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The IW U.S. 500: Manufacturing Profits Surge

June 14, 2022
Following an extremely tough 2020, manufacturing sales and profits roared back last year, with inflation dramatically boosting the performance of key market segments.

Building just about anything requires a combination of three things—metals, wood products and/or energy derived from petroleum or coal. Based on the meteoric rises of those industries, people wanted to build a lot of things in 2021.

Our annual IW U.S. 500 list of the largest publicly traded manufacturing companies (ranked by corporate revenue) always serves as a rough gauge of the economy (Click here for a PDF download of the list). That brings us to inflation, the economic force strangling the buying power of business and consumers, the likely No. 1 issue during this year’s political season and the biggest question mark for how companies will perform in 2022.

Inflation was very, very good to key sectors of the IW 500.

The Big Three

Primary metals production, petroleum/coal products and wood products dominated growth last year. Combined, those industrial sectors sold $1.4 trillion worth of goods in 2021, up $564 billion. For oil and metals, those sales increases track the U.S. Federal Reserve’s Producer Price Index inflation statistics. 

  • PPI Iron & Steel Index: 68.5% gain
  • IW 500 Primary Metals: 71.1% gain
  • PPI Refined Petroleum Products: 54.3% gain
  • IW 500 Petroleum and Coal Products: 65.5% gain

Robert E. Scott is senior economist and director of Trade and Manufacturing Policy Research at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that focuses on the needs of low- and middle-income workers. He says the performance of fast-growing sectors reflects a 2021 boom in consumer spending.

“Coming out of the COVID recession, we had an enormous surge in home construction and home prices,” Scott says to explain the rise in wood products. With other products, he adds, gains were the response to 2020’s tough times.

“People kept working during the [first year of] the pandemic, but they stopped spending,” Scott says. Last year, people spent the money they saved in 2020, sending factories more orders than they could handle.

Typically, in an economic recovery, he adds, corporate profits fall as businesses incur extra costs to hire people, or as companies trim profit margins to make products less expensive and more attractive. The massive 2021 spending surge, however, gave manufacturers the power to pass rising prices down to buyers. So, while sales for the IW 500’s companies rose 26%, profits surged 185%.

Strength in Every Market

Metals, petroleum and wood products each boosted revenues by far more than 53% last year, but every other sector of the manufacturing economy grew. Put another way, in 2020, 363 companies in the IW U.S. 500 were making money, 73% of the list. Last year, 446 companies were in the black, more than 89% of the list.

The publicly traded manufacturing world sold $1.3 trillion more goods in 2021 than it did a year earlier and earned $541 billion more in profits, more than doubling 2020’s performance.

Some interesting additions to the IW 500 family:

  • Curaleaf Holdings Inc. The Wakefield, Massachusetts company is the first cannabis producer to join (No. 490). Despite rapidly growing revenues, Curaleaf has lost $266 million in the past three years.
  • Hostess Brands Inc. Twinkies are back. The maker of Twinkies and Ding Dongs went through a high-profile bankruptcy in 2012, but it was profitable last year and landed on our list (No. 499).
  • Yeti Holdings Inc. $1.4 billion in revenue (No. 468) isn’t too shabby for a few million coolers, bunches of high-quality steel coffee cups and a few billion stickers.

For the full, interactive IW U.S. 500 list, click here.

Editor-in-Chief Robert Schoenberger can be reached at [email protected].

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