Companies make 2024 the year of cost cuts

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Corporate America has a message for Wall Street: It’s serious about cutting costs this year.

From toy and cosmetics makers to office software sellers, executives across sectors have announced layoffs and other plans to slash expenses — even at some companies that are turning a profit. Barbie maker Mattel, PayPal, Cisco, Nike, Estée Lauder and Levi Strauss are just a few of the firms that have cut jobs in recent weeks.

Department store retailer Macy’s said it will close five of its namesake department stores and cut more than 2,300 jobs. JetBlue Airways and Spirit Airlines have offered staff buyouts, while United Airlines cut first-class meals on some of its shortest flights.

As consumers watch their wallets, companies have felt pressure from investors to do the same. Executives have sought to show shareholders that they’re adjusting to consumer demand as it returns to typical patterns or even softens, as well as aggressively countering higher expenses.

Airlines, automakers, media companies and package giant UPS are all digesting new labor contracts that gave raises to tens of thousands of workers and drove costs higher.

Companies in years past could get away with passing on higher costs to customers who were willing to splurge on everything from new appliances to beach vacations. But businesses’ pricing power has waned, so executives are looking for other ways to manage the budget — or squeeze out more profits, said Gregory Daco, chief economist for EY.

“You are in an environment where cost fatigue is very much part of the equation for consumers and business leaders,” Daco said. “The cost of most everything is much higher than it was before the pandemic, whether it’s goods, inputs, equipment, labor, even interest rates.”

There are some exceptions to the recent cost-cutting wave: Walmart, for example, said last month that it would build or convert more than 150 stores over the next five years, along with a more than $9 billion investment to modernize many of its current stores.

And some companies, such as banks, already made deep cuts. Five of the largest banks, including Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs, together eliminated more than 20,000 jobs in 2023. Now, they’re awaiting interest rate cuts by the Federal Reserve that would free up cash for pent-up mergers and acquisitions.

But cost reductions unveiled in even just the first few weeks of the year amount to tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars. In January, U.S. companies announced 82,307 job cuts, more than double the number in December, while still down 20% from a year ago, according to Challenger, Gray and Christmas.

And the tightening of months prior is already showing up in financial reports.

So far this earnings season, results have indicated that companies have focused on driving profits higher without the tailwind of big price increases and sales growth.

As of mid-February, more than three-quarters of the S&P 500 had reported fourth-quarter results, with far more earnings beats than revenue beats. The quarter’s earnings, measured by a composite of S&P 500 companies, are on pace to rise nearly 10%. Revenues, however, are up a more modest 3.4%.

Layoffs, flight cuts and store closures

While companies’ drive for higher profits isn’t new, they have made bolstering the bottom line a priority this year.

Downsizing has rippled across the tech industry, as companies followed the lead of Meta’s 2023 cuts, which many analysts credited with helping the social media giant rebound from a rough 2022. CEO Mark Zuckerberg had dubbed 2023 the “year of efficiency” for the parent of Facebook and Instagram, as it slashed the size of its workforce and vowed to carry forward its leaner approach.

In recent weeks, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft and Cisco, among others, have announced staffing reductions.

And the layoffs haven’t been contained to tech. UPS said it was axing 12,000 jobs, saving the company $1 billion, CEO Carol Tome said late last month, citing softer demand. Many of the largest retail, media and entertainment companies have also announced workforce reductions, in addition to other cuts.

Warner Bros. Discovery has slashed content spending and headcount as part of $4 billion in total cost savings from the merger of Discovery and WarnerMedia. Disney initially promised $5.5 billion in cost reductions in 2023, fueled by 7,000 layoffs. The company has since increased its savings promise to $7.5 billion, and executives suggested in its Feb. 7 quarterly earnings report that it may exceed that target.

Last week, Paramount Global announced hundreds of layoffs in an effort to “operate as a leaner company and spend less,” according to CEO Bob Bakish. Comcast’s NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC, has also recently eliminated jobs.

JetBlue Airways, which hasn’t posted an annual profit since before the pandemic, is deferring about $2.5 billion in capital expenditures on new Airbus planes to the end of the decade, culling unprofitable routes and redeploying aircraft in addition to the worker buyouts.

Delta Air Lines, which is profitable, in November said it was cutting some office jobs, calling it a “small adjustment.”

Some cuts are even making their way to the front of the cabin. United Airlines, which also posted a profit in 2023, at the start of this year said it would serve first-class meals only on flights more than 900 miles, up from 800 miles previously. “On flights that are 301 to 900 miles, United First customers can expect an offering from the premium snack basket,” according to an internal post.

Several of the country’s largest automakers, such as General Motors and Ford Motor, have lowered spending by billions of dollars through reduced or delayed investments on all-electric vehicles. The U.S.-based companies as well as others, such as Netherlands-based Stellantis, have recently reduced headcount and payroll through voluntary buyouts or layoffs.

Even Chipotle, which reported more foot traffic and sales at its restaurants in the most recently reported quarter, is chasing higher productivity by testing an avocado-scooping robot called the Autocado that shortens the time it takes to make guacamole. It’s also testing another robot that can put together burrito bowls and salads. The robots, if expanded to other stores, could help cut costs by minimizing food waste or reducing the number of workers needed for those tasks.

Shifting patterns

Industry experts have chalked up some recent cuts to companies catching their breath — and taking a hard look at how they operate — after an unusual four-year stretch caused by the pandemic and its fallout.

EY’s Daco said the past few years have been marked by a mismatch in supply and demand when it comes to goods, services and even workers.

Customers went on shopping sprees, fueled by government stimulus and less experience-related spending. Airlines saw demand disappear and then skyrocket. Companies furloughed workers in the early pandemic and then struggled to fill jobs.

He said he expects companies this year to “search for an equilibrium.”

“You’re seeing a rebalancing happening in the labor markets, in the capital markets,” he said. “And that rebalancing is still going to play out and gradually lead to a more sustainable environment of lower inflation and lower interest rates, and perhaps a little bit slower growth.”

The auto industry, for example, faced a supply issue during much of the Covid pandemic but is now facing a potential demand problem. Inventories of new vehicles are rising — surpassing 2.5 million units and 71 days’ supply toward the end of 2023, up 57% year over year, according to Cox Automotive — forcing automakers to extend more discounts in an effort to move cars and trucks off dealer lots.

Automakers have also been contending with slower-than-expected adoption of EVs.

David Silverman, a retail analyst at Fitch Ratings, said companies are “feeling a bit heavy as sales growth moderates and maybe even declines.”

Cost cuts at UPS, Hasbro and Levi all followed sales declines in the most recent fiscal quarter. Macy’s, which reports earnings later this month, has said it expects same-store sales to drop, and there’s early evidence that may come to bear: Consumers pulled back on spending in January, with retail sales falling 0.8%, more than economists expected, according to the latest federal data.

Most major retailers, including Walmart, Target and Home Depot, will report earnings in the coming weeks.

Credit ratings agency Fitch said it doesn’t expect the U.S. economy to tip into recession, but it does anticipate a continued pullback in discretionary spending.

“Part of companies’ decision to lower their expense structure is in line with their views that 2024 may not be a fantastic year from a top-line-growth standpoint,” Silverman said.

Plus, he added, companies have had to find cash to fund investments in newer technology such as infrastructure that supports e-commerce, a resilient supply chain or investments in artificial intelligence.

Forward momentum

Companies may have another reason to cut costs now, too. As they see other companies shrinking the size of their workforces or budgets, there’s safety in numbers.

Or as Silverman noted, “layoffs beget layoffs.”

“As companies have started to announce them it becomes normalized,” he said. “There’s less of a stigma.”

Even with rolling layoffs, the labor market remains strong, which may help explain why Wall Street has by and large rewarded those companies that have found areas to save and returned profits to shareholders.

Shares of Meta, for example, almost tripled in price in 2023 in that “year of efficiency,” making the stock the second-best gainer in the S&P 500, behind only Nvidia. After laying off more than 20,000 workers in 2023, Meta on Feb. 2 announced its first-ever dividend and said it expanded its share buyback authorization by $50 billion.

UPS, fresh from job cuts, said it would raise its quarterly dividend by a penny.

Overall, dividends paid by companies in the S&P 500 rose 5.05% last year, according to Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst at S&P Dow Jones Indices, and he estimated they will likely increase nearly 5.3% this year.

— CNBC’s Michael Wayland, Alex Sherman, Robert Hum, Amelia Lucas and Jonathan Vanian contributed to this story.

Disclosure: Comcast owns NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC.

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