Construction Economic News

October construction outlays slip despite some gains; infrastructure prospects rise

December 1, 2008

Construction spending fell 1.2% from September to October, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $1.07 trillion, the Census Bureau reported today. However, Census bumped up its estimates for September and August by more than $20 billion (2%) each, enough to improve the estimate for third-quarter gross domestic product. Private residential spending in October was down 3.5% from September and 24% from October 2007. Private nonresidential spending fell 0.7% for the month but rose 9.1% from a year before. Public spending climbed 0.7% and 7.4%. Several major nonresidential categories rose in October: office construction 1.6% (and 8.9% compared to a year before); commercial (retail, warehouse and farm), 1.3% ( -11% from October 2007); education, 1.1% (9.5%); manufacturing, 1.0% (54%); and lodging, 0.6% (18%). Health care construction was unchanged for the month (up 3.9% from a year earlier). Declining categories included highway and street construction, -0.8% (up 5.8% from October 2007) and power, -6.0% (22%).

The likelihood is growing that the next Congress will put infrastructure spending in a fiscal stimulus package, perhaps by President-elect Barack Obama’s Inauguration Day, January 20. “Obama announced in his November 21 weekly address that he had directed his economic team to draw up a two-year ‘Economic Recovery Plan’ that would create 2.5 million jobs patching crumbling infrastructure, modernizing schools and building wind farms, solar panels and fuel-efficient cars,” the online newsletter reported on Tuesday. “Obama didn’t specifically mention states or a dollar-figure in his remarks over the weekend or during his November 24 press conference in which he unveiled his economic team….But before he was elected, Obama called for at least $25 billion in nonspecific state relief and another $25 billion to help states build and fix highways, roads, bridges, airports and rail systems….While state officials have avoided asking for specific amounts of money from Congress, the National Governors Association has outlined $126 billion of ‘potential recovery programs’ that would help states, including…Infrastructure: $57 billion, including $27 billion for highway and transit projects; $6 billion in wastewater and drinking water projects and nearly $5 billion in affordable housing.” Congressional Quarterly reported on November 26, “Highway officials from 27 states estimate they now have close to $32 billion in ready-to-go…projects to include in economic stimulus legislation—almost twice the $18 billion in a bill the House passed in October. And the wish list keeps growing. [John] Horsley, president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said he expects the $32 billion figure to jump dramatically when the 23 other states weigh in. He has asked all 50 state transportation departments to refresh the requests they made as the House wrote its bill. The message for Congress: ‘If they can go higher, we’re ready,’ Horsley said.”

One type of project that has kept manufacturing construction strong is refinery construction. But plunging oil prices are causing some projects to be canceled. “Marathon Oil Corp. and Valero Energy Corp. said [in late October that] they would delay or cancel refinery upgrades as part of broader cuts to capital spending programs in 2009,” the Houston Chronicle reported on November 17. “Marathon Oil said it would delay a $1.9 billion upgrade of its 100,000-barrel-per-day [b/d] refinery in Detroit. San Antonio-based Valero, the nation’s largest refiner, said it would indefinitely postpone or delay expansions and upgrades at plants in Port Arthur [Texas], Memphis, Tennessee, St. Charles, Louisiana, and Quebec….Yet several major refinery projects are moving forward and are unlikely to be affected by the downturn. They include Marathon’s 180,000 [b/d] expansion of its Garyville, La., plant, targeted for completion late next year, and Motiva’s 325,000 [b/d] addition to its Port Arthur refinery, wrapping up in 2011.”

Seasonally adjusted unemployment rates climbed in 38 states and the District of Columbia in October, five states registered decreases, and seven states had no change, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on November 21. Compared to October 2007, jobless rates were up in 47 states and D.C., slightly lower in Arkansas and unchanged in Oklahoma and West Virginia. Over the year, nonfarm employment increased in 19 states and D.C, decreased in 29 states and was unchanged in Delaware and Utah. The largest over-the-year percentage increases in employment occurred in Wyoming, 3.3%; Texas, 2.2%; D.C., 1.5%; North Dakota, 1.3%; Montana and South Dakota, 1.2% each. Rhode Island recorded the largest over-the-year percentage drop in employment, -3.0%; followed by Arizona, -2.6%; Florida, -1.9%; Idaho and Michigan, -1.7% each. Overall employment changes can be suggestive of states with opportunities for construction or available labor. Seasonally adjusted construction employment rose in 12 states in October, fell in 32 and was unchanged from (or within 100 of) September’s figure in six plus D.C. Compared to a year earlier, construction employment rose in only seven states plus D.C. The largest year-over-year percentage gains were in Oklahoma, 4%; North Dakota, 3%; Texas, D.C. and Louisiana, 2% each.

Materials prices are continuing to decline. Today the Institute for Supply Management reported that purchasing executives at manufacturing firms listed price decreases in November for the following items that are important to construction: aluminum, copper (also listed as up in price), diesel fuel, steel and stainless steel. Harbor Intelligence ( reported on Friday, “demand from the construction sector is down around 40%” since May.