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.
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.
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.
Tiny Bubbles in Alabama
Do you like to blow bubbles when you're chewing gum? I do. I recently discovered that bubbles are not just fun to blow when you're chewing gum—they can also be a fun and interesting way to visualize data. Yes, I said data. At the Atlanta Fed, we often use bubble charts to track and analyze certain data series. It is particularly helpful when we compare two bubble charts with the same information from different points in time.
In the charts below, which focus on Alabama, each bubble provides a static representation of a given value while also providing comparative information to other industries. The bubble size in these charts illustrates the most recent three-month average of jobs in that industry. The y (vertical) axis shows the three-month average annualized (or short term) job growth, and the x (horizontal) axis shows year-over-year (or long-term) job growth.
The chart is divided into four quadrants. A bubble in the upper-right quadrant (expanding) indicates positive movement in employment (both short- and long-term measures are positive), whereas the lower-left quadrant (contracting) indicates both measures are negative. The upper-left quadrant (improving) indicates the three-month measure is positive, but we're not seeing positive movement year over year. Lastly, the lower-right quadrant (slipping) is positive year over year, but the three-month measure is negative.
As you can see in the first chart, Alabama's leisure and hospitality employment in December 2013 was in the expanding quadrant. We interpret that as this sector has been making gains over the short and long run. This gain stands in contrast to the information sector, which contracted during both the short and long term, putting it firmly in the bottom-left quadrant.
Now, let's take a look at how some of Alabama's industries are doing. In December 2014, the leisure and hospitality sector was still expanding (gaining 8,800 jobs). According to the University of Alabama's Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER), the increase in leisure and hospitality is the result of staffing in food services and drinking places (restaurants, for example). CBER's Ahmad Ijaz said, "Restaurants are adding jobs all across the country."
The construction sector is in an even better position, moving from a contraction in December 2013 to expansion a year later. The Birmingham Business Journal, in an article from January 2015, said "Alabama is ranked eighth among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in construction jobs added." Likewise, the Alabama Department of Labor reported that Alabama "employment in the construction sector is at its highest point since November 2010."
Finally, a look at the manufacturing industry in Alabama also showed notable improvements. In 2013, it seemed like manufacturing employment was easing into the "slipping" quadrant, indicating a short-run slowdown. But 2014 saw it move firmly into the expanding quadrant. CBER's Ijaz tells us that this is the result of the automotive industry adding jobs from October 2013 to October 2014. He said that Alabama is one of the few states adding jobs in this sector. In September 2014, AL.com reported that Alabama's auto industry was projected to grow 2 percent in 2014 while the rest of the U.S. auto industry would contract about 4 percent.
So now that we've scrutinized past data, what are Alabama's employment projections for 2015? According to CBER's latest forecast, Alabama is expected to see stronger growth in employment in 2015 overall. I look forward to comparing bubble charts later in the year. In the meantime, I think I'll grab a piece (or two) of gum.
By Susan Remy, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst at the Birmingham Branch of the Atlanta Fed
Through the Eyes of a Big Fan
When Janet Yellen was named chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System in February 2014, she became the fourth chair in my 30-year career here at the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch. While I vaguely remember Chairman Paul Volcker once visiting the branch, I was so new to the Bank and pretty naïve as to what the Fed actually did that I don't think I paid much attention back then. Soon after was Chairman Alan Greenspan, a brilliant man who spoke of economic conditions in a manner admittedly a bit hard for me to understand, especially since my Fed career began in an area not focused primarily on studying the economy. Then along came Chairman Ben Bernanke! Finally, someone who spoke in terms that even I could grasp. Couple his arrival with the creation of the Regional Economic Information Network and my foray into the world of economics (and the need for me to pay closer attention), I became an instant fan! I watched with great interest as Chairman Bernanke and the Federal Open Market Committee dusted off many lesser-known tools (as well as unveiling some brand-new tools) in the Fed's toolbox to help stimulate the economy during and after the Great Recession.
So, imagine my thrill at finding out that Chairman Bernanke was going to be a keynote speaker at this year's National Retail Federation's (NRF) annual conference that I had the great fortune to attend! I was like, whoop whoop! (I know, I'm just a big fan at heart!)
The morning of his appearance, I got up at zero-dark-thirty and was the first in line to enter the massive convention hall where he was scheduled to speak. I made a bee-line to the front and scoped out the best seat in the house. And I waited with anxious anticipation. I was like a teenage girl at her first rock concert when he took the stage. I listened intently as he and the president of Saks Fifth Avenue, who is serving as this year's NRF chairman, discussed the fallout from the global economic crisis and current prospects for the U.S. economy and the retail industry. It was amazing to listen to Bernanke speak in a much more casual manner (since now his comments do not necessarily move markets) about the events of the crisis and the actions taken by the Fed. (Remember, he is a scholar of the Great Depression of the 20th century and understood how the Fed could work to avoid the mistakes of the past.)
In addition to Chairman Bernanke sharing insights about the crisis with the audience, he commented on the transparency of the Federal Reserve System by saying, "In the middle of a crisis explaining where, why, and how we do what we do is as important as taking actions." When asked about the current state of the economy, Bernanke indicated that the U.S. economy is enjoying a genuine recovery. However, he has some concern regarding the European Union, noting that the situation should be watched carefully.
He was then asked what he missed most about being Fed chairman. He said that when he was chairman, he was driven everywhere by his security detail, so little things like traffic and finding parking spaces were never a concern. What he misses most, he said, "is not having to find my own parking spaces." He paused briefly and added, "That's all I miss."
How was I lucky enough to see Chairman Bernanke in person? As I mentioned, this was the NRF's annual conference, and one of my responsibilities as an analyst is to follow the retail sector and consumer behavior. So aside from my thrilling moment as a fan, what other insights did I glean at the conference? Well, when I attended the same conference two years ago, the underlying tone among participants was, "How do we get the consumer back to spending?" This year, the participants were upbeat and the focus seemed to be "We've got the consumer back, but how do we keep them back?" One answer was to create an engaging and exciting shopping experience.
Retailers must have been successful because revolving credit is up and consumer confidence is high. Let's take a look at our consumers and their behavior during the 2014 holiday shopping season.
Consumer credit outstanding rose $14.8 billion in December from $13.5 billion in November (see the chart). Nonrevolving credit, which is made up mostly of auto and student loans, rose $9.0 billion. However, the more noteworthy movement is that revolving credit rose a significant $5.8 billion in December from November's decline of $0.9 billion. In my opinion, this increase indicated the consumer was willing to take on debt previously avoided. Revolving credit, composed primarily of credit card loans, showed its strongest growth in eight months (the chart compares month-over-month data).
The Conference Board's survey on current conditions rose significantly to a seven-year high of 112.6 points in January from December's reading of 99.9. The University of Michigan's index rose to 109.3 points in January from 104.8 in December. The Conference Board's current conditions survey is based on the survey participants' view of current economic conditions as it relates to businesses and jobs, while the University of Michigan's survey is based on the individuals' sentiment as it relates to their personal households (see the chart).
The Conference Board's measure of expectations rose moderately to 96.4 points in January from 88.5 in December. The University of Michigan's index rose to 91.0 points in January from December's reading of 86.4. The expectations surveys by both entities are based on the same views of the survey participants as the current conditions surveys. However, the forward-looking expectations time frame differs. The Conference Board is looking six months out, and the University of Michigan is looking one to five years out (see the chart).
It appears, for now, that the consumer is increasingly upbeat, which is vital to the strength of the economy. Several District retail contacts recently reported double-digit growth and record-setting volume in 2014. Casual dining establishments saw an uptick in volume as consumers seem to be trading up from fast-food options.
Although total retail sales fell 0.8 percent in January from 0.9 percent in December, core retail sales—those excluding auto, gas, and building materials—rose 0.2 percent in January from December's decline to 0.1 percent, month over month. Retail sales maintained the same pace of growth for December and January rising 3.3 percent year over year (see the chart).
Overall, the consumption sector looks reasonably vibrant. And as one of my industry contacts said, "Every day gets better." It appears that Chairman Bernanke isn't the only one enjoying his current situation.
By Christine Viets, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Jacksonville Branch of the Atlanta Fed
Southeastern Manufacturing Sees No Shadow
In a January SouthPoint post, I suggested that winter posed problems for manufacturing last year, and after the release of December's lackluster Southeast Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) report, it appeared that 2015 might get off to a slow start as well. Then the really disconcerting news hit: America's favorite groundhog saw its shadow on February 2, predicting six more weeks of winter. Would this event affect southeastern manufacturing going forward? According to the January Southeast PMI report, released on February 6, the answer was a resounding no!
The Atlanta Fed's research department uses the Southeast PMI to track manufacturing activity in the Southeast. Econometric Center at Kennesaw State University produces the survey. It provides an analysis of current market 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 that activity is contracting.
After contracting in December for the first and only time in 2014, the Southeast PMI bounced back with vigor in January (see the chart). The overall reading rose 10.0 points over December to 55.6 and saw a healthy rise in most subindexes.
- The new orders subindex rebounded 23.4 points over December, seeing the subindex increase to a solid 57.4 reading.
- The production subindex also saw a significant gain over last month, rising 21.1 points to a 61.1 reading.
- The employment subindex rose 5.3 points over December and remained in expansionary territory for the 16th consecutive month, suggesting that manufacturing payrolls continue to grow.
- The supplier deliveries subindex increased 1.9 points from the previous month to 51.9.
- The finished inventory subindex fell 1.9 points compared with December. The 48.1 reading suggests that inventories may be slightly below optimal levels, and production could ramp up in the near term as a result.
- The commodity prices subindex continued its slide, falling another 5.0 points compared to last month.
Optimism was at healthy levels in January as well. When asked for their production expectations during the next three to six months, 61 percent of survey participants expected production to be higher going forward.
The January report was a nice reversal from the December data and provides a strong start to 2015. Hopefully, the momentum will carry over to the entire year. Although we love Punxsutawney Phil as much as anyone, we hope his weather forecast doesn't hamper manufacturing activity. So far in 2015, there are no shadows in the Southeast.
By Troy Balthrop, a senior Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch
Southeastern Labor Market Continues Strengthening
December 2014 state-level labor market data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reflected a strengthening labor market among Sixth District states, with a declining aggregate unemployment rate and solid job gains.
Unemployment rates decline, albeit modestly
The aggregate district unemployment rate in December was 6.2 percent, a 0.2 percentage point decline from the previous month and 0.5 percentage point lower than a year ago. Although higher than the 5.6 percent national figure, the aggregate rate continues to trend down. In fact, Florida matched the national unemployment rate in December and Alabama came very close (see the chart).
The unemployment rate declined in nearly all southeastern states. Alabama's unemployment rate fell to 5.7 percent, and Florida's rate declined to 5.6 percent, the lowest level in nearly seven years for both states. At 6.9 percent, Georgia's unemployment rate continued on a downward path, as did Tennessee's, with an unemployment rate of 6.6 percent. For the second month in a row, Mississippi had the highest unemployment rate in the United States with 7.2 percent, a distinction the state has taken turns owning with Georgia since June 2014.
In Louisiana, the unemployment rate rose again (for the eighth straight month) to 6.7 percent in December. What's going on there? As I've mentioned a few times (here, here, and here), increases in the labor force are the driver of unemployment rate increases in the state, as opposed to people actually losing jobs on net. This isn't a bad thing, especially considering the state added more than 6,000 jobs in December (I'll discuss that shortly). Louisiana just added more people looking for work than the number of people who found work, hence the increase in unemployment. In fact, from January to December 2014, Louisiana's labor force grew by 4.8 percent (while the number of employed grew by just 2.8 percent). An increase like 4.8 percent may not seem like a big number, but when you look at the national figure of 0.4 percent during the same period, Louisiana's labor force growth stands out. National data released last week for the month of January told a similar story: the unemployment rate ticked up 0.1 percentage point to 5.7 percent from 5.6 percent in December, yet much of this increase can be attributed to labor force gains that outpaced gains in employment.
Payrolls also see modest growth
On net, the District added 47,400 jobs in December, and every state experienced positive job growth (see the chart). This contribution makes up 19 percent of the national payroll contribution of 252,000. On aggregate, the industries that contributed the most net jobs in the Sixth District were professional and business services (up 9,800), health care (up 8,300), and accommodation and food services (up 5,200).
Here are some key state-by-state payroll facts from the December report:
- Alabama added 1,000 net payrolls. Much of the state's contributions were reduced by losses in the professional and business services sector (down by 2,400).
- Florida added 12,700 jobs on net, mostly from the professional and business services (up 5,800) and health care (up 4,900) sectors.
- Georgia contributed 14,100 net payrolls. Gains were widespread, yet the sector contributing the most jobs was health care (up 3,100).
- Louisiana added 6,200 net payrolls. Gains were widespread in this state as well, though the biggest contributor was the accommodation and food services sector (up 1,600).
- Employers in Mississippi added 900 net payrolls. Gains in the professional and business services sector (up 1,100) were reduced by losses in other sectors.
- Tennessee employers added 12,500 net payrolls. The largest increases occurred in the goods-producing (up 5,300) and retail trade (up 2,400) sectors. employers added 12,500 net payrolls. The largest increases occurred in the goods-producing (up 5,300) and retail trade (up 2,400) sectors.
Overall, the report was a sign of improving labor market conditions across the Sixth District states, a trend we hope to see continue into 2015.
By Rebekah Durham, economic policy analysis specialist in the New Orleans Branch of the Atlanta Fed
A New Year, a Better Economy?
The optimism expressed by the Jacksonville Branch's contacts in north and central Florida in the latter half of 2014 continued through the holidays and into early 2015. Conditions were described as quite good, and the majority of contacts reported strengthening demand across multiple sectors. Further, reported headwinds for current and future activity decreased noticeably.
Universities noted some challenges with enrollment, which—although negative for the schools—reflects a strengthening economy and an improving job market as prospective students lean toward employment rather than continuing education. Growth in new customer demand for utilities indicates people moving. Several financial institutions cited robust consumer lending, led by an increase in demand for auto loans. Some banks reported double-digit increases in credit card use by consumers. However, they described residential mortgage lending as soft, with inventories of both existing and new homes remaining low. Small business lending was characterized as very strong compared with the same period a year ago. Tourism in central Florida remained robust amid reports of record-setting attendance and revenue at some attractions, along with elevated occupancy rates at area hotels for the last half of 2014. Regarding holiday sales, contacts reported increases over year-earlier levels.
Employment and labor markets
Employment stories were mixed during the past couple of months. Some larger companies reported increases in staff, but others indicated that employment levels have shrunk as a result of efficiency and automation. Struggles to find talent continued to be widespread across higher-skilled jobs, including those in compliance, engineering, underwriting, and actuarial science. Some contacts suggested that some lower-skill jobs are also becoming more difficult to fill. In the Orlando area, service workers were in high demand to meet strong tourism activity, which has resulted in employee churn among employers in the hospitality, retail, and theme park/entertainment industries.
Labor and nonlabor costs and prices
Although few contacts reported wage pressures building, certain jobs continue to command higher salaries as competition for talent increased. For example, we heard that some firms are increasing wages to attract and retain accountants. Also, talented lawyers fresh out of law school seeking positions with large law firms are asking for, and getting, higher wages that not only cover the cost of living but help pay down college debt. However, contacts noted a change in the types of jobs where wage increases were evident, such as entry-level distribution center labor, and they expect that wage pressures will increase. Contacts reported offering a variety of other types of compensation, including performance-based incentive payouts, stock options, and equity increases to retain key employees. Increased offerings of "soft benefits," such as more time off and flex time, were also reported. Most contacts reported merit increases between 2 percent and 3.5 percent. Health care premium increases continued to be mixed across all contacts.
We continued to hear from a majority of contacts that nonlabor input cost increases appeared to be stable or slowing. Companies with contractual agreements of multiple years with customers were reporting some pricing power during renegotiations, although government and defense contractors reported very limited pricing power and have been forced to reduce costs to maintain margins.
Falling gas prices have had a positive effect, giving consumers in particular a psychological boost regarding spending. Travel and tourism contacts in central Florida reported increased passenger traffic and hotel occupancy. Others reported higher activity in auto sales, where product sales have shifted to trucks and SUVs in response to lower fuel prices.
Availability of credit/investment
Credit continued to be readily available for most large companies. Bank and credit union contacts indicated strong demand across most lines of business, with an increased interest in warehousing as the retail sector continued to increasingly use online fulfillment in addition to traditional brick-and-mortar stores. Other financial institutions reported significant improvements in the credit quality of consumers. Contacts cited examples of capital investments in IT (for efficiency and process automation), acquisitions, and infrastructure.
Contacts have expressed increased confidence in their outlook, and most are experiencing and expect further improvement. They cited few domestic headwinds outside of the unknowns related to oil's rapid price decline and the regulatory environment in banking and other industries. We continue to hear more about a possible resurgence of domestic manufacturing, with rising wages in Asia and the lower cost of energy in the Western Hemisphere, which could drive manufacturing to Mexico and to the United States during in the medium term. Contacts with a strong international presence didn't view the strengthening dollar as their biggest worry. Rather, they described demand challenges in certain markets and U.S. tax policy as more worrisome. Overall, contacts during the past three months were upbeat about economic conditions, with the majority forecasting higher growth during the short and medium term.
By Sarah Arteaga, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch, and Chris Oakley, regional executive at the Jacksonville Branch
Florida's Economic Rebound Continues
During the last several months, business contacts in south Florida have been reporting improving economic conditions. They've discussed increased opportunities for capital expenditure projects, optimistic hiring plans, and a general upturn in business activity. This optimism made me wonder if the data on Florida's economic activity reflected what we've been hearing from our contacts in south Florida.
In November, coincident economic indicator, which measures overall economic activity, was 155.99 (see the chart). The index has been steadily improving since 2012. Although it has not yet reached its peak of 160.87 from February 2007, it seems to be within reach. While the November data for metro areas are not yet available, our South Florida business contacts recently indicated that the economy in south Florida continues to improve. Falling oil prices have not had a direct impact on businesses yet, though the general consensus is that oil's price decline is good for the consumer and consumer spending should improve if these lower prices are sustained.
On the manufacturing front, the Southeast Purchasing Managers Index, which is produced by the Econometric Center at Kennesaw State University and measures regional manufacturing activity, declined to 54.1 in November (see the chart). However, with the exception of this past September, it has remained in expansionary territory since August 2012. (A reading above 50 indicates expansion in overall activity; a reading below 50 indicates a decline.)
Regarding employment, payroll employment in Florida hit its trough in March 2007 and has been steadily increasing since then. In November, payroll employment in the state increased by 41,900 to 7.897 million employed, remaining slightly below the prerecession peak of 8.053 million (see the chart). South Florida business contacts, however, specifically report continued challenges in filling positions with specialized skills in technology, mathematics, engineering, management, and lending.
While Florida's unemployment rate has a ways to go before reaching its prerecession low of 3.3 percent, it improved steadily from April 2012 through December 2013 and then plateaued at a little more than 6 percent for the first eight months of 2014 (see the chart). A downward trend in unemployment started in August of last year, reaching 5.8 percent in November. Anecdotally, we heard positive reports from contacts in the employment sector of an uptick in activity from employers using employment agencies to fill open positions.
As you can see from the data above, overall economic activity continues to look promising in Florida, supporting the information we've been receiving from business contacts. Let's hope conditions remain accommodative and that our contacts continue to report good news.
By Marycela Diaz-Unzalu, a senior Regional Economic Information Network analyst at the Atlanta Fed's Miami Branch
Charting Employer Sentiment in the Southeast
In a recent speech, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart remarked, "Overall, there was more improvement in labor markets in 2014 than in any other year of the recovery. Employment conditions are improving, and improving faster, and prospects of continued progress are encouraging moving into the new year."
Although President Lockhart was referring to national labor market conditions in his speech, his assessment holds true for the Southeast as well. In 2014, the Atlanta Fed's Regional Economic Information Network (REIN) staff polled business contacts across the Southeast both at the beginning of the year and the end to get a sense of their hiring plans for the year ahead. Polling our contacts twice allowed REIN to gauge whether business hiring plans had changed during the course of the year, and we shared the January results with you. Fast-forward to last November, when we approached our contacts to ask the same set of questions. We were pleasantly surprised to see that the results were more upbeat.
The survey was conducted from November 10–19 and resulted in a total of 303 responses from a wide variety of firm types and sizes. In this post, we want to share the results as well as some comparisons over time.
The survey's first question asked contacts whether they expect to increase employment, leave employment unchanged, or decrease employment in 2015. The results showed that 59 percent of respondents said they planned to increase employment levels over the next 12 months; up from 46 percent in January and the highest reading in the six times we've conducted this survey. Another 31 percent indicated they planned to leave employment levels unchanged; down from 44 percent in January and the lowest reading since we began asking these questions in 2011. The remaining 10 percent of participants planned to decrease payrolls; unchanged from the beginning of the year. As the chart below shows, a noticeable shift in sentiment took place from January, when we last asked this question. It appears that firms that said they would leave employment levels unchanged are now saying they would increase employment.
Focusing on the 59 percent of firms that indicated that they planned to increase employment, we asked them to give us the top three motivating factors driving their decision. The most frequently cited reasons were similar to past results. The majority of firms cited high expected growth of sales as the most important reason for increasing employment. For the second most important factor, two selections garnered similar levels of response: current staff was overworked, and the firm needed skills not currently possessed by existing staff. Finally, the third factor was improvement in the firm’s financial position (see the chart).
Conversely, we also wanted to learn the top three factors restraining hiring. Similar to January, firms' primary concern remained their need to keep operating costs low. Other frequently selected reasons were the firms' inability to find workers with the required skills and uncertainties related to regulations or government policies. What stood out this time was that a larger share of firms said that they were unable to find workers with required skills: 13.8 percent in January compared with 21.0 percent in November. Also, fewer contacts said that expected sales growth was low: 15.2 percent in January compared with 9.7 percent in November. Additionally, uncertainty about health care costs subsided; a smaller share of firms noted this factor as a reason for not hiring (see the chart).
In short, it's clear that employment levels in the Southeast should improve this year, which is exactly what we said this time last year. Were we correct for 2014? Now that we have data in hand, let's see. According to the latest employment data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the district averaged 38,800 net payrolls per month for 2014, up from 33,600 net payrolls a month in 2013. So our contacts did, in fact, increase payrolls like they said they would last year. Let's see what happens this year!
By Shalini Patel, a REIN director in the Atlanta Fed's research department
O Manufacturing, Is Winter Thy Enemy?
While in high school, I really enjoyed studying Shakespearean literature. Not because I liked the plays so much, but because I enjoyed trying to speak Shakespearean. It became a go-to move when I was trying to aggravate my mother. "Mom, would thee please passeth the potatoes ere I starve to death?" My mother would look at me with complete exhaustion but would always pass the potatoes.
While mulling over the data from the December Southeast purchasing managers index (PMI) report released on January 5, I was reminded of last winter and a Shakespeare quotation. A partial line from his play As You Like It read, “Here shall he see no enemy but winter and rough weather” (act 2, scene 5). If you remember, last winter’s weather caused problems for manufacturing activity across much of the country. According to the Southeast PMI, December had been a lackluster month for regional manufacturing activity for several years, and 2014 was no different.
The Atlanta Fed’s research department uses the Southeast PMI to track regional manufacturing activity. The Econometric Center at Kennesaw State University produces the survey. It provides an analysis of current market 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 that activity is contracting.
After indicating expansion every month this year, the overall PMI fell below the 50 threshold for expansion in December (see the chart). All underlying variables in the December PMI report fell except for finished inventories. In some cases the decreases were significant. The PMI decreased to 45.6, which was a 12.7 point drop compared with November.
- The new orders subindex fell below the 50-point threshold for expansion for the first time since January, decreasing 27.0 points compared with the previous month.
- The production subindex fell 19.8 points compared with November, also falling below the 50-point threshold for expansion.
- The employment subindex fell 10.6 points from November but remained in expansionary territory for the fifteenth consecutive month.
- The supply deliveries subindex decreased 7.3 points from the previous month to 50.0, which represents no change in activity.
- The finished inventory subindex inched up 1.2 points compared with November and now also reads 50.0.
- The commodity prices subindex fell to 42.0, a 10.4 point decrease compared with November.
However, optimism rose in December versus November. When asked for their production expectations during the next three to six months, 66 percent of survey participants expected production to be higher going forward.
Is it just coincidence that winter began and manufacturing activity slowed? One could point to several other factors for the decrease. Maybe the strong dollar is reducing manufacturing exports, or maybe the fall in oil prices is affecting production activity. It’s still too early to know for sure. Based on optimism for future production, let’s hope it was just a one-month anomaly. The Atlanta Fed will be watching—or in my best Shakespeare, "we shalt be watching."
By Troy Balthrop, a senior Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch
New Orleans Area Optimistic Heading into 2015
During the last couple of months, the Regional Economic Information Network team from the New Orleans Branch of the Atlanta Fed was in contact with more than 30 business leaders to gauge sentiment about current and anticipated economic conditions in the region (which covers central and south Louisiana and Mississippi, south Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle to Apalachicola). The optimism and confidence that our contacts expressed over the last few quarters continued and was in fact more prevalent this time. Although contacts' expectations in previous months were for "slow and steady" growth, many business leaders now feel assured about their outlook for a pickup in growth in 2015.
In particular, we continue to receive upbeat reports about the tourism sector. This time, the message came from the Florida Panhandle again, where it was mentioned that tourism was growing into a year-round business, supported largely by an emergence of international travelers rather than the typical wintertime snowbirds. Retail contacts were also very positive, especially about holiday sales in November but also about a notable general sense of improving consumer sentiment. Another sign of strength in the region was commercial real estate, which was reported as robust across Louisiana, particularly for retail, multifamily, and office space leasing and development.
Employment and labor markets
Generally, contacts continued to report positive net hiring in response to increases in demand, though they didn't report acceleration from previous months. We continue to receive reports about firms' efforts to use automated solutions to reduce staffing or conduct optimization studies to enhance efficiency while reducing costs. Once again, contacts noted major challenges filling certain skilled positions, such as trades workers, engineers, truck drivers, and information technology professionals—a predicament business contacts have expressed for more than a year.
Costs, wages, and prices
For several months now, contacts have reported some cost pressures with little pricing power. In most cases, firms have been able to increase prices only after a competitor successfully does so or when contracts are up for renegotiation. Regarding the declining price of oil, energy industry representatives shared their view of the impact on their industry, which they indicated would initially affect smaller players (described in a recent SouthPoint post). In addition, a few contacts noted that declining energy prices posed a risk to their 2015 outlook. For the first time in many months, a number of contacts reported across-the-board wage pressures, which were previously isolated to certain positions. Others indicated they expect to encounter pressure in 2015. Several firms we spoke with indicated they expanded merit program budgets in 2015, with most increases being in the range of 2.5 to 3 percent, though a few in the range of 3 to 5 percent. Though a number of firms reported they were investigating strategies to control compensation costs with tools such as performance-based incentives, health care contributions, and targeted salary increases—a trend we've noted over the last couple of quarters.
Availability of credit and investment
Access to capital and availability of credit remained a nonissue for the majority of our contacts, though some small firms indicated obtaining credit from traditional banks remained difficult because of qualification requirements. Banking contacts indicated that loan demand strengthened in the third quarter. Capital investment reports were consistent with the last few cycles, reflecting some expansion activity but mostly focused on efficiency or maintenance.
Although some contacts noted a bit of uncertainty about the outlook—including the declining price of oil, increased government regulations, and the strengthening U.S. dollar—contacts were overall positive and confident about 2015 expectations. What's your outlook for 2015?
By Rebekah Durham, economic policy analysis specialist in the Regional Economic Information Network at the New Orleans Branch of the Atlanta Fed
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