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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.
Articles Detailing 2018 Construction Outlook
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These links point to articles here on this blog that summarize end-of-year data for 2017 and present projections for 2018.
Most Recently Published
New Starts and 2017 Starting Backlog
2018 Spending 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.
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
2-6-18 added updated total spending plot here
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
Current $ vs Constant $
This clearly shows the impact of inflation on comparing Construction Spending data. Reports commonly compare current $1.166 trillion 2016 total spending today back to the (then) current $1.150 trillion at 2006 peak. Of course that seems to establish a new high. But that is so misleading.
Constant $ adjusted for inflation converts all past spending into 2016$ for an equalized comparison. From the low point in 2011 we’ve increased spending by 51% but in constant 2016$ we’ve added only 31% in volume and we are still 16% below the 2005 peak.
As measured in comparable constant dollars, No, we are not back to previous levels of spending. We will probably not return to previous highs before 2020.
The widening gap from right to left, as we look back in time, is the cumulative affect of inflation. It might be only 2% or 4% looking back one year, but back to 2003 it’s 40%.
Impact of Inflation
In all projections, the affect of inflation must be considered. Why is tracking inflation important? Well, as an estimator it’s necessary to assign the appropriate cost to items over time. And it’s needed to properly interpret construction economics. But it’s also important for business management.
Due to construction inflation, a company that was building $700 million in nonresidential buildings in 2005 needs to build $1 billion today just to remain the same size as in 2005. Increasing revenues by 5% annually in a period when inflation is increasing by 5% is not increasing annual volume. While revenue may be increasing, volume would be static. Over a period of years, if this were to occur, since some companies will grow, the amount of volume available to bidders could potentially restrict growth in the number of bidders able to secure new work or in the growth in the size of companies.
In this table, both the index values and the resultant annual escalation are shown. The index value gives cumulative inflation compared to 2016$.
SEE ALSO these other posts
Total construction spending peaked in Q1 2006 at an annual rate of $1,222 billion. For the most recent three months it has averaged $1,172 billion. It is currently at a 10 1/2 year high at just 4% below peak spending. But that ignores inflation.
In constant inflation adjusted dollars spending is still 18% below the Q1 2006 peak.
Current headlines express exuberance that we are now at a 10 1/2 year high in construction spending but fail to address the fact that is comparing dollars that are not adjusted for inflation.
In the 1st quarter of 2006 total spending peaked at a annual rate of $1.2 billion and for the year 2006 spending totaled $1,167 billion. We are within a stone’s throw of reaching that monthly level and 2016 will reach a new all-time high total spending by a slim fraction. But all of that is measured in current dollars, dollars at the value of worth within that year, ignoring inflation.
Adjusting for inflation gives us a much different value. Inflation adjusted dollars are referred to as constant dollars or dollars all compared or measured in value in terms of the year to which we choose to compare. To be fair, we must now compare all backdated years of construction to constant dollars in 2016. What would those previous years be worth if they were valued in 2016 dollars?
By mid-2017 total construction spending will reach a new all-time high, but in constant inflation adjusted dollars will still be 17% below 2006 peak. We will not reach a new inflation adjusted high before 2020.
Residential construction spending is still 32% below the 2006 peak of $690 billion. In constant inflation adjusted dollars it is 39% below 2006 peak.
Nonresidential Buildings construction spending is only 3.5% below 2008 peak of $443 billion. However, in constant inflation adjusted dollars it is 18% below 2008 peak.
Non-building Infrastructure construction spending pre-recession peaked in 2008 at at an annual rate of $290 billion. However, post recession it peaked in Q1 2014 at $314 billion. It is now 8% below the 2014 peak. In constant inflation adjusted dollars it is 12% below the 2014 peak.
For more on inflation SEE Construction Cost Inflation – Midyear Report 2016