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.
Giving Thanks for Faster Payroll Growth
As we gear up to give thanks this week, the folks at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) issued a report last Friday that gave us one more thing to be grateful for: last month, the Southeast gained more payrolls (67,700) than any other month since May 2010, when labor markets began to feel the effects of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. (In May 2010, a significant share of new payrolls across southeastern states was in the government sector. In October 2013, states in the region added payrolls at a nice clip while to some degree shedding government payrolls—with the exception of Tennessee, where government payrolls held steady in October.) In fact, the BLS’s regional and state employment and unemployment summary for October—which included September data and was delayed because of the partial federal government shutdown—noted that Florida gained more payroll jobs in October (44,600) than any other U.S. state.
Indeed, the chart below shows Florida carried the Southeast in terms of payroll growth in October. The state not only added 44,600 payrolls last month, but that one-month addition brought the state’s year-to-date payroll creation (January–October 2013) to about 167,000. Florida has also seen the largest 12-month decline in its unemployment rate of any other state in the nation (down by 1.5 percentage points).
Despite the improving pace of progress in Florida’s labor market, though, the Sunshine State is still about 450,000 payrolls away from its last peak, in March 2007 (see the chart).
Payrolls, by industry
Payroll growth, as usual, varied widely among southeastern states in October (see the table). Likewise, growth across industries within each state was also often uneven. Last month, the construction sector saw 10,500 new payrolls in Florida and 3,400 new payroll jobs in Louisiana. Likewise, leisure and hospitality industries saw 11,000 new payrolls in Florida and 3,100 in Louisiana. Georgia’s gains in manufacturing employment (3,700) were not enough to offset losses in the state’s retail, financial activities, and government sectors.
State unemployment rates
State unemployment rates also headed in a favorable direction last month, with the Sixth District’s aggregate unemployment rate now equal to the nation’s (see the chart). Three states now sit above the national and Sixth District rates of unemployment (Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi), and three are below (Alabama, Louisiana, and Florida). Three states in the region saw slight declines in their October unemployment rates. Alabama’s ticked up slightly (0.1 percentage point) to reach 6.5 percent, and Mississippi’s and Tennessee’s unemployment rates stayed the same.
How many payroll jobs should it take to make unemployment rates in Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi equal the U.S. rate? Our new “State by State” tab on the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s Jobs Calculator can tell you quickly. For example, to reach an unemployment rate of 7.3 percent in six months, Georgia would need to add 9,298 jobs per month, Tennessee would need to add 7,670 jobs per month, and Mississippi would need to add 2,775 jobs per month.
The BLS will release its next report on regional and state employment and unemployment at 10 a.m. on December 19.
By Mark Carter, a senior economic analyst in the Atlanta Fed’s research department
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Southeastern Housing Update: Housing Continues Growing, Only More Slowly
The Atlanta Fed’s monthly poll of home builder and residential broker business contacts indicated that fewer contacts noted home sales growth on a year-over-year basis than in recent months. The majority of brokers reported that sales in October were flat to slightly up compared with a year earlier, and the majority of builders said that sales were up slightly (see the chart).
More builders and brokers noted a decline in buyer traffic on a year-over-year basis. Many contacts attributed the decline in buyer traffic to seasonal factors, though many noted that the partial federal government shutdown contributed to the fall-off in buyer traffic (see chart).
When contacts were asked if the partial federal government shutdown had an impact on their business, the majority of them (more than two-thirds of builders and three-fourths of brokers) indicated that it did indeed have an impact. They noted the following effects:
- Confusion about the availability of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Development Single-Family Housing Guaranteed Loan Program, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ Home Loan Guaranty Program, and the Federal Housing Administration’s (FHA) mortgage insurance
- Slow to no processing of USDA loans
- Delays in the processing of FHA-insured loans
- Lenders’ inability to pull tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service
- Increased uncertainty and confusion, blows to buyer confidence, and evaporation of buyer traffic
- Confusion about the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Act, particularly whether or not rate hikes scheduled for October 1 would kick in
Most brokers continued to report home inventory levels were below the year-earlier level, and reports from builders were mixed (see the chart).
Both builders and brokers continued to indicate home price appreciation in October, though fewer brokers indicated price gains than in previous months (see the chart).
The outlook among builders for new home sales growth over the next several months remained positive, although a bit weaker than expectations a year earlier. Their outlook for new home construction has strengthened from recent reports but is still less upbeat than year-earlier responses (see the charts).
The outlook among southeastern brokers for home sales growth continued to weaken from this spring and summer, and they are less optimistic than year-ago expectations (see the chart).
The majority of brokers and builders indicated that the amount of available mortgage credit now meets demand, a marked shift from year-earlier conditions, when contacts overwhelmingly indicated that the amount of available mortgage credit fell short of demand (see the charts).
Builders continue to indicate that amount of available credit for construction/development falls short of demand, though more contacts did report that credit availability now meets demand (see the chart).
Note: October poll results are based on responses from 52 residential brokers and 26 homebuilders and were collected November 4–13, 2013. The housing poll's diffusion indexes are calculated as the percentage of total respondents reporting increases minus the percentage reporting declines. Positive values in the index indicate increased activity, and negative values indicate decreased activity.
If you are a real estate broker or homebuilder and would like to participate in this poll, please let us know by sending a note to RealEstateCenter@atl.frb.org.
By Jessica Dill, senior economic research analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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Southeastern Insights: Slow Growth with a Dash of Uncertainty and Caution
The Atlanta Fed's Southeastern Insights report provides a broad summary of economic intelligence gathered through our network of business contacts and other sources throughout the Southeast each Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) cycle. The latest report covers the period from September 19 to October 30.
As a complement to Southeastern Insights, Adrienne Slack, vice president and regional executive at the Atlanta Fed's New Orleans Branch, discusses the regional economy.
Here are some highlights from the report:
- Since the previous FOMC cycle, most business contacts expect continued slow growth in the short term. However, several contacts noted a rise in uncertainty tied to the effects of the debt ceiling debate and the government shutdown.
- Mixed reports from labor markets, combined with renewed uncertainty, have not strengthened employment trends since the previous cycle and have caused many business leaders to delay decisions about hiring new employees. Overall, very few companies reported adding to employment levels as a result of organic growth, regardless of how robust that growth was. Some companies cited paying overtime before hiring new employees unless the new hires were expected to generate revenue.
- Contacts continued to report stable pricing with no major concerns about inflation; cost pressures were mostly well contained. However, isolated industries that reported minimal cost increases did note that they were able to pass through the increases to their customers (such as fast food, grocery stores, and some construction). Overall, margins remained tight. Reports indicate wage increases remained stable (mostly in the 2 percent to 3 percent range) across most industries. However, there were scattered reports of upward wage pressures for high-skilled workers.
- While our contacts expressed some uncertainty and caution, their medium-term outlook is that the economy will continue to improve.
Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart shares this view, and he harbors concern about the likelihood of more robust growth in the near term. In a November 12 speech in Montgomery, Alabama, President Lockhart said that:
My baseline outlook calls for an improved economy in 2014—growing a bit faster than it has been. But that may not happen. There is a nontrivial chance that 2014 will look like 2013. Next year's economic outcomes will swing importantly on fiscal drag and consumer spending.
The concern surrounding fiscal drag is twofold: the level of government spending and the role that uncertainty plays in business decision making. A recent macroblog post noted that:
- Most firms are expressing more uncertainty,
- For a significant portion of firms, uncertainty today is having a greater impact than six months ago, and
- The government is heavily featured as a source of the uncertainty.
Regarding consumer spending, indications are that spending remains cautious. As reported in Southeastern Insights:
Retail industry reports were mixed, yet most contacts described a decline in sales and demand following a slower than expected summer and back to school season. Some retailers also indicated they plan to hire fewer seasonal staff and are less optimistic about the upcoming holiday season. A bright spot in consumer spending continues to come from the strength of high-end consumers; however, their spending has not been significant enough to offset the scaling back by low- to mid-end consumers.
It's clear that what we are hearing from our business contacts demands that we remain cautious regarding the overall economic outlook. As President Lockhart noted in Montgomery:
I remain cautiously optimistic that growth will pick up next year. This is my baseline outlook. But, at this juncture, I can't fully discount the possibility that the expected economic improvement won't materialize and that we'll see a replay of the weak growth of the past three years.
By Mike Chriszt, a vice president in the Atlanta Fed's public affairs department
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Regional Manufacturing Rebounds in October
The southeastern purchasing managers index (PMI) rebounded slightly in October after a lackluster showing in September. However, the rebound was not spectacular. The index increased to a level that still does not signify a major uptick in activity. The good news is the October report put regional manufacturing back into expansion territory and headed in a positive direction. The bad news is that optimism among purchasing managers continues to go in the opposite direction.
Produced by the Econometric Center at Kennesaw State University, the southeastern PMI surveys purchasing managers in the Southeast concerning manufacturing activity. The survey includes Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The survey asks questions concerning activity in new orders, production, employment, supplier delivery time, and finished goods. A reading on the index above 50 represents an expansion in the manufacturing sector, and a reading below 50 indicates a contraction.
The October index came in at 50.4 points and reported gains in every subindex, with the exception of supplier deliveries. A very encouraging increase of 5.3 points in new orders led the way. Another optimistic sign was the increase of 3.8 points in employment. The rise in new orders and employment could indicate that manufacturers are expecting production to increase in the coming months. Other subindex increases included gains of 1.0 point in production, 2.1 points in finished inventory, and 2.2 points in commodity prices. Supplier deliveries decreased 2.6 points during the month, meaning purchasing managers are receiving orders from their suppliers more quickly, but this decline could be the result of lower demand for products across the board. At the state level, all states in the region were in expansion territory with the exception of Tennessee and Mississippi.
Optimism among purchasing managers has been declining, and it continued on a downward trend in October. When asked about their production expectations for the next three to six months, only 27 percent of respondents expect higher production, down from 30 percent in September. Optimism has been dropping for several months among survey respondents.
As optimism continues to wane, we can only wonder what might be the underlying causes that are dampening purchasing managers confidence. It may simply be the result of the larger hit to confidence resulting from the recent fiscal policy turmoil. As Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart noted in his November 12 speech in Montgomery, Alabama:
My greater concern relates to fiscal policy uncertainty because it can affect consumer and business confidence. I've recently heard opinions among contacts in the region to the effect that consumer confidence took a hit with the debt ceiling drama and the shutdown.
It remains to be seen if the trend President Lockhart noted affects manufacturing. It would be encouraging to see the confidence level of purchasing managers in the Southeast begin to rise, and as we enter the holiday season, we will continue to monitor this indicator.
By Troy Balthrop, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst at the Atlanta Fed’s Nashville Branch
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The Cream of the Crop
The Atlanta Fed’s Agriculture Advisory Council convened recently for another lively discussion and, as always, we learned a great deal. While last year’s overarching agriculture story was “all about the drought,” this year’s conversations were more about “cool and wet.” Council members told stories of delayed planting or replanting, but participants acknowledged that some of that wet and cool weather contributed to good yields, although there is some frost risk for late planted/harvested crops.
Generally speaking, exports for many southeastern agriculture products are expected to increase. This includes beef, poultry, wood/biomass, grains, cotton, and rice. Members also hope for continued strong demand from China for yellow pine saw timber. We continued to hear reports of significant downside risks for cotton. Should China release its large cotton inventory onto the market, cotton prices and exports would be adversely affected.
Regarding investments, council members reported replacing equipment in the timber industry, as well as farming implements such as irrigation equipment as well as storage augmentation. As one council member said, “We are improving what we have rather than expanding.” Additionally, some farmers are replacing smaller, labor intensive equipment with larger, more modern equipment. While these acquisitions improve production efficiency, they also address difficulties in finding labor. Reports persist of paperwork burdens with the E-verify program and the high cost of housing people participating in the H2A guest-worker program.
Overall, farm product prices are down, and headline consumer price index (CPI) is trending down. The chart below shows CPI trends and the price index for all farm products over time.
Although overall farm product prices are down, some specific commodity prices are helping regional agriculture producers, especially those in the cotton, rice, beef, hog, and poultry sectors, which are all showing higher year-over-year prices. Soybeans and corn prices are trending down, although lower corn prices are good news for protein producers whose use corn for feed. Florida citrus growers continue to have problems with citrus greening, and although they believe a solution is forthcoming, the problem is not yet resolved. Meanwhile, the cost of production is higher than normal, but lower yields have resulted in higher prices for citrus products. Lumber prices, which are down from the first half of 2013, are still well above recession-era lows (see the chart).
Land rents are being actively negotiated. Landlords, seeing recent good yields, are negotiating future rents based on these higher yields. Timberland prices were reported as being flat or down, but several council members reported higher farmland prices. Increased costs tied to regulatory compliance and the impact of the Affordable Care Act were both mentioned as having ongoing negative impact on general business conditions.
Council members also discussed how agriculture has changed over time, moving away from small and midsized farms that depended on the subsidy system toward farm consolidation. As one participant said, “Two generations ago, you managed your farm with a little spiral notebook and a pencil in your front pocket. The next generation used a legal pad. Now computers and business plans are the norm.” Members noted that young people are getting degrees and are eager to join the ranks of modern farmers. Some have interests in local organic farming, but others see big agriculture changing and want to be a part of the transition.
Another topic of discussion was the growth of agritourism, which includes such realms as local sourcing, sustainable sourcing, and even destination weddings. An EconSouth article titled "Agritourism Takes Root in the Southeast" reported on this growing trend back in 2011, and it’s one that is helping farmers and rural economies tap into the region’s dynamic tourism market.
So as farmers complete fall planting, finish their harvests, and prepare for winter, we here at the Fed continue to watch, listen, and learn. While farm price and production reports remain essential in our analysis of the agriculture sector, our Agriculture Advisory Council meetings give us the breadth and depth of the story that is agriculture in the South.
As for me, I am thankful to understand a little more about how what ends up on my plate gets there. When I visit the season’s pumpkin patches and tree farms, I know I am in for a lot of fun, but I will also be looking behind the curtain to learn more about the fascinating business that is agriculture.
By Teri Gafford, a Regional Economic Information Network Director in the Atlanta Fed’s Birmingham Branch
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Energy Industry Keeps on Track
The Atlanta Fed’s Energy Advisory Council met at the New Orleans Branch on October 21 for its semiannual meeting to discuss current economic issues in the energy industry. Members were largely optimistic when sharing their views about demand, productivity, and pricing, which correlates to the ongoing “energy boom” we have discussed previously in SouthPoint. That said, some council members expressed concern about longer-term labor trends and noted ongoing uncertainty surrounding fiscal and regulatory policy issues.
We’ve heard for quite some time about the increase in oil and natural gas production, particularly related to shale resource production, processing, and transportation. With regard to the latter, council members discussed the importance of rail industry investment, which has been substantial recently. Increased use of rail transport has helped resolve transportation bottleneck issues that arose with rising production from shale resources. In fact, the American Association of Railroads reported that the U.S. rail industry has seen an unprecedented surge in crude shipments from less than 9,500 carloads in 2008 to more than 234,000 carloads in 2012. The numbers continue to increase in 2013. There were 97,135 carloads in the first quarter, up 166 percent from the first quarter of 2012.
With regard to pricing, council members generally agreed that natural gas prices will eventually rise. Factors behind the increase will likely be twofold: first (and probably most importantly in the near-term), once exports of liquefied natural gas begin, the supply glut in the United States is expected to alleviate, aligning U.S. pricing more closely with world prices. Second, the abundance of natural gas is prompting investment in technology dependent on it (for example, transportation, utilities, and manufacturing). As more projects that consume natural gas come online, higher demand is likely to push up market prices.
Some council members reported some concern about employment in the energy sector, because demand for skilled workers has outweighed the supply and led to labor shortages. One member pointed to an age gap in staff educated in engineering and possessing specialized skills. This appears to be tied to the decline in geology and energy-related education programs in colleges and universities following the oil price crash in the 1980s. Although these programs have regained popularity in recent years, and the supply of recent graduates with the desired degrees is growing, there is likely to be an experience gap that could be difficult to fill as current, more tenured workers retire.
Finally, though the Energy Advisory Council was generally upbeat about current industry conditions, members agreed that issues such as uncertainty surrounding fiscal policy, regulations, and ambiguity in the tax code are weighing on their confidence in the outlook. However, despite these concerns, members were unanimous in their belief that the policy and economic environment in the United States remained more attractive than most other energy-producing regions around the globe.
Rebekah Durham, economic policy analysis specialist in the Atlanta Fed’s New Orleans Branch
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