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Calls for Infrastructure Problematic


Few analysts are talking about current forward looking conditions and the problems such a massive infrastructure construction spending program might cause.

Every major construction agency is currently seeing monthly infrastructure construction spending drop and is calling for promptly initiating a $1 trillion infrastructure spending program. Infrastructure spending has been flat to down slightly for the last seven months. But infrastructure spending is notoriously uneven.  I’d like to see increased construction spending as much as the next guy, but there are issues that need to be taken into account. I see problems down the road.

I’ve written about this before here Infrastructure – Ramping Up to Add $1 trillion and here Infrastructure & Public Construction Spending and Conor Sen wrote about it recently in a Bloomberg View article Math Will Kill Trump’s Infrastructure Plan. Some assumptions of increasing infrastructure spending by $100 billion and maintaining that level for the next 10 years are a pipe dream. Only three times in history has the “entire” construction industry ever increased by $100 billion in one year. The infrastructure sector, only 25% of all construction, does not have the capacity to grow by $100 billion in a year.

One of the big issues a massive expansion and abrupt program end causes is the need for a huge growth in the workforce, and that could be difficult particularly at a time when the non-working unemployed pool is near an all-time low. But perhaps  more important, when all that expansion spending comes to an end, there is no long term ongoing backlog for all that labor to go to, so it results in massive job losses. Very large volume new starts and abrupt ending causes devastating disruption in the industry.

Here I will address spending and volume growth.

The infrastructure sector of construction is only 25% of all construction. Growth has exceeded $20 billion/year only three times and average growth (without recessionary declines) is $12.5 billion/year. But most of that was driven by the power market, which is 80% private. Power contributes 1/3rd of all infrastructure spending.  Only 60% of all infrastructure is publicly funded. That public subset of work in the last 25 years has grown by $20 billion/year only once and with all the negative recessionary years eliminated growth would average less than $10 billion/year.

To repeat, because this provides a concept of the capacity of the industry, the entire infrastructure sector has an average growth rate of $12.5 billion/year and the public infrastructure sector less than $10 billion/year. And that’s taking out all the down years. It’s worth a note here that although I have conveniently removed down years from the data to get an average positive-year growth rates, infrastructure spending has never grown continuously for more than five consecutive years without experiencing a down year. The last 5 years 2012-2016 shows 3 years up 20%, then 2015 and 2016 were both down 1% to 1.5%. At the end of 2016, down 2.5% from the high in 2014, spending is still near all-time highs. In constant 2016$, The high was Q1’16 at $300 billion. The average lately is $280 billion, but expect to be back over $300 billion by Jan 18.

Infrastructure currently has the highest amount of work in backlog in history. Current backlog already accounts for 80% of all spending in 2017 and 60% of spending in 2018. Even with an anticipated decline in new starts in 2017, starting backlog for 2018 will still be at another new high. Spending from starting backlog is predicted to reach record levels in both 2017 and 2018. Early indications are that 2019 will repeat the same but that will depend on new starts in 2017 and 2018. Ignoring 2019 and beyond for the moment, for the next two years we are looking at record levels of spending on infrastructure.

The projected growth rate in infrastructure spending for the two-year period 2017-2018 is expected to reach the largest growth since the period 2005-2008. Construction Analytics (this analyst), FMI and ConstructConnect all predict growth between 10% and 13% or between $30 and $40 billion for this two-year period. My forecast does not include any spending input from a future infrastructure spending plan. 

Spend Infra Jan11 to Jan19 3-7-17

I said earlier that adding $100 billion and maintaining that level of spending for the next ten years is an unrealistic approach. Essentially, that would create an instantaneous need for 400,000 new jobs in the 1st year and then provide no jobs growth for the next nine years.  Construction jobs can’t grow that fast. The maximum jobs growth ever achieved for all infrastructure was 50,000 jobs in a year. And now it’s worth repeating, only 60% of infrastructure is public work.

I’ve suggested another scenario for how it might be possible to ramp up to spend $1 trillion. In another article, Infrastructure – Ramping Up to Add $1 trillion, I laid out how it could be done in 13 years if spending were increased by $10 billion each year. I’ll add here that the entire infrastructure sector has not added a total of $1 trillion new spending in 25 years, so it’s quite unreasonable to assume it could be done in 10 years.

Infrastructure spending for 2017-2018 is about to exceed the historical average growth rate. Any infrastructure plan will replace some, but not all, of the currently planned new work. But it won’t replace any work already in backlog, which is at record levels and still contributes to spending over the next four years. So any infrastructure plan, for the most part, needs to be added on top of the current spending plan. 

It would be extremely difficult to increase spending by another $10 billion/year when current spending is already expected at record levels. In fact, the look ahead for 2018 has spending already increasing by more than $20 billion. There is nothing in our history to suggest we could double the growth rate and sustain that level of spending. Of course, this will point back to the discussion of balance of jobs/volume and available labor in a potentially tight labor market.

The public infrastructure subset of the construction industry appears too small to accommodate a plan to add $1 trillion in spending, even when it only increases at $10 billion/year and absorbs 40,000 new jobs/year. Either the base that we hope to grow needs to be larger from the very beginning (Can public educational buildings be considered part of the plan?) or the rate of growth needs to be slower. Excessively rapid growth will only take volume and jobs away from normal growth, generally leads to rapid inflation and has a devastating effect when a massive program ends and all those jobs disappear.

Spend PubPriv 2016 totals detail 3-22-17

Everything above here is based on new infrastructure plan spending “increasing” total construction spending. The plan is very difficult to achieve. However, if the $1 trillion dollars were used to fund projects that are already within the $150 to $170 billion in new public infrastructure projects that start every year, then there are no issues at all as to how fast or how much in funds can be spent. But that provides for no growth to the industry not already accounted for in the normal growth rate and it provides no new jobs. It simply funds projects that would have been built otherwise and funds the workers already in the industry to keep working. I don’t think this is what everyone has in mind. 

For more on this discussion see  Infrastructure Spending & Jobs


  1. Burleson, Bobby says:

    Great post Ed. Doesn’t this also mean that construction companies primarily engaged in infrastructure construction should be able to command high margins?

    Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4G LTE smartphone


    • edzarenski says:

      Absolutely! Any time a sector or a market is flooded with work, prices in that market go UP. Part of it is actually higher cost due to the overbearing demands to secure labor. But a big part of it is contractors raise their margins because there is more work available to bid on. This could lead to market specific hyper-inflation. edz


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