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Feb 26, 2019
Since the bottom of the construction recession year 2011, through 2018 construction spending has increased 67%. During that time construction volume has increased only 32%. All the rest was inflation.
Construction spending is not the only factor for business growth planning. The adjustment for Inflation is the most important factor.
If your company revenues are increasing at a rate of 7% per year at a time when construction inflation is 5%, your business volume is increasing only 2% per year. If you do not factor inflation into your growth projections, you are not forecasting growth properly. Spending is revenue. Volume is spending minus inflation.
Look at the data to the left of the vertical line through 2006. Notice in the bottom plot in the years 2004 and 2005 there is very high spending but very low volume. In 2006 spending was up 4% but real volume declined 3%. For those three years inflation totaled nearly 30%. On the top plot you can see the cumulative effect of several years of high inflation. From 2000 to 2006 spending increased 45% but volume barely moved at all. During this period jobs increased by about 15% and even that outpaced volume. Businesses watched as spending increased 45% in seven years. They increased staff by 15%, but real volume was flat. Heading into the recession construction dollars on the books had been increasing for years but volume was stagnant and companies were top-heavy with jobs.
Addressing the current period 2011 through 2018, if you base business growth on your annual revenue growth, or spending, rather than using inflation adjusted dollars, your forecast for business growth over this eight year time period would be more than double actual volume growth.
Notice the blue bars for annual spending growth in 2017 and 2018 at approximately 4% and 5% respectively. But look at the black lines superimposed on those bars that reflect real volume growth after inflation. There has been only 1% real volume growth in the last two years. Yet jobs increased 8% in two years. Most of the growth in spending is inflation dollars, not real volume growth. Inflation does not support jobs growth.
For 2017-2018 residential spending increased 17% but volume was up only 7%. Nonresidential buildings spending up 6.5% but volume was down 2.5%. Non-building infrastructure spending was up 4% but volume was down by 3%. Inflation across these sectors totaled 7% to 10% for these two years.
Construction jobs, now over 7,400,000 have been over 7,300,000 since summer 2018. The last time jobs were over 7,300,000 was mid-2005 through early 2008, at which point the recession abruptly caused the loss of over 700,000 jobs within 10 months and more than 2 million jobs over the next three years. Jobs are now only 5% lower than the previous high of 7,700,000 in 2006-2007. But construction volume is still 15% below peak constant $ volume reached in early 2006. So the current situation of jobs growth rate exceeding volume growth is worse than it was leading into the last recession.
For 2019 I expect residential and nonresidential buildings to experience a slight decline in volume. I do not yet see a recession as volume picks up again in 2020, but nonresidential construction jobs in particularly have been increasing faster than volume for several years. Part of that is explained by some nonresidential workers are used to build residential space (hi-rise structure). When the next downturn hits, the potential need to cut nonresidential construction jobs may be quite painful.
This is a partial selection of slides I will be presenting on May 16 in Dallas at Hanson Wade’s Advanced Building Estimation Conference. I’m covering the topics Inflation/Escalation and Forecasting particularly as it relates to staffing planning.
We’ve all seen headlines like, “Construction Spending is back to previous level”, or “Construction Spending back to a new high.” Here’s how even true information can be deceiving.
It’s true, construction spending in current $ reached a new high in 2017 at $1,236 billion. The previous high in current $ was $1,161 in 2006. Spending surpassed that in 2014 and has been increasing since. But that is in current $, which includes inflation.
Let’s say a store will sell a bushel of apples, cost $100 in 2014, $110 in 2015, $120 in 2016 and $130 in 2017. If we look at the current $ spent on apples each year, it looks like business is booming, up 30% in 3 years. But the reality is, with the exception of inflation, the apple business has not changed at all. Only one bushel of apples sold every year. The year to year change in un-adjusted current $ is the increase in cost, not the increase in volume.
Comparing current $ spending to previous year spending does not give any indication if business is increasing. The inflation factor is missing. If spending is increasing at 4%/year in a time when inflation is 6%/year, real volume is declining by 2%.
Total construction spending in constant $ (inflation adjusted $) reached $1,236 billion in 2017. After adjusting all previous spending to equivalent 2017$, we can see that all years from 1997 through 2008 had higher volume than 2017. In 2000-2001 volume was just over $1,400 billion and in 2005 volume reached a peak at $1,454 billion. While spending in current $ is 7% higher than the previous high spending, volume is still 15% lower than the previous high volume.
Nonresidential buildings construction spending in constant $ (inflation adjusted $) reached $419 billion in 2017. Previous spending adjusted to equivalent 2017$ shows that all years from 1995 through 2010 had higher volume than 2017. Volume reached a peak $536 billion in 2000 and went over $500 billion again in 2008. Spending in current $ is almost back to the peak of $438 billion in 2008, but volume is lower than almost all years from 1985 to 2010 and is still 22% lower than the 2000 high volume.
Non-building Infrastructure construction spending in constant $ reached $294 billion in 2017. Recent highs were posted in 2015 and 2016 at $305 billion and $304 billion and 2018 is expected to reach $319 billion. Previous spending adjusted to equivalent 2017$ shows that 2008 and 2009 were both just slightly higher than $300 billion. Volume reached a peak $313 billion in 2016. Spending in current $ hit new highs in 2015 and 2016. This is the only sector that has current $ and constant $ at or near all-time highs.
Residential buildings construction spending in constant $ reached $523 billion in 2017. Previous spending adjusted to equivalent 2017$ shows that all years from 1996 through 2007 had higher volume than 2017. Volume reached a peak $748 billion in 2005. Only the years 2004-2006 had higher spending in current $. The 2005 current $ peak of $630 billion is still 17% higher than 2017, but 2017 volume is still 30% lower than peak volume.
This has several implications besides misleading headlines that claim construction is at a new high. Just look at the period 1996-2007 on the residential plot. Spending in current $ increased 130% from $270 billion to $620 billion. But this was during a period that recorded some of the highest residential construction inflation on record. Inflation was 90%. Follow the guidelines up to constant$ and see that real volume increased only 40% from $530 billion to $750 billion.
If you are hiring to meet your needs and you see that spending (revenue) has increased by 130%, do you hire to meet revenue? No. Hiring requires a knowledge of volume growth. Residential jobs during this time frame increased by 55%, more than real volume growth, but no where near the 130% spending growth.
The above plots were developed using current and historical Census construction spending and inflation indices were developed from construction industry resources, documentation which can be found here on this blog.
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 inflation on construction projects.
To properly adjust the cost of construction over time you must use actual final cost indices, otherwise known as selling price indices.
ENRBCI and RSMeans input indices 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. This plot of cost indices for nonresidential buildings shows how input indices did not drop during the 2008-2010 recession while all other final cost indices dropped.
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, but for the last 5 years construction inflation averages 3x the CPI.
Producer Price Index (PPI) Material Inputs (which exclude labor) to new construction increased +4% in 2018 after a downward trend from +5% in 2011 led to decreased cost of -3% in 2015, the only negative cost for inputs in the past 20 years. Input costs to nonresidential structures in 2017+2018 average +4.2%, the highest in seven years. Infrastructure cost are up near 5% and single-family residential inputs are up 4%. 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. The JOLTS ( Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey) is at or near all-time highs. A tight labor market will keep labor costs climbing at the fastest rate in years.
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 costs is two years in the future, you must carry an appropriate inflation factor to represent the expected cost of the building at that time.
The level of construction activity has a direct influence on labor and material demand and margins and therefore on construction inflation. Nonresidential Buildings and Non-building Infrastructure backlog are both at all-time highs. 75% to 80% of all nonresidential spending within the year comes from starting backlog. In 2019 spending from nonresidential backlog although up only 4% reaches an all-time high. In the last three years nonresidential buildings spending from backlog is up more than 30%.
Most spending for residential comes from new starts. Residential new starts in Q1-2018 reached a 12 year high. Spending from new starts in 2019 will dip slightly but is up over 100% in the last 6 years, 25% in the last 3 years.
Current indications are that 2019 backlog will be up 8%-10% across all sectors. However, while a few markets will outperform in 2019 (amusement/recreation, transportation), predicted cash flow from backlog dips or remains flat in every sector. Materials price increases have slowed or reversed (lumber and steel) and labor demand may decrease due to expected construction volume declines. Expect 2019 escalation in almost all cases to come in lower than 2018.
Residential construction inflation saw a slowdown to only +3.5% in 2015. However, the average inflation for five years from 2013 to 2017 is 6%. It peaked at 8% in 2013. It climbed back over 5% for 2016 and reached 5.8% in 2017. For 2018, residential final cost inflation indexes are up only 4.5%. Anticipate residential construction inflation for 2019 between 4.5% and 5%.
Nonresidential Buildings indices have averaged over 5% per year for the last 2 years and over 4% per year for the last 5 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 has led to accelerated inflation.
Steel tariffs in 2018 are incorporated into 2018 inflation. In another article on this blog, (see steel cost increase), I calculated the 25% tariff on steel would cost nonresidential buildings 1%. Some Infrastructure could be much more, i.e., bridges 4-5%. Residential impact would be small. A 25% increase in mill steel could add 0.65% to final cost of building just for the structure. It adds 1.0% for all steel in a building. If your building is not a steel structure, steel still potentially adds 0.35%.
Anticipate construction inflation for nonresidential buildings for 2019, excluding any new tariff impact, of 4% to 5%, rather than the long-term growth average of 3.5% to 4%. Adjust for new tariffs impact.
Reliable nonresidential buildings selling price indexes have been over 4% since 2015. Some have averaged over 5% for the last four years. Construction Analytics forecast (line) for 2019 is currently 4.25%. This may move higher due to the impact of tariffs which may not yet be fully reflected in any indices.
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, stayed flat from 2015-2017, then increased 5%+ in 2018. The IHS Pipeline and LNG indices increased in 2018 but are still down 20% since 2014. Coal, gas, and wind power generation indices have gone up only 6% in seven years. Refineries and petrochemical facilities have dropped 5% in 4 years but 2018 regained the level of 2013.
Input costs to infrastructure are down slightly from the post recession highs, but most 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 has increased dramatically in 2017 and 2018.
Infrastructure power indices registered 2.5% to 3% gains in 2017 and again in 2018. Highway indices increased 5.6% in 2018. Anticipate 4% inflation for 2019 with the potential to go higher in rapidly expanding markets, such as pipeline or highway. Refer to Infrastructure Indices.
Watch for unexpected impacts from tariffs. Steel tariff could potentially add 5% to bridges. Also impacted, power industry, pipeline, towers, transportation.
- 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.
See pages 379-386 for indices
See page 387 for start of Housing
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 a final indicator of construction inflation. It is an input to 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.
Construction spending had been chugging along very nicely from 2012 through 2016 with annual growth ranging between +6.5% and +11.0%. The average spending growth for those 5 years is 8.5%/yr. For 2017, spending growth will come in at only just over 5%.
Perhaps what may be more important is the inflation adjusted growth or constant dollar growth. Constant dollar growth measures volume. Volume growth ranged from +3.0% to +8.0% in the 5 years from 2012 through 2016. The average constant$ growth for those 5 years is 5.4%/yr. The rest of the spending growth was inflation dollars. For example: a year in which spending growth is 7% but that has 4% inflation ends up with only 3% constant$ volume growth.
From 2005 peak volume ($1,448 bil in 2017$) to the lows reached in 2011 ($954 bil), constant dollar volume dropped 34%. Since the 2011 low, volume has increased 31%. In rapid growth years volume increases between 6% to 8%/yr. In average or low growth years, constant dollar volume growth ranges closer to 2% to 3%/yr.
2017 will post the highest composite construction inflation in 11 years, 4.5%. Residential inflation has averaged 6%/yr for the last 5 years. With 2017 at 5% construction spending growth, the lowest in six years, and at the highest inflation in years, 2017 volume growth will fall to only +0.6%.
Residential, with nearly 12% spending growth in 2017, still holds onto the best volume growth in 2017 at slightly over 5%. Residential has recorded the highest volume growth in 5 of the last 6 years, the lowest coming in at +5%, averaging 8%/yr for 6 years.
Nonresidential Buildings constant dollars is down slightly for 2017, posting a volume decline of -0.2%. This was predictable since Manufacturing, after recording 90% growth from 2011 to 2015, has worked off a big backlog and dropped 15% (from an all-time high) in the last two years, most of that drop in 2017. For 2017 that drop offset $8 billion of growth from other markets. Nonresidential Buildings volume increased 20% in the previous 3 years.
Non-building Infrastructure volume is down 6% in 2017 after growing only 5% in the previous 2 years. However, the non-building infrastructure sector led all growth in 2014 at +8.5%. It should be noted that 2015 posted the all-time high for Infrastructure spending. The largest declines since then are in Environmental Public Works projects, Sewer/Water/Conservation. All three markets posted declines in new project starts in 3 or 4 of the last 4 years. Spending in 2017 is down 17% from the most recent high in 2015.
Public works spending is responsible for 80% of the dollar decline in non-building infrastructure spending since the high in 2015.
In 2018, Nonresidential Buildings and Non-building Infrastructure lead spending growth. Residential spending will slow considerably after six years of solid growth. Constant$ volume growth after inflation will climb back to +2.3% with the two nonresidential sectors over 5% and residential dropping to a volume decline.
SEE INFLATION TABLES HERE CONSTRUCTION INFLATION
These articles all relate to Constant dollars (Inflation Adjusted)
From January 2001 to June 2017, jobs growth exceeded construction volume growth by 13%. The attached plots show the imbalances in growth.
Jobs growth is # of jobs x hours worked.
Volume is construction spending adjusted for inflation, or constant $.
Sometimes rapid spending growth is accompanied by higher than average inflation. This occurred in the 1990’s and again in 2005-2006. While spending seems to indicate rapid growth, much of the growth in cost is inflation and volume growth can be significantly lower, even sometimes negative, as occurred in 2005-2006. However, jobs growth during these rapid spending growth periods appears to track much more in line with spending growth. This leads to over-hiring and a loss of productivity occurs.
There are two distinct periods when jobs growth advanced more rapidly than real construction volume, 2005-2006 and mid-2015 to mid-2017. In the eight year period in between, either jobs fell faster or, after January 2011, volume increased faster. If spending growth is used to compare, then jobs growth falls far short of construction spending. But, due to inflation, spending is not the correct parameter to compare to jobs. Jobs must be compared to volume. Since 2001, the imbalance shows jobs growth has exceeded volume growth.
2001 through mid-year 2017, jobs exceeded volume growth by 13%.
2001-2004 jobs and volume growth were nearly equal.
2005-2006 jobs growth exceeded volume growth by 20%. During this period, construction spending and volume reached a peak. From late 2004 into early 2006, we experienced 20% growth in spending, the most rapid growth period on record. But that was also the period of the most rapid inflation growth on record. Residential volume peaked in early 2006 but then dropped 20% by the end of 2006. Nonresidential spending was increasing, but almost all of the growth was inflation. Nonresidential volume remained flat through 2006. Inflation was greater than spending growth, so volume declined. Although volume declined, hiring continued and jobs increased by 15%.
2007-2010 volume exceeded jobs growth by 4%. Spending decreased by 30%. Both volume and jobs were in steep decline. More jobs declined than volume, however, this period started with nearly 20% excess jobs. For January 2010 to January 2011, jobs bounced around near bottom, but volume dropped 8% more. 2010 ended with an excess of 15% jobs. January 2011 was the low-point for jobs.
2011-June 2015 volume exceeded jobs growth by 10%. Spending increased by almost 40% and inflation was relatively low at only 3%/yr. This period helped absorb more than half of the excess jobs that were created in 2005-2006 and remained after 2010. By mid-2015, jobs exceeded volume by only 7%.
June 2015-June 2017 jobs growth exceeded volume by 7%. Spending increased by 7%, but inflation was 7% over the same period. Although volume was up and down, over this two-year period through June 2017 we posted zero growth in volume. All of the increase in spending was inflation. Jobs increased 7% in two years.
For the last 5 years, 2012-2016, jobs averaged 4.5%/yr. growth Construction spending averaged 8.5%/yr. growth. Inflation, currently hovering around 4.5%, averaged about 3.5%/yr. during this period. So real volume growth was only 4% to 5%. In the first few years of the recovery, 2011-2014, the gap narrowed and volume improved over jobs, but for the last two years, jobs have been increasing faster than volume.
I do expect spending to continue at a 6% to 7% growth rate at least through 2018. But also, I expect inflation at 4% to 4.5%. If the spending forecast holds, and if jobs growth comes into balance, then that would indicate only a 2% to 3% jobs growth rate from now through 2018.
Here is the 11-7-17 extension of latest info Construction Jobs / Workload Balance
Attached PDF of my Forecasting presentation delivered 5-22-17 at Advancing Building Estimation in Houston
A few bullets from this presentation
- Construction Starts is not construction spending
- Cash flow = Spending = Revenue
- Revenue is not Volume of work
- Spending minus inflation = Volume
- Understand what’s in an Index to avoid misguided inflation adjustments
- We can’t ignore productivity
- Spending activity has just as much influence on inflation as labor and material cost.
Slides in this presentation come from the following articles:
The two plots lined up here represent spending and spending corrected for inflation or real volume growth in the top plot versus construction inflation in the bottom plot. On the Inflation plot, the black line represents final selling price, actual inflation. The red line represents the ENR Building Cost Index which is a fixed market basket of labor and materials, not a complete selling price index. All plots are for nonresidential buildings only.
The index shows how cost inflation climbs in periods when spending is accelerating and the index slows when spending is increasing slowly. Also we can see that the major decline in spending resulted in a major deflation in the index. Note the ENR BCI does not show the major decline in the inflation index. That’s because the ENR BCI is not final selling price. It shows what the cost of labor and materials did during that period, but does not capture how contractors adjusted their margins down so deeply due to loss of volume.
The takeaway from this comparison is this:
- Labor and material indices do not show what real total inflation is doing
- When spending increases rapidly, inflation increases rapidly
- When spending increases slowly, inflation increases slowly
- An understanding of which direction and how much spending is moving is more important to predicting inflation than the change in the cost of labor and materials