The brutal recession has left many American families, small businesses and state and local governments in financial ruin or teetering on the brink.
But it's a much different story for the nation's biggest companies. Many have emerged from the economy's harrowing downturn loaded with cash, thanks to deep cost-cutting that helped drive unemployment into double digits.
And although the banking crisis starved countless entrepreneurs for money last year, credit was never scarce for business titans.
Corporate America's robust finances have been a boon for the companies' stocks: On Tuesday, the blue-chip Dow Jones industrial average hit its highest level in nearly 18 months, surging 102.94 points, or 1%, to 10,888.83.
Some experts say the strength of the largest firms will be a key advantage for the nation in the next phase of the economic recovery.
"The good news for America now is that companies are very competitive, flush with cash and ready to expand," said Joseph Carson, an economist at money management firm AllianceBernstein in New York.
But others worry that the business giants' clout has increased significantly at the expense of workers -- the millions in the ranks of the jobless as well as those who remain employed but must work harder than ever.
"More and more of the balance of power in society is shifting toward corporations," said Thomas Kochan, a management professor and co-director of the Institute for Work and Employment Research at MIT in Cambridge, Mass.
By one prominent measure, major companies had extraordinary success weathering the recession: Industrial companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 index, a list that includes such giants as 3M Co., Coca-Cola Co. and United Technologies Corp., ended last year with a record $832 billion in cash and short-term securities on their books, up 27% from a year earlier.
"The big question is what do they do with it," said Susan Sterne, an economist who heads Economic Analysis Associates in Greenwich, Conn.
The U.S. economic recovery could be stunted unless a large share of that corporate wealth flows to average workers, either in the form of new jobs or higher wages, some analysts say.
"If we don't get jobs growing soon and we don't give ordinary working families a sense that they're benefiting from this recovery, there's going to be an economic price to pay," Kochan said.
Historically, smaller firms have led the way in U.S. job creation, not multinational Fortune 500 companies. But economists note that smaller companies provide many goods and services to larger firms, so the good health of the giants should help firms down the food chain.
There have been some signs that businesses overall are beginning to reinvest their cash mountain. The government's chief measure of capital spending, outlays for equipment and software, rose sharply in the last three months of 2009 after plummeting in the first half of the year.
Cisco Systems Inc., the San Jose company that is the world's leading producer of computer networking equipment, last month said it expected this year to add up to 3,000 workers to its worldwide staff of 66,000 employees to keep up with rising demand.
AllianceBernstein's Carson points to surprising strength in recent months in the manufacturing sector, which has been helped by the dollar's slide since 2001 and rising demand abroad for U.S. exports.
Yet many major firms have remained cautious about hiring, even after the economy began to bounce back in the second half of last year.
FedEx Corp., the shipping giant, last week said its profit more than doubled in the quarter ended Feb. 28 compared with last year's depressed level. Although the company early this year reinstated merit-based pay increases, it remains "very strict" on hiring, said Chief Financial Officer Alan Graf Jr. No job can be filled without the OK of a senior management committee.
The Business Roundtable, a group whose members include chief executives of the largest U.S. companies, found in a fourth-quarter survey that 68% of its members expected sales to rise in the first half of this year. But just 19% said they expected to boost U.S. employment in the period.
John Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, said the reluctance to hire in part reflected uncertainty about the staying power of the economic rebound -- a common refrain of executives.
"Demand is still pretty weak in the U.S.," he said.
What's more, companies have complained that they face serious uncertainty over the future of employee-benefit costs given the Obama administration's far-reaching overhaul of healthcare.
Huge gains over the last year in worker productivity -- output per hour worked -- also have reduced the need for additional staff in the near term. The harder people work, the less their employers may feel the need to add to payrolls.
Non-farm productivity rose at a 6.9% annual rate in the fourth quarter of last year after surging more than 7.5% in both of the preceding quarters.