The Economy: What’s Around the Bend?
The media likes to talk about recession, but you can expect to see growth this year.
Mark L. Johnson / February 2020
The word “recession” made the headlines frequently in 2019. Today is no different. Except that the headlines, and the economic data, now point to a decent 2020.
In December, CNBC reported on Goldman Sachs declaring the economy recession-proof. “Overall, the changes underlying the Great Moderation appear intact,” said two Goldman economists, quoted by the broadcast network. They added: “We see the economy as structurally less recession-prone today.”
The Wall Street Journal, also in December, highlighted a key strength of the current expansion: “Most stock-market pundits,” said the Journal, “see recent strong consumer spending as a good omen, signifying that stocks and the economy will continue to rise.”
There. The economy is good.
If you Google the word “recession” using Trends.Google.com, a website that tracks the frequency of searches, you will find that the interest in “recession” spiked back in August. Then, the long-term government bond rates had dipped below short-term rates, creating an inverted yield curve, which is a rather ominous recession signal. But soon afterward, the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates. The yield curve eventually un-inverted, and Google “recession” searches largely disappeared.
The worrywarts now figure in the minority. A period of growth—albeit slower growth—is expected this year.
“The underlying trend for the year remains intact—that construction starts are settling back following nine consistent years of growth,” states Richard Branch, chief economist of Dodge Data & Analytics.
Let’s look at some figures.
President Donald Trump announced in December a partial trade deal with China. The deal called for an economic truce between the two super powers. The president agreed to significant reductions on some tariffs he had placed on $370 billion of Chinese goods. In return, China offered concessions to the United States, including a commitment to purchase American farm products.
The Trump administration also landed the new United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement in December. (A vote on the final passage by Congress is slated for the first quarter of 2020, and ratification is expected.) In a release published online, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative says that the USMCA “will create more balanced, reciprocal trade that supports high-paying jobs for Americans.”
Ken Simonson, chief economist at Associated General Contractors of America, says both trade deals will help boost non-residential construction spending.
“I no longer fear for the worst,” says Simonson, speaking of both the China agreement and the USMCA. “But there are still a lot of tariffs on China and on other countries.”
The Federal Open Market Committee lowered the federal funds rate three times in 2019. The moves fueled the U.S. economy and added cushion to the problems of slowing global growth and trade tensions.
The Fed uses interest rates like you use your car’s gas pedal. Press down on the pedal, and you fuel the engine and increase speed. Similarly, by lowering the funds rate, the Fed added capital to the financial system and boosted the economy. The S&P 500 jumped 30 percent in 2019, among its strongest years in recent history, largely due, observers say, to an accommodative Federal Reserve. Central banks elsewhere followed suit and eased their monetary policies.
“The year of quantitative tightening turned into widespread global policy easing,” says an Axios.com report.
Thus, low interest rates proved beneficial for homebuilding and some private commercial construction. Low rates also nudged consumers to buy big ticket items, such as appliances and cars.
The US economy is expanding, but more slowly.
Construction employment is growing in most states, but slowly.
The labor shortages continue.
Spending (before adjusting for inflation) is up in most project categories.
Demand for incoming-producing projects and new homes may drop if interest rates rise.
Source: Ken Simonson, AGC of America
The New York Times reported in December that consumer confidence was high by historical standards. “Consumers are not panicking by any means,” the Times said.
Holiday shopping in December set records. Walmart, Amazon, Costco and Target saw their best traffic in years on the Saturday prior to Christmas, according to Bloomberg.
“Job growth and fatter wallets, along with stronger household finances, have put consumers in a buying mood,” says Bloomberg, quoting a retail analyst.
However, Conference Board’s measure of consumer confidence was down 8 percent in December. The drop was significant, since economists say that a 15 percent drop has reliably predicted some past recessions. The University of Michigan measure of consumer sentiment was also down in December, but not by as much.
“With manufacturing in a slump and business investment falling, the economy is relying more than ever on consumers to keep the expansion on track,” wrote the Times.
The fourth quarter 2019 Commercial Construction Index prepared by USG Corporation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—measuring contractor confidence levels—fell to 71 after posting a record high in the third quarter. While confidence was down, the lower score still falls within an overall boom market. Why, then, did contractor confidence drop?
A December 2019 U.S. Chamber release cites labor shortages as the primary culprit dampening confidence levels—89 percent of contractors surveyed reported having at least a moderate level of difficulty finding skilled workers.
“As we look to 2020, it is clear that to keep the industry and economy growing, we must address our current workforce challenges,” says Neil Bradley, U.S. Chamber executive vice president and chief policy officer, in a prepared release.
Though contractors feel that new technologies will improve project delivery and labor productivity, most are asking their workers to do more on the job.
They are also raising their bid prices for projects, the U.S. Chamber says. Hence, 36 percent of contractors expect an increase in revenue in the next 12 months. They say the market will provide new business opportunities.
Still, confidence in new business scores slid from 76 to 72, and the average months of projects backlog dropped to 9.3 from 10.2 months, the U.S. Chamber says.
In December, the consensus macroeconomic forecast of a panel of 53 professional forecasters with the National Association for Business Economics showed continued expansion in 2020. The panelists anticipate that inflation-adjusted GDP growth will slow from 2.9 percent in 2018 to 2.3 percent in 2019 and 1.8 percent in 2020. However, the forecasters released their figures before the U.S.–China and USMCA trade deals were announced.
“Respondents believe the odds that GDP will first turn downward by mid-2020 are about one out of five, but indicate there is a one-third chance that the downturn will not begin until the second half of 2021 or later,” says Eugenio Aleman, economist at Wells Fargo Bank. half of 2021 or later,” says Eugenio Aleman, economist at Wells Fargo Bank.
The Dodge Momentum Index moved 2.9 percent higher in November to 155.3 from the revised October reading of 150.9, according to Dodge Data & Analytics. The monthly measure reports on non-residential building projects in planning and has been shown to lead construction spending for non-residential buildings by one year.
The increase in November was the result of a 6.5 percent increase in the institutional component, while the commercial component moved 0.7 percent higher.
The overall Momentum Index has staged somewhat of a resurgence over the last few months, increasing nearly 15 percent from its lowest point earlier in the year. Momentum is, in fact, flirting with a new cyclical high, Dodge Data says.
“The underlying trend of the Momentum Index continues to suggest that construction activity in 2020 will not crater but will moderately ease relative to this year’s level,” says Dodge Data in a release.
In December, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics issued the October Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. Nationwide, job openings edged up to 7.3 million. The number of job openings in construction set a record among October reports dating back to 2011.
The AGC’s 2020 Construction Outlook Survey of contractors, conducted jointly with Sage Construction and Real Estate, reveals that about three-fourths of all contractors expect to add workers in 2020.
However, 81 percent of Construction Outlook Survey respondents say they are having a hard time filling job openings at their firms. Almost two-thirds of firms expect the labor market to be hard, or harder, this year.
“The lack of available workers with the right skills is holding down construction employment—and, presumably, the number of projects—below the levels the industry wants,” Simonson says.
The construction industry would like to handle more projects, but can’t with its current levels of staffing.
Hot Segments: Infrastructure, Transportation, Housing
The AGC/Sage Construction Outlook Survey results show that contractors have plenty of projects on their order books. And, they expect growth in all market segments.
In fact, in every segment, between 27 and 36 percent of survey respondents expect the dollar value of projects they compete for to increase in 2020. Only 11 to 21 percent of respondents see less work this year.
The difference between the positive and negative responses—the net reading—ranged from 8 to 25 percent of respondents. Most segments clustered between 10 and 20 percent of respondents seeing growth this year.
Which categories are hot?
On balance, respondents are most optimistic regarding water and sewer construction, K-12 school construction, bridge and highway construction and transit, rail and airport construction projects.
On the private side, categories less known for interior finishing systems will dominate growth in 2020. These include power construction (both electrical power generation and distribution) and oil and gas drilling and pipelines. These categories will see continued investment in wind, solar, gas-fired power plants and pipelines, reports indicate.
Single-family housing. Government figures showed that housing starts and permits in November increased in both the single-family and multifamily categories. But, single-family homebuilding may be the year’s standout.
“It’s on the cusp of a positive move after years of being sluggish and having declined in much of 2018 and 2019,” Simonson says.
The drop in mortgage rates in 2019 brought buyers out of the rental markets and existing homes to buy new, single-family homes. Simonson expects the boon in single-family construction to carry on for at least the first half of 2020.
Multifamily housing. The outlook for multifamily construction brightened in 2019. As single-family construction picks up steam, more people will move out of their rental housing units, Simonson says. That would normally signal a scale-back in multifamily starts, but he believes senior buyers will make up for the younger generation move-outs from multifamily units. Seniors who have resided in their homes with low-mortgage rates have the opportunity to buy a new condominium and maintain those rates.
“They can have their cake and eat it too,” Simonson says. “They can move into single-floor living with no maintenance worries and get a mortgage rate they’re used to.”
Tenant improvement projects. These projects are rolled into non-residential construction by the U.S. Census, and 2020 should be a good year for this work.
“One thing that keeps office and retail construction stronger than it otherwise would be is that more money is going for repurposing rather new construction,” Simonson says.
Compensation and Training
According to the AGC/Sage 2020 Construction Outlook Survey, contractors continue to raise pay, bonuses and benefits as a means to attract workers. Over half, 54 percent, of contractors reported base pay rate increases in 2019 compared to 2018. Twenty-three percent provided incentives and bonuses. Only 19 percent of firms reported not taking any of these steps.
Many firms are also investing additional dollars in worker training. The survey found that 62 percent of the companies with more than $500 million in revenue said they plan to increase investment in training. This compared to 55 percent of midsize firms and 35 percent of firms with $50 million or less in revenue.
Source: AGC/Sage 2020 Construction Outlook Survey
Not So Hot: Office, Health Care, Retail, Lodging
Respondents are mixed, though positive, on the dollar value of projects in manufacturing, retail, warehouse and lodging. The smallest net positive reading—8 percent—was for private office projects. But even in that niche, more than one-quarter of respondents foresee growing opportunities in private office construction in 2020.
Private offices. While the country will continue to see growth in employment, including office employment, companies are outsourcing their office needs. More employees are working in shared offices, coffee shops and at home.
“When they do remodel an office, they are squeezing employees into a smaller space,” Simonson says. “So, I think private office construction will have limited growth in 2020.”
Health care. There is a lot happening in health care construction. But in terms of dollars, it’s not growing. As more patients are treated in stand-alone, urgent care centers, outpatient surgical facilities, rehab and hospice, the market for new, big, expensive medical centers is down.
“There will be a lot of projects, but not much growth in terms of dollars spent in health care,” he says.
Construction starts surged 37 percent higher from October to November, reaching a seasonally adjusted
annual rate of $988.9 billion, according to Dodge Data & Analytics. The November gains pushed the
Dodge Index to 209 compared to the 153 posted in October.
Year-to-date through November 2019, non-residential building starts were 3 percent lower than a year earlier.
Commercial building starts were up 3 percent with gains in office buildings, warehouses and parking structures.
Institutional starts were 6 percent lower through November.
Source: Dodge Index, Dodge Data & Analytics
Retail and warehousing. Recently, total dollars in warehouse construction have flattened out, while retail has slumped.
“You still see incremental investment,” Simonson says. “But it’s not growing the way it was with the giant, multimillion-square-foot projects that Amazon and others did.”
More construction dollars will be earmarked to build smaller warehouse facilities inside metro areas. These so-called “last mile warehouses,” Simonson says, reflect the trend for retail construction to continue in the direction of the warehouse.
Lodging. Lodging is still growing at a high rate, but it has begun tapering off.
“I keep looking at the figures of the average daily room rates and occupancy rates and revenue per available room, and those figures have been flat, or even declining, compared to the same week or month the year before,” Simonson says. “At some point, developers and hotel operators will say, ‘OK, we don’t need more hotel space.’”
So, on the whole, 2020 is shaping up to be a decent year, but it may be a year with limited growth for wall and ceiling construction. The materials that go into infrastructure projects will have a better outlook than the ones for interior construction, sources say.
Mark L. Johnson writes for the wall and ceiling industry. He can be reached via linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.