What if there were no new construction starts beyond today?
What if the last new construction starts recorded for May (released by Dodge June 21) were the last to be posted and once those projects reached completion there would be no more work?
Of course this is a totally unlikely scenario, but deleting all future predicted starts allows to perform an important test. All the construction starts recorded as of today make up the backlog, and eventually that backlog will run out. So, if the new starts spigot was turned off today, how much spending would remain for 2019, 2020 and beyond? (For use later, new construction starts recorded through May generally equal an average of 40% of all starts expected each year).
The questions then are: How dependent is the spending forecast on construction backlog? How dependent is the construction spending forecast on new construction starts? What magnitude of miscalculation in the new starts forecast would be imparted to the spending forecast?
Single-family residential projects can take as little as 6 to 9 months to reach completion, multi-family perhaps twice as long. For the average nonresidential building, completion would be reached in about 24 months, but some large industrial projects will take three years or more. For some of the airport, highway and rail expansion mega-projects, the cash flow schedule of spending will take four to eight years to reach completion.
An average of ten years of monthly cash flows produces an average spending schedule for the various construction market sectors. Recognize that starts are posted every month, so January starts have twelve months of spending in the 1st year while projects that start in December have only one month of spending in the 1st year.
Residential project starts net about 65% of money spent in the 1st year, the year started, 30% spent in the following year and 5% spent in the third year, or 65-30-5. Although each type of nonresidential work has a more specific cash flow schedule, the average for nonresidential buildings is 20% spent in the year started, 50% in the second year and 30% in the third year, or 20-50-30. Very long duration infrastructure projects have a spending distribution on average that looks like 15-30-30-15-10.
Residential projects have the shortest schedule to completion. Work flow needs continual replenishment from new starts to support spending. The amount of work in backlog today would support only two thirds of anticipated 2019 spending and less than 10% of 2020 spending.
All Nonresidential buildings type currently have enough work in backlog to support 90%-93% of the total forecast spending in 2019. Current backlog would support only 50% of the total spending forecast for 2020. There’s only enough to support 10%-20% in 2021.
Power and Highway backlog as of today would support 95% of the total forecast spending in 2019 and 70%+ in 2020. Because these are long duration projects, there is enough in backlog today to support 40% of spending in 2021.
That’s a lot of good facts, but how can we use that information to perform an important test?
Let’s use the average nonresidential building for an example. For this example, let’s try to determine the validity of our 2019 forecast based on what we have in backlog today. New starts through May is about 40% of total starts expected in the year. Backlog through May supports 92% of spending in the current year. Spending in any given month has cash flow from an average of the previous 24 months of project starts, so the average of large numbers reduces potential error from backlog. The validity of our annual spending forecast is dependent on whether or not we correctly predicted the remaining 60% of starts for the year, and those starts support 8% of the spending forecast.
Therefore if we incorrectly forecast the remaining 60% of starts by 25%, then we incorrectly forecast total annual spending by 25% x 8% = 2%.
For the 2020 forecast, the math gets just a little more complicated. Remember we stated earlier that the typical spending schedule for nonresidential buildings is 20-50-30. So 20% of 2020 spending comes from new starts in 2020. Only 80% of 2020 spending comes from work in backlog at the start of the year. Based on what we have in backlog today, new starts through May 2019 supports 50% of 2020 spending. We are dependent on the expected new starts in 2019 to get us up to 80% of the expected spending in 2020.
We are expecting 60% more in starts in 2019 and that will support the currently missing 30% of 2020 spending. If we incorrectly forecast the remaining 60% of starts by 25%, then we incorrectly forecast total annual spending for 2020 by 25% x 30% = 7.5%.
Also for 2020, since 20% of all spending within the year comes from new starts within the year, if we incorrectly forecast 2020 new starts by 25%, then we incorrectly forecast total annual spending for 2020 by 25% x 20% = 5%.
I’ve posed this scenario by asking what would happen if we incorrectly forecast the remaining starts by an error of 25%. That would be a huge error, not very likely to occur. I’ve been tracking Dodge Data & Analytics construction starts for more than 10 years and have seen enough data to expect that by mid-year the unanticipated error in forecast starts for the end of the year might be more on the order of 5% to 10%, not 25%. And in fact, historically, revisions to year end starts data is usually UP, not down.
So, by deleting all remaining forecast starts data, we see the spending forecast based on cash flow of new starts would require a very large error in the starts forecast to translate into a large error in the spending forecast. If we apply a more reasonable and yet still conservative error of 10% in all projections of future starts, the forecast for 2019 spending would be off by less than 1% and the forecast for 2020 off by a total of 5%.
In early 2007, residential construction volume had already dropped 20% and total construction volume was down 10%, (the annual averages would not show this dramatic drop but a monthly plot would), yet construction job openings and labor turnover survey (JOLTS) was peaking at a 6 year high. From Jan 2007 to Jan 2008, construction had already lost 250,000 jobs. All of that was in residential construction. At the time, nonresidential construction was still growing.
Nonresidential buildings volume would peak in late 2008 and non-building infrastructure peaked in early 2009. By that time, in Q1 2009, residential volume was down 60%. Even though nonresidential construction was peaking, total construction was down 25%.
In 2008 construction jobs declined by another 500,000, about 90% residential jobs. JOLTS dropped to half of the 2007 peak high. It was over the next year or so that all construction began to decline, jobs would drop in all sectors and JOLTS would plummet to an all-time low.
The point is this: The construction recession began with the decline of residential construction in 2006-2007, at a time when JOLTS was at a 6-year high. Jobs declines lagged the decline in real construction volume (the annual average plot shows this well).
It is remarkable how residential construction volume from the Q1 2006 peak to Q1 2007 had dropped 20% but residential jobs increased by 6%. JOLTS was peaking at a 6 year high. Although total construction jobs increased in 2006, jobs started to decline in the 2nd half 2006 and would drop 200,000 in 2007. JOLTS continued to show job openings increasing from mid-2006 to mid-2007. Neither jobs growth nor JOLTS reflected what was occurring in real construction volume and certainly did not give any leading indication of what was on the horizon.
The AGC survey of contractors has been reporting difficulty hiring construction labor every year since 2012. Yet from May 2012 through May 2019, construction added 1,870,000 jobs, an increase of 33%, the 2nd strongest jobs growth period ever recorded, not far behind 1993-99 when jobs and volume grew equally (JOLTS was not tracked before 2000). In the four years 2003-2006, just prior to the great recession we added 1 million jobs and volume growth kept up with jobs for the first three years, but then the residential recession started and volume began to plunge. However, JOLTS increased from 2003-2007. These three periods mark the best periods of jobs growth in the last 30 years.
During the last seven years, unlike 1993-99 or 2003-05, when jobs and volume grew equally, construction volume (spending minus inflation) increased by only 22%, far less than the 33% jobs growth. While contractors continue to report difficulty filling jobs, the pace of jobs growth is near an all-time high and is out-pacing the growth in volume of work to support those jobs. JOLTS increased every year during this period.
Now fast forward to 2019. Construction spending growth for the previous two years, 2017 + 2018, increased 4.5% + 5.0%. But inflation during this period was 4.4% + 4.8%. Real construction volume for the last two years increased less than 1%. But jobs increased by nearly 8% and JOLTS more than doubled from 2016 to the end of 2018.
This is a real head-scratcher. Volume has not increased for two years, yet jobs are up 8% and the indicator for job openings is increasing. This is not at all what the data should be showing.
Just as the data showed in 2007, the data at the start of 2019 shows that we are top-heavy construction jobs that are not supported by real growth in construction volume.
Construction volume, (spending inflation adjusted to constant $ volume) hit a 3-year low in Dec-Jan.
The 12 month trailing total of new construction jobs has been declining for 8 months.
With construction spending in 2019 predicted up only 2%, and forecasting 4.5% construction inflation for 2019, real volume for 2019 will be down 2.5%. Jobs thru April are already up 1.2% year-to-date.
We are in the third year of no increase in construction volume. But jobs have continued to grow and JOLTS is at an all-time high. These data sets should not occur at the same time. But this is exactly what occurred prior to the great recession after which we experienced a devastating drop in jobs. However, compared to the construction volume measured by inflation adjusted spending, both the changes in jobs and the JOLTS indicator of job openings seemed to lag real activity by about a year.
Even if we do not experience a construction recession similar to 2008-2011, the current situation may be signaling that we could experience a jobs correction with the slightest downturn. If a jobs correction does not materialize then we are headed for a period in which we will have the highest ratio of jobs per volume of work put-in-place measured in the last 50 years.
See also these articles:
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Construction Spending for April came in at $1.299 trillion. Current spending has been stable for the last three months but at a level 1% to 2% lower than this time last year. That should change to positive growth as the year goes on because the 2nd half of 2018 was declining while the 2nd half of 2019 should increase.
Residential spending YTD is down 8%
Nonresidential Buildings spending ytd increased 3.5%
Non-building Infrastructure spending ytd is up 6%
In 2017 construction spending increased 4.5%, but inflation was 4.4%. Real construction volume increased only 0.1%. In 2017, construction jobs increased 3.4%.
In 2018 with 4.8% inflation and only 5% spending growth, real construction volume increased only 0.2%. In 2018, jobs increased 4%.
Considering 4.5% construction inflation for 2019 with spending predicted up only 2%, real volume will be down 2.5% from last year. Jobs thru April are up 1.2%.
Revenue growth looks like 5%/year but it’s all or nearly all inflation. We’ve grown top heavy jobs by 10% in less than three years.
Now well into the third year of jobs growth exceeding growth in work volume, unsupported jobs growth will eventually lead to downward correction in construction jobs. Maybe in 2019.
6-7-19 BLS released Construction Jobs for May, up 4,000. But March and April were both revised down by a total of 13,000. Only 26,000 jobs have been added in the last 4 months. That’s the slowest jobs growth for any four months since 2012. In 2018 jobs increased by an average 26,000/month.
From Jan 2017 to April 2019, jobs growth exceeded construction volume by 10%. The last four months is the slowest 4mo in seven years.
Is this the beginning of a jobs slowdown? Are greater job losses on horizon? The last two years look remarkably similar to 2005-2007 when jobs were still increasing rapidly but already residential construction was well into a downturn.
Residential construction spending saar for April 2019 = $506bil. April 2018 was $570bil. Down 9%. Monthly spending is down 10 of last 12 months. Current $ spending is indicating a 3% drop for 2019. After inflation, that would indicate an 8% drop in real 2019 residential volume.
Residential spending for Q1 2019 is 11% below Q2 2018. The decline is about half in single family and half in renovations. Multi-family spending is up 8% ytd (but accounts for only 12%-13% of all residential spending). Total spending for the first four months of 2019 is the lowest residential spending saar for any 4mo in more than two years.
I’ve posted reasons why I expect upward revisions to residential spending, but I question if revisions can offset the current decline from 2018. With a deficit near 10%, it now looks like residential construction spending will NOT post any gains in 2019 and could finish the 2nd consecutive year of zero growth or real volume decline.
In real volume, after adjusting for inflation, residential construction through April is down 13% year over year. We haven’t posted a volume decline like that since 2009. Perhaps revisions will recover half that decline, but not all. Contrary to the decline in real volume, in the last year residential construction jobs are UP 3.5%.
Educational spending will finish 2019 much stronger than current spending but the yearly totals will only make slight gains over 2018. There was an uneven distribution of spending curve peaks contributing less in the 2nd half of 2018 that is now behind us. 2019 spending is supported by a steady stream of strong starts that began in late 2017 and extended into summer 2018. Jun-Jul-Aug 2018 starts posted the best 3mo total starts ever and peak spending from those starts occurs from April 2019 to Jan 2020. I’m predicting 3% growth in 2019 and 9% in 2020. Some of the expected stronger spending in 2020 could move into 2019. Current spending is up 6.6% ytd over 2018. Most spending in 2020 comes from projects that start in the 1st half of 2019. So far in 2019 starts are up 15% ytd over 2018.
Commercial spending is currently down 4.5% ytd. It will move slightly lower before it improves, finishing the year down 2%. Both store and warehouse starts dropped in 2018. 2020 may not get more than a 2% gain in spending. Commercial starts are seeing strong gains from distribution centers (warehouses, which are in commercial spending). Since 2015 the 10% decline in retail stores is being hidden by the 50% increase in warehouses, which are at an all-time high. Stores are down 10% from the peak in 2016. Warehouses are down 5% in 2018 but increased 500% from 2010 to 2017.
Manufacturing spending, up 10% year-to-date, currently appears stronger than it is expected to finish the year. Backlog is still very strong, but a drop in peak spending from the schedule of cash flows will lead to a period of moderate spending declines from March through September. After that, manufacturing spending increases steadily through the end of 2020. Initial forecast was for 2% growth in 2019. Current expectations are that manufacturing will finish the year up 6%. 2020 will be an extremely strong growth year, spending potentially increasing 20%+.
Office spending, currently up 9% ytd, similar to manufacturing, could post several months of moderate declines from June to November, but then rebound with a steady stream of increases through 2020. In fact, my forecast shows office spending will remain flat or post a slight declines in 6 out of the next 7 months and finishes the year near the same monthly rate of spending as we are at now. Office spending is expected to finish 2019 up 6% or less. Initial forecast was up 6% for 2019. New starts in 2018 were up 11% to a new high, but much of the peak spending, from over-sized long-duration projects, will benefit 2020 when I expect to see spending growth of 7%.
Healthcare starts dropped back a bit in 2018, finishing 9% down. This slowed spending to remain flat for 2018 and 2019. Spending ytd is up only 1% from 2018. Backlog increased 11% for 2017 and 8% for 2018, but with the slowdown in new starts in 2018, 2019 backlog will be down slightly. New starts need to increase in 2019 to see growth in 2020 starting backlog.
Healthcare construction spending for 2018 is forecast to finish at $42 billion, an increase of only 0.2% over 2017. Considering the recent range between 3.5%-5% inflation, healthcare real volume has declined every year since 2012 with exception of 2017 which gained only 0.3%. It will decline again in 2019 with a forecast 0.6% gain in spending, but with a 4.5% rate of inflation. Dependent on how starts materialize in 2019, 2020 could realize the 1st big spending and real volume increase in 8 years.
Transportation starts have two main parts, Terminals and Rail. Some analysts include transportation in nonresidential buildings. That does not consider the following: airports include not only land-side terminals but also air-side runway work; rail includes platforms and all railway right of way work, which includes massive civil engineering structures. About half of all transportation spending is rail work. Construction Analytics follows U S Census construction spending reports which include all terminals and rail in Transportation.
Terminals and rail starts reached record highs in 2017 and record backlog in 2019. 2019 starting backlog is four times what it was in 2015.
However, much of that backlog is very long duration project spending that will occur in future years. Some of the project starts in 2016 and 2017 have an eight-year duration. From Oct’16 through Oct’18 there were sixteen $billion+ new project starts and seven $500million+ new starts. Some projects started in this period have peak spending occurring in 2020 and 2021.
Transportation spending is up 8% ytd but could post several slow months in mid-2019. Spending in 2018 is forecast to finish up more than 19%. Spending for 2019 is expected to finish up only 4% but then increase at least into mid-2021. 2020 and 2021 could see increases in spending of 15% to 20%/year.
Highway/Street/Bridge starts hit an all-time high in 2018. Current 2019 progress shows new starts leveling off. Starting backlog increased 50% in the last 4 years leading into 2019. A lot of this is long duration backlog that will provide for large increases in spending in from 2019 to 2021.
Highway construction spending ytd is up 17%. Spending is forecast to increase 16% in 2019 and 10% in 2020. 2021 may see an increase of 10% in spending.
Environmental Public Works (Sewage, Water supply and Conservation) new starts all declined from 2014 through 2017. Then all showed gains in 2018 and the forecast is more gains in 2019. All these projects are public spending and saw no real gains in spending from 2010 through 2017. Spending ytd 2019 is up 16% to 20% for this group. I’m predicting 2019 spending will finish up 22% and 2020 spending is now forecast to increase 17%.