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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.
The attached plot shows actual and predicted construction spending compared to several industry leading indicators. The ABI, produced by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) shows work on the boards at architectural firms. Values above 50 indicate work increasing, values below 50 = work decreasing. The DMI is a survey from Dodge that gives an indication of new construction momentum. Starts is the total cash flow growth from all nonresidential starts currently in backlog.
Both the ABI and the DMI have long lead times. For example, the ABI value posted by AIA today is an indication of what to expect 9 months from now. I’ve plotted the values for ABI and DMI out at the lead time dates (# of months) in the future so they would correspond to future cash flows from all starts and predicted spending. The Starts, DMI and Spending values on this plot are indexed so they could be plotted with the ABI while keeping growth trends in each index true.
- ABI – Architectural Billings Index
- DMI – Dodge Momentum Index
- Starts – Aggregate Cashflows of Dodge Starts
- Spending – Actual and Predicted Construction Spending
Overall Spending mostly correlates with Starts except that Starts showed a steeper growth rate in 2016 before a drop. Starts and Spending match well for all of 2014 and 2015. Both DMI and ABI are more erratic, however, the advances and declines in the ABI do correspond well with pickups and slowdowns in Spending. From mid-2015 through the end of 2016, the DMI was in a narrow range and that could possibly be said to be in synch with a slowed period of Spending.
Although they don’t match exactly by month, the ABI, DMI and Starts all show a drop sometime between 4th qtr 2016 and 2nd qtr 2017. That appears in Spending as a slight dip in 1st qtr 2017. The ABI gives an indication of a nice increase midyear. Both DMI and Starts are indicating substantial growth in spending by year end 2017.