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.
It's Mostly Sunny in Florida
Jacksonville, Florida. Photo by Kendrick Disch
In a February SouthPoint post about economic conditions in north and central Florida, we reported that our contacts' optimism in late 2014 had carried into the new year. Since then, the Regional Economic Information Network team at the Jacksonville Branch has noted an overall improvement in activity and continued positive sentiment.
General business conditions continue firming
Feedback throughout the winter months was quite upbeat. Most contacts felt that an improving economy and labor market were driving growth. In early spring, although feedback remained positive, the messages became more mixed, with some contacts indicating a plateau in growth—most notably, transportation and retail contacts cited challenges from severe weather in various markets. However, bankers noted reasonable momentum with consumers and businesses; real estate contacts saw robust activity with increasing sales and prices at all price points; and homebuilders and commercial construction firms noted much stronger levels of activity. Tourism remained vibrant. Though the consumer inched along, restaurants reported revenue increases that they believe were the result of lower gas prices influencing discretionary spending. As spring progressed, activity continued along an upward, albeit slow, trajectory.
By midsummer, a small number of contacts reported demand was flat, and transportation contacts reported that activity—especially related to the movement of energy-related materials—declined notably since the first quarter. However, a majority of other contacts noted improved activity. Some began to add to capacity to meet increased demand—and, more importantly, anticipated future demand.
Employment largely stable
Throughout the first part of 2015, contacts continued to indicate no major problems in filling jobs outside of information technology (IT), accounting, compliance, and truck drivers. Staffing levels across firms generally remained steady, with some adding to headcount. Those hesitant to add staff turned to contingent labor (such as contract staff or temps) to meet demand. In late spring, we began to hear about increased turnover at many levels, and recruiting and retention appeared to be getting tougher. In central Florida, tourism contacts cited concerns of potential worker shortages as a result of a very low regional unemployment rate and increased construction attracting available labor.
Labor, nonlabor costs and price pressure surfacing
By March, mentions of mounting wage pressures at all job levels surfaced. Though not universally reported, numerous contacts said they were beginning to increase starting salaries, which they noted will eventually ripple through higher levels of staff to maintain internal pay equity and retain talent. Wages increased for engineers, truckers and technicians, and IT specialists. Into the summer, stories of referral and signing bonuses, customized perks, and other benefits enhancements for both recruitment and retention became more common.
Feedback on health care costs continued to be mixed. Health care costs for most increased at a pace greater than overall inflation, though companies continued to try to minimize the increases by changing plan designs or by sharing more of the cost with employees.
Overall, concerns about nonlabor costs were muted. Some mentioned lower energy and fuel costs have offset increases in other input costs.
The ability to raise prices varied among industries. However, a number of contacts indicated pricing power had improved, though the magnitude of price increases was limited. Generally, though, margins were edging up.
Credit, investment remain available
Throughout the first half of the year, credit was readily available and banking contacts reported increased activity. Many companies, especially small businesses, continued to deleverage even in the low interest rate environment, and many larger firms reported funding investments internally. Lenders reported increases in mortgage refinances as rates dipped, and they noted improved home equity levels. Auto lending was described as extremely strong.
Almost without exception, retail contacts noted expansion activity and further growth plans, all the result of expectations for stronger consumer spending. Real estate agents indicated that appraisal issues improved, and buyers, even the self-employed, generally faced little trouble financing home purchases. Stories regarding business investment were mixed between outlays for deferred projects and spending for new demand. This year, it's become clear that there is less hesitation about investment.
Business outlook mostly bright
Though we heard a couple of references to a cloudier outlook during the next two to three years as we approach another presidential election, collectively—and as recently as July—most REIN contacts and board members were as positive about current activity and future expectations as we have seen since the recession.
What's is in store for Florida in the second half of the year? Stay tuned.
By Chris Oakley, regional executive, and Sarah Arteaga, REIN director, both of the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch
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.
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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
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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
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Signs Point Up for Regional Manufacturing
Have you ever noticed all the signs in the world around you? They are everywhere. Many of them can prompt some deep thought. For instance, I was recently driving to work one morning, and three deer ran out in the road in front of me. Luckily, I didn't hit them, but it made me wonder: Who decides where to put deer crossing signs? How do they know a deer wants to cross the road right there?
Speaking of signs worth your attention, the signs for southeastern manufacturing are pointing up, according to the latest Southeast Purchasing Managers Index (PMI), which was released on November 6. The report suggests that things look pretty strong, and digging into the report, one could conclude that things are even stronger than they initially appear.
The Atlanta Fed's research department uses the Southeast PMI (produced by the Econometric Center at Kennesaw State University) to track manufacturing activity in the Southeast. The survey analyzes current conditions in the manufacturing sector in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The Southeast PMI is based on a survey of representatives from manufacturing companies in those states and analyzes trends in 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.
The PMI increased to 56.5 in October, which was a 1.5 point increase over September (see the chart). Some notable highlights:
- The new orders subindex remained especially strong in October, registering 64.4, which is a 3.4 point increase over September's 61.0. New orders have averaged a solid 60.7 for the year.
- The production subindex increased significantly to 67.3 during October, 8.3 points higher than September's reading of 59.0.
- The employment subindex fell 2.2 points from the previous month. October's reading of 54.8 still indicates that manufacturing payrolls are increasing.
- The supplier deliveries subindex rose 3.8 points during October, indicating that delivery of inputs is slowing as a result of high demand.
- The finished inventories subindex fell 5.7 points compared with September and sits at 41.3. The fall in finished inventories suggests that inventory levels are lower than the previous month and could lead to higher orders in the near future.
- The commodity prices subindex fell to 51.0, a 2.0 point decrease from September.
When asked for their production expectations over the next three to six months, only 21 percent of survey participants expect production to be higher, down from 50 percent in September. According to the survey, 19 percent of survey respondents expect production to be lower than their current production levels. Those responses imply that 60 percent expect production to stay at current levels.
So to recap: The PMI indicates that regional manufacturing has seen strong new orders and production, employments levels are expanding, demand for inputs could be slowing deliveries, inventory levels are falling, commodity prices are essentially flat, and most purchasing managers are expecting to remain at their current levels of production. Although the low production expectations for the next three to six months prevent it from being a perfect set of conditions, they collectively indicate strong manufacturing activity in the near future. Just as with the deer crossing signs, I'll be paying close attention.
By Troy Balthrop, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch
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Heading into Fall, Florida's Recovery Continues
In an August SouthPoint post about economic conditions in north and central Florida, we stated that the sentiment of our contacts during the summer had been the most upbeat since before the recession. Since then, the Jacksonville REIN team has met with more than 50 business contacts, and it was very clear that the optimism was ongoing.
Contacts were upbeat as revenues and volumes increased. Demand for residential purchase mortgages met expectations, and residential lot development had made a comeback since the recession. Activity in multifamily real estate was robust, commercial loan activity improved, and office space absorption increased.
Employment and labor markets
Employment levels remained relatively flat for most, but some larger firms added to headcount. Complaints about difficult-to-fill positions persisted, though there was little evidence of contacts aggressively raising pay to attract talent. For some financial institutions, the increased availability of full-time positions in the marketplace has created turnover of part-time staff such as tellers. In addition to the usual difficult-to-fill positions (information technology, accounting, and compliance and risk), we heard stories of challenges filling lower level, low-skill positions in industries such as hospitality. In the Space Coast region, there were reports of overall shortages of workers.
Costs, wages, and prices
Most contacts indicated that nonlabor inputs have increased at about the rate of inflation. However, commodities like resins, plastics, and aluminum are expected to remain fairly flat for the foreseeable future. Construction costs in our area have reportedly stabilized, and fuel prices have lowered considerably. Food costs, particularly proteins, are up compared with last year.
Anecdotes about 2015 health care premiums were mixed, as increases ranged from less than 1 percent to as high as 20 percent. Many companies indicated that they plan to change benefit structures, raise deductibles, alter prescription plans, and eliminate dependent coverage (and so on) in an effort to avoid significantly increasing the proportion that employees pay as a result of worries about talent acquisition and retention. Others are moving ahead with shifting some measure of any increases to employees.
Most contacts reported moderate wage pressures for technically skilled positions. Some reported increased starting salaries for some lower-level jobs such as call center positions, and some are forced to offer more to attract those with internet or digital media skills. Most contacts continued to budget merit increases in the range of 2.5 to 3 percent.
Availability of credit and investment
Access to capital and availability of credit continued to be a nonissue for the majority of our contacts, but some small organizations continued to struggle for funds. Banking contacts reported strong loan demand for purchase mortgages in addition to new construction loans, refinances, home improvement loans, consumer loans, and increases in commercial loans. Reports of capital expenditures including major port expansions, health care facility construction projects, and merger and acquisition activity were widespread across the region.
Some contacts mentioned downside risks to the outlook, including the outcome of today's election, increased government regulations, and—most recently—worries about weakness internationally and the resulting market volatility that crept up in mid-October. Generally, however, contacts reported an expectation for higher growth in the short and medium term.
Tell us: What's your outlook for growth for the rest of 2014 and into the next year?
By Chris Oakley, regional executive, and Sarah Arteaga, REIN director, both at the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch
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Regional Housing Sales, Construction Slowing
The Atlanta Fed conducts a monthly poll of regional residential brokers and homebuilders to track emerging trends in housing markets. The latest results, which reflect activity in September 2014, suggest continued slow growth in sales and construction activity.
Many residential brokers and builders indicated that home sales were flat to slightly up from the year-earlier level. The report from brokers and builders on buyer traffic was mixed. Those who indicated a decline in traffic suggested that seasonal factors and a decline in buyer confidence were behind the decline. A growing share of residential brokers and builders reported that home inventory levels had increased slightly from the year-earlier level. Comments suggested that well-priced homes are moving quickly, but that many sellers are pricing their homes fairly optimistically, causing inventory to build until prices are adjusted.
Many builders reported that construction activity had increased from the year-earlier level. The drop depicted in the chart below reflects the fact that a growing share of builders reported construction activity as flat to down slightly.
Most builders indicated that they continue to experience upward pressure on materials prices. Builders’ reports ranged widely when we asked them to specify the materials experiencing the greatest pricing pressure, and their responses included concrete, drywall/sheetrock, and lumber. These reports are fairly consistent with year-over-year changes in the Engineering News Record’s cost indices: on a year-earlier basis, concrete prices are up 3–4 percent, drywall/sheetrock products are up 10 percent, and lumber products are up 7–9 percent.
Builders also continued to report upward pressure on labor costs and that they are having a tougher time filling positions compared to a year earlier. In addition to asking about builders’ difficulty filling positions, we posed a special question about labor shortages. Two-thirds of builders indicated that they were experiencing a labor shortage. Reports about the trades most affected by these shortages were also fairly wide-ranging, but there seemed to be a fair amount of consensus around the idea that framers, masons, carpenters, and drywall installers were the hardest tradespeople to come by on job sites. These results are fairly consistent with report released by the National Association of Home Builders earlier this year.
To explore these results in more detail, or to view other results that were not discussed in this post, please see our Construction and Real Estate Survey results.
Note: The latest poll results, which reflect activity in September 2014, are based on responses from 40 residential brokers and 25 homebuilders and were collected October 6–15. Please sign up if you would like to participate in this poll.
By Jessica Dill, senior economic research analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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Southeastern Manufacturing Continues to Expand
The return of fall has not cooled down manufacturing in the Southeast. The Southeast Purchasing Managers Index (PMI), which was released October 5, indicated expansion in the manufacturing sector for the ninth consecutive month.
The Atlanta Fed's research department uses the Southeast PMI to track manufacturing activity in the Southeast. 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 points indicates that manufacturing activity is expanding, and a reading below 50 points indicates that activity is contracting.
The Southeast PMI fell slightly to 55.0 points in September. The index was only 1.7 points lower than August and still solidly above the 50 threshold for expansion (see the chart). The new orders subindex registered a nice increase, and the employment subindex rose, but all other subindexes fell during the month.
- New orders: The new orders subindex increased 4.5 points over August's levels and has now climbed 15.7 points during the last two months.
- Production: The production subindex decreased. September's 59.0 reading was 1.2 points below August but was still well into expansionary territory.
- Employment: The employment subindex inched up 0.5 points compared with the previous month. The employment subindex has now indicated expansion for 12 consecutive months.
- Supply deliveries: The supplier deliveries subindex declined 3.6 points during September, indicating that manufacturers are receiving their inputs slightly more quickly.
- Finished inventory: The finished inventories subindex decreased 8.6 points compared with August. The fall completely reversed the previous month's gain of 8.4 points. The subindex is now below 50, implying that purchasing managers are not as concerned about a buildup of inventory levels.
- Commodity prices: The subindex measuring input price pressures moved down to 53.0, a 5.3 point drop from the previous month.
Optimism among purchasing managers continued to rise during September. When asked for their production expectation over the next three to six months, 50 percent stated that they expect production to be higher, an increase from 44 percent in August. Only 18 percent of survey respondents expect their production to be lower.
The rise in new orders and strong production numbers bode well for manufacturing heading into the fourth quarter. The Southeast PMI has averaged a 56.6 reading so far this year. Conversely, the national PMI (produced by the Institute for Supply Management) has averaged 55.2. (I should note that the Southeast PMI is not a subset of the national index.) We'll be on the lookout for any changes in activity. After all, it's fall—the season of change.
By Troy Balthrop, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Atlanta Fed’s Nashville Branch
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Regional Jobs, Unemployment Rate Show Increases
In the latest edition of Southeastern Insights, my colleagues in the Atlanta Fed's Regional Economic Information Network (REIN) conveyed that most regional business contacts' staffing levels increased over the past couple of months. The recent release of state-level labor market data from the payroll survey produced by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics supports these anecdotal reports.
Nearly all Sixth District states added new payrolls in August. In total, the region added 51,100 net jobs, following 38,200 new payrolls in July (revised up from 27,100). Florida was among the top job contributors in the nation, adding 22,700 new payrolls in August. The only job losses in the Sixth District occurred in Mississippi, which subtracted 4,600 (see the chart).
The bulk of new jobs in the Sixth District came from goods-producing industries such as construction and manufacturing, with 25,200 jobs added on net. Florida alone contributed 10,600 of these jobs, with 6,100 added to the construction sector. Georgia added 7,900 goods-producing jobs, with 5,500 added to the manufacturing sector.
Gains in the professional and business services industry were also fairly widespread, with Sixth District states adding 15,500 payrolls to the sector in August. Only two sectors subtracted payrolls: leisure and hospitality (down 1,300 payrolls) and financial activities (down 200). Though neither sector subtracted payrolls in all states, most of the leisure and hospitality job losses occurred in Florida, which shed 5,800 payrolls, and most financial activities job losses were in Georgia, which lost 1,800 payrolls on net.
However, similar to my post last month about July's regional labor market data, jobs increased on aggregate in Sixth District states in August. However, the unemployment rate increased.
The aggregate unemployment rate for the Sixth District ticked up to 6.9 percent in August from 6.7 percent in July (see the chart). In three of the six District states—Georgia, Louisiana, and Tennessee—the unemployment rate continued its upward trend (now for four straight months). Georgia had the highest unemployment rate among the states in August, at 8.1 percent, a notable 0.4 percentage point increase from 7.7 percent in July. Mississippi's unemployment rate, though still one of the highest in the nation, declined for the first time in four months in August to 7.9 percent, from 8.0 percent in July.
So why did the report reflect an increase in jobs and a rise in the unemployment rate? Though there is some ambiguity about a rising unemployment rate accompanying decent employment growth, one possible explanation is that the number of people looking for work increased more than the number hired. The labor force participation rate (LFPR) is an indicator that supports this notion. In fact, the data show that the LFPR increased in most Sixth District states during the last couple of months. Perhaps recent improving trends in labor market conditions made people more confident in their ability to find employment, thus encouraging them to look for jobs.
The next release of state-level labor market data will be October 21. We'll have to wait and see if this trend continues.
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What We Heard in Alabama
During the most recent Federal Open Market Committee cycle (which ran from July 31 to September 17), the Atlanta Fed's Regional Economic Information Network (REIN) team at the Birmingham Branch met with business leaders, including branch directors, to discuss economic conditions in Alabama.
General business conditions
Overall, REIN contacts in Alabama see continued slow growth during the next three to six months. We heard accounts of improvement in industrial manufacturing, and commercial construction contacts reported growing demand for office, industrial, and retail space. Contacts in the finance and professional service industries also reported growing demand. Although comments regarding headwinds had grown scarcer during the past few cycles, we heard more mentions of concerns over the effects of “unknowns” from the upcoming elections and international turmoil stemming from recent events in Ukraine and the Middle East.
Employment and labor markets
We heard mixed stories about future hiring plans, ranging from no plans to hire in the near term to substantial hiring plans on the horizon. The chart below illustrates both the short-term and long-term employment momentum by sector. Compared with a year ago, Alabama has seen employment expand in several sectors like manufacturing, construction, health care, private education, and business services. However, sectors such as retail, other services (including automotive repair, personal care services, and business and professional associations, among others), and state government saw momentum contract.
In August, Alabama payrolls increased month over month by a seasonally adjusted 8,400 jobs, on net. All sectors gained except retail, which posted a loss of 1,900 jobs, and federal government, which remained unchanged since July. Alabama has seen overall job growth in the last two months, and August's unemployment rate was 6.9 percent (see the chart).
That rate is down 0.1 percentage point since July, but it's still higher than the national unemployment rate of 6.1 percent (see the chart).
Costs, prices, and wages
In most cases, our contacts reported only modestly increasing input prices, with the exception of construction materials, which have reportedly risen. No contacts reported the ability to significantly raise prices broadly, but more are reporting passing along selective increases where they can. However, growing price pressure was noted in the transportation sector and with the exception of ocean shipping (which has excess capacity), other transportation segments have reached capacity, with prices consequently rising.
When the conversations shifted to wages, many of our contacts reported that although they are not planning to increase wages, they are carefully watching what other companies are doing. No overarching wage pressure was apparent, although there was mention of wage pressure being reported for select, high-skilled positions. Mostly, contacts reported continued modest pay increases.
Availability of credit and investment
Participants told mixed stories regarding investment plans. We heard reports of idled plants being brought back online and some talk of companies beginning to consider investments that would increase production capacity. However, we also heard some discussion about companies that had been investing through the downturn considering moderating investments. Additionally, several contacts noted continued challenges in obtaining financing for smaller builder/developer projects.
Our conversations will continue in Alabama, and we'll relay them to you in the future. In the meantime, what are you hearing?
By Teri Gafford, a REIN director,
and Susan Remy, a REIN analyst, both at the Atlanta Fed's Birmingham Branch
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