Economy Matters logo

About


The Atlanta Fed's SouthPoint offers commentary and observations on various aspects of the region's economy.

The blog's authors include staff from the Atlanta Fed's Regional Economic Information Network and Public Affairs Department.

Postings are weekly.


March 12, 2015

Southeast PMI Surges in February

The Southeast purchasing managers index (PMI) report was released on March 5, and it indicates that any lingering effects from the late 2014 manufacturing slowdown have abated. If you recall, the December Southeast PMI dipped into contraction territory, but it has rebounded nicely since. The PMI index has risen 14.9 points since December and now sits at its highest reading since April 2014.

The Atlanta Fed's research department uses the Southeast PMI to track southeastern manufacturing activity. The Econometric Center at Kennesaw State University produces the survey, which provides an analysis of current conditions for the manufacturing sector in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The PMI is based on a survey of representatives from manufacturing companies in those states and analyzes trends concerning new orders, production, employment, supplier delivery times, and inventory levels. A reading above 50 indicates that manufacturing activity is expanding, and a reading below 50 indicates contracting activity.

The Southeast PMI's overall index rose 4.9 points to 60.5 in February (see the chart). The subindexes also suggest some positive future developments:

  • The new orders subindex rose to 63.4, a 6.0 point increase over January and a 29.4 point increase over the last two months.
  • The production subindex increased 3.5 points over the previous month and now reads 64.6.
  • The employment subindex rose 7.8 points over January to 67.1, indicating that manufacturing payrolls grew for the 17th consecutive month.
  • The supply deliveries subindex increased 1.8 points from the previous month to 53.7.
  • The finished inventory subindex increased 5.5 points compared with January.
  • The commodity prices subindex fell 1.7 points and now reads 35.4.

Southeast Purchasing Managers Index

Optimism for future production fell in February. When asked for their production expectations during the next three to six months, 46 percent of survey participants expected production to be higher going forward, compared with 61 percent in January. The good news is that no survey respondents expect production to be lower than their current levels during the same time period.

The change in energy prices and severe winter weather are just a couple of challenges manufacturing faces. Some isolated reports of reduced orders from manufacturers closely tied to the energy sector have emerged, but on the other hand, the drop in oil prices has other contacts saving money on fuel costs. However, most contacts in the Southeast have expressed little direct energy-related effect on their business activity. Judging by the February PMI report, southeastern manufacturing is holding strong. We'll see if the positive momentum sustains into spring.


October 30, 2014

Regional Housing Sales, Construction Slowing

The Atlanta Fed conducts a monthly poll of regional residential brokers and homebuilders to track emerging trends in housing markets. The latest results, which reflect activity in September 2014, suggest continued slow growth in sales and construction activity.

Many residential brokers and builders indicated that home sales were flat to slightly up from the year-earlier level. The report from brokers and builders on buyer traffic was mixed. Those who indicated a decline in traffic suggested that seasonal factors and a decline in buyer confidence were behind the decline. A growing share of residential brokers and builders reported that home inventory levels had increased slightly from the year-earlier level. Comments suggested that well-priced homes are moving quickly, but that many sellers are pricing their homes fairly optimistically, causing inventory to build until prices are adjusted.

Many builders reported that construction activity had increased from the year-earlier level. The drop depicted in the chart below reflects the fact that a growing share of builders reported construction activity as flat to down slightly.

September 2014 Southeast Construction Activity

Most builders indicated that they continue to experience upward pressure on materials prices. Builders’ reports ranged widely when we asked them to specify the materials experiencing the greatest pricing pressure, and their responses included concrete, drywall/sheetrock, and lumber. These reports are fairly consistent with year-over-year changes in the Engineering News Record’s cost indices: on a year-earlier basis, concrete prices are up 3–4 percent, drywall/sheetrock products are up 10 percent, and lumber products are up 7–9 percent.

Builders also continued to report upward pressure on labor costs and that they are having a tougher time filling positions compared to a year earlier. In addition to asking about builders’ difficulty filling positions, we posed a special question about labor shortages. Two-thirds of builders indicated that they were experiencing a labor shortage. Reports about the trades most affected by these shortages were also fairly wide-ranging, but there seemed to be a fair amount of consensus around the idea that framers, masons, carpenters, and drywall installers were the hardest tradespeople to come by on job sites. These results are fairly consistent with report released by the National Association of Home Builders earlier this year.

To explore these results in more detail, or to view other results that were not discussed in this post, please see our Construction and Real Estate Survey results.

Note: The latest poll results, which reflect activity in September 2014, are based on responses from 40 residential brokers and 25 homebuilders and were collected October 6–15. Please sign up if you would like to participate in this poll.

Photo of Jessica DillBy Jessica Dill, senior economic research analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department


October 27, 2014

Southeastern Transportation Continues Rolling

Members of the Atlanta Fed’s Trade and Transportation Advisory Council met in Atlanta on October 8 to discuss the latest updates on and insights into the industry. Most council members reported expansion continuing into the fourth quarter. Year over year, demand was greater across the majority of industries represented. In rail, shipments of frac sand, which is used in the hydraulic-fracturing process (commonly referred to as fracking) to produce petroleum products such as oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids from rock, and crude oil were up substantially, and intermodal volumes were steadily rising as a result of trucking capacity constraints. Ocean shippers reported a shift in the modes of movement of commodities, which were historically shipped in bulk but are now shipped in containers, causing a shortage of containers for traditional use. Demand in the flatbed trucking market was very strong, with shipments of drywall and bulk cement increasing. Going into the holidays, logistics firms anticipate e-commerce volume to pick up substantially by mid-November.

Employment
Reports on current employment levels this year versus last year at this time were mixed. More than half anticipate just slightly higher staffing levels this time next year. Truck driver turnover for the overall industry is quite high. For new drivers, turnover within the first 90 days of employment is very high. Trucking firms reported that only a very small percentage of applicants are hired, as many do not meet driver requirements.

Costs, wages, and prices
Most reported moderate increases in nonlabor input costs. Wages were reported as modestly increasing across most transportation industries with the exception of trucking, where wages continued to increase at a clip of 6 percent to 7 percent annually. Reports on increases in health care premiums for 2015 varied, ranging from less than 1 percent up to 20 percent. Some companies reported anticipated changes to plan structures to mitigate expenses, and others plan to share rate increases with employees. Regarding pricing power, a few reported an ability to raise prices, but others reported significant pushback by clients. Trucking firms plan to continue raising rates amid rising demand, reduced capacity, and continued increases in driver pay.

International trade issues
According to council members, the net impact of the recent strengthening of the dollar had been minimal on international activity when this meeting was held. A slowing trend in world trade was cited by one council member as the biggest factor affecting both imports and exports.

Overall, the sentiment of this group has improved since the last meeting in April, and all council members reported a higher outlook for short- and medium-term growth, with greater confidence in their forecasts. Council members were asked to cite the single most challenging issue facing their industry today. Trucking firms indicated that the lack of truck drivers and increased industry regulations will continue to cause diminished capacity for the foreseeable future. In maritime trade, ongoing ocean carrier consolidations will impact all U.S. container ports and there will be both winners and losers as a result of the carriers’ decisions.

What impact will these challenges have on commerce? The council meets again in April 2015. We’ll watch as conditions play out, and we’ll relay the information here.

By Sarah Arteaga, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch

August 22, 2014

Southeast Commercial Construction Update: Activity Up from Last Year

At the national level, total nonresidential construction spending fell 2.78 percent between May and June but increased 4.6 percent from the year-earlier level. Because nonresidential construction projects tend to take place over longer time horizons, it’s useful to aggregate the data by quarter to smooth out their short-term volatility. Doing so reveals that nonresidential spending increased slightly (just shy of 2 percent) between the first and second quarters of 2014 and that it increased by 6.7 percent from the second quarter in 2013.

Does the Southeast commercial construction picture align with the national one? The Atlanta Fed polls southeastern business contacts engaged in commercial construction each quarter to track and better understand regional trends in construction activity. The latest poll results appear to echo the national story, suggesting that a pickup in commercial construction activity was sustained through the second quarter of 2014.

Most respondents indicated that the pace of nonresidential construction activity in the Southeast was either ahead of the year-earlier level or remained unchanged from the year-earlier level. All contacts reported that the pace of multifamily construction had increased from year-earlier levels (see the charts).

Pace of Nonresidential Construction Activity versus a Year Ago Pace of Multifamily Construction Activity (units) versus a Year Ago

Several comments from respondents help to illustrate these trends:

  • “More projects to go after in all markets, but competition is still very intense.”
  • “Multifamily supply continues to grow at a strong pace.”
  • “For the first time in six years we are beginning to see much larger projects in the healthcare, commercial and industrial markets.”
  • “Apartment construction remains at a high level and brings concerns that the market will become overbuilt. Each month it seems there are more announcements for new apartment projects.”

Half of all respondents reported that backlog was greater than the year-earlier level; the other half indicated that backlog was similar to the year-earlier level. Although this response represents a drop from the last two quarterly measures of 89 percent and 76 percent, it is still an indication that the pipeline of future activity remains fairly robust.

The number of respondents reporting that the amount of available credit met or exceeded demand continued to increase from earlier reports. Sixty-eight percent of contacts in the second quarter 2014 indicated that credit was sufficient, compared with 60 percent the previous quarter and 57 percent one year earlier (see the chart).

How available do you perceive commercial construction finance to be in your market?

The majority of contacts reported that they plan to increase hiring during the next quarter. Seventy-five percent of contacts in the second quarter 2014 reported that they were planning to do modest to significant hiring, slightly down from 79 percent the previous quarter but up from 57 percent one year earlier (see the chart).

Hiring Plans for Next Quarter versus This Quarter

Compared with a year earlier, more contacts (roughly one out of three) indicated that they were having a difficult time filling positions (see the chart).

Difficulty Filling Positions versus a Year Ago

All contacts reported some degree of upward pressure on labor costs. Sixty percent of contacts indicated that their labor costs had increased more than 3 percent from year-earlier levels. A growing share reported labor cost increases of 6 percent or more (see the chart).

Labor Costs versus a Year Ago

The next poll will open on October 6, 2014. If you are a commercial contractor and would like to participate in this poll, please let us know by sending a note to RealEstateCenter@atl.frb.org.

Note: Second quarter 2014 poll results were collected July 7–16, 2014 and are based on responses from 20 business contacts. Participants of this poll included general contractors, subcontractors, lenders, developers, and material fabricators with footprints of varying sizes across the Southeast.

Photo of Jessica DillBy Jessica Dill, senior economic research analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department


March 12, 2015

Southeast PMI Surges in February

The Southeast purchasing managers index (PMI) report was released on March 5, and it indicates that any lingering effects from the late 2014 manufacturing slowdown have abated. If you recall, the December Southeast PMI dipped into contraction territory, but it has rebounded nicely since. The PMI index has risen 14.9 points since December and now sits at its highest reading since April 2014.

The Atlanta Fed's research department uses the Southeast PMI to track southeastern manufacturing activity. The Econometric Center at Kennesaw State University produces the survey, which provides an analysis of current conditions for the manufacturing sector in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The PMI is based on a survey of representatives from manufacturing companies in those states and analyzes trends concerning new orders, production, employment, supplier delivery times, and inventory levels. A reading above 50 indicates that manufacturing activity is expanding, and a reading below 50 indicates contracting activity.

The Southeast PMI's overall index rose 4.9 points to 60.5 in February (see the chart). The subindexes also suggest some positive future developments:

  • The new orders subindex rose to 63.4, a 6.0 point increase over January and a 29.4 point increase over the last two months.
  • The production subindex increased 3.5 points over the previous month and now reads 64.6.
  • The employment subindex rose 7.8 points over January to 67.1, indicating that manufacturing payrolls grew for the 17th consecutive month.
  • The supply deliveries subindex increased 1.8 points from the previous month to 53.7.
  • The finished inventory subindex increased 5.5 points compared with January.
  • The commodity prices subindex fell 1.7 points and now reads 35.4.

Southeast Purchasing Managers Index

Optimism for future production fell in February. When asked for their production expectations during the next three to six months, 46 percent of survey participants expected production to be higher going forward, compared with 61 percent in January. The good news is that no survey respondents expect production to be lower than their current levels during the same time period.

The change in energy prices and severe winter weather are just a couple of challenges manufacturing faces. Some isolated reports of reduced orders from manufacturers closely tied to the energy sector have emerged, but on the other hand, the drop in oil prices has other contacts saving money on fuel costs. However, most contacts in the Southeast have expressed little direct energy-related effect on their business activity. Judging by the February PMI report, southeastern manufacturing is holding strong. We'll see if the positive momentum sustains into spring.


October 30, 2014

Regional Housing Sales, Construction Slowing

The Atlanta Fed conducts a monthly poll of regional residential brokers and homebuilders to track emerging trends in housing markets. The latest results, which reflect activity in September 2014, suggest continued slow growth in sales and construction activity.

Many residential brokers and builders indicated that home sales were flat to slightly up from the year-earlier level. The report from brokers and builders on buyer traffic was mixed. Those who indicated a decline in traffic suggested that seasonal factors and a decline in buyer confidence were behind the decline. A growing share of residential brokers and builders reported that home inventory levels had increased slightly from the year-earlier level. Comments suggested that well-priced homes are moving quickly, but that many sellers are pricing their homes fairly optimistically, causing inventory to build until prices are adjusted.

Many builders reported that construction activity had increased from the year-earlier level. The drop depicted in the chart below reflects the fact that a growing share of builders reported construction activity as flat to down slightly.

September 2014 Southeast Construction Activity

Most builders indicated that they continue to experience upward pressure on materials prices. Builders’ reports ranged widely when we asked them to specify the materials experiencing the greatest pricing pressure, and their responses included concrete, drywall/sheetrock, and lumber. These reports are fairly consistent with year-over-year changes in the Engineering News Record’s cost indices: on a year-earlier basis, concrete prices are up 3–4 percent, drywall/sheetrock products are up 10 percent, and lumber products are up 7–9 percent.

Builders also continued to report upward pressure on labor costs and that they are having a tougher time filling positions compared to a year earlier. In addition to asking about builders’ difficulty filling positions, we posed a special question about labor shortages. Two-thirds of builders indicated that they were experiencing a labor shortage. Reports about the trades most affected by these shortages were also fairly wide-ranging, but there seemed to be a fair amount of consensus around the idea that framers, masons, carpenters, and drywall installers were the hardest tradespeople to come by on job sites. These results are fairly consistent with report released by the National Association of Home Builders earlier this year.

To explore these results in more detail, or to view other results that were not discussed in this post, please see our Construction and Real Estate Survey results.

Note: The latest poll results, which reflect activity in September 2014, are based on responses from 40 residential brokers and 25 homebuilders and were collected October 6–15. Please sign up if you would like to participate in this poll.

Photo of Jessica DillBy Jessica Dill, senior economic research analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department


October 27, 2014

Southeastern Transportation Continues Rolling

Members of the Atlanta Fed’s Trade and Transportation Advisory Council met in Atlanta on October 8 to discuss the latest updates on and insights into the industry. Most council members reported expansion continuing into the fourth quarter. Year over year, demand was greater across the majority of industries represented. In rail, shipments of frac sand, which is used in the hydraulic-fracturing process (commonly referred to as fracking) to produce petroleum products such as oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids from rock, and crude oil were up substantially, and intermodal volumes were steadily rising as a result of trucking capacity constraints. Ocean shippers reported a shift in the modes of movement of commodities, which were historically shipped in bulk but are now shipped in containers, causing a shortage of containers for traditional use. Demand in the flatbed trucking market was very strong, with shipments of drywall and bulk cement increasing. Going into the holidays, logistics firms anticipate e-commerce volume to pick up substantially by mid-November.

Employment
Reports on current employment levels this year versus last year at this time were mixed. More than half anticipate just slightly higher staffing levels this time next year. Truck driver turnover for the overall industry is quite high. For new drivers, turnover within the first 90 days of employment is very high. Trucking firms reported that only a very small percentage of applicants are hired, as many do not meet driver requirements.

Costs, wages, and prices
Most reported moderate increases in nonlabor input costs. Wages were reported as modestly increasing across most transportation industries with the exception of trucking, where wages continued to increase at a clip of 6 percent to 7 percent annually. Reports on increases in health care premiums for 2015 varied, ranging from less than 1 percent up to 20 percent. Some companies reported anticipated changes to plan structures to mitigate expenses, and others plan to share rate increases with employees. Regarding pricing power, a few reported an ability to raise prices, but others reported significant pushback by clients. Trucking firms plan to continue raising rates amid rising demand, reduced capacity, and continued increases in driver pay.

International trade issues
According to council members, the net impact of the recent strengthening of the dollar had been minimal on international activity when this meeting was held. A slowing trend in world trade was cited by one council member as the biggest factor affecting both imports and exports.

Overall, the sentiment of this group has improved since the last meeting in April, and all council members reported a higher outlook for short- and medium-term growth, with greater confidence in their forecasts. Council members were asked to cite the single most challenging issue facing their industry today. Trucking firms indicated that the lack of truck drivers and increased industry regulations will continue to cause diminished capacity for the foreseeable future. In maritime trade, ongoing ocean carrier consolidations will impact all U.S. container ports and there will be both winners and losers as a result of the carriers’ decisions.

What impact will these challenges have on commerce? The council meets again in April 2015. We’ll watch as conditions play out, and we’ll relay the information here.

By Sarah Arteaga, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch

August 22, 2014

Southeast Commercial Construction Update: Activity Up from Last Year

At the national level, total nonresidential construction spending fell 2.78 percent between May and June but increased 4.6 percent from the year-earlier level. Because nonresidential construction projects tend to take place over longer time horizons, it’s useful to aggregate the data by quarter to smooth out their short-term volatility. Doing so reveals that nonresidential spending increased slightly (just shy of 2 percent) between the first and second quarters of 2014 and that it increased by 6.7 percent from the second quarter in 2013.

Does the Southeast commercial construction picture align with the national one? The Atlanta Fed polls southeastern business contacts engaged in commercial construction each quarter to track and better understand regional trends in construction activity. The latest poll results appear to echo the national story, suggesting that a pickup in commercial construction activity was sustained through the second quarter of 2014.

Most respondents indicated that the pace of nonresidential construction activity in the Southeast was either ahead of the year-earlier level or remained unchanged from the year-earlier level. All contacts reported that the pace of multifamily construction had increased from year-earlier levels (see the charts).

Pace of Nonresidential Construction Activity versus a Year Ago Pace of Multifamily Construction Activity (units) versus a Year Ago

Several comments from respondents help to illustrate these trends:

  • “More projects to go after in all markets, but competition is still very intense.”
  • “Multifamily supply continues to grow at a strong pace.”
  • “For the first time in six years we are beginning to see much larger projects in the healthcare, commercial and industrial markets.”
  • “Apartment construction remains at a high level and brings concerns that the market will become overbuilt. Each month it seems there are more announcements for new apartment projects.”

Half of all respondents reported that backlog was greater than the year-earlier level; the other half indicated that backlog was similar to the year-earlier level. Although this response represents a drop from the last two quarterly measures of 89 percent and 76 percent, it is still an indication that the pipeline of future activity remains fairly robust.

The number of respondents reporting that the amount of available credit met or exceeded demand continued to increase from earlier reports. Sixty-eight percent of contacts in the second quarter 2014 indicated that credit was sufficient, compared with 60 percent the previous quarter and 57 percent one year earlier (see the chart).

How available do you perceive commercial construction finance to be in your market?

The majority of contacts reported that they plan to increase hiring during the next quarter. Seventy-five percent of contacts in the second quarter 2014 reported that they were planning to do modest to significant hiring, slightly down from 79 percent the previous quarter but up from 57 percent one year earlier (see the chart).

Hiring Plans for Next Quarter versus This Quarter

Compared with a year earlier, more contacts (roughly one out of three) indicated that they were having a difficult time filling positions (see the chart).

Difficulty Filling Positions versus a Year Ago

All contacts reported some degree of upward pressure on labor costs. Sixty percent of contacts indicated that their labor costs had increased more than 3 percent from year-earlier levels. A growing share reported labor cost increases of 6 percent or more (see the chart).

Labor Costs versus a Year Ago

The next poll will open on October 6, 2014. If you are a commercial contractor and would like to participate in this poll, please let us know by sending a note to RealEstateCenter@atl.frb.org.

Note: Second quarter 2014 poll results were collected July 7–16, 2014 and are based on responses from 20 business contacts. Participants of this poll included general contractors, subcontractors, lenders, developers, and material fabricators with footprints of varying sizes across the Southeast.

Photo of Jessica DillBy Jessica Dill, senior economic research analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department