When in doubt, announce a restructuring plan—so goes one bit of wisdom in executive offices across Corporate America. And apparently we have had lots of doubt in recent years.

Calcbench recently looked at restructuring charges disclosed by the S&P 500 since 2008, the year of the financial crisis. Total damage was $148.55 billion, or an average of $18.57 billion annually. We also found the 10 largest restructurers in that period, and they are…

  • Merck: $8.9 billion
  • HP: $8.6 billion
  • Pfizer: $5.5 billion
  • Alcoa: $5.3 billion
  • Citigroup: $4.6 billion
  • General Motors: $4.4 billion
  • Honeywell International: $4.3 billion
  • Procter & Gamble: $3.9 billion
  • Hewlett-Packard Enterprise: $3.4 billion
  • Dow Chemical: $3.3 billion

Restructurings are not always a sign of tough times or management desperation; a company might announce a restructuring as part of a large merger, for example. On the other hand, several of the above top 10 restructurers (HP, General Motors, Citigroup, to name some names) were no strangers to pain, suffering, and missed financial targets in recent years.

Restructuring programs can also take on a life of their own. Back in April we did a quick peek at restructuring charges and found that in 2012, HP announced a restructuring that was supposed to last three years, cut 29,000 jobs, and cost $3.7 billion. By the time that effort wrapped up, the numbers were 55,000 job cuts and $5.5 billion in costs. (Our database lets you scan numerous years of filings at a glance so you can see how predictions announced in one fiscal year actually pan out in later years. #HumbleBrag.)

The other nagging financial reporting concern here is whether a company can report restructuring charges so regularly that they distort its true Earnings Per Share numbers. Don’t forget, restructuring charges do count as a one-time item you can subtract from profits, and then report an “adjusted” EPS number to investors. Is that adjusted EPS number street legal under GAAP? Technically no, but one-time items can happen for legitimate reasons, and investors can read, so disclosing a restructuring charge is normal enough that the analyst community tolerates it even as a non-GAAP metric.

The question is how many times a one-time item can happen before Wall Street starts to roll its eyes. Twenty-four members of the S&P 500, for example, have reported restructuring charges in eight of the last eight years; another 41 have reported restructuring charges in seven of the last eight years. Taken together, that’s 65 companies, or 13 percent of the S&P 500.

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