For some of America's biggest companies, the recession amounted to growing pains: They're now "leaner, meaner, and hungrier," says one economist. Indeed, sales, profits, and employment among S&P 500 companies last year beat figures from 2007—before the crisis began, the Wall Street Journal notes in an extensive analysis. Careful planning and cost cutting have allowed these companies to beat out the rest of the economy, helping put the Dow Jones Industrial Average at its highest in four years.
Efficiency has grown, too: Where big firms saw $378,000 in revenue per worker in 2007, that grew to $420,000 last year. But good news for big companies hasn't necessarily trickled down to workers, or even smaller firms. Though the companies added about 1.1 million jobs since 2007, many of them were foreign; while corporate treasuries grew by $1.2 billion, it's largely held abroad. The recession left firms "very, very cautious" about hiring, says one CEO: "That's a lesson current leaders of industry will not forget." While that caution may help companies, "what's best for an individual firm may not be best for the overall economy," says an expert. Click for the full report. (Read more recession stories.)