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Mass layoffs are passé — except at HP

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist
Daily Ticker
A Hewlett-Packard logo is seen at the company's Executive Briefing Center in Palo Alto, California January 16, 2013. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/Files

Not long ago, layoff announcements totaling 10,000 workers or more seemed to arrive every week. These days, they’ve become a rarity — except at a few troubled giants that still haven’t recovered from the recession that began at the end of 2007.

Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) just announced layoffs of as many as 16,000 workers worldwide. That’s in addition to another 34,000 workers the lumbering tech company plans to axe as part of a long-term restructuring plan. HP’s revenue and profitability have been shrinking since 2011 due to an overreliance on fading technologies such as PCs, laptops and printers. Though the stock has risen during the past 12 months, it’s roughly where it was five years ago  while the S&P 500, by contrast, has risen by 114%.

In a Friday appearance on CNBC, HP CEO Meg Whitman made the case for why these layoffs were a positive thing for the company and its customers. Shareholders seemed fine with the news as well, lifting HP stock more than 6% in Friday's session. Layoffs usually mean lower labor costs, which is why they often boost a company's shares, at least in the short term.

There aren’t many companies these days stuck in HP’s situation, however. Many big firms used the 2007-2009 recession to aggressively downsize and realign their businesses, if necessary. That’s one reason corporate profits — which hit an annualized rate of $1.9 trillion in the first quarter of this year — have soared to record levels.

A thinner labor force is obviously hard on workers. It holds back the overall economy, too, since fewer people earning a paycheck means less money spent. Weak hiring in the aftermath of widespread layoffs has left the economy about 131,000 jobs short of the peak employment level from early 2008, with the unemployment rate at an elevated 6.3%.

There’s an upside, however: Mass layoffs have almost become a thing of the past. So far this year, the number of layoffs announced by companies has averaged just 40,000 per month, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. That’s the lowest pace of layoffs since 1997, which was a boom year for the economy. The last time there was a layoff comparable to HP’s latest announcement (other than from HP) was 14 months ago, when J.C. Penney (JCP) said it would cut 19,000 jobs.

So far this year, the HP announcement is the only mass layoff that could affect 15,000 jobs or more. There were two layoff announcements of that magnitude last year, two in 2012 and one in 2011, according to Challenger, Gray data. Compare that with some of the eye-popping job cuts that occurred during the recession, when companies made aggressive moves that might have been far more controversial in a stable economy. Here are just a few of the bloodlettings that occurred in late 2008 and early 2009:

Citigroup (C): 50,000 job cuts

Bank of America (BAC): 35,000

Caterpillar (CAT): 22,000

United Technologies (UTX): 18,000

Alcoa (AA) : 15,000

AT&T (T): 12,000

Boeing (B): 10,000

Dozens of other firms announced four-figure layoffs back then, and with virtually nobody hiring, the unemployment rate in 2009 ultimately shot to a peak of 10%.

Layoffs have since helped many companies become more efficient, however. Citigroup, which is still considered huge and unwieldy, has nonetheless raised its revenue per employee from $245 in 2007 to $256 in 2013. AT&T has done far better, raising revenue per employee from $385 in 2007 to $522 in 2013. Hewlett-Packard's laggardly performance shows why it is still axing jobs. Revenue per employee actually fell from $606 in 2007 to $354 today, partly on account of acquisitions that ballooned the firm’s headcount by a lot more than they expanded revenue.

In the future, mass layoffs will most likely occur only at a handful of big, legacy firms such as HP that are struggling to transform an old business model into a new one. IBM (IBM) is in that uncomfortable position now, as it tries to adapt to cloud computing and other digital trends that don’t require its costly storage machines or sophisticated software. Intel (INTL), Cisco (CSCO) and perhaps even Microsoft (MSFT) may be headed in the same direction. If hiring remains as weak as it has been, however, there may come a point where there’s hardly anybody left to lay off.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.