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Behind The Headlines – Construction Starts is not Spending


A major construction industry news source has a series of articles referencing Dodge Data New Construction Starts, listing the starts data, but then incorrectly refers to the data as construction spending and looks at the yr/yr trend in values to predict % change that construction spending will rise or fall. This is incorrect use of starts data and misrepresents how to use Dodge Data New Starts. The starts data, as it is being used, isn’t a valid indicator to get a spending projection in the next year.

New Starts for the year is the total value of project revenues that came under contract in that year. The values reported by Dodge are a sampling survey of about 50% to 60% of the industry. The percent change in values is very useful. The total dollar volume is not comparable to actual spending.

The entire value of a project is considered in backlog when the contract is signed. That’s a new start. Projects booked on or before December 2016 that still have work remaining to be completed are in backlog at the start of 2017. Simply referencing total new starts or backlog does not give an indication of spending within the next calendar year, particularly for infrastructure and residential. Projects, from start to completion, can have significantly different duration. Whereas a residential project may have a duration of 6 to 12 months, an office building could have a duration of 18 to 24 months and a billion dollar infrastructure project could have a duration of 3 to 4 years. So new starts within any given year could contribute spending spread out over several years.

Backlog at the start of 2017 could include revenues from projects that started last month or as long as several years ago. For a project that has a duration of several years, the amount in starting backlog at the beginning of 2017 is not the total amount recorded when that project started, but is the amount remaining to complete the project or the estimate to complete (ETC). And all of that ETC may not be spent in the year following when it started, dependent on the duration remaining to completion.

The only way to know how much of total starts or total backlog that will get spent in the current year and following years is to prepare an estimated cash flow from start to finish for all the projects that have started over the past few years. The sum of the amounts from all projects in each month gives total cash flow in that month, or monthly spending in that year. Spending in any given month could have input from projects over the last 36 months.  That’s what shows the expected change in spending.

Construction Starts provide the values entering backlog each month. Except for residential, new project starts within the year contribute a much smaller percentage to total spending in the first year than all the backlog ETC on the books at the start of the year. New residential projects contribute the most to spending within the year started because generally residential projects have the shortest duration. Residential projects started in the first quarter may reach completion before the year is over. New infrastructure projects generally have the longest duration and may contribute some share of project value to backlog spread over the next several years.

The following table clearly shows there is not a correlation between starts in any year with spending in the following year. The practice of using construction starts directly to predict spending in the following year can be very misleading in an industry that relies on data for predictive analysis to plan for the future. Not only does it not predict the volume of spending in the following year, it does not even consistently predict the direction spending will take, up or down, in the following year. It’s a false indicator and it’s not a good use of data.

Dodge Data New Construction Starts is powerful data if used properly.

Starts vs Spending 2010-2017 Dec 2016 3-17-17


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