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Down the Infrastructure Rabbit Hole. A twitter thread on construction capacity.
The infrastructure sector is only 25% of all construction spending, mostly due to the Power market. Power accounts for 33% of all infrastructure spending. Highway represents 30% and Transportation about 15%. However, Power is 80% private, Transportation 30% private.
Only 60% of all Infrastructure spending is publicly funded. Highway is about half of all publicly funded Infrastructure construction. That public subset of work in the last 25 years has grown by $20 billion/year only once and averages growth of less than $10 billion/year.
Most public work is Infrastructure, or public works projects, but some public work is nonresidential buildings. Public Safety is 100% public. Educational projects are 80% public. Amusement/Recreation Facilities (i.e.’ Convention Centers, Stadiums) is 50% public. Healthcare is 20% public.
The two largest markets contributing to public spending are Highway/Bridge (32%) and Educational (26%), together accounting for nearly 60% of all public construction spending. At #3, Transportation is only about 10% of public spending.
Sewage/Waste Water and Water Supply add up to another 10% of the market. All other markets combined, Conservation and all other various nonresidential buildings, none more than 4% of the total, account for less than 20% of public spending.
It is rare that Nonbuilding Public Infrastructure construction spending increases by more than $10 billion in a year. Once, only once, it increased by an average of $10 billion/year for three years. Excluding recession, average annual growth is $4 billion/year.
It is rare for Total All Public Infrastructure to increase by $20 billion in a year. It has done so only ever twice. Excluding the two worst recession years, the average annual growth since 2001 is $7 billion/year.
For every $10 billion a year in added infrastructure spending, that also means adding about 40,000 to 50,000 new construction jobs per year.
Infrastructure construction spending is near all-time highs and has been for the last several years. Public spending is 10% ($30bil) below all-time highs, the largest deficits coming from Educational, Sewage/Waste Water and Water Supply.
Either an infrastructure spending plan is used to create new work or it becomes a funding source to pay for work already planned, in which case it does not increase spending or jobs projections.
As proposed, states and municipalities would be required to come up with 80% of the funding for any new infrastructure project to qualify for 20% of funding from the federal government, potentially shifting the bond funding tax burden to states.
Alternatively, states could solicit private partnership funding, in which case what would normally be considered public assets could become privately controlled assets. This raises a whole new list of issues for discussion, not engaged here.
Infrastructure currently has the highest amount of work in backlog in history. Public work is at its 2nd highest starting backlog only to 2008. Starting backlog accounts for 80% of spending in the current year and 60% of spending in the following year.
Current levels of backlog and predicted new starts gives a projection that Public Nonbuilding Infrastructure spending will reach an all-time high in 2018 and again in 2019.
Total All Public Infrastructure in 2018 also reaches an all-time current$ spending high. However, in constant$, inflation adjusted, volume of work is still well below previous peak.
The non-building infrastructure construction sector does not have the capacity to increase spending over and above existing planned (booked and projected new starts) work by another $10 billion/year, nor does it have the capacity to add an additional 40,000 jobs per year.
Total All Public Infrastructure construction, including public works and Nonresidential public buildings, already has a growth projection near historic capacity. It cannot double that volume by another $10-$20 billion/year and add an additional 40,000 – 80,000 jobs per year.
Below is the timeline of my articles series on Infrastructure. Some of the numbers have changed slightly over the past year, but not enough to change the premise of the articles.
When construction is very actively growing, total construction costs typically increase more rapidly than the net cost of labor and materials. In active markets overhead and profit margins increase in response to increased demand. These costs are captured only in Selling Price, or final cost indices.
General construction cost indices and Input price indices that don’t track whole building final cost do not capture the full cost of construction projects. To properly adjust the cost of construction over time you must use actual final cost or selling price indices.
Producer Price Index (PPI) Material Inputs (excluding labor) costs to all construction are up +4.2% in 2017. More specific input costs, nonresidential structures in 2017 are up 4.3%, infrastructure cost are up over 5% and single-family residential inputs are up 4.3%. But material inputs accounts for only a portion of the final cost of constructed buildings.
Labor input is currently experiencing cost increases. When there is a shortage of labor, contractors may pay a premium to keep their workers. Unemployment in construction is the lowest on record. A tight labor market will keep labor costs climbing at the fastest rate in years.
ENRBCI and ENRCCI are prefect examples of commonly used indices that DO NOT represent whole building costs, yet are widely used to adjust project costs. An estimator can get into trouble adjusting project costs if not using appropriate indices.
CPI, the Consumer Price Index, tracks changes in the prices paid by urban consumers for a representative basket of goods and services, including food, transportation, medical care, apparel, recreation, housing. This index in not related at all to construction and should never be used to adjust construction pricing. Historically, Construction Inflation is about double the CPI. However for the last 5 years it averages 3x the CPI.
Inflation can have a dramatic impact on the accuracy of a construction budget. Usually budgets are prepared from known current costs. If a budget is being developed for a project whose midpoint of construction is two years in the future, you must carry an appropriate inflation factor to represent the expected cost of the building at that time.
Taking into account the current (Jan 2018 12 mo) CPI of 2% and the most recent 5 years ratio of Construction Inflation to CPI, along with accelerated cost increases in labor and material inputs and the high level of activity in construction markets, I would consider the following forecasts for 2018 inflation as minimums with potential to see higher rates than forecast.
Residential construction saw a slowdown in inflation to only +3.5% in 2015. However, the average inflation for five years from 2013 to 2017 is 5.8%. It peaked at 8% in 2013. It climbed back over 5% for 2016 and reached 5.8% in 2017.
Anticipate residential construction inflation for 2018 at least 5%.
Several indices for Nonresidential Buildings have averaged 4% to 4.5% over the last five years and all have reached over 5% in the last three years. Nonresidential buildings inflation totaled 18% in the last four years. My forecast shows nonresidential buildings spending in 2018 will reach the fastest rate of growth in three years, which historically leads to accelerated inflation.
Anticipate construction inflation for nonresidential buildings during the next two years near a growth rate of 5% rather than the long-term average of 3.5%.
Non-building infrastructure indices are so unique to the type of work that individual specific infrastructure indices must be used to adjust cost of work. The FHWA highway index increased 17% from 2010 to 2014, dropped 2% in 2015-2016, then increased 2% in 2017. Inflation for refineries and petrochemical facilities has dropped 5% in the last 4 years. Input costs to infrastructure are down slightly from the post-recession highs, but most costs have increased in the last year. Input cost to Highways are up 4.7% and to the Power sector are up 5.8% in 2017. Work in Transportation and Pipeline projects is increasing rapidly in 2017 and 2018. Expect inputs in these markets to show large increases in 2018.
Infrastructure indices registered 2% to 4% gains in 2017. Anticipate a minimum of 3% to 4% inflation for 2018 with the potential to go higher in rapidly expanding markets.
- Long term construction cost inflation is normally about double consumer price inflation (CPI).
- Since 1993 but taking out 2 worst years of recession (-8% to -10% total for 2009-2010), the 20-year average inflation is 4.2%.
- Average long term (30 years) construction cost inflation is 3.5% even with any/all recession years included.
- In times of rapid construction spending growth, construction inflation averages about 8%.
- Nonresidential buildings inflation has average 3.7% since the recession bottom in 2011. It has averaged 4.2% for the last 4 years.
- Residential buildings inflation reached a post recession high of 8.0% in 2013 but dropped to 3.4% in 2015. It has averaged 5.8% for the last 5 years.
- Although inflation is affected by labor and material costs, a large part of the change in inflation is due to change in contractors/suppliers margins.
- When construction volume increases rapidly, margins increase rapidly.
- Construction inflation can be very different from one major sector to the other and can vary from one market to another. It can even vary considerably from one material to another.
The two links below point to comprehensive coverage of the topic inflation and are recommended reading.
During the period including 2011 through 2017, we had record construction spending, up 50% in 5 years, moderate inflation reaching as high as 4.6% but averaging 3.8%, record construction volume growth (spending minus inflation), up 30% in 5 years and the the 2nd highest rate of jobs growth ever recorded. Construction added 1,339,000 jobs in the last 5 years. The only time in history that exceeded jobs growth like that was the period 1993-1999 with the highest 5-year growth ever of 1,483,000 jobs. That same 93-99 period had the previous highest spending and volume growth. 2004-2008 would have reached those lofty highs but the residential recession started in 2006 and by 2008 spending had already dropped 50%, offsetting the highest years of nonresidential growth ever posted.
The point made here is the period 2011-2017 shows spending and jobs at or near record growth. Although 2017 slowed, there is no widespread slowdown in volume or jobs growth.
This 2011-2017 plot of Construction Jobs Growth vs Construction Volume Growth seems to show there is no jobs shortage. In fact it shows jobs are growing slightly faster than volume. But that just does not sit well with survey data from contractors complaining of jobs shortages. So how is that explained?
There have been cries from some quarters, including this blog, that the answer lies in declining productivity. There seems to be plenty of workers, but it now takes more workers to do the same job that took fewer in the past. As we will see, that is part of the answer, but doesn’t explain why some contractors need to fill vacant positions. To find data that might answer that question about a jobs shortage we must dig a little deeper.
The total jobs vs volume picture masks what is going on in the three major sectors, Residential, Nonresidential Buildings and Non-Building Infrastructure. A breakout of jobs and volume growth by sector helps identify the imbalances and helps explain construction worker shortages. It shows the residential sector at a jobs deficit.
2011-2017 % jobs growth vs % volume growth (based on annual averages)
- Totals All Construction Jobs +31% Volume +30%
- Nonres Bldgs Jobs +27% Volume +19%
- Nonbldg Hvy Engr Jobs +21% Volume +12%
- Residential Jobs +40% Volume +54%
The totals show jobs and volume almost equal, data that supports the 2011-2017 totals plot above and what we would expect in a balanced market. But severe imbalances show up by sector. Both nonresidential sectors jobs growth far outpaced volume growth. Residential stands out with a huge deficit.
Just looking at 2017 growth shows the most recent imbalances.
2017 % jobs growth vs % volume growth
- Totals All Construction Jobs +3.4% Volume -0.8%
- Nonres Bldgs Jobs +3.3% Volume -1.6%
- Nonbldg Hvy Engr Jobs +1.7% Volume -6.0%
- Residential Jobs +3.5% Volume +4.2%
Census recently released initial construction spending for 2017, totaling $1.230 trillion, up only 3.8% from 2016. What is somewhat disconcerting is that 2017 construction spending initial reports growth of 3.8% do not even match the total inflation growth of 4.6% for 2017, indicating a -0.8% volume decline. However, as does always occur, I’m expecting upward revisions (estimated +2%) to 2017$ construction spending on 7-1-18. If we don’t get an upward revision, then 2017 will go down as the largest productivity decline since recession. Even if we do get +2% upward revision to 2017$ spending, 2017 volume would be revised up to +1.2% and jobs growth will still exceed volume growth.
Let’s look a little deeper at the data within the sectors. Each chart is set to zero at Jan 2011 so we can see the change from that point, the low point of the recession, until today. At the bottom of each chart is shown a Balance at start. That represents the cumulative surplus or deficit of jobs growth compared to volume growth for the previous 10 years prior to Jan 2011. If there are no changes in productivity, or no surplus or deficit to counteract, then jobs should grow at the same pace as volume.
There are slight differences between the data in the three sector charts and the total construction chart. The sector charts use annual avg data and the totals chart uses actual monthly data.
Nonresidential Buildings and Non-building Infrastructure, over seven years and the most recent three years, show jobs increasing far more rapidly than volume. Nonresidential Buildings started 2011 with a surplus of jobs after the recession, but Infrastructure started 2011 with a substantial deficit of jobs. Only in this last year did Infrastructure jobs reach long-term balance with work volume.
Nonresidential Buildings started 2011 with a 13% surplus of jobs and more than doubled it in the seven years following. I’ve said this before, but it could be a large part of this surplus is due to companies hiring to meet revenue (not inflation adjusted volume). While nonresidential volume since 2010 has increased only 12%, spending actually increased 43%. Since 2010 there has been 30% nonresidential buildings inflation, which adds zero to volume growth and zero need for new jobs. A 43% increase in spending could lead companies to erroneously act to staff up to meet spending, or revenue.
This plot for residential work shows from 2011 to the end of 2017, we’ve experienced a 20% growth deficit in jobs. How many residential jobs does this 20% growth deficit represent? From Jan 2011 through Dec 2017, residential jobs increased from approximately 2,000,000 to 2,700,000. So the base on which the % growth increased over that time is calculated on 2,000,000. An additional 20% growth would be a maximum of 400,000 more jobs needed to offset the seven year deficit. But what about the imbalances that existed when we started the period?
During the residential recession from just 2005 through 2010, residential volume declined by 55%, but jobs were reduced by only 38%. For the entire period 2001-2010, total volume of work declined by 14% more than jobs were reduced. Some of the surplus jobs get absorbed into workforce productivity losses and some remain available to increase workload. It’s impossible to tell how much of that labor force would be available to absorb future work, so for purposes of this analysis an estimate of at least 5% seems not unreasonable. That would mean for 2011-2017, instead of a need for an additional 20% more jobs, the need could be reduced by 5% or 100,000 jobs.
This analysis shows a current deficit of 300,000 to 400,000 residential jobs. While it does also show Nonresidential Buildings jobs far exceed the workload and there are more than enough surplus jobs to offset the Residential deficit, there would be several questions of how transferable jobs might be between sectors.
- Are there highly technical specialty jobs in Nonresidential Buildings that would not be transferable to Residential?
- What is the incidence of specialty workers engaging in work across sectors? i.e., job is counted in one sector but working in another sector.
- What has been the impact of losing immigrants from the construction workforce?
- Is the ratio of immigrant workers in Residential much higher than Nonresidential?
- Is the pay more attractive in Nonresidential construction?
- What, if any, percentage of the Residential workforce is not being counted? Day labor?
I think most of these would have a more negative impact on Residential jobs. However, there is some possibility that the overall deficit may not be quite as high as available data show (points 2 and 6). And there is always the possibility that we’ve crossed a threshold that has led to new gains in productivity, although to some extent, the stark differences between Residential and Nonresidential Buildings data might counter that proposition.
The best way to see the implications that the available data do show is to look at productivity. The simplest presentation of productivity measures the total volume of work completed divided by the number of workers needed to put the volume of work in place, or $Put-in-Place per worker. In this case, $ spending is adjusted for inflation to get a measure of constant $ volume, and jobs are adjusted for hours worked.
As the Residential jobs deficit increases vs workload, this plot shows that $PIP is increasing. That makes sense. The workload continues to increase and the jobs growth is lagging, so the $PIP per worker goes up. For Nonresidential Buildings, the rate of hiring is exceeding the rate of new volume and therefore the $PIP is declining.
In boom times, residential construction adds between 150,000 and 170,000 jobs per year and has only twice since 1993 added 200,000 jobs per year. In the most recent several years expansion, residential has reached a high of 156,000 jobs in one year but has averaged 130,000 per year over 5 years. So it’s pretty unlikely that we are about to start adding residential construction jobs at a continuous rate of 200,000+ jobs per year. If residential jobs growth were to increase by 50,000 jobs per year over and above current average growth, it would take 6 to 8 years to wipe out the jobs deficit in residential construction.
This problem is not going away anytime soon.
For more history on jobs growth see Is There a Construction Jobs Shortage?
For more on the imbalances of Res and Nonres jobs see A Harder Pill To Swallow!
For some hypotheses as to why nonresidential imbalances continue to increase see Construction Spending May 2017 – Behind The Headlines
Dodge Data posted December construction starts on 1-25-18, showing total starts increased 3% from 2016. However, this compares un-adjusted 2017 starts to upwardly revised 2016 starts. Starts are always revised upward in the following year. I expect revisions will show 2017 starts increased by more than 6% over 2016. Total backlog starting 2018 is up 11%. Backlog has increased on average 10%/year the last three years. 2018 spending is projected to increase 8%.
Nonbuilding Infrastructure starts in 2017 are down 2%. However, we can expect post-year revisions to infrastructure starts. I expect, when all revisions are posted, that 2017 will show infrastructure starts increased a few percent from 2016. Starts peaked in 2015 and are still near that high-point. Spending reached an all-time high in 2015 and stayed within 0.3% of that high for 2016. Although 2017 shows a spending drop of 3.6%, spending is also prone to large upward revisions, particularly in Power, the largest market in Infrastructure. Starting backlog is up 25% in the last two years. Spending for 2018 is projected to increase 9% to an all-time high.
Transportation terminals 2017 new starts jumped 120%. Rail project starts increased more than 100%. Starting backlog for all transportation work, including terminals, runways, rail and dock work is up 100% in the last two years. 2018 spending is projected to increase 25% over 2017. Also, 2019 spending is projected up over 15%.
Power plant new starts are down for the 2nd year but had hit an all-time high in 2015, up nearly 150% from 2014. Pipeline starts were up more than 125% in 2016 and again in 2017. Starting backlog for all power projects has nearly doubled in the last three years. Spending is projected to increase 10% in 2018 and 5% in 2019.
Highway spending is not projected to change by much, up only 3% in 2018, but it has been within a few percent of the all-time high for the last three years. Backlog from new starts has increased on average 6%/year for the last four years.
Nonresidential Buildings new starts in 2017 are up 7%. When all revisions are in, I expect that to climb over to 10%. Starts are up 60% in four years. Starting backlog is up 20% in the last two years. Spending for 2018 is projected to increase 9%.
Office new starts hit an all-time high in 2016 and just missed surpassing that mark in 2017. Starts increased on average 22%/year from 2013 through 2016, but 2017 starts dropped 2%. Starting backlog increased dramatically during that 2013-2016 growth period and backlog is up 50% in the last two years. Spending followed with three years of growth over 20%/year from 2014 through 2016. The 3% spending growth currently recorded for 2017 is an unexplained anomaly. All other data indicates 2017 spending should have followed the pattern set in 2014-2016. 2018 spending is predicted to climb 10% and 2019 could increase 12%.
Educational new starts hit an eight year high in 2016 and increased another 6% in 2017. Starting backlog has increased 10%/year for the last three years. The last three years we’ve seen spending increases of 6%, 5% and 3%. For 2018, spending is projected to increase 14%.
Healthcare starts jumped 13% in 2016, the first significant increase in nearly 10 years. 2017 starts maintained even level with 2016. Coming into 2018, starting backlog is up 16% over the past two years, a sign for slow moderate growth. 2017 is the first time in 5 years Healthcare spending increased, up 4.3%. For 2018, spending is projected to increase 4.8%.
Manufacturing posted several very large project starts in 2017, increasing total starts 20% over 2016. This increased starting backlog 8% for 2018. Although still well below the banner years of 2015 and 2016, spending is projected to increase 8% in 2018.
Amusement/Recreation new starts increased only 5% in 2017, but that follows a 30% increase in 2016 to reach a new high in 2017. Starting backlog has doubled from 2014 to 2018. Spending increased only 5% in 2017 but spending is up 40% in the last 3 years, also reaching a new high in 2017. Spending for 2018 is projected to increase 11%. This spending category includes sports stadiums which by some accounts may fall 40% in 2018.
Lodging experienced six consecutive years of massive growth in starts and spending after losing 75% of its pre-recession market. Starts grew 30%/year from 2011 through 2016. In 2017 starts posted a decline of 5%. Spending averaged 25% growth from 2012 through 2016, but posted only 7% growth in 2017. Backlog is still up slightly to start 2018. Spending is projected to come in at 6% growth for 2018. But backlog drops off 15% for 2019 and spending is expected to follow suit.
Commercial construction is being supported by new starts for warehouse construction which have increased seven consecutive years. In 2010 warehouse construction was only 20% of this market. From 2010, stores grew 50% to a peak in 2015, but warehouses grew 500% to peak in 2017 and are now 50% of the total market. Warehouses are increasing and stores are declining. In 2018, warehouses will make up 60% of the market. Total commercial starts for 2018 will remain equal to 2017 and 2016. The years of big backlog growth occurred from 2012 to 2017. Backlog remains constant from 2017 to 2018 and declines slightly in 2019. After 6 years of spending growth averaging more than 12%/year, spending will increase only 3% in 2018 and 2019 may reach only 2%.
Residential spending is more dependent on new starts within the year than on backlog from previous starts. Residential starts are projected to increase 7% over 2017, almost all of that coming from new single family starts. However, residential spending in 2018 is projected to increase only 7% after five years of increases over 10%.
In What Category is That Construction Cost? explains where some specific costs are carried, which may vary between sources. Take particular note of Transportation, Office and Commercial.
Starts Trends Construction Forecast Fall 2017 for a much more thorough handling of the starts forecast.
The Producer Price Index (PPI) for material inputs to construction gives us an indication whether costs for material inputs are going up or down. The PPI tracks producers’ cost to produce the product and supply finished products to retailers or contractors. However, that is far from the total cost from the contractor.
A good example is steel. The producer price for steel from the mill might be $750/ton for long beams and columns. The only increases captured at the producer level might be the changes in cost for raw material, energy to manufacture and the producers labor and markup. But the structural steel contractor is then responsible for delivery to shop, detailing, shop fabrication, transport to construction site, load and unload, cranes and welding equipment needed to install, installation crews and finally overhead and profit accounting for at least eight more points of potential cost change. Finally the steel subcontractor must then assess the market conditions, whether tight or favorable to higher profits, to adjust the bid price or selling price. The final cost of steel installed could be $3000/ton.
The PPI for Construction Inputs IS NOT an indicator of construction inflation. It does not represent the selling price, nor does it give any indication of the trend, up or down, of selling price.
In 2009 PPI for inputs was flat but construction inflation, as measured by final cost of buildings, was down 8% to 10%. In 2010, the PPI for construction inputs was up 5.3% but the selling price was flat. Construction inflation, based on several decades of trends, is approximately double consumer inflation. However, from mid-2009 to late 2012, that long-term trend did not hold up. During that period, PPI ranged from 0% to +6.8%, but construction inflation/deflation ranged from -10% to +2.3%, lower than PPI for all four years, something which seldom occurs. Construction inflation/deflation was primarily influenced by depressed bid margins, which had been driven lower due to diminished work volume.
The following table shows the differences between the PPI Inputs from 2011 to 2017 and the actual inflation for the major construction sectors. This table shows clearly that PPI Inputs and Inflation not only can vary widely but also may not even move in the same direction.
The PPI tables published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics do include several line items that represent Final Trades Cost or Whole Building Cost. Those PPI items don’t give us any details about the producer price or retail price of the materials used, but they do include all of the contractors costs incurred, including markups, on the final product delivered to the consumer, the building owner. I would note however that those line items in the PPI almost always show lower inflation than final Selling Price inflation indices developed separately from the PPI. Follow this link to table of inflation values which includes the PPI final cost for trades and buildings.
Construction Managers responsible for working with the client to manage project cost, part of which includes preparing a full building cost estimate, should not rely on PPI values as an indication of inflation. Selling price inflation indices are more appropriate indices to use to adjust project costs.
It is always important to carry the proper value for cost inflation. Whether adjusting the cost of a recently built project to predict what it might cost to build a similar project in the near future, or answering a client question, “What will it cost if I delay my project start?”, the proper value for inflation (which differs by sector and differs every year) can make or break your estimate.
Contractors responsible for a particular building material, although the PPI Inputs will not track market conditions sale prices from producer to the contractor, can get some indication of whether material prices are rising or falling. Contractors should be aware of PPI trends to interpret the data throughout the year.
PPI TRENDS HELP TO INTERPRET THE DATA
- 60% of the time, the highest increase of the year in the PPI is in the first quarter.
- 75% of the time, two-thirds of the annual increase occured in the first six months.
- In 25 years, the highest increase for the year has never been in Q4.
- 60% of the time, the lowest increase of the year in the PPI is in Q4.
- 50% of the time, Q4 is negative, yet in 25 years the PPI was negative only four times.
So when you see monthly news reports from the industry exclaiming, “PPI is up strong for Q1” or “PPI dropped in the 4th Qtr.” it helps to have an understanding that this may not be unusual at all and instead may be the norm.
I’ve read several articles recently describing, Why 2018 could be a boom year for construction spending. Several reasons being given to support a potential boom, when we look a little deeper, actually may not be good indicators at all to predict the trend for a strong year in 2018. In my Fall Forecast I do predict 8% growth in 2018 construction spending, but let’s take a look at what gets us there.
Data that doesn’t tell us much about the future trend in construction spending.
Jobs increased in 2017 up 35% over 2016. In 2017 construction added 210,000 jobs, growth of 35% over 2016, but in 2016 jobs growth decreased by 55% from 2015. 2016 growth was the lowest in 5yrs. In 2013 jobs growth increased by 85% and in 2014 by 71%, but in 2015 and 2016 jobs growth slowed. Yet 2015 was one of the best construction spending years on record. And in 2017, jobs growth increased over 2016 but spending growth slowed. The direction of jobs growth is not an indicator of the future trend in spending.
Nov 2017 spending was higher than expected, and YTD is up 4.2%. This is a slippery slope. Actually we won’t know any particular monthly spending until several months after the initial release. All monthly spending values are subject to revision three times after initial release. However, residential spending is higher than expected for the YTD and nonresidential buildings spending is below expectations for YTD. But more importantly, construction spending normally fluctuates. For instance, in the 2nd half of 2015, spending was down 4 out of 6 months, lower than forecast three times, posting a total decline of 2.5%. Yet 2015 finished the year up 10%. Then, in the 1st half of 2016, spending was up 5 out of 6 months, far exceeding forecast 3 times, posting a total increase of 6% in 6 months. 2016 finished up 6.5% for the year. Neither half performance predicted final results within the year or the forecast for the future. Furthermore, after inflation, 2017 spending is currently flat with 2016$, so all we are seeing in the 4.5% spending growth in 2017 is inflation. Current and past spending is not an indicator of the future trend in spending.
What data does give an indication of the future trend in construction spending?
Construction Starts (Dodge Data & Analytics DDA), Backlog, Cash flow from Starts, the Architectural Billings Index (ABI), The Dodge Momentum Index (DMI) and New Residential Permits and # of Units Construction Starts all give an indication of the future trend in spending.
Residential Permits and # of new units started gives a fairly immediate indication of residential activity. The ABI gives an indication of nonresidential building to start construction about 9 months out and the DMI about 12 months out. The ABI and DMI give some indication as to whether future starts will increase or decrease. DDA Starts give an indication of the percent growth in future work, but not when the spending will occur, so cannot be used directly to predict spending. A good example is the new start for airport terminal work recorded as a new start in 2017 at $4 billion. But it may take 5 or 6 years to complete that $4 billion project and only cash flow will show the impact on spending.
Care must be taken to use Starts data properly. It is regularly misinterpreted in common industry forecasting articles. Starts dollar values represent a survey of about 50% to 60% of industry activity, therefore Starts dollar values cannot ever be used directly to indicate spending. Also, Starts do not directly indicate changes in spending per month or per year. Only by including an expected duration for all Starts and producing a forecast Cash Flow from Starts data can the expected pattern of spending be developed. Finally, it is the rate of change in Starts Cash Flows that gives an indication of the rate of change in spending.
Cash flow is the best indicator of how much and when spending will occur. Cash flow from DDA starts gives a prediction over time of how spending from each month of previous starts will occur from all projects in backlog. Cash flow totals of all jobs can vary considerably from month to month, are not only driven by new jobs starting but also old jobs ending, and are heavily dependent on the type, size and duration of jobs.
Of course, data highlighting demand, occupancy rates, labor and material trends and other economic factors affecting construction trends all weigh into determining future spending expectations. However, for nonresidential buildings and infrastructure approximately 75% to 80% of all spending within the year comes from starting backlog. Most economic factors that will have an affect on spending within the year are already captured in projects that have started and are in current backlog. On the other hand, new residential starts are more important. 70% of all residential spending in the year comes from new starts.
The following trend predictions are developed based on using this outline.
Seldom do two sources present information the same way!
In the construction industry, a disconnect exists in the reporting of construction starts data and spending data. Problems may arise when data is used to perform comparisons or forecasts. New starts and backlog may be listed in one category and spending for the same markets may be listed in another.
The U.S. Census Construction Put-in-Place (Construction Spending) Release follows these definitions. Almost universally, reporting of construction economic actual spending data follows the U S Census Put-in-Place format. I adjust all other construction starts input/forecasting data that I use to conform to these Put-in-Place definitions. Some pitfalls to be aware of:
Residential spending data is about 35% renovations and improvements that has no units associated with the dollars, so cannot be included in a comparison to housing starts.
Demolition is not included in renovations/improvements. Partial repair of flood damaged homes is NOT included in residential improvements. Full replacement of flood damaged homes is included as improvements, not new single family. Here is Census definition of flood repairs
Offices includes pubic buildings such as city halls and courthouses. Includes data centers and bank buildings. Excludes medical office buildings, offices at manufacturing sites and offices at educational or healthcare facilities. Excludes Public Safety.
Commercial includes all retail buildings, warehouses, parking lots and garages. Excludes parking at educational/healthcare facilities.
Census DOES separate the costs for buildings that are mixed use retail/office/residential.
Educational, along with K-12, includes administrative offices, health centers, parking, residence halls, classrooms, educational research labs, food service and sports/recreation facilities at schools or colleges and universities and all associated infrastructure and maintenance facilities at the educational site. Also includes public libraries, science centers and museums.
Healthcare includes similar support and infrastructure to educational. Also includes medical office buildings, non-manufacturing and non-educational research labs.
Amusement and Recreation includes performing arts centers, civic centers, convention centers, sports and recreation facilities not located at schools or colleges.
Transportation includes air freight and passenger air terminals, runways, bus and railroad passenger terminals, light rail and subway facilities, railroad track, railway structures and bridges, docks and marine terminals and maintenance facilities and infrastructure associated with each.
Some sources of design or new construction starts data carry terminal buildings as commercial buildings, institutional buildings or other public nonresidential buildings. Census caries the building cost of all terminals grouped in with the non-building infrastructure costs of Transportation. Some sources carry public buildings such as city halls and courthouses as Public Safety but Census carries cost data for public buildings such as city halls and courthouses in Offices. Some sources classify laboratories as commercial and warehouses as industrial/manufacturing but Census includes warehouses in Commercial and labs, depending on use, can be either Educational, Healthcare or Manufacturing.
Similar discrepancies may exist when comparing starts or spending to indexes, such as the Architectural Billings Index, which broadly classifies projects as commercial, institutional or residential. Some resources classify Amusement/Recreation as institutional and some as commercial. Labs are sometimes classified as commercial but in many cases are included in educational or healthcare, both institutional.
As you can see, there are several instances where the data are often mixed up. From the point of view of the forecaster, initial input data cannot always be used directly to forecast or match spending output. Some manipulation of the data is required to make input and output match.
For example: I move the starts for terminals from nonresidential buildings to non-building infrastructure Transportation, so that really changes my totals by sector from theirs for nonres bldgs to nonbldg infra. FWIW, my output conforms with most all others, most of whom also follow the Census PIP definitions.
What does your source for data take into consideration? Know your data!
On November 1, September construction spending will be released. The September spending release is always a solid turning point for the 2017 forecast. Here’s a few facts leading into the forecast which will incorporate this data and be posted soon after the 11-1-17 spending release.
2017 construction spending will come in at $1,250 billion, up 5.5% from 2016.
Largest $ contributors to growth in 2017 spending: Residential $56b, Commercial Retail $12b, Office $6b.
Largest $ declines in 2017 spending: Manufacturing -$8b, Public Works -$6b.
Total construction spending averaged 8%/yr growth last 6 yrs (2014 & 2015 at 11%). Expect 6% in 2018, 5% in 2019
Construction spending on Infrastructure leads growth for the next 3 years and it has nothing to do with an infrastructure spending bill.
Infrastructure spending in 2018 is led by Power and Transportation markets.
Most of the 2018 spending in the Power market will be generated from starts in 2016. Equally strong 2017 starts will generate most of the Power spending in 2019.
Public construction spending in 2018 will reach highest yr/yr growth rate in over 10 years powered by Educational spending.
Commercial/Retail spending in 2018 slows but most other nonresidential buildings still show strong growth, especially Office and Educational.
Residential spending slows to a crawl after more than 100% growth in last 6 years. Currently predicting only 5% to 6% growth over next 2 years.
Residential spending may change during the year because, while spending in all other markets is dependent on starting backlog, residential spending is primarily dependent on new starts within the year
Largest $ contributors to growth in 2018 spending: Power $22b, Office $15b, Educational $10b, Transportation $5b.
Largest $ declines in 2018 spending: none greater than -$2b.
Nonresidential Buildings and Infrastructure construction will both hit new all-time highs for starting backlog in 2017 and 2018. Both will see a 9% increase in spending in 2018.
Infrastructure construction spending never dropped due to the recession as much as Nonresidential Buildings or Residential.
Nonres Bldgs dropped 35% from $438bil in 2008 to $284bil in 2011.
Residential dropped 60% from $630bil in 2005 to $252bil in both 2010 and 2011.
Infrastructure declined only 8% from $274bil in 2009 to $251bil in 2011. It rebounded to $305bil in 2015, a new high.
Nonres Bldgs spending is just 3% below the previous high but residential is still 16% below 2005.
In constant$, adjusted for inflation, Nonres Bldgs peaked at $537bil in 2000 and Residential peaked at $755bil in 2005.
Nonres Bldgs is still 21% below the inflation adjusted peak. Residential is still 30% below.
Infrastructure reached an inflation adjusted peak in 2009 at $300bil. It hit a new high in 2016 at $313bil and in currently down 6% from that high. It will set a another new high in 2018.
Watch for the new 2017-2018 Spending Forecast to be posted within the week after the September data is released 11-1-17.
These other recently posted articles also have information relative to the 2017-18 forecast
Is Infrastructure construction spending near all-time lows? This question is raised because I saw comments to this affect recently posted on a major national construction professional organization twitter feed.
First, this raises several other questions:
- Exactly what construction markets are being referenced as infrastructure?
- Does this reference include public work only, or both public and private?
- Are educational and health care being included as infrastructure?
- Does this reference constant inflation adjusted spending?
The construction markets typically referred to as infrastructure, in order of largest to least volume, include; Power, Highway, Transportation, Sewage/Waste Water, Communications, Water Supply and Conservation. Sometimes also considered are Educational (3rd after Highway), Healthcare (after Transportation) and Public Safety (2nd smallest).
If only public work is included, everything changes. Most (90%+) of Power spending is private, so it represents less than 3% of public work. The largest contributors in this case are: Highway (32% of public work), Educational (25%), Transportation (11%), Sewage (8%) and Water Supply (4%). No other market is greater than 3% of public work.
And finally, is the reference to current dollars as originally spent within each year, or to constant inflation adjusted dollars, adjusting all historical expenditures to constant 2017 dollars? Any comparison to determine if real growth has occurred should be in constant dollars, in this case all adjusted to 2017.
Typical infrastructure, not including educational, healthcare or public safety, but including all public and private sector work produces this result:
However, the most likely reference is to typical public infrastructure, not including educational, healthcare or public safety. This scenario includes only the public sector work of typical infrastructure and eliminates private spending. This eliminates 90%+ of all power work and 100% of communications. So, for this scenario I’ve removed all power work and communications work. This is the result:
In both instances, the lows, whether using current or constant dollars, occurred between 1993 and 2004. The highs are recent, all occurring from 2007 to 2016. 2017 spending dropped somewhat from 2016.
To answer the question, Is Infrastructure construction spending near all-time lows? NO! Infrastructure construction spending is not at or even near all-time lows. In fact, if we extend our timeline back more than three years, it’s not even near recent lows. It is near all-time highs!
Infrastructure construction spending in August dropped to the lowest since November 2014. However, this was not unexpected. Cash flow models of infrastructure starts from the last several years show monthly spending dips and peaks. Current dips in spending are being caused by uneven project closeouts from several years ago. The actual current backlog is at an all-time high and spending will follow the expected cash flow.
Infrastructure starting backlog hit a new all-time high in 2017 and will again in 2018. Public Infrastructure new starts reached all-time highs in 2013 and 2015 and are on track to go higher in 2017. 80% of infrastructure spending within the year comes from backlog at the start of the year and that backlog may be comprised of jobs one, two, three and even four years old.
Infrastructure spending in 2017, although down slightly from the all-time high reached in 2015 and nearly equaled in 2016, will reach a new high in 2018.
(This analysis does not include any spending projections from an infrastructure investment bill).
Highway spending is currently benefiting from projects that started in 2015 but that have unusually high value and long duration. They contribute spending well into 2018 beyond the duration that typical projects have ended.
Transportation Terminal starts in the first three months of 2017 were more than three times higher than any three-month period in the previous five years. However, 2017 spending is still affected by uneven starts from two to three years ago, holding down gains in the 2nd half. Transportation will show only a 1% gain in 2017 but produces double digit gains in 2018.
Infrastructure construction spending is near all-time HIGHS and has been for the last several years. That is not meant to indicate there is no need for infrastructure investment. I think the need is well established. However, I’ve been writing about infrastructure for more than a year, pointing out the level of activity in this sector and the difficulty that will arise when we try to increase work volumes. The approach to adding new work and the discussions surrounding this approach should reference accurate data, and that should include an accurate representation of current workload and future ability to absorb more work.
For much more in-depth related to infrastructure construction see this post Infrastructure Spending & Jobs