to start hiring seriously again.
On the whole, Reaser said, corporations have significantly improved their balance sheets since the financial crisis. "It's helped pave the way for a significant gain for corporate capital spending, dividend payouts and corporate buybacks, as well as the significant rise in stock prices," she said.
But while the financial sector continued to recover from its 2008 meltdown -- with profits jumping some $51 billion in the fourth quarter, a gain of 51 percent over the previous quarter -- non-financial firms actually saw profits fall by roughly $10 billion, according to the BEA figures.
Part of the reason, said Reaser, was that although high productivity drove down labor costs, persistent unemployment and pinched consumers left companies unable to charge the higher prices needed to boost profits. More companies will start pushing more aggressively to improve profit margins this year, she said.
In order for those efforts to pay off, she said, many companies will have to start hiring -- and keep hiring.
Until the end of last year, companies were able to boost productivity by squeezing their remaining workers, who were eager to prove they were worth their paychecks. "But," said Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics, "you can't keep getting more out of workers quarter after quarter after quarter."
To ramp up production this year, Ashworth said, companies have already started hiring modestly. Federal figures show the economy added total of 192,000 jobs in February, the most in nearly a year. The unemployment rate fell to 8.9 percent last month, the lowest since April 2009.
Economic growth figures released on Friday also suggested firms were slowly stepping up production. The Commerce Department revised upwards its projections for gross domestic product growth in the fourth quarter of 2010, to 3.1 percent from 2.8 percent.
The new projection, BMO Capital Markets senior economist Sal Guatieri said, is "consistent with an economy growing fast enough to gradually reduce the unemployment rate." But, he said, most of the increase was in business inventories -- companies producing and stockpiling more -- rather than consumer confidence.
Despite positive signs, economists warned that economic growth could be hit by the twin shocks of high gas prices and the impact of events in Japan, which has hampered auto and electronic supply chains. "There are mild headwinds that will slow growth a little bit," said Nariman Behravesh, an economist at IHS Global Insight, an economic and financial analysis firm. "They're not going to derail the recovery, and we're guessing they'll be temporary."
U.S. consumers appear to be growing nervous, thanks to events in Japan, fears over nuclear power, and unrest in the Middle East and north Africa. That anxiety could take an economic toll, with consumer sentiment falling this month to its lowest level since November 2009, according to the Reuters/University of Michigan index.
"The sharp drop in consumer confidence and Japan-related supply chain bottlenecks will likely translate into real GDP growth of only around 2.4 percent in the first quarter, with a bounce back to the 3.5 percent to 4 percent range in the second quarter," Behravesh said, revising his quarterly GDP growth estimate down from 4.2 percent.