Construction gains mixed in July, but outlook remains positive
Wednesday, August 26, 2015
Construction sector gains continued to seesaw month-to-month between modest increases and modest dips at the start of the third quarter. However, most sectors are trending positive for year-to-date and year-over-year, with some experiencing bounces at prerecession levels.
Across the board, industry leaders expect business to remain positive for the remainder of the year, with year-end increases well above 2014 levels.
Measures of nonresidential construction showed little or no overall gain in July following June's welcome uptick, when, according to the Associated General Contractors of America, construction spending grew at its fastest rate since 2006.
Dodge stated that its construction index declined 15 percent in June as the result of a sharp drop in the electric utility and gas plant category from the previous month. Gains in other sectors were mixed. The American Institute of Architects also reported that architectural billings in June "soared to their strongest growth level since before the last recession."
In contrast, the Dodge Construction Index shows the value of new construction starts in July remained essentially unchanged from June's figure, and the AIA billings index fell a point. Construction consulting firm FMI reports its Nonresidential Construction Index for the third quarter declined 1.3 points.
These month-to-month shifts indicate the industry still is struggling to sustain positive momentum. Yet the picture for the year is much more positive.
The FMI index remains in positive territory at 63.6, 1.1 points ahead of last year. According to FMI, panelists who participate in the index view their own business in the current economy as solidly positive at 75.7 on a scale of 100.
Dodge's Momentum Index, a measure of nonresidential building projects in planning, was up 5.4 percent in July from June. Dodge foresees "positive influence" for the remainder of 2015, and projects nonresidential construction will end the year around 10 to 11 percent higher than last year.
The AIA states that overall conditions look good, with billings improving in all regions of the country and "firms reporting strong inquiries into new projects as well as the highest design contracts score since the end of 2014."
Although it, too, has had its ups and downs, the institutional sector has been one of the bright lights this year, rebounding into positive territory after several years of negative growth. The AIA says it is seeing the "strongest business conditions ever" for institutional projects. It reached 59.1 on the ABI in June and held at 57.3 in July.
Commercial, particularly private office, has been performing well. Dodge reports private office construction rose 9 percent in July and store construction 6 percent. The commercial sector increased nearly two points on the ABI in July, from 51.6 in June to 53.4.
Residential construction, especially single-family homes, has underperformed as expected for most of the year, but may be turning a corner. The National Association of Home Builders announced that housing starts in July, which rose 12.8 percent from June, reached their highest level since October 2007. In addition, sales of newly-built single-family homes rose 5.4 percent.
These figures and improving builder sentiment show "a gradual but consistent housing recovery," remarked NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. Residential increased nearly three points, from 47.0 to 49.8, on the July ABI, despite a decline in multifamily billings.
The National Association of Realtors predicts sales will to continue to rise for the rest of the year and into 2016, although it cautions that there will be "bumps along the road." Multifamily, which has buoyed the residential sector while single-family floundered, has experienced some decline of late, but is expected to finish the year on a strong note.
Indexes can be useful bellwethers of current activity, but it is important to remember they are indicators of short-term trends. Looking at the big picture, 2015 is shaping up to be a solid year for building and construction.
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