Contractor Expectations Dim for Significant Business Improvement In 2011

Oct 14, 2010, 08:00 ET from Carolinas Associated General Contractors

Carolinas AGC Construction Barometer™

CHARLOTTE, N.C., Oct. 14 /PRNewswire/ -- While the overall Construction Barometer score trended upward by one percent in second quarter 2010, contractors in the Carolinas reported diminished expectations for significant improvement in business conditions in the coming year. A slight dip in spring activity was offset by falling materials costs, lower overall construction supply costs, and record-low interest rates.

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Continuing fiscal stress across the region's state and local governments, along with the diminished federal stimulus spending, worked to suppress the level of public highway and utility projects usually observed during second quarter. Contractors reported that they expect the low level of public works construction to continue into 2011, which largely accounts for much of the diminished expectations for overall growth in 2011.

Contractors also reported stable-to-falling labor costs, and a slight uptick in hiring, particularly in the area of skilled and semi-skilled labor. The brief early summer hiring uptick appears to be seasonal and project-specific related, however, rather than indicative of a new and sustainable trend in the construction labor market.

On the financing front, contractors reported continuing record-low interest rates for both short- and long-term borrowing, but virtually no contractors reported placing new loan applications.

In short, while industry conditions for 2011 aren't expected to significantly weaken from their present position, they aren't expected to show much improvement, either.

State vs. State: Similar Results; Weaker Labor Demand in SC

(NC - Up 0.8%; SC - Up 1.5%)

Industry trends in both Carolinas were similar in the second quarter, with falling construction costs, dimming expectations for growth in 2011, and a plentiful supply of skilled labor. NC contractors reported a modest uptick in second quarter hiring, while SC contractors reported no change. However, while NC contractors are growing more pessimistic about industry trends in 2011, South Carolina contractors are a bit less pessimistic than their neighbors to the north.

In both states, falling materials costs, stable-to-falling labor costs, and a constant level of highway and utility spending were reported. Both states expected a slight increase in highway spending before year's end, but that uptick is expected to be exhausted before the new year arrives. Increased highway spending is expected to be stronger in NC than in SC, which may explain the slightly different labor market demand.

Financial market conditions differed slightly across the two states as well. South Carolina contractors reported easier credit terms from regional bankers, while North Carolina contractors reported a modest tightening in the availability of credit and banker willingness to underwrite new contractor loans.

Regional Economic Highlights

Heartland NC: Hiring Rises Slightly, but Outlook Dimming

(Up 1.8%)

The uptick in the demand for skilled labor evident in the overall Barometer score was entirely attributable to industry hiring in the Heartland, which contains the three major urban areas of North Carolina and accounts for the bulk of metropolitan commercial construction projects in the state. Virtually all of the state's growth in construction activity, the driver for increased labor demand, occurred here, with a number of urban building projects and public works construction efforts. Unfortunately, the uptick is likely to be transitory, as contractors reported diminished expectations for industry growth in 2011.

At the same time, contractors reported little in the way of materials cost inflation, rising labor rates, or increased materials supply prices. All of these variables as well as the labor supply are expected to remain quite stable throughout 2011. Equipment prices are expected to remain quite reasonable, although projected demand for heavy equipment is minimal.

Eastern NC and Western NC: Pessimism Prevails

(ENC - Down 1.6%; WNC - Down 0.9%)

While business conditions for contractors showed modest improvement in the Western North Carolina region, Eastern region contractors reported a downturn in construction activity for the quarter. In both regions, however, contractors expressed greater pessimism regarding the strength of industry conditions ahead for 2011. As a consequence, the demand for skilled labor deteriorated in both regions, and falling demand for labor created a surplus of workers looking for jobs in both regions. Consequently, wage rates and materials and supply costs were down. Clearly, the unexpected rise in materials costs observed in spring didn't extend into the summer.

Credit conditions for contractors eased marginally in the West, while Eastern contractors reported greater difficulty obtaining both short- and long-term credit from area bankers. In keeping with increased contractor pessimism regarding the level of business projected for 2011, panelists expect banks to tighten lending approval rates for contractor borrowing requests in the year ahead.  As a consequence, Western contractors significantly reduced their plans to buy new heavy equipment next year, while equipment demand in the East remained basically unchanged from the early months of 2010.

Upstate and Lowcountry SC: Contractor Hope Springs Eternal

(USC - Down 1.6%; LSC - Up 9.4%)

The Lowcountry region of South Carolina usually represents the most volatile Barometer region in the Carolinas, and the second quarter results provide no exception to the rule. The Lowcountry Barometer score advanced by 9.4% for the quarter on big gains in skilled labor availability and improved credit market conditions. In spite of these reported improvements, Lowcountry contractors reported falling demand for labor and no change in borrowing plans for the remaining months of 2010. Lowcountry and Upstate contractors both reported weaker construction activity and falling overall construction costs.

However, SC contractors overall are somewhat more optimistic about projected business conditions in 2011 than their NC counterparts. In the Lowcountry, gains in business activity are expected to occur in public works spending areas, with contractors projecting a significant increase in highway and municipal utility spending for the coming year. In contrast, Upstate contractors expect diminished highway and utility spending, and a healthy uptick in private commercial work in the coming year.

Carolinas AGC builds its 2,600 members' businesses through workforce development, business development, profit management, and workers' compensation insurance. More than 75% of commercial and industrial construction (buildings, highways/bridges, utility facilities) in both North and South Carolina is performed or supported by CAGC members. Visit CAGC at www.cagc.org.

Visit Carolinas AGC on Twitter! Carolinas AGC serves many different components of the Carolinas construction industry. Each is interested in different types of information and dialog:

SC Highway Division: http://twitter.com/CAGCSCHWYDIV

SC Building Division:  http://twitter.com/CAGCSCBldgDiv

NC Building Division: http://twitter.com/CAGCNCBldgDiv

NC Highway Division: http://twitter.com/CAGCNCHwyDiv

Utility Division: http://twitter.com/CAGCUtilityDiv

Specialty Contractor Division: http://twitter.com/CAGCSubs

Safety & Health: http://twitter.com/CAGCsafety

Human Resources: http://twitter.com/CAGCHRCommittee

For additional information or names of local Barometer panelists contact:

Lori Tharp, Carolinas AGC (704) 372-1450, ext. 5227

ltharp@carolinasagc.org; www.cagc.org

SOURCE Carolinas Associated General Contractors



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