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2012年财富美国500强:利润之年

2012年财富美国500强:利润之年

Shawn Tully 2012年05月10日
登上最新财富美国500强榜单的许多大公司,在2011年的利润都创下了新高。他们是如何在略显艰难的经济大环境实现这样的成绩呢?这样的局面又能持续多久呢?

    鉴于当前经济复苏迟缓和消费者手头拮据,你或许会认为美国企业也步履蹒跚,难以全速迎接辉煌。事实上,财富美国500强总体生意兴隆。与美国经济不同,这些公司显现出动如脱兔般的敏捷和灵活性,迅速转变产品组合,几乎没增加多少成本就生产出了更多的产品。这样的敏捷和灵活性,不禁会让人忘了这些公司庞大的规模和通常上了年纪的岁数。比如,成立已160周年的富国银行(Wells Fargo)(排第26位)2011年宣布实现利润159亿美元,较2010年大增28%。“我们一直能够在艰难时期通过创新实现业务繁荣,这些创新包括在移动设备上推广银行业务以及在其他公司都退出时拓展我们的按揭业务,”富国银行首席财务官蒂莫西•斯隆表示。

    富国银行丰厚的利润令人赞叹,但这样的盈利并非个别现象。2011年,财富美国500强公司总共创造了8,245亿美元的利润,较2010年增长16.4%,并超越了经济高速增长的2006年的7,850亿美元利润。从两项关键的历史指标看,2011年的利润也很高。2011年财富美国500强公司的利润/总销售额比率为7%,高于58年来的平均值5.14%。另外,2011年的资本回报率也表现出色,权益回报率达到14.3%,远高于历史均值12%。

    但这些骄人的数字不能持久。商业周期的万有引力最终将截断贡献利润的洪流,部分原因是很多公司在经济危机期间疯狂裁员,要保持增长将不得不雇佣更多员工。那么,就让我们尽情享受这一辉煌却短暂的时刻吧,这绝非什么可持续的新时代。

    财富美国500强公司是如何在艰难的环境下实现巨额利润的?通过两种方式:提高生产率和全球化。500强公司将成本控制在低水平,即便是在经济缓慢复苏的初期、公司销售开始增长之时。另外,500强公司也开始在经济增速快于美国的发展中经济体中经营更多的业务。这两个因素共同打造了所谓“运营杠杆”的强大利润引擎。从2008年底的金融危机开始,很多公司大砍成本,尤其是劳动力成本,仿佛经济大萧条已风雨欲来。从2009年底经济重现增长以来,这些公司也一直不愿雇佣更多的员工;员工成本占其总成本的近70%。如今,财富美国500强公司在全球共雇佣2,580万人,较2007年仅增加不到1%。而且,美国公司只是维持工资增幅与通胀持平,2011年平均涨薪2%。

    劳动生产率的猛增也是一个因素。2005年,财富美国500强公司每位员工创造的销售收入为369,000美元。去年,这一数字达到了455,000美元,增幅达23%。每位员工创造的利润达到创纪录的32,000美元,比00年代初期高出50%。500强公司还通过降低利息支出实现了增效,包括用利润偿还债务以及以极低利率发行新债券这两种方式。举例来说,富国银行利用这两种方式将2011年的利息成本同比消减了14亿美元。

    企业规模在2011年也是一大优势。“大公司一贯比小企业做得好,主要的原因是它们有大得多的全球业务覆盖。”Moody's Analytics的首席经济学家马克•赞迪表示。财富美国500强公司有近40%的销售额来自海外市场。尽管欧洲经济状况欠佳,2011年海外业务仍增长了3.1%,大大高于美国业务的1.7%增幅。

    Given the sluggish recovery and a strapped consumer, you'd expect to see corporate America trudging along, not racing for glory. In fact, the Fortune 500 are thriving as a group. Unlike the U.S. economy, they've shown quicksilver agility, rapidly shifting their product mix and producing more goods at little new cost. This nimbleness belies the immense size of these companies and, frequently, their advanced age. For example, banking giant Wells Fargo (No. 26) celebrated its 160th anniversary with profits of $15.9 billion, up 28% over 2010. "We've been able to prosper in these difficult times by innovating, whether promoting banking on mobile devices or growing our mortgage business when others are leaving," says Wells Fargo CFO Timothy Sloan.

    Wells Fargo's (WFC) fat profits are impressive but by no means unusual. The Fortune 500 generated a total of $824.5 billion in earnings last year, up 16.4% over 2010. That beats the previous record of $785 billion, set in 2006 during a roaring economy. The 2011 profits are outsize based on two key historical metrics. They represent 7% of total sales, vs. an average of 5.14% over the 58-year history of the Fortune 500. Companies are also garnering exceptional returns on their capital. The 500 achieved a return-on-equity of 14.3%, far above the historical norm of 12%.

    These big numbers can't last. The gravitational pull of the business cycle will eventually end the profit bonanza, in part because many companies carried out brutal layoffs during the recession and will now be forced to hire more workers to maintain their growth. So let's enjoy it as a heroic but fleeting moment, not a durable new age.

    How did the 500 mine huge profits in a harsh environment? Two ways: productivity gains and globalization. The 500 companies kept costs low even as their sales grew in the early stages of a slow recovery. The 500 are also doing more business in developing economies that are growing faster than the U.S. Together, these two factors created a powerful earnings engine called "operating leverage." Starting with the financial crisis of late 2008, companies slashed costs, especially labor, as if a depression were looming. Since the economy began expanding again in late 2009, they've been reluctant to hire more workers, who account for almost 70% of their total costs. Today the Fortune 500 employs 25.8 million people worldwide, up by less than 1% since 2007. And U.S. companies are simply keeping wages even with inflation, granting average raises of 2% in 2011.

    The result has been an explosion in labor productivity. In 2005 the 500 generated $369,000 in sales per employee. Last year that figure reached $455,000, an increase of 23%. Profits per worker hit a record of $32,000, 50% above the level in the early 2000s. The 500 also reaped major rewards from lowering interest payments, both by tapping bigger earnings to reduce debt and by issuing new bonds at bargain rates. Wells Fargo, for example, used both strategies to pare its interest cost by $1.4 billion from 2010 to 2011.

    Size was a big advantage last year. "The big companies consistently did better than the small players, chiefly because they have far more global reach," says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. The 500 pull almost 40% of their sales from foreign markets. Despite Europe's economic travails, growth outside the United States reached 3.1% in 2011, dwarfing the U.S. figure of 1.7%.

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