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Behind the Headlines -Trend in Construction Spending


Headlines of construction spending declines are almost always premature.

The 1st release of January construction spending came out March 1. This initial release indicates a decline of 1% from December. Keep in mind, all 12 monthly reports in 2016 were subsequently revised up. Eight times in 2016 the 1st report of spending was down vs the previous month. After revisions, only two months were down compared to the previous month.


Monthly construction spending has been revised UP every one of the last 39 consecutive months. Since August 2013, the first report indicated a decline vs. the previous month 17 times. After revisions, there remain only seven real month/month declines in 39 months.

The 1st release of spending is almost always being compared to a previous month and a previous year that have been revised up. Upward revisions to monthly construction spending in 2016 have been as high as 3.4% and for the year average 1.1%/mo.

After spending is first published it is revised in each of the two following months. Then all the values for the entire year are revised when the May data release is issued on July 1 of the following year.

Most changes in monthly spending are predetermined.

Spending that occurs this month is generated from all the projects that are ongoing, some that started many months ago. In fact, some projects may have started three or four years ago. For instance, the largest decline in public spending this month is highway work. Although it has one of the smallest percent changes ( only -3.3% vs -12% to -16% for other markets), it is the largest share of total public spending. A very large amount work, 40% above normal, started in 2013 – early 2014. Some of that work is just now finishing. It could be seen a year ago in the cash flow models that a very large sum of work would be ending sometime in Q4’16 or Q1’17. It often occurs that the largest changes in monthly spending are driven by work ending rather than new work beginning.

Nonresidential buildings has the largest backlog ever.

Both Residential and Non-building Infrastructure will increase in 2017 after brief slowdowns but Nonresidential Buildings will lead construction spending in 2017, accounting for more than half of all 2017 growth. Office and commercial retail and then educational provide the most dollar volume growth in 2017.

Nonresidential buildings 2017 starting backlog is 45% higher than at the start of 2014, the beginning of the current growth cycle. Current year spending from starting backlog has increased every year and in 2017 it will be up 35% over 2014. About 75% to 80% of all nonresidential buildings construction spending in 2017 will be generated by projects that are already underway (in backlog). Only 20% to 25% of all spending in 2017 will come from new projects that start in 2017.

New construction starts in the final three months of 2016, although well below the yearly highs reached in August and September, helped carry 2016 new starts to an eight-year high. Nonresidential Buildings starts for the last six months averaged the highest since the 1st half of 2008.

Jobs growth may look quite slow this year.

Jobs growth over time follows closely to volume growth, not spending growth. Real volume growth is spending minus inflation. I’m predicting 6% spending growth in 2017, but after inflation that represents less than 2% volume growth. Therefore, we may add less than 2% new jobs in 2017, or less than 140,000 new jobs. An imbalance in growth between jobs and volume does sometimes occur. In the last 25 years that annual imbalance, whether up or down, has exceeded 3% only six times. Those six years were all either construction boom years or recessions. For all the other years, the difference in growth between jobs and volume has averaged less than 1%. Whether we look at the last four-year period or the last eight-year period, jobs and volume growth have been within 2%.

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