Friday, August 13, 2010

Firms Spend More-Carefully

This week I was quoted in the WSJ. See the article below.

The Wall Street Journal


AUGUST 11, 2010

Firms Spend More—Carefully

Equipment Purchases Make Up for Recession Cutbacks, Not to Raise Production


(Please see Corrections & Amplifications items below)

Companies in the U.S. are stepping up purchases of equipment and software at the fastest pace since the late 1990s. But much of the spending is aimed at replacing older equipment after recession-related postponements or to improve efficiency—not to raise production or boost hiring.

After one of the sharpest declines in spending on equipment and software, companies in the U.S. boosted their spending on such products at a 21.9% inflation-adjusted annual rate in the second quarter, after the first quarter's 20.4% increase, the U.S. Commerce Department said.

The second-quarter jump was the biggest since 1998, when enthusiasm for technology was running hot. It was a much stronger increase than what was seen after the previous two recessions.

That stands in sharp contrast to the muted hiring and lackluster consumer spending that have characterized the economy since it began growing again in the middle of last year.

International Paper Corp., for instance, cut capital spending to $534 million last year from $1 billion in 2008. This year, it expects to raise spending to about $800 million.

Some of the company's higher spending will add capacity in developing markets such as Brazil, where demand for paper products is growing. But in the U.S., where the bulk of International Paper's operations are, the money will go into maintenance, improving energy efficiency and meeting regulatory standards, rather than boosting capacity.

"Businesses invest when there's demand," said International Paper Chief Executive John Faraci. "There's not going to be any [U.S.] capacity expansion, or for that matter job creation, until you see an increase in demand."

American companies, particularly manufacturers, recently have been raising output without adding workers.

The Labor Department reported Tuesday that productivity, measured in output per hour of work, fell at a 0.9% annual rate in the second quarter from the previous quarter. It was the first quarter since the end of 2008 in which productivity didn't rise. That's a hint that companies may soon need either to increase workers' hours, hire new ones or install more labor-saving equipment.

Companies may keep increasing spending on equipment, computers and software even if they don't add capacity. Nomura Securities economist David Resler calculates that businesses didn't spend enough in 2009 on new equipment to offset the wear and tear on their existing equipment. As a result, the capital stock—the inflation-adjusted value of all business equipment and software in place in the U.S.—dropped 0.9% from 2008—its first decline since World War II.

Mr. Resler estimates that even with the recent sharp increases in capital spending, the total capital stock is still $100 billion less than it was two years ago. That suggests that capital spending could continue to grow strongly the rest of the year.

The rebound in capital spending and strong demand from overseas markets such as China have boosted companies that make equipment and software. Revenue at technology companies in the S&P 500 index was up an estimated 21% in the second quarter versus a year earlier, according to Thomson Reuters, and profit rose by 65%. Capital equipment makers such as Caterpillar Inc., Rockwell Automation Inc. and Illinois Tool Works Inc. reported large second-quarter sales and profits gains.

Sales at Bishop-Wisecarver Corp, a Pittsburg, Calif.-maker of motion systems used in everything from wood-shop machinery to food-processing plants, are up sharply from last year, and are on track to be as strong as in 2007, before the recession kickded in.

Bishop-Wisecarver President Pamela Kan thinks some of the rebound has come from companies trying to make plants more efficient, but she worries that many customers are catching up on projects put off during the downturn. That makes it difficult for her to gauge how strong business will be in the future and plan accordingly.

"I don't know how much of this is just pent-up demand," she said. "It's a finger in the wind now."

As a result, she's hesitant to hire, but is looking to add a few workers to the company's payroll of about 45. She doesn't plan to make any big purchases, in part because the company did major upgrades to its equipment right before the recession hit.

In general, manufacturers, which are benefiting from the global economic upswing, are boosting capital spending more than services companies are.

In a survey conducted by KPMG International in June, 35% of U.S. manufacturing executives said they expected to increase capital spending over the next year, while just 7% said they expected such spending to decline. In comparison, 27% of service company executives expected to increase spending, with about 9% expecting to spend less.

On Monday, Carrols Restaurant Group, which operates Burger King franchises and other restaurants in the U.S., said it expected to make capital expenditures of $40 million to $45 million this year, up from $37 million in 2009, but below 2008's $62 million. Most of that increase will be devoted to remodeling and equipment purchases at existing restaurants.

"We have limited capital spending for new-unit development this year so that we can continue to reduce debt," said company President Dan Accordino.

Ariens Co. of Brillion, Wisc., which employs about 1,000 workers making lawn mowers and snow blowers, has been buying capital equipment steadily over the past two years, taking advantage of the flood of inexpensive machinery that came on the market as other companies pulled back. Those purchases were aimed not at increasing Ariens' manufacturing capacity, but rather to bring in house work that it used to have outside suppliers perform.

Last year the company bought a pulley-making machine from a former General Motors Co. supplier for $1 million—a new one would have costs $4 million, said CEO Dan Ariens—and began making pulleys it used to buy. "It kept about 15 of our people busy," he said, helping the company avoid layoffs.

Mr. Ariens reckons he will keep buying equipment, but that he will be getting less bang for his buck in the year ahead than he has in the past year.

"I'm pretty confident that the cost of hardware and software is going to go up as the recession abates," he said.

Corrections & Amplifications

International PaperCorp. plans capital spending of about $800 million this year. This article incorrectly gave the figure as $800 billion.

Write to Justin Lahart at


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