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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Businesses are positioning themselves for an increasingly competitive landscape by doing everything they can to ramp up productivity and cast off excess costs.

Why it matters: Much of that cost savings will likely come from cutting jobs and adding new ones more slowly, as companies look to invest in new technology and what Carlyle Group's head of global research Jason Thomas calls intangibles.

  • Intangibles are things like R&D, software, patents or "inventory management technology, customer acquisition software ... to increase efficiency and dampen the practical impact from cutbacks in other areas," he writes in a new paper.

What we're hearing: "Almost every client that we deal with, irrespective of sector, is trying to drive cost down and make their products and services more affordable," Tim Ryan, U.S. chair and senior partner at consulting and tax firm PwC, said during a call with reporters Tuesday.

  • "Regardless of sector, most would tell you that they operate in a hyper-competitive sector — whether it be retail, insurance, health care — and there has been this ongoing focus and search for productivity and ways to drive costs down to be more competitive."

What's happening: The dueling realities of the U.S. K-shaped recovery not only mean that some industries and workers will suffer big losses while others prosper, it also means there are limited spoils for the winners.

  • Now fighting for a “bigger piece of a smaller pie” and unable to raise prices meaningfully — but also needing to push forward with technology upgrades and investment to compete — businesses have already begun looking at cutting back in other areas.

The big picture: Companies historically spend more money on things like software, patents and content, while spending less on employees, facilities, warehouses and delivery trucks coming out of recessions.

  • Carlyle's data show the percentage of fixed income spending used on intangibles has increased — rising following every recent recession, from 3.4% after the 1981–82 recession to 7.5% following the 2007–2009 recession.
  • The share is on pace to grow to 11% in 2020.

The bottom line: "Past increases in the intangible share of corporate outlays have been associated with slower recoveries in employment," Carlyle's Thomas says.

  • "If that relationship holds this cycle, a return to full employment in the U.S. may be much further off than the late 2021 or 2022 recovery in GDP."

Go deeper

Dion Rabouin, author of Markets
Oct 6, 2020 - Economy & Business

Employment in services is starting to return

Data: Institute for Supply Management; Chart: Axios Visuals

Purchasing managers indexes have been buoyant in recent months and in August the employment component on the Institute for Supply Management's non-manufacturing survey turned positive after five straight months of readings below 50.

What it means: PMI surveys ask businesses whether conditions are improving or worsening and then produce an index that measures the sentiment of the sector.

DOJ watchdog to probe whether officials sought to alter election results

Former President Donald Trump and former First Lady Melania Trump exit Air Force One in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Jan. 20. Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

The Justice Department's inspector general will investigate whether any current or former DOJ officials "engaged in an improper attempt to have DOJ seek to alter the outcome" of the 2020 election, the agency announced Monday.

Driving the news: The investigation comes in the wake of a New York Times report that alleged that Jeffrey Clark, the head of DOJ's civil division, had plotted with President Trump to oust acting Attorney General Jeffery Rosen in a scheme to overturn the election results in Georgia.

1 hour ago - Podcasts

Google's chief health officer Karen DeSalvo on vaccinating America

Google on Monday became the latest Big Tech company to get involved with COVID-19 vaccinations. Not just by doing things like incorporating vaccination sites into its maps, but by helping to turn some of its offices and parking lots into vaccination sites.

Axios Re:Cap goes deeper into what Google is doing, and why now, with Dr. Karen DeSalvo, Google's chief health officer who previously worked at HHS and as health commissioner for New Orleans.