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The construction spending forecast for 2020 indicates 2% growth. But predicted 2020 construction inflation is slightly higher than 4%. So, real construction volume in 2020 decreases by 2%. Jobs should follow volume growth, yet history shows that in non-recessionary periods, even with volume declining, jobs usually continue to increase, but perhaps at a slower rate.
This plot shows the forecast volume decline in 2020. For the 2020 forecast we already have 80% of all nonresidential spending in backlog. Since new starts account for only 20% of the spending in the year, a 10% drop in new starts from forecast affects only 20% of the spending, so has only a 2% impact on the total. Nonresidential shows flat to moderate gains in 2020.
Residential forecast will be much more dependent on new starts in 2020. About 70% of residential spending within the year comes from new starts within the year, so quick or large changes in new starts has a huge effect on spending for the year. Residential spending is down 10% from early 2018 but residential volume after accounting for inflation is down 15% since that early 2018 peak.
Simply stated, there has not been any volume growth in the last two years to support jobs growth. In constant $, there was no volume growth in any sector in 2018. In 2019 and 2020, only Non-building Infrastructure shows growth, 2%-3%/yr.
This plot shows predicted 2020 jobs growth of 1.5% or just over 100,000 jobs. Since volume is forecast to decline, any jobs growth in 2020 will increase the disparity between jobs and volume growth. The disparity has been increasing since early 2018. It’s a 15% difference right now. Within a year that could be 20%.
To emphasize the growing difference, look at these two plots, actually, the same plot just modified to account for the 15% bust in 2006.
By accounting for the 15% difference in 2006, essentially, resetting the baseline to 2006, it shows all other years up to 2017 were pretty well-balanced growth. With the exception of 2006 and now 2018-2019, for almost every year from 1997 to 2019 jobs grew pretty closely aligned with volume. A big spread occurred in 2006, then growth remained balanced through 2017. The spread now is near the same as it was in 2006.
Construction jobs growth slowed substantially the last two quarters. I predicted jobs growth would slow because volume growth had already been declining since early 2018 when volume reached a peak of $1,300 billion. Volume is now $1,170 billion, down 10% in 20 months. After 6 years of jobs increasing at an average 275,000/year, jobs are up only about +150,000 in the last year, but only +48,000 in the last 7 months. The rate of jobs growth is now the slowest in 7 years. I expect this trend to continue.
The plot of jobs growth below shows current growth rate is below an annual rate of 150,000 jobs/year and it is expected to remain there through 2020, potentially dipping as low as 100,000.
I’d be surprised if jobs start to decline, but that certainly could be envisioned and it would help explain away some of the disparity in growth shown on the Jobs/Volume plot up above.
see also Construction Jobs and JOLTS
This short construction economics slide deck was presented at Hanson Wade’s Advancing Construction – Enterprise Risk Management Dec 2019 Miami, FL
12-6-19 plots updated to include Nov jobs and Oct spending.
Construction Spending IS NOT Construction Volume.
I read an analyst report this week that stated construction jobs growth isn’t keeping pace with construction volume growth. The reference appeared to be to construction spending. That fails to apply inflation to convert construction spending to construction volume, so compares apples to oranges. Spending must be adjusted for inflation to get real volume growth. Jobs MUST be compared to volume.
For over two years now, construction volume growth has not supported construction jobs growth we’ve seen. I expected jobs growth to slow down. I’ve been saying this for over a year. This sure looks like it.
For 2018 jobs growth averaged over 300k. Since January 2019 the rate of jobs growth has dropped from 300k to 150k.
Current projected new starts data IS NOT supporting construction volume growth for the next 2 yrs. Growth of 3%/yr in non-building infrastructure will be offset by declines in residential buildings and flat nonresidential buildings. Therefore, there is no real volume support for jobs growth.
This plot adjusts construction spending by taking out inflation to get real construction volume growth. Last year of real volume growth was 2016. Yet jobs continue to climb. This can’t continue. The plot above shows it has slowed.
Construction jobs growth has slowed considerably over last 2Q, as expected. While construction jobs are up about +150k in last year, jobs (through Nov) increased only +48k in the last 7 months. I’m expecting this trend to continue. In fact, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see in the near future some months when construction jobs decline. The fact is, construction volume simply does not support jobs growth.
Total construction volume, spending after accounting for inflation, has been down for 5 of the last 6 quarters. Volume peaked from Q1 2017 to Q1 2018, but the last year of real volume growth was 2016. Volume is flat or down while jobs continue to rise. This can only mean contractors will be at risk of being top-heavy jobs if a downturn comes.
Caution is advised if putting emphasis on construction JOLTS, which has been climbing to new highs. From mid-2006 to mid-2007, JOLTS reached near the then all-time high. But construction volume, starting in mid-2006, was already on the downward slope. Volume peaked in early 2006 and fell 10% by mid-2007. Construction did not begin shedding jobs until late 2006, but mid-2007, job losses were well underway. Within 12 months, more than 500,000 jobs were gone. Within 18 months, construction jobs were down 1.5 million.
Construction spending annual rate will increase by 3% in the next 12 months, but volume in constant $ after inflation will remain flat. In Q42020-Q12021 spending slows to less than inflation, so volume begins a modest decline. Growth of 3%/yr in non-building infrastructure will be offset by declines in residential buildings and flat nonresidential buildings. Jobs will continue to grow and spread the imbalance even more.
The construction jobs slow down has been in the cards for a long time. With all the talk of skilled labor shortages, there’s been little discussion of the unsustainable excess jobs growth. Maybe it’s about time to change the conversation.
Examples of how commonly reported construction data can often be misused – Construction Spending and Construction Starts
Construction Grew $41 billion, 3.3%, from 2017 to 2018
An increase in construction spending is often referred to as growth for the industry, but that is incorrect. Construction spending measures the change in the dollar value of work performed, not the volume of work performed.
The difference between spending (or revenue) and volume can be explained by a simple example, the Crate of Apples. A farm stand sold a crate of apples last year for $100. Costs have gone up. Today the same size crate of apples sells for $110. Farm stand revenues increased 10%, but the amount of business volume did not increase. Volume of sales is still one crate of apples. All the increase in revenue was inflation.
The $41 billion increase in construction spending from $1.266 trillion in 2017 to $1.307 trillion in 2018 is a 3.3% increase. However, construction inflation for that period averaged 4.7%. Construction inflation adds only cost, not volume, to the amount of work. Construction spending is measured in current dollars, actual dollars spent within the year in the value that year. Construction volume is measured in constant dollars, adjusted for inflation, so any and all years can be compared to each other.
Real construction volume adjusted for inflation actually decreased 1.4% from 2017 to 2018.
Total Construction volume, after accounting for inflation, has been down for five of the last six quarters. Construction volume peaked from Q1 2017 to Q1 2018, is now down 6% from the 2018 peak.
Construction volume is not directly reported. It is not a commonly referenced industry measure reported in the news. But it is a more important indicator of activity in the industry than spending. Volume is found only through analysis of spending and inflation data.
Another common misrepresentation using spending data relates to jobs growth. Jobs growth is often compared to spending growth where a 3% to 4% increase in jobs from year to year is substantiated if we have a similar 3% to 4% growth in spending. However, current $ spending is not yet adjusted for inflation and does not represent growth in real volume of work. Jobs must be compared to volume. Real volume increases are represented by constant $, or construction spending adjusted for inflation.
In the last 2 years jobs have increased by about 8% but real construction volume has decreased by about 6%. In recent years, construction volume has not supported jobs growth.
Construction Starts Predict Changes in Spending
Two very important criteria must be known about new construction starts in order to properly predict spending.
1st – To predict spending from new starts, the starts data must be spread over time using an appropriate cash flow curve. A simple illustrative spending pattern for nonresidential buildings starts, or a typical cash flow curve, for total starts within a year is: 20% of the revenue gets spent in the 1st year, 50% in the 2nd year and 30% in the 3rd year. This shows predicting spending in any given year is dependent on several previous years of starts.
Multi-billion $ highway projects, manufacturing facilities, power projects and transportation terminals often have much longer duration cash flow curves. In other words, if your intent is to predict construction spending in 2019, you need to know what starts were at a minimum in 2017 and 2018, and in many cases back to 2016 or even 2015.
Starts spread over time with cash flow curves predict spending.
2nd – For new construction starts survey sample to be used to compare to itself from year to year to predict growth in spending, sample size must be known. Starts data captures a share of the total market or a portion of all construction, on average about 60% of all construction. The easiest way to see this is compare total construction starts to total spending. Starts from 2016 to 2019 range from $750 billion to $800 billion while spending in those years ranges from $1,200 billion to $1,300 billion. From this we see starts capture a share of the total market. Any time a survey of a total population is used to forecast the total, the survey share of total must be considered. If sample size is not constant, the apparent growth in starts does not all reflect real growth in spending.
Amusement/Recreation is an example that shows starts that generate a predicted cash flow pretty well balanced with actual spending from year to year. The share of starts in the survey is fairly consistent never varying from 63% to 66% from year to year.
Office provides an example of variation in sample share of total. Starts generate predicted cash flow that increased substantially from 49% to 57% and remained higher compared to actual spending.
Office starts increased from $21 billion in 2013 to $50 billion in 2019. This data generates the predicted cash flow that is compared to actual spending. To predict total spending from unadjusted starts, unadjusted starts CF$ are factored up (divided by) share of total market. If the share of market captured in the survey remained constant then the predicted spending would remain close to 50%.
CF$ Predicted/Actual shows that Cash Flow Share of actual spending was 48%-50% for several years but then jumped to 56%-57%. The predicted cash flow generated from the increase in starts is not entirely representative of an increase in spending but represents the combined value of the expected increase in spending and an increase in share of market data captured.
Starts cash flow and starts survey share of total spending are never directly known or published. These factors are found only through analysis of the data.
The Educational market data shows a similar situation as Office data. Starts generate predicted cash flow that increased substantially compared to actual spending.
Starts data generate predicted cash flow to forecast spending. This requires tracking share of total market captured in the starts survey data to account for any growth in the market share captured vs growth in predicted spending.
Census Construction Spending released today revises data back to Jan 2013. 2018 spending was revised up by $13bil or 1% to $1.307 trillion. I expected upward revisions to 2018 residential that did NOT materialize. Almost all revision is to nonresidential.
Sizable upward revisions were posted to nonresidential buildings and non-building infrastructure for 2015, 2016 and 2017. Educational increased by $5.5bil in 2017 and Manufacturing by $4.3bil. Manufacturing also increased in 2015 and 2016. Power increased by 8%-10% in both 2015 and 2016 but decreased by 8% in 2018.
Nonresidential revisions added $15 to $20 billion in 2015, 2016 and 2017. This helps explain what would be excess growth in labor over this period, absorbing about 100,000 jobs.
It is unusual there were no sizable revisions to residential, the first I can ever remember there being no revisions to residential spending totals. It is not uncommon to see $10-$15 billion/year revisions to past years in residential. In this release, there were no annual revisions greater than $1 billion. However, for 2018, renovations was revised down by $4bil and single-family up by the same $4bil. I wouldn’t be surprised if all years 2013-2018 get revised next year. Typical annual revision is about +2.5%.
Biggest 2018 revisions: Commercial +$6bil, +6.6%; Educational +$3.5bil, +3.7%; Amusement/Rec +$1.5bil, +5.3%; Power -$7bil, -7%; Sewage $1.9bil, +8.5%; Water Supply +$1.5bil, +10.8%; Manufacturing +$5.6bil, +8.7%.
Biggest 2017 revisions: Educational +$5bil, +6%; Amusement/Rec +$1.7bil, +6.8%; Manufacturing +$4.3bil, +6.5%. Public Works +$5bil, +13%.
After revisions, 2018 construction spending growth was up (2.7% to 4.4%) in all sectors but still less than the increase in inflation (4% to 5%), so real market activity declined in all sectors. Average spending for 2018 was up 3.3%, but average construction inflation in 2018 was 4.8%, so real volume decreased by 1.6%.
Real market growth declined in all three major market sectors, Residential, Nonresidential Buildings and Non-building Infrastructure, however, performance varies by market. For example, in the Nonresidential Buildings sector, Educational, Healthcare and Manufacturing markets (almost 50% of the Nonres Bldgs sector) spending increased only 1% or less. With an average Nonres Bldgs Inflation rate of 5.1%, real volume in these three markets declined 4% to 5%. But Lodging, Office and Commercial markets spending increased 8% to 10%. After subtracting 5.1% inflation, real volume in these markets increased 3% to 5%.
For the Nonresidential Buildings sector, spending in 2018 increased by 4.4%, but nonres bldgs average inflation was 5.1% (i.e., Construction Analytics 5.1%, Turner 5.6%, RLB 4.6%, Mortenson 7.4%, PPI Bldgs 4.0% ). On average, nonres bldgs real volume in 2018 declined by 0.7%.
For the Residential Buildings sector, spending in 2018 increased by 2.7%, but res bldgs average inflation was 4.3%. On average, residential bldgs real volume in 2018 declined by 1.6%.
For the Non-building Infrastructure sector, spending in 2018 increased by 2.7%, but non-bldg infra average inflation was 5.6% (i.e., Highway 6.7%. Powerplants 3.2%, Pipelines 2.1%). On average, non-building infrastructure real volume in 2018 declined by 1.6%.
In 5 years from Jan 2011 through Dec 2015, total construction spending increased 40% but after inflation volume increased only 22%. Jobs adjusted for hours worked increased 21%, almost in balance. However, in the following 3 years from Jan 2016 through Dec 2018, spending increased 16%, but after 13% inflation, volume increased only 3%. Jobs adjusted for hours worked increased 12% during that 3-year period. Starting 2011, jobs exceeded work volume. At the end of 2018, the jobs/work volume imbalance was even greater.
Residential spending 2018 did get some monthly revisions, but the total was NOT revised up and unusual monthly variances were not revised away. This leaves 2018 with four months in which the spending varied from the statistical monthly average by more than 3 Std Dev. There are no other years outside of the 2006-2009 residential recession in which there were ANY monthly variances from statistical average reaching 3 Std Dev. For 60 months 2013-2017 the largest variance was 1.8 Std Dev.
Residential construction spending in 2018 looks more like the 2006-2009 recession than any growth years from 2001 to 2019. After the Feb 2018 high, spending declined in seven of the next ten months, then in 2019 declined in four of the next six months.
Residential construction spending declined in the last five consecutive quarters. The most recent quarter averaged $510 billion. The post-recession high was reached in Q1 2018 at $575 billion. Q2 2019 is down 10% from Q1 2018. July 2019 is down 12% from the Feb 2018 high.
Residential spending is forecast to increase through the end of 2019 but then is expected to decline in the 1st half 2020. The low by mid 2020 could match the current low of $510 billion. That would result in 7 out of 9 declining quarters.
Census doesn’t show the Renovations line item. Reno = (Total Rsdn minus SF+MF) is where the biggest residential declines occurred in 2018, down -$4bil, -2.3%. Residential Reno is down 13% in 2019 YTD.
Talk these days isn’t whether or not we may slip into another recession, but when. Analysts are watching for signals. On any given day you can read articles pointing to why we are or why we are not headed into another recession. But, I wrote an article similar to this 3 years ago, so that opinion has been around awhile. I’m not taking a position here. I would just like to get a rough idea of implications, so I tested some data.
What would happen to this current construction recovery if we slip into recession?
If you think of a recession as having an immediate affect on total construction, like a quick drop in materials prices or cost of buildings, think again. Construction is sort of like an aircraft carrier, it takes a long time to turn around.
My starting baseline is my current construction spending and backlog forecast for 2019-2020 which includes YTD Spending and Starts through June. All spending and starts are current$, unadjusted for inflation. There is considerable strength in Nonresidential Buildings and Non-building Infrastructure starts and spending. There is weakness in residential.
NORMAL FORECAST current to Jul 2019 with no modifications
NORMAL FORECAST spending plots for the next 18 months.
Recession What If? Starting Point
The best indicator of future construction activity is the projected cash flow generated by all the construction starts that have been recorded. Construction starts mark the beginning of spending on new projects. Projects can take many months to reach completion, and the cash flow varies over the project time.
For the 2020 forecast, we can look at new starts and backlog.
Construction Starts YTD total as of June is down 8% from 2018. That’s expected to improve by year end.
Residential construction starts peaked in 2018. Starts have been sideways or in light decline since mid-2018. Year-to-date June 2019 starts are down 9% from 2018. Avg SAAR for 1st 6mo 2019 is $315bil, same 6mo last year was $340bil. Starting backlog is down 5% from 2017 to 2019. Spending is forecast down 5% in 2019 and up only 1% in 2020.
Nonresidential Buildings starting backlog increased 10%/year for the 4 years 2017-2020. Prior to this recession scenario analysis, nonresidential buildings spending was forecast up 10% in 2020 and 6% in 2021.
Infrastructure starting backlog has increased 15%/year for the 3 years 2018-2020. Prior to this recession scenario analysis, non-building infrastructure spending was forecast up 12% in 2020 and 8% in 2021.
For nonresidential buildings, 80% of all spending in any given year is already in backlog from starts prior to that year. For non-building infrastructure it’s 85%. Starting Jan. 1, 2020, 80% to 85% of all nonresidential spending in 2020 is already on record in backlog. For residential, only 30% of spending in 2020 is in backlog at the start of the year. Due to shorter duration, spending is more dependent on new starts within the year.
Backlog starting 2020 for the following six markets is at the highest starting backlog ever for each of the six markets. Also, these six markets account for 1/3rd of all construction spending. Much of the spending from these starts occurs in 2020.
These markets posted the best construction starts 12-month totals ever (in noted period).
- Manufacturing from Jun18>May19, up 36% in two years
- Office May18>Apr19, up 8%/yr for the last 4 years
- Educational Jun18>May19, monthly rate for 12 of the last 16 months increased by 20%.
- Public Works May18>Apr19, increased 30% in the last 24 months.
These very long duration markets posted best new starts ever.
- Highway Dec 17>Nov18, up 25% compared to prior 12 months, which was the 2nd best 12mo ever, with peak spending from those starts expected in 2020.
- Transportation (2yrs) Jan17>Dec18, up 25% from the prior 2 years, but with the peak 12 months up 35% from the prior 2 years, with peak spending 2020.
Growth in new starts and backlog for the last three years (2017-2018-2019):
- Manufacturing starts up 44%, backlog up 62%
- Office starts up 30%, backlog up 62%
- Highway starts up 45%, backlog up 70%;
- Transportation starts up 64%, backlog up 138%;
- Public Works new starts up 45%, backlog up 72%.
In the last two years, Commercial/Retail market starts are down 18% and 2020 starting backlog will be down 11%. The only other declines in 2020 starting backlog are Amusement/Recreation (-1%) and Power (-5%).
So, we are starting 2020 with the highest backlog on record after several years of elevated starts. However residential work is already down slightly while non-building infrastructure work is super-elevated. It is this elevated backlog that will mute the impact of a recessionary downturn.
What If? we reduce new starts
If a recession were to occur, it would substantially reduce future construction starts. Most, if not all, projects already started would move on to completion, but new starts will be cut back. However, the last “construction” recession started in 2006-2007 with declines in residential work. New starts in nonresidential buildings kept increasing into 2008. The “nonresidential” spending recession did not start until 2009, three years after the beginning of the residential decline.
To get an idea how another recession might affect construction spending, I kept all backlog growth predicted through 2019, but I reduced future new construction starts, for two years, starting Jan 2020. I’ve started the reductions for all sectors at Jan. 1, 2020 because residential starts and spending have already been in decline for more than a year.
- Residential starts reduced by 15% in 2020 and by 5% more in 2021
- Nonresidential buildings reduced by 20% in 2020 and by 10% more in 2021
- Infrastructure projects reduced by 10% in 2020 and by 5% more in 2021
This is only about 20% of the residential declines we experienced from 2006 to 2009, but I’m not anticipating another residential massacre. Residential has already been in decline for 12 months. The nonresidential buildings decline now is only half of 2008-2010. I reduced infrastructure by the least since there was only moderate decline in infrastructure work in 2009-2010, yet still I’ve reduced infrastructure twice as much as 2009-1010. I allowed for a 3% increase in new starts in 2022 across buildings sectors and a 2% increase in infrastructure.
The Recession Scenario Results
The recession 2020 scenario keeps 2019 forecast intact and reduces new starts by 15%-20% in 2020 and 5%-10% in 2021, so imparts a two year downturn. It’s effects, begun Jan.1, 2020 could be translated over time, if say the same scenario started but 12 months later. Negative reaction in the market is quickest to happen for residential, delayed a year for nonres buildings and takes longest (2 years) for infrastructure, for reasons of longest duration type work and highest prior rate of backlog growth.
The recession affects are muted by the fortunate starting point of record high backlog. Residential construction spending will experience two to three declining quarters each of the next three years. But beyond Jun 2022, residential stabilizes and resumes growth. Residential is the only sector to post quarterly spending declines in 2020. Nonresidential buildings posts the 1st quarterly decline in Q1 2021 and has at least seven consecutive quarters of declines before flattening out in Q4 2022. Non-building Infrastructure experiences the 1st two consecutive quarters of decline starting Q4 2021 and reaches a low in Q4 2022. Due to the unevenness of growth, Total Construction spending increases through Q1 2020, posts two declining quarters in 2020 and three consecutive quarters of declines in each of 2021 and 2022.
RECESSION FORECAST spending plots for the next 30 months.
Here’s a reminder of the amount of reductions in new starts. I kept all backlog growth predicted through 2019, but I reduced future new construction starts, starting Jan 2020. I’ve started the reductions for all sectors at Jan. 1, 2020 because residential starts and spending have already been in decline for more than a year.
- Residential starts reduced by 15% in 2020 and by 5% more in 2021
- Nonresidential buildings reduced by 20% in 2020 and by 10% more in 2021
- Infrastructure projects reduced by 10% in 2020 and by 5% more in 2021
We still see an 11% increase in backlog in 2020, because we did not reduce 2019 starts, but spending from reduced new starts in 2020 drops 2020 cash flow within the year to slow growth of 2%. Reference the baseline spending chart to see prior to reducing starts 2020 spending was forecast to increase 7%. Backlog drops 7% in 2021 and then 11% in 2022. This model predicts a 4% decline in construction spending in 2021 (baseline was +3%) and a 5% drop in 2022 (baseline was -1%), setting us back to the level 2016-2017.
Starting Backlog is down 4.4% for 2023, but even modest new starts growth of 3% helps partially offset the decline in spending. Spending never drops below the level posted in 2015-2016.
The last recession started with residential in 2005 and ended with nonresidential in 2011. Total decline during that period set total spending back 12 years, although the setback was 15 years for residential, 7 years for nonresidential buildings and only 4 years for infrastructure. This mild recession causes a setback to 2015-2016 levels, back 6 years, and less for infrastructure.
RECESSION FORECAST current to Jul 2019 with reduced starts 2020-2021
Residential construction would drop about 6% in 2020 and then drop another 8% in 2021. Residential is far more dependent on new starts within the year for spending than on backlog. That’s why residential spending drops quicker than all other work.
Nonresidential buildings gain 5% in 2020 but then drop 6% in 2021 and 12% in 2022. The strength of backlog going into 2020 pushes most of the declines out to 2021 and 2022.
Non-building Infrastructure has so much work in backlog that this sector still posts spending gains in 2020 and 2021. It drops 8% in 2022. The strength of backlog going into 2020 pushes much of the declines out 2022.
The baseline forecast would have produced spending increases of 9% from 2020-2022. The recession scenario indicates a 7% decline. That magnitude of turn around would impact the jobs situation. We would probably not see any reduction in workforce in 2020 but the spending declines in 2021 and 2022 could lead to a temporary loss of about 200,000 jobs in 2021 and 300,000 jobs in 2022.
Educational 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. 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 Both store and warehouse starts dropped in 2018. 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 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. After that, manufacturing spending increases steadily through the end of 2020. Current expectations are that manufacturing will finish the year up 8%. 2020 will be an extremely strong growth year, spending potentially increasing 20%+. Reductions in starts won’t show up as negative spending until 2022.
Office spending is expected to finish 2019 up 7% or less. 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 8%-11%.
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.
Highway/Street/Bridge starts hit an all-time high in 2018. Current 2019 progress shows new starts leveling off. Starting backlog increased 70% in the last 3 years leading into 2020. A lot of this is long duration backlog that will provide for large increases in spending in from 2019 to 2021.
Environmental Public Works (Sewage, Water supply and Conservation) new starts all declined from 2014 through 2017. Then all showed 14% gains in 2018 and the forecast is +15% in new starts in 2019.
Assessing the impact of this next level tariffs on the cost of construction has now become a nearly impossible task. Tariffs are on PARTS use in manufacture of goods. Who (architect? engineer?) will identify what parts are included in which products used in the building?
For example, look at something simple like light fixtures. The shell, the ballast, the reflector, the shade, the lamps or the wiring could be made in China. Who identifies where parts are made? Who now estimates the share of tariff increase on those parts to determine tariff impact on cost of manufacturing the entire light fixture?
Expand that issue to a pump assembly with valves and pressure gauges. Who identifies which parts in the pump assembly come from what country? How does an estimator determine the cost of manufacturing the pumps, valves and gauges and determine what fraction of total cost has a tariff?
This will inevitably lead to inflation, but it will be hidden inflation, hard to determine if a manufacturer’s price increase for a product is substantiated. This is not like the tariff on mill steel, a 25% tariff on mill steel which represents 25% of final structural steel bid, which represents 10% of the building cost.
At the conceptual or schematic design phase of construction, all the products are not even identified. And the project start date might be two years out. It can’t possibly be determined with certainty what factor should be carried to cover cost increases due to tariffs.
Inflation factors and contingency factors will need to increase to cover unknown costs. This increases the share of the budget that is unidentified, always a contentious issues with owners. Frankly with the margins general contractors or construction managers get for services on a large construction project, these unknown factors, if understated in cost factors, could wipe out the total fee or profit for the job.
This is not a good position to be in, but I don’t yet see how it would be any different.
Total all construction jobs including supervisory jobs is now only 3% below pre-recession high. However, volume of work adjusted for inflation is still 18% lower than pre-recession high. From the 2006-2007 pre-recession peak until now, non-supervisory jobs have recovered to within 6% of the previous high and supervisory jobs are now 7% higher than pre-recession high.
Residential Construction jobs are up 78,000 in the past year, ~3% growth in jobs, but residential construction volume in the same period dropped 8%. Considering residential construction spending is down 8% ytd, residential construction inflation is up minimum 2-3%, so volume is down 10%-11%, and residential jobs are up 3%, 2019 will be the worst year for residential productivity declines since the period 2006-2009.
Rider Levett Bucknall national average construction cost inflation is currently up 2.6% for the 1st 6 months 2019, 5.2% annualized. It’s up 5.7% year over year. This is in line with Turner Construction’s quarterly Building Cost Index, also up 2.6% year-to-date, annualized 5.2%, and up 5.5% year over year. These are both nonresidential building final cost inflation indices.
The PPI average Final Cost of 4 Nonresidential Trades for the 1st 6 months is up 2.9%, annualized at 5.8%. The PPI average Final Cost of 5 Nonresidential Buildings for the 1st 6 months is up 2.6%, annualized at 5.2%.
Forecasting construction spending in 2019 up less than 2%, and composite construction inflation of 4.2%, real volume for 2019 will be down about 2.5%.
The share of total residential construction spending on renovations remained fairly stable from 2013 thru 2018 between 34% and 37% at an average rate of 36%, substantially lower than 2009-2012 when it ranged between 42%-48% and averaged 45%. The 2019 share of residential spending on renovations is forecast to reach 40%. Only 50% of all spending is single-family residential. Keep that in mind when referencing residential jobs to housing units.
With the release of data for July 2019 on September 3, 2019, un-adjusted construction spending data will be revised back to January 2013. Expect revisions to 2018 construction spending, in particular, I expect significant revisions to RESIDENTIAL spending in 2018. Residential construction spending in 2018 recorded 5 individual months in which the spending reported by Census varied from the statistical monthly avg by greater than 3 standard deviations. In 19 years, the only time reported spending has ever exceeded 3 standard deviations from the normal statistical monthly average was during the 2006-2009 recession. I expect all of these to be revised away.
Due to the delay in release of construction spending revisions, which would normally have been published July 1st, my midyear construction forecast will be delayed. There’s more to it than just updating 2018 spending. The spending data helps prove the new starts data, which then supports the forecast. Preparation of the midyear forecast begins after the release of the data update September 3rd.
What’s Happening In Construction Starts? YTD total is down 8% from 2018, BUT
These markets recently posted the best construction starts 12 month totals ever over the noted period. Much of the spending from these starts occurs in 2020.
- Manufacturing from Jun18>May19
- Office May18>Apr19
- Educational Jun18>May19
- Public Works May18>Apr19
These very long duration markets posted best new starts ever; Highway Dec 17>Nov18, up 25% compared to the prior 12 months which was the the 2nd best 12mo ever, with peak spending from those starts expected in 2020, and Transportation (2yrs) Jan17>Dec18, up 25% from the prior 2 years, but with the peak 12 months up 35% from the prior 2 years, with peak spending 2020.
2020 Starting Backlog for these six markets will be up an average of 25%, at the highest starting backlog ever for each of the six markets.
Non-building Infrastructure construction starts increased 46% over the last 5 years (since lowpoint Q2 2014). Non-building Infrastructure spending increased 7% in 2018 and is forecast to increase 13%/yr for both 2019 and 2020. Big increases in Highway, Transportation and Public Works.
The markets dragging on construction spending are Commercial/Retail, Power and Residential. My forecast shows Commercial Retail declining from now through 2020, but hidden in that is the fact that Stores are down but Warehouses are up; Power which slows to finish flat next year; Residential construction starts peaked in Q1 2018. Year-to-date 2019 starts are down 9% from 2018. Although YTD spending is down 8%, we will see some improvement in the 2nd half 2019. Residential spending should finish down 5% in 2019 and shows very little improvement in 2020.
Keep in mind the affect if inflation. If spending in a particular market drops 5% AND there is 5% inflation, the real market volume is down 10%. All nonresidential inflation indices are currently between 4% and 5% and are expected to remain near 4% in 2020. Residential inflation is currently near 3.5%.
Construction volume (spending inflation adjusted) hit a 3-year low in Nov-Dec-Jan. Annual volume since Dec 2015 increased 8% but then dropped 7%. Volume for the last 2 years increased less than 1%. Most of the decline to the low was residential. Nonresidential buildings and Non-building Infrastructure were flat. All three sectors are expected to improve slightly in the 2nd half 2019, although real residential volume will still be down 9% in 2019 and 2% in 2020. Nonresidential Buildings and Non-building Infrastructure will post 6% and 9% increases in volume for 2020.
Construction Markets 2019 YTD Volume +/- (Volume = Spending – Inflation)
- TOTAL ALL -5%
- Residential -12%
- Manufacturing +5%
- Office +4%
- Lodging +3%
- Amusement/Rec +4%
- Public Safety +4%
- Highway +8%
- Transportation +3%
- Public Works +12%
- Commercial -13%
- Educational -3%
- Healthcare -5%
- Power -4%
- Communication -13%
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%.
8-15-19 edits – added plots
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.
In fact, from the 2006-2007 pre-recession peak until now, non-supervisory jobs have recovered to within 7% of the previous high, but construction volume is still 18% below the previous peak. Total all construction jobs is only 3% lower than the pre-recession high.
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.
8-3-19 > added plot > Plot below shows the same data as the above two plots, only plotted monthly, with all data from 2001 thru 2019 on one plot. From 1991 to 2000, jobs vs volume disparity was only 1%. This plot sets Jan 2001 to zero baseline for both jobs and volume. By Dec 2006 the disparity was 20%. This plot shows construction jobs growth vs volume growth now has a wider disparity than Jan 2007 when we were leading into the Great Recession. By far, the largest portion of this growing disparity is residential. In the last 24 months residential volume has decreased by 12% but residential jobs have increased by 7%. To be fair, that doesn’t include some nonresidential jobs that were actually doing residential work.
Construction volume, (spending inflation adjusted to constant $ volume) hit a 3-year low in Dec-Jan.
8-3-19 > added 12 month trailing jobs plot. Jobs growth rate, although showing some minor up months, has been declining since Q3 2018. As of July 2019, the 12 month trailing total of new construction jobs has dropped almost 50% in 9 months. If we maintain the current rate of jobs growth (avg 15k/mo in 2019), within the next three months we will hit a six-year low. I’m expecting growth to slow, so we may hit that six-year low next month, in the August data.
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. So the gap is widening.
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 solidify the highest ratio of jobs per volume of work put-in-place as measured in the last 50 years.
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