Nonresidential Construction Down in March, Says ABC

Private Sector Falters, Public Sector Unchanged

Nonresidential construction spending declined 0.3 percent in March, according to an Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. Nonresidential spending, which totaled $740.9 billion on a seasonally adjusted, annualized basis, has expanded 2.5 percent on a year-over-year basis. February’s spending estimate was revised roughly $10 billion higher, from $732.8 billion to $742.8 billion, rendering the March decline less meaningful.

Private sector nonresidential construction spending fell 0.4 percent on a monthly basis, but rose 2.2 percent from a year ago. Public sector nonresidential spending remained unchanged in March, but it is up 2.9 percent year-over-year.

“The nonresidential construction spending data emerging from the Census Bureau continue to be a bit at odds with other data characterizing growth in the level of activity,” said ABC’s Chief Economist Anirban Basu. “For instance, first quarter GDP data indicated brisk expansion in nonresidential investment. Data from ABC’s Construction Backlog Indicator, the Architecture Billings Index and other leading industry indicators have also been suggesting ongoing growth. Despite that, private nonresidential construction spending is up by roughly the inflation rate, indicating that the volume of services delivered over the past year has not expanded in real terms.

Spending_Chart_5.1.18

“That said, most economists who follow the industry presumed that March data would be somewhat soft,” said Basu. “The Northeast and Midwest were impacted by unusually persistent storm activity in March. The same phenomenon impacted March’s employment estimates, which indicated that construction actually lost 15,000 jobs that month. Other weather-sensitive industries, including retail trade, also experienced slow to negative job growth in March.

“The upshot is that CEOs and other construction leaders should remain upbeat regarding near-term prospects despite today’s construction spending report,” said Basu. “Leading indicators, including a host of confidence measures, collectively suggest that business investment will be on the rise during the months ahead. Improved state and local government finances should also support additional nonresidential construction activity.

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“At the same time, construction industry leaders must remain wary of a sea of emerging risks to the ongoing economic and construction industry expansions,” said Basu. “Interest rates are on the rise. Materials prices, including those associated with softwood lumber, steel and aluminum, are expanding briskly. Wage pressures continue to build. There are also issues related to America’s expanding national debt, increasingly volatile financial markets, geopolitical uncertainty that has helped to propel fuel prices higher, and lack of transparency regarding America’s infrastructure investment intentions. The challenge for construction CEOs and others, therefore, is to prepare for growing activity in the near-term, but for something potentially rather different two to three years from now.”

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