The Atlanta Fed's SouthPoint offers commentary and observations on various aspects of the region's economy.
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Sunnier Times in the Sunshine State
During the most recent cycle of the Federal Open Market Committee (which ran from June 19 to July 30), the Atlanta Fed’s Regional Economic Information Network (REIN) team at the Jacksonville Branch talked with more than 30 Florida business leaders, including branch directors, about economic conditions. As one who has been involved with the REIN program since its inception in 2008, I can attest that, while “slow and steady” remains a theme in this economic recovery, the sentiment of our contacts over the past two months has been the most upbeat since before the recession.
General business conditions
Almost all firms reported increases in business activity. Two design/build firms indicated robust demand and reasonably strong pipelines, including a strengthening in industrial and office development. For the first time, we heard of some speculative building in the commercial sector from three different contacts. Housing continued its slow improvement, though several contacts used the word “bumpy” to describe activity. The appetite for auto purchases continued, as a recent SouthPoint post discussed, with lenders citing robust auto-lending activity. Some banks also reported that consumers are now slowly adding to outstanding credit card balances.
Employment and hiring
Labor markets tightened as the number and types of difficult-to-fill positions increased. In addition to highly skilled positions that are normally a challenge to fill (including information technology and engineering), contacts shared frustrations with filling midlevel positions such as analysts. In construction, finding subcontractors and skilled laborers was harder than normal. However, one contact saw a 20 percent annual increase in revenue as clients resumed a normal hiring pace.
Labor and input costs
Contacts reported seeing wage pressures in their organizations. For example, demand for truck drivers that one firm described as “significant” led to a 33 percent pay increase since the beginning of 2014. One retail contact reported wage increases for maintenance positions as the “construction boom in the area lures these workers away.” Most contacts previously noted merit programs of between 2–3 percent. However, for the first time, several contacts discussed plans for more aggressive increases of 4–5 percent. Regarding health care, most anticipate premiums to continue growing significantly, and many have self-insured to mitigate rising costs.
Most contacts described nonlabor input cost increases as benign. Although the cost of some construction-related materials was a cause for concern earlier this year, most of this volatility has dissipated. While most contacts do not claim much pricing power, some companies are seeing improved margins as they are able to push through increases in the form of higher sales prices.
Credit and investment
Contacts at medium and large companies noted that while credit is readily available, many are still risk-averse and avoiding taking on debt, relying instead on cash flow or internal reserves to fund projects. Companies that do borrow are undergoing “rigorous but rational underwriting.” One construction contact said that many of his larger clients are no longer just catching up from the recession but are now willing to take risk and invest in adding capacity. A bank also reported more risk-taking among customers, especially in commercial real estate and equipment leasing. At the consumer level, real estate agents and lenders referred to qualified mortgages as something of an impediment to mortgage loan activity, but they generally viewed the more rigorous process as worth the effort to reduce risk.
Since June, the consensus from REIN contacts at the Jacksonville Branch was largely positive. Overall demand conditions have improved, though some expressed concerns about regulatory impact. Some contacts specifically mentioned dissipating headwinds as a reason for increased investment, including one contact who sees enough improvement in the economic environment that the company has changed its strategy from diversification to more rapidly expanding its footprint with aggressive new revenue goals.
Does this jibe with what you, our readers, are seeing? As always, your thoughts are welcome.
By Sarah Arteaga, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch
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