It's time for a new truism, Fools: "The bigger they are, the harder they fire."
All across corporate America, we've been reading about layoffs in recent weeks. The "redundancies" (as our British cousins so delicately term the phenomenon) hail from sources both expected -- Harley-Davidson's (NYSE: HOG ) 1,100 pink slips -- and surprising, such as Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) first-ever mass dismissal, of 5,000 souls.
This morning, three of the nation's biggest employers announced a total of 35,000 layoffs. Telecom giant Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S ) announced that in an effort to cut $1.2 billion in expenses from its budget, it will lay off 8,000 workers across "all levels of the company." Sprint's also suspending 401(k) matching funds in 2009, canceling tuition reimbursement for those workers lucky enough to keep their jobs, and freezing salaries.
In retail, Home Depot (NYSE: HD ) revealed layoffs nearly as big -- 7,000 employees, including "a 10% reduction in the Company's officer ranks." (So let's hear it for the workin' man.)
But these two "right-sizings," combined, don't hold a candle to what happened at Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT ) . The industrial giant reported miserable earnings this morning, and knowing that misery loves company, let 20,000 employees go.
The song remains the same
Nor will the cuts end there. Also today, Pfizer (NYSE: PFE ) confirmed that it's paying $68 billion to buy Wyeth (NYSE: WYE ) . But pharma employees have little reason to cheer the news. It's been said that Pfizer plans to cut 10% of the resulting company's workforce, if and when the merger goes through.
Doom and gloom ...
Now, there are two ways to interpret all this bad news. Doom-and-gloomers will tell you that our economy is slouching toward an economic Gomorrah. Laid-off Sprint workers are going to have a hard time paying for cellular service on their unemployment checks. Home-less Depot officers won't be buying a lot of lumber. And pretty soon, Pfizer's fears that patent-less Lipitor sales will suffer could self-fulfill, as the unemployed masses seek cheaper generic drugs.
... and boom?
And at first, I expect all this will prove true -- and more. The global economy is clearly slowing, and each new round of layoffs will tap the economic brakes a bit harder. But I refuse to buy fully into the pessimistic worldview, Fools. Long-term, I think we're laying the groundwork for a new cyclical boom.
Consider: From the corporate perspective, we see companies busily trimming fat, cutting unprofitable operations, and focusing on how best to maximize their profits. Far from punishing the companies for their failure to "grow," Wall Street this morning rewarded Home Depot for wielding the ax and certainly didn't punish Sprint at all. Clearly, investors believe that eliminating redundancies is going to be good for these companies -- out with diworsification. In with focusing on your core competency.
But what about the workers?
Things are going to be tough for the newly jobless, no doubt -- and I feel their pain. Fact is, I lost one of my own two jobs just this year. But as a result, I now get to spend more time doing the work I really love -- investing, and writing about investing.
So my own personal experience tells me that American workers, laid off by corporate America, will -- to quote one notable person who just lost one job and found another: "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."
So here's my prediction, America. The next few months -- maybe the next couple of years, are going to be rough. But as time goes on, those workers laid off by corporate America are going to discover themselves increasingly free of all the negatives that comes with: Corporate red tape. Stifling of creativity. Conformity. They'll find new jobs, better jobs -- or start companies of their own.
Somewhere out there, I'm convinced, is:
- an ex-Harley employee who's always wanted to open his or her own shop, tricking out bikes;
- a Home Depot suit whose first love has always been cooking, and who will take the severance check and plow it into a small-business loan to open the next Chipotle;
- a Caterpillar mechanic who's sick of building excavators for oil sands, and has a great idea for how to improve the efficiency of solar panels -- and was just waiting for the kick in the pants to get down to sketching it out;
- maybe even a Wyeth worker who will one day cure the common cold -- and keep the patent to themselves.
In short, the recession is not forever, Fools. Given time and gumption, and finally unshackled from their cubicles, these miniature engines of economic growth will lead us back to the boom times. And then the great cycle of economic growth will turn north once again. Invest accordingly.