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Construction Spending vs Dodge Starts vs New Housing Unit Starts

Read my last few blogs and all of this is detailed, but this is worth a look.

Dodge Data Construction Starts cash flowed shows a predicted spending pattern.

Actual spending is shown to compare to the prediction.

For another residential input we have new housing starts. Here I’ve spread activity out from start to completion like a cash flow to get monthly activity. History compares to actual spending and future compares to Dodge New Starts cash flow.

The time flow of activity generated by housing starts is much more important than the monthly starts themselves. It prompts us to look at a much longer term trend of housing starts than just whether they have moved up of down in the last month or quarter.

Modeling for nonresidential buildings and non-building infrastructure appears more accurate than residential. It looks like my prediction of cash flow from Dodge residential starts needs to move 2-4 months to the left.

5-4-16 The cash flow plot for residential has been revised to use a different duration for SF vs MF vs Reno.

Starts Cashflows to 6-17 vs Spend 3-16

Housing Starts Workflow 4-16 SAAR


Residential Work Flow From Housing Starts

Housing starts can be erratic. It’s not unusual to see monthly housing starts fluctuate up or down by 10%, sometimes 20%. But what affect does this have on the flow of housing work? Not as much as you might think.

Although housing starts is in units, not dollars, we can create a “cash flow” to see how the new starts generate activity over future months. To see the flow of work I’ve created a simple time flow of starts to show the activity generated for new housing starts.

About 2/3rds of housing starts are single family units. These might have a construction duration ranging from 6 to 9 months. The remaining 1/3rd of starts are multifamily units. Those could have construction duration of anywhere from 8 months to 16 months and in some cases longer. For this simple analysis I’ve used a work flow duration of 2/3rds at 7 months and 1/3rd at 17 months. Varying the duration longer or shorter by a few months will not have a big effect on the outcome. It changes the slope of the growth rate but does not change the consistency of the growth pattern.

A time flow of housing starts shows growth rates of; 2013 +13%; 2014 +10%; 2015+12%. Actual construction spending shows growth of 2013 +19%; 2014 +14%; 2015+13%.

Housing Starts Actuals for Workflow 4-16

The chart above, “Housing Starts Monthly and Trend” shows the actual monthly starts values and a three month moving average. Monthly starts periodically peak and dip erratically.  Look at February 2015, the biggest dip in 5 years. The 1st quarter 2015 was down 7% qtr/qtr. But then notice it took less than 4 months for starts to come right back to the trend line and the trend remained intact.  2015 finished up 11%. This is how the monthly housing starts (# of units) data goes.

Housing Starts Workflow 4-16 SAAR


The “Work Flow” chart plots the actual work load out over time from the month the work started to completion. The total work flow in any given month is the sum of the work contributed from starts in previous months that have yet to be completed. Residential work flow has averaged +12% for the last 3 years. In 2015, growth was 14%. The very steep climb in early 2013 activity reflects work generated from the 28% rise in new starts in 2012, the largest % increase in new starts in 30 years.

Starts in any given month have only a small % impact on the slope of change in every succeeding month until completion. This is the same concept as cash flow. Construction spending in any given month is the sum of all the ongoing projects from all previous months.

This next plot shows the same workflow, only Not Seasonally Adjusted, so it shows the winter dips in activity and the steeper rate of growth during the more productive months. Although the average slope of growth is similar to the SAAR plot, this shows the real total work activity in any given month varies from that shown by the SAAR plot. However, it is not erratic like the starts plot, it is smooth and repetitive year after year.

Housing Starts Workflow 4-16 NSA

It would take a dramatic change in housing starts to significantly alter the progress of work flow and it would need to be a sustained change in starts. If a 20% decline is offset by an corresponding increase in the following month or months, then the future months of work flow will show little affect from the decline.

Construction Expectations 2016


What should we expect in 2016 for construction spending, jobs and cost?

Nonresidential buildings starts (as reported by Dodge Data & Analytics) were well above average from March 2014 through May 2015 but since then have been below average. It takes about 24 to 30 months for nonresidential building starts to reach completion. The effect of below average starts will kick in at the end of this year after strong spending growth.

Non-building infrastructure starts jumped 50% above average from November 2014 to peak in February 2015, then settled back to average in July of 2015. Those very strong starts in early 2015 will be spread out over 4 to 6 years so will not cause spending to spike. They will help support a slow steady increase in spending over the next two years.

Residential starts averaged near 20%/yr growth for 3 years but dropped below average for the entire 2nd half of 2015. That late 2015 dip in starts may not slow residential spending too much until the end of 2016. Overall, the data shows another repeat year of growth similar to the last three years.

Construction Spending by Sector 2013-2016 Feb2016

2015 Construction spending finished the year up 10.6% over 2014. After 3 years of growth averaging 9%/year, 2016 total construction spending could climb 11% above 2015, the largest percent gain in over 10 years. Any construction spending slowdown is temporary, baked in from old uneven starts causing uneven cashflow, soon to be ending. By the 2nd quarter 2017 all sectors return to positive growth for strong spending in 2017.

Nonresidential buildings construction spending went from zero growth in 2013 to 9% in 2014 and took off to hit 17% growth in 2015. Nonres bldgs spending could reach 12% growth in 2016 and 7% in 2017.

Infrastructure spending will increase a little in 2016 but we won’t see a sizable increase of 8% until 2017.

Residential spending averaged over 15%/year for the last 3 years and could go over 15% growth in 2016, combining for the best four years of spending growth since 2002-2005.

Don’t be mislead by news that construction spending is close to reaching the previous highs. That may be true of spending, but spending is not the measure of expansion in the construction industry. The measure of expansion is volume, spending minus inflation.

Construction spending is up nearly 40% off the 2011 lows and within 5% of the 2006 highs. But after adjusting for inflation, volume is up only 22% from the 2011 lows and is still 17% below 2005 peak volume.  We still have a long way to go. While spending is predicted to reach over 11% growth in 2016 and may do the same in 2017, volume will increase only 5% to 6% each year. The rest is due to inflation.

Spend current vs constant2015 22pct volume growth

March 2016 construction jobs increase 37,000 from February and although up and down, have averaged 37,000 jobs per month for the last 6 months.  That is the highest 6 month average growth rate in 10 years. That certainly doesn’t make it seem like there is a labor shortage. However, it is important to note, the jobs opening rate (JOLTS) is the highest it’s been in many years and that is a signal of difficulty in filling open positions.

To support the expected 2016 volume growth we need an average 25,000 new jobs per month in 2016, 300,000 new jobs, reaching a three-year gain of nearly 1 million jobs for the period 2014-2016, the highest three-year total jobs growth since 1997-1999. The labor force hasn’t expanded this fast in over 16 years. That can have some undesirable consequences.  Rapid jobs growth may result in accelerating wages and lost productivity, compounding the cost to labor.


If we get a construction jobs slowdown in the next few months, it’s not all due to labor shortages and not being able to find people. Construction volume has been growing faster than jobs for more than a year. It means productivity in 2015 is up after several down years. But, while we’ve recorded consecutive years of productivity declines many times, we have not had two consecutive years of productivity gains in the last 22 years. So historically we should expect a decline,  not gains this year.

Material input costs to construction are down over the last year, but that accounts for only a portion of the final cost of constructed buildings. The cost of new residential construction is up 5% to 6% in the last year. Several nonresidential building cost indexes are indicating construction inflation between 4% and 5%. The Turner non-residential bldg cost index for 2015 is 4.6%. The 1st qtr 2016 is up 1.15% from the 4th quarter 2015. The Rider Levitt Bucknall nonresidential building 2015 cost index is 4.8% and the Beck Cost Report has 5.0% for 2015. I recommend an average 5.5% cost inflation in 2016 for residential and nonresidential buildings. Non-building infrastructure costs are unique to each individual infrastructure market, so average building cost indices should not be used for infrastructure.

Building Cost Inflation Index

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