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June Construction Spending – What’s Up, or Down?

8-2-17

Here’s some headlines this month on the June Construction Spending release: Plummets in June; Largest one month drop in 15 years; Clearly Decelerating; US Construction Spending Just Collapsed; and my personal favorite, Construction Spending Plummets to Economic Crisis Levels.

Frankly, I have much more trust in my data than to suggest we are at crisis levels.

In the latest Census construction spending report, June spending dropped 1.3% from May, but May was revised down -0.7%. The consensus of economists predicted spending would be up +0.5% (from the original May value), so the data posted is actually 2.5% below consensus estimates.

I expected May to get revised up 0.6% and the initial June release would be flat vs the revised May value. So the actual came in 2.6% below my expectation.

June construction spending was posted at $1.205 trillion, down 1.3% from May and down 2.7% from March. With the revised data, the May Year-to-date (YTD) vs 2016 was only +5.5% (not +6.1% as initially reported) and for June it’s now +4.8%.

My opinion is this preliminary June value appears suspect. This is sort of like driving a well maintained car that gets 30 mpg and all of a sudden the gauges indicate 20 mpg for the latest tankful of gas. Although the road may be a little bumpy, there does not seem to be any serious mechanical problems, so we have to ask, why did gas mileage drop so much?

The April decline and the Apr-May-June decline are the single largest monthly and 3-month total non-recessionary declines on record. We would need to look at recession data to find similar declines. Spending drops like this just don’t normally occur, especially when cash flow patterns from starts predict 4% growth during the 3-month period. That’s a 6.7% miss over 3 months.

The largest declines in the June Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate (SAAR) construction spending were Highway and Educational, together 60% of the total monthly decline. (There are other markets with greater mo/mo% declines, however most of those markets have a very small share of the total spending so don’t amount to much).  Almost all of the largest declines are public work. In fact, the initial June release shows every public market declined. However, all ten other public markets together don’t equal half of the declines generated by these two major markets. Furthermore, for the past 3 months Highway spending shows a decline of 12.5%, and Educational spending is down 7.6% in 4 months. A review of data back to 2005 shows neither of these markets have ever had any periods where they’ve experienced declines of this magnitude. These would be record declines if they stick. Market trend data simply is not indicating to expect record declines at this time. So I consider these data suspect.

Construction spending initial release is always preliminary data. The June value, released August 1st, will be revised in each of the next two reports and then once again next year when all 2017 data is reviewed. The average revision to June spending data over the last 4 years (similar growth years to current expectations) is +4.8%.

Spend Final vs 1st print 8-3-17

There are three more opportunities for revision to the June data and two more to the May data. We will have a much better idea what really happened on October 1st, but we won’t know the final outcome until the final 2017 revision on July 1, 2018.

So, what data seems to indicate a trend contrary to current declines? The last 12 months of Dodge Data new starts for nonresidential buildings are the highest since 2008 and they peaked from August to October. Residential starts, at their highest since 2006, peaked from December’16 to March’17. Backlog is at an all-time high. There is no indication here that spending will plummet.

Also, one month of Educational or Highway new starts each generate about $250 to $300 million per month in spending, for the next 24 to 36 months. Normally, with some variation, we have the current month of new starts coming into backlog and one month of old starts ending. Since starts have been normal or high recently, the spending declines posted in June would imply that we’ve lost two to three months of backlog from current spending. Again, there are no indications that we have an extreme imbalance or a canceling of backlog.

Most of the nonresidential spending occurring right now is from projects that started between mid 2015 and the end of 2016. Nonresidential buildings projects that started in 2015 or earlier still make up one third of the spending in the 1st half of 2017. Non-building infrastructure projects that started in 2015 and earlier contributed 50% of spending in the 1st half of 2017. Residential projects have shorter duration so most spending is from more recent jobs, but we hit a 10 year peak in new residential starts just a few months ago. All sectors have fluctuations in spending and have down months but the index of long term cash flows out to completion shows normal backlog and spending growth across every sector.

Index of Actual Spending and Starts Cash Flows 2015-2018 8-2-17

I’m inclined to expect substantial upward revisions to June construction spending in the next two releases. No other data supports a big June drop.

Keep in mind, current construction spending is always being compared to previous months revised spending and growth is almost always being understated. Monthly spending has been revised UP 45 times in the last 48 months. All previous months and all 2016 data have been revised several times. The average revision to ALL spending data over the last 4 years is +3.9%/month. Since January 2016, the average revision is +3.0%/month. The average revision to June spending data over the last 4 years is +4.8%.

June data is un-adjusted preliminary data. Many of the news articles declaring construction spending was a miss are based on this preliminary data which very often gets revised away in following months. For example, The 1st 6 months of 2016 have already been revised up, three times each, by a total of 2.5%. All the months YTD in 2017 still have pending revisions. June 2017 vs June 2016 shows a percent growth of only +1.6%, but June 2016 has already been revised up by 4.7% and June 2017 has not yet been revised at all. June 2017 has a 90% chance of being revised up.

I predict after all the revision are in we will see that June spending did not drop to a low of $1.205 trillion, but that it was closer to $1.250 trillion.


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