SouthPoint

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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.


05/12/2015


Trials and Tribulations in Transportation

Members of the Atlanta Fed's Trade and Transportation Advisory Council convened on April 7 at the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch to discuss the Southeast latest developments in this sector.

Just over half of council members reported an expansion of overall activity compared with the same period last year. A few members reported reduced freight activity, citing the primary causes as both a decrease in movement of materials related to oil exploration and the appreciation of the U.S. dollar against the euro. Members noted that severe winter weather affected shipments for railroads and truckers primarily throughout the north and northeast United States, and the West Coast ports situation disrupted supply chains across the country. East Coast port volumes are now over capacity as shippers began diverting cargo away from the West Coast. Council members anticipate that it will be August before the backlog of port cargo will be cleared, a situation that may adversely affect the peak fall shipping season. However, members believed that many of the structural problems of the West Coast ports will remain in place long after the labor situation is resolved.

Employment, wage picture largely mixed
A majority of council members reported that employment levels were flat or slightly higher compared with this time last year, and two-thirds of council members expect higher workforce levels this time next year.

Truck driver shortages remained an almost universal concern for the industry. Technicians (formerly referred to as mechanics) are also in demand and harder to find as new federal emission requirements demand workers with more specialized skills.

Responses regarding wage pressures were mixed. Trucking companies continued to raise driver pay, as finding willing and qualified truck drivers remained difficult. Outside of specific areas of expertise, such as railroad engineers and technicians, employers were easily filling nondriver positions without increasing starting salaries. Logistics firms, however, perceived the labor market as tightening and reported more frequent voluntary turnover with "higher pay" being cited as a reason for leaving. Additionally, candidates were receiving multiple offers and enhanced benefits packages.

Nonlabor input costs and prices
A number of council members reported seeing some upward cost pressures in nonlabor inputs such as commercial insurance, equipment, locomotives and leases, ocean freight rates, and domestic trucking rates. The sharp decline in fuel costs, however, has helped keep overall costs down.

Almost all council members reported better pricing power since the last meeting in October 2014. Members indicated that some customers understand market forces and work to negotiate the best deal possible with their current carrier, but others shop around for the lowest cost. All council members anticipate greater ability to raise prices one year out and beyond, citing constrained capacity and expected higher commodity prices as the principal reasons, along with seeking to recover increased regulatory compliance costs.

International trade rises modestly
Council members with insight into international trade indicated modest growth in imports, related to the strong U.S. dollar against the euro and other foreign currencies and an improved domestic economy. Regions expected to drive demand for U.S. exports are South America and Asia as those economies continue to expand consumer buying power. Near-shoring is expected to become a bigger trend, and the automotive sector's investments in Mexico will drive greater cross-border growth between the United States and Mexico.

Outlook
Two-thirds of council members expect higher growth in the short term. Over the next two to three years, three-quarters of members expect higher growth. When asked about the most challenging issues facing the transportation sector, responses varied by sub-industry. Driver shortages continued to be the headliner, along with regulatory issues, which continued to drive capacity out of the market and significantly push up operations costs. Broadly, the supply chain has been adversely affected by infrastructure constraints, and this impact could persist: the United States has a great need for well-planned and properly funded hard infrastructure investment in ports and road networks to get goods to market.

The council meets again in October, and SouthPoint will report whether the summer months reflect improving conditions for the movement of goods.

By Sarah Arteaga, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch

May 12, 2015 in Florida, Southeast, Trade, Transportation | Permalink

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04/10/2015


The Fruits of Our Labor

February 2015 state-level labor market data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for Sixth District states was solid—on aggregate. Overall, the region contributed 45,900 net payrolls in February, which was 17 percent of the nation's 264,000 payrolls. The combined unemployment rate of District states declined 0.1 percentage point to 6.1 percent. In fact, the unemployment rate fell in all six states, which hasn't occurred in almost two years.

While it's important to look at the aggregate picture when thinking about labor market performance for the entire District, it's also meaningful to hone in on the drivers of that performance. Although the drivers are largely related to the sheer size of the labor force, in the case of February's job growth in Sixth District states, just two states contributed to the bulk of February's job gains (see the chart).

Georgia-payroll-contributions-from-retail

Georgia and Florida carry the weight of job growth
February was a standout month for the Peach State. With 25,400 net payrolls added, Georgia supplied more than half of the jobs of all Sixth District states combined, and was the second largest contributor to job growth in the United States. This over-the-month jobs figure was the most the state added in four years, also crushing its 2014 monthly average of 12,200 net payrolls. Job gains were widespread, but the industries that contributed the most net payrolls in Georgia were retail (up 5,300) and accommodation and food services (up 5,500). In fact, both industries have almost steadily added jobs on net each month in Georgia over the past two years (see the chart).

Georgia-payroll-contributions-from-retail

Not too far behind the Peach State in February was the Orange State, with 19,700 net jobs added. The largest gains came from the government (up 4,800; local government payrolls were up 3,200), retail (up 4,200), and health care and social assistance (up 3,700) sectors. Over the past two years, the retail and health care and social assistance industries, in particular, have contributed solid gains in the state. In reality, Florida has been a consistent contributor to Sixth District jobs growth for several years (see the chart).

Contributions-to-change-net-payrolls-by-sixth-district-state

Where did the other states stand? In addition to Georgia's 25,400 and Florida's 19,700 payrolls in February, Mississippi contributed 3,500 net jobs. The remaining states subtracted from job growth: Louisiana (down 700), Tennessee (down 800), and Alabama (down 1,200).

Unemployment rate declines in all states
All six states in the District experienced a decline in the unemployment rate in February, which hasn't occurred in almost two years (see the chart). The aggregate figure was 6.1 percent, slowly approaching the national rate of 5.5 percent. February rates by state were as follows: Alabama 5.8 percent, Florida 5.6 percent, Georgia 6.3 percent, Louisiana 6.7 percent, Mississippi 7.0 percent, and Tennessee 6.6 percent.

Unemployment-rates-for-us-sixth-district-states

Keeping an eye on developing trends
I'll be paying attention to future data to spot this year's trends in regional labor market indicators and report back here.

Photo of Rebekah DurhamBy Rebekah Durham, economic policy analysis specialis t in the Regional Economic Information Network at the New Orleans Branch of the Atlanta Fed

April 10, 2015 in Florida, Georgia, Labor Markets, Southeast | Permalink

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02/27/2015


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).

Change-in-consumer-credit

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).

Consumer-confidence-indices

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).

Consumer-confidence-indices-measuring-expectations

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).

Retail-sale

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.

Photo of Christine VietsBy Christine Viets, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Jacksonville Branch of the Atlanta Fed

February 27, 2015 in Business Cycles, Economic conditions, Economy, Florida | Permalink

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02/06/2015


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.

chart-one

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.)

chart-two

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.

chart-three

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.

chart-four

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

February 6, 2015 in Economic Growth and Development, Florida, Southeast, Unemployment | Permalink

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12/30/2014


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.

Business outlook
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?

Photo of Rebekah DurhamBy Rebekah Durham, economic policy analysis specialist in the Regional Economic Information Network at the New Orleans Branch of the Atlanta Fed

December 30, 2014 in Employment, Florida, New Orleans, Retail, Tourism | Permalink

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12/23/2014


Florida's Job Report Shines Bright

On December 19 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published November 2014 state-level labor market data. This release followed the national report published on December 5, which revealed an impressive 321,000 jobs were added on net in November, while the unemployment rate held firm at 5.8 percent. The state-level data helps us determine how the Sixth District labor market compared with the national labor picture. On aggregate, Sixth District states appear to have fared well. The district contributed 49,500 jobs in November, 15 percent of the national figure. However, although the sum of jobs added in the Sixth District last month was the highest since April, losses in some states brought the aggregate number down a bit.

Florida becomes the region's top jobs contributor
One Sixth District state had a stellar month of job gains and an unemployment rate that declined to match the national rate. If you guessed the Sunshine State, you were correct. Florida was the top contributor of jobs in the district by far, with 41,900 jobs added on net (see the chart).

Contributions-to-change

Florida's job growth in November was the most the state has added in four and a half years, when it contributed 45,200 payrolls in May 2010. The November number reflects 85 percent of all jobs created in the district, and it follows a strong month in October as well, when 34,400 jobs were added on net in the state. At 5.8 percent, Florida's unemployment rate in November was the lowest it's been since May 2008, when it was 5.7 percent.

So where did these jobs come from? Though November's gains occurred in nearly all sectors, the largest contributions came from trade, transportation, and utilities (up 12,700), leisure and hospitality (up 8,400), and financial activities (up 5,800) (see the chart).

Florida-payroll-contributions

Within the trade, transportation, and utilities sector, retail added 8,400 jobs on net, followed by transportation, warehousing, and utilities, which added 3,500 jobs, and wholesale trade, which gained 800 jobs. Looking at Florida's payroll contributions over the year so far, you can glean that the trade, transportation, and utilities sector has often performed well. In fact, the sector has contributed 47,600 jobs in Florida so far this year, 30,200 from retail alone. The other big contributors over the last 11 months have been the leisure and hospitality (up 42,700), professional and business services (up 40,500), and goods-producing (up 39,000, with 33,500 from construction) sectors (see the chart).

Florida-payroll-contributions-by-sector

Looking at the losses
A few Sixth District states saw payroll declines in November, losses the district had not seen on aggregate since June. Tennessee's loss of 1,900 jobs in November was the first time the state encountered net losses since June. The largest decreases occurred in the trade, transportation, and utilities (down 2,000 payrolls) and leisure and hospitality (down 1,900) sectors. In addition, for the first time since January, Louisiana experienced job losses in November, with 2,600 jobs subtracted on net. The goods-producing sector drove the losses, shedding 3,400 jobs. Within the sector, 3,000 construction jobs were lost. Additionally, Louisiana's unemployment rate rose in November for the seventh month in a row to 6.5 percent, increasing 2.0 percentage points since April. In fact, the movements in unemployment rates of Sixth District states, particularly during the last few months, indicate that all states rates are trending down except Louisiana (see the chart).

Unemployment-rates

Furthermore, Mississippi experienced net job losses in November, shedding 4,500 payrolls. The bulk of the losses were in the leisure and hospitality (down 2,200) and professional and business services (down 1,700) sectors. Mississippi also had the highest unemployment rate in the United States in November with 7.3 percent (previously, another Sixth District state—Georgia—held that distinction for three months in a row).

Overall, the Sixth District's aggregate payroll contributions in November and a declining unemployment rate seen over a three-month trend are positive signs of continued strengthening in the labor market. However, a distinction must be made between the aggregate and state-by-state figures, considering the Sunshine State's occasional tendency to outshine its cohorts, as seen in November's data.

The state-level labor market report for December will be released on January 27, 2015, and we'll parse its numbers for you.

Photo of Rebekah DurhamBy Rebekah Durham, economic policy analysis specialist in the Regional Economic Information Network at the New Orleans Branch of the Atlanta Fed

December 23, 2014 in Florida, Southeast | Permalink

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11/25/2014


Employment Momentum Grows in Florida and the Retail Sector

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published October 2014 state-level labor market data on November 21. For Sixth District states, a couple of factors stood out. First, after several months of anemic job growth, Florida employers added lots of jobs. In fact, Florida contributed 61 percent of October's net payrolls to the region. Second, although job gains were solid in a number of sectors, retail shined with 13,300 jobs added on net across the District, a figure that represents nearly half of the 27,100 jobs added to the sector in the entire United States in October. These regional retail job growth data confirm what the folks in our Regional Economic Information Network described earlier this month in their recap of economic intelligence gathered from business contacts across the Southeast: retailers anticipate strong holiday sales, and this anticipation translated into robust seasonal hiring in the retail sector in October.

A summary of the payroll and unemployment data for Sixth District states sheds more light on recent activity.

Payrolls flex some muscle
Employers in all Sixth District states except Mississippi added to payrolls: 56,600 jobs were added on net (see the chart). Florida dominated aggregate net gains in October, adding 34,400 jobs on net. Most of these gains came from the leisure and hospitality sector (up 9,300). Big contributors to Florida gains also included the educational and health services (up 9,000), professional and business services (up 6,100), and goods-producing sectors (up 5,100). (The good-producing sector was up 6,200 payrolls from construction alone but was reduced by losses in manufacturing.)

The sectors with payroll additions varied by state, though gains in the trade, transportation, and utilities sector were prevalent, with 16,800 net jobs added. Gains in this sector were dominated by retail trade (see the chart), which was the only sector tracked by all states that added jobs in every Sixth District state in October. This increase is typical for October, as retailers gear up for the holidays.

Employment momentum in the retail sector has been building for most of the region's states for a few months now (see the chart).

District gains in the professional and business services sector were also sizeable, with 13,100 jobs added. Momentum in this sector has been building in district states (see the chart). However, two states subtracted jobs from this sector in October: Louisiana (down 1,200) and Mississippi (down 1,500).

A few other facts about the Sixth District's October payrolls and sectors are noteworthy:

  • Alabama added 2,200 jobs on net. The leisure and hospitality (up 3,200) and professional and business services (up 1,400) sectors were the top contributors. The biggest losses occurred in the government (down 1,500); trade, transportation, and utilities (down 600); and financial activities (down 500) sectors.
  • In Florida, aside from job gains mentioned above, payrolls fell in the information (down 2,100) and financial activities (down 100) sectors.
  • Employers in Georgia added 11,600 jobs on net. The largest gains occurred in trade, transportation, and utilities (up7,900, with 4,700 of those payrolls from wholesale trade) and professional and business services (up 5,400). The biggest losses came from government (down 3,200) and financial activities (down 1,200).
  • Louisiana added 1,200 payrolls on net, most of which came from the trade, transportation, and utilities (up 1,500) sector. That sector was up 2,900 from retail trade, reduced by losses in wholesale trade) and educational and health services (up 1,200) sectors. The biggest losses occurred in leisure and hospitality (down 2,600) and professional and business services (down 1,200).
  • Mississippi was the only district state to subtract payrolls from the aggregate district figure. The largest losses came from the professional and business services (down 1,500) and government (down 700) sectors. The only gains occurred in the educational and health services (up 1,300), leisure and hospitality (up 500), and trade, transportation, and utilities (up 400) sectors.
  • Tennessee employers increased payrolls by 7,900 on net. The largest increases occurred in the trade, transportation, and utilities (up 3,500) and professional and business services (up 2,900) sectors. The biggest losses occurred in educational and health services (down 700) and leisure and hospitality (down 400) sectors.

Regional unemployment declines, if only slightly
The aggregate district unemployment rate was 6.6 percent in October, a decline of 0.2 percentage point from September (see the chart).

The rate fell in all states except for Louisiana, where it increased to 6.2 percent from 6.0 percent the previous month and was the sixth straight month of an increasing unemployment rate in that state. As I reported last month, this isn't necessarily a bad thing in the short run, since the state added jobs yet appears to have increased its labor force participation rate.

The unemployment rate fell in all remaining District states. Alabama's rate fell 0.3 percentage point in October to 6.3, its lowest rate in nine months. Florida's rate fell 0.1 percentage point to 6.0 percent, the lowest it's been in more than six years. The unemployment rate in Georgia fell for the second month in a row, to 7.7 percent in October from 7.9 percent in September. Though Georgia's unemployment rate declined, it had the highest rate in the United States in October for the third month in a row, at 7.7 percent. Mississippi's rate declined 0.1 percentage point to 7.6 percent, the lowest it's been in six months. In Tennessee the unemployment rate was 7.1 percent, a 0.2 percentage point decline from September.

So once again, collectively, the Sixth District states' labor market showed continued strengthening in October, particularly the state of Florida and the retail sector.

Hopefully, this progress continues for the month of November. We'll see when the data are released on December 19.

Photo of Rebekah DurhamBy Rebekah Durham, economic policy analysis specialist in the New Orleans Branch of the Atlanta Fed

November 25, 2014 in Economic Growth and Development, Employment, Florida, Jobs, Labor Markets, Retail, Southeast | Permalink

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11/07/2014


South Florida Maintains Momentum

In a SouthPoint post in August, I discussed improving economic conditions in South Florida. This momentum is continuing into the last quarter of 2014, with business activity generally strong and some new developments in business investment.

From mid-September to the end of October, business contacts for the Miami Branch of the Atlanta Fed continued to indicate improving business sentiment in the region. Economic activity and overall demand reflect steady growth. One exception to this steadily improving performance is the real estate market, which remains a very active sector in South Florida, with prices continuing to increase.

Employment and labor markets
Business contacts continued to report a concern with a skill-set gap between job seekers and available job opportunities. Contacts across several sectors report difficulty finding skilled labor for specialized positions in technology, mathematics, engineering, management, and lending. In a few sectors, the labor market was reported as tightening.

Contacts in the hospitality industry discussed how the tourism sector's expansion has resulted in job growth. The application of technology has reduced the need for some labor resources. However, creating "experiences" for travelers still requires a human touch, thus the need for additional workers as the sector expands and new venues come online. The part-time to full-time employee ratio has remained stable for some time in this sector, with contract workers being used for specific projects. (Speaking of tourism, industry contacts continue to report construction of new hotels, sports venues, and other attractions, in addition to the renovation of restaurants, hotels, and convention centers.)

Costs, prices, and wages
Business contacts reported some increases in costs, primarily in rent, total compensation, and commodities. Increases in construction costs were mainly associated with increasing land and labor costs. Rising commodity prices were affecting the ability to increase prices and improve profit margins. Contacts reported that—with the exception of the real estate and food services sectors—passing through price increases has met with little success, although many contacts have attempted to raise prices or are considering doing so in the near future.

The commercial real estate rental market remains quite active. Real estate professionals are reporting that as a result of a shortage of industrial space, landlords are able to increase rents, spurring an increase in average asking rents.

Contacts continue to report increasing wage pressures for specific skilled labor. Rising health care costs have been described as a significant concern that is driving total compensation costs up. The reports were mixed as to the percentage of increases, although most said increases ranged between 10 percent and 20 percent. Some contacts are absorbing these costs rather than increasing wages, and others have passed on some or all of the cost to the employee.

Availability of credit and investment
Banking sector contacts all reported being well capitalized, though small businesses noted continued credit constraint. Contacts in regional banking expect the combination of traditional and nontraditional structures (for example, supply-chain financing and accounts receivable purchases) to gain momentum through the end of the year and into 2015.

The number of reports of investments and capital expenditures increased. South Florida real estate companies indicated little slowdown in foreign capital moving into the market. The prevailing perspective is that the United States still offers a strong safe haven.

Overall, South Florida business contacts continue to report positive activity, and an optimistic outlook prevails in the near term.

By Marycela Diaz-Unzalu, a senior Regional Economic Information Network analyst at the Atlanta Fed's Miami Branch

November 7, 2014 in Employment, Florida, Labor Markets, Real Estate | Permalink

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08/06/2014


Sunnier Times in the Sunshine State

During the most recent cycle of the Federal Open Market Committee (which ran from June 19 to July 30), the Atlanta Fed’s Regional Economic Information Network (REIN) team at the Jacksonville Branch talked with more than 30 Florida business leaders, including branch directors, about economic conditions. As one who has been involved with the REIN program since its inception in 2008, I can attest that, while “slow and steady” remains a theme in this economic recovery, the sentiment of our contacts over the past two months has been the most upbeat since before the recession.

General business conditions
Almost all firms reported increases in business activity. Two design/build firms indicated robust demand and reasonably strong pipelines, including a strengthening in industrial and office development. For the first time, we heard of some speculative building in the commercial sector from three different contacts. Housing continued its slow improvement, though several contacts used the word “bumpy” to describe activity. The appetite for auto purchases continued, as a recent SouthPoint post discussed, with lenders citing robust auto-lending activity. Some banks also reported that consumers are now slowly adding to outstanding credit card balances.

Employment and hiring
Labor markets tightened as the number and types of difficult-to-fill positions increased. In addition to highly skilled positions that are normally a challenge to fill (including information technology and engineering), contacts shared frustrations with filling midlevel positions such as analysts. In construction, finding subcontractors and skilled laborers was harder than normal. However, one contact saw a 20 percent annual increase in revenue as clients resumed a normal hiring pace.

Labor and input costs
Contacts reported seeing wage pressures in their organizations. For example, demand for truck drivers that one firm described as “significant” led to a 33 percent pay increase since the beginning of 2014. One retail contact reported wage increases for maintenance positions as the “construction boom in the area lures these workers away.” Most contacts previously noted merit programs of between 2–3 percent. However, for the first time, several contacts discussed plans for more aggressive increases of 4–5 percent. Regarding health care, most anticipate premiums to continue growing significantly, and many have self-insured to mitigate rising costs.

Most contacts described nonlabor input cost increases as benign. Although the cost of some construction-related materials was a cause for concern earlier this year, most of this volatility has dissipated. While most contacts do not claim much pricing power, some companies are seeing improved margins as they are able to push through increases in the form of higher sales prices.

Credit and investment
Contacts at medium and large companies noted that while credit is readily available, many are still risk-averse and avoiding taking on debt, relying instead on cash flow or internal reserves to fund projects. Companies that do borrow are undergoing “rigorous but rational underwriting.” One construction contact said that many of his larger clients are no longer just catching up from the recession but are now willing to take risk and invest in adding capacity. A bank also reported more risk-taking among customers, especially in commercial real estate and equipment leasing. At the consumer level, real estate agents and lenders referred to qualified mortgages as something of an impediment to mortgage loan activity, but they generally viewed the more rigorous process as worth the effort to reduce risk.

Since June, the consensus from REIN contacts at the Jacksonville Branch was largely positive. Overall demand conditions have improved, though some expressed concerns about regulatory impact. Some contacts specifically mentioned dissipating headwinds as a reason for increased investment, including one contact who sees enough improvement in the economic environment that the company has changed its strategy from diversification to more rapidly expanding its footprint with aggressive new revenue goals.

Does this jibe with what you, our readers, are seeing? As always, your thoughts are welcome.

By Sarah Arteaga, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch

August 6, 2014 in Economic conditions, Employment, Florida, Health Care, Jobs, Labor Markets, Recession, Recovery | Permalink

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07/09/2014


Southeastern States Mind the (Skills) Gap

During the past few years, we have heard from a significant number of regional business contacts about the challenges they experience filling certain positions and concerns about a skills gap facing the Southeast. We heard this from various industries, most often about engineering, construction, and IT jobs. The most recent Southeastern Insights mentions this widespread issue.

This skills shortage situation is not unique to the Southeast. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation published a state-by-state analysis last month measuring performance in a number of areas that contribute to economic prosperity. Their key conclusion reiterates our contacts’ concerns: that mounting skilled-labor shortages are on the horizon to such an extent that they may soon hinder economic growth. According to the study, the current skills gap dilemma is expected to grow substantially as baby boomers retire.  

Fortunately, there’s a bright side: many states have recognized this situation and have taken steps to address the ostensibly approaching workforce crisis. Many of our contacts from both private and public sectors pointed to joint initiatives created by states and businesses designed to confront and abate the situation; which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation study says is essential to closing the gaps. Below is a sample, extracted from the study, of some of the efforts Sixth District states have taken:

Alabama

  • In 2013, the state launched a College and Career Ready Task Force charged with identifying ways to better prepare students for the workforce by training them in the skills demanded by growing industries across the state.
  • New and expanding businesses can get workforce development services through the Alabama Industrial Development Training program, which offers services to businesses in need of skilled workers, including preemployment selection and training, leadership development courses, and third-party process improvement assessments.
  • The Alabama Technology Network provides skills training for the manufacturing and high technology workforce. The network connects businesses to the portfolio of training resources and programs provided by the state’s colleges and universities, offering services through regional centers.
  • The Go Build Alabama initiative works to attract talented workers to construction and skilled trades.

Florida

  • Quick Response Training enables new and expanding businesses in need of training to partner with community colleges and other educational institutions in the state to develop and deliver workforce training programs.
  • The Incumbent Worker Training program supports training the existing workforce to enhance and maintain competitiveness.
  • The Career and Professional Education Act guides Florida’s efforts to diversify its economy and develop a more skilled workforce by encouraging collaboration among education, industry, workforce, and economic development stakeholders from across the state.

Georgia

  • In early 2014, the state approved a $44.7 million Science Learning Center on the University of Georgia’s South Campus, providing state-of-the-art facilities aimed at expanding the pipeline for students in science, technology, engineering, and math (often referred to collectively as STEM).
  • Groundbreaking also took place for the Georgia BioScience Training Center, which will support training for companies that choose to locate within the state. Georgia Quick Start, the state’s job training program, will build and operate the state-of-the-art biotech training center.

Louisiana

  • Via the Small Business Employee Training Program, employers can receive up to $3,000 to defray the costs of off-the-shelf training programs for an existing employee.
  • The Louisiana Workforce Commission established Workforce Partners to recognize businesses that have committed to building a “job ready” workforce in the state through support and training.
  • The Strategies to Empower People program provides access to job training, job readiness support, vocational education programs, and a variety of other skills-development services for those receiving government assistance.

Mississippi

  • The Workforce Investment Network consists of more than 60 training and employment centers around the state where employers and job seekers can access services like training, job postings, on-the-job training programs, employment screening services, and job placement assistance.
  • The Mississippi Development Authority also maintains a team of workforce specialists who work with colleges, businesses, workforce development professionals, and other stakeholders to identify resources useful to a particular business. The authority also builds partnerships to pursue needed training services.
  • The University of Mississippi maintains a Professional and Workforce Development program, offering online enrichment courses, certification programs, and outreach services, bringing tailored training programs directly to the employer.

Tennessee

  • The Tennessee Job Skills grant program offers support to technology companies that create “high-skill, high-wage” jobs, reimbursing eligible costs incurred in training development implementation.
  • Entrepreneurs in need of quick turnaround in receiving support for training costs can make use of the state’s Job Based Training Reimbursement program, which provides support within the first 90 days after a new job is created and training starts.
  • The FastTrack Job Training Assistance Program offers employers state support to cover costs for classroom instruction, on-the-job training, training-related travel, training vendors, and development of training materials and programming.

Sixth District states appear to be on a solid track to address skills gap challenges, combining investment in training, education, and business assistance as a long-term workforce development strategy. Time will tell if the investment pays off (we should know sooner rather than later, as boomers are expected to start retiring in droves).

To learn more about states’ efforts, as well as their rankings across five policy areas—talent pipeline, exports and international trade, technology and entrepreneurship, business climate, and infrastructure—check out the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s study. There’s also a nifty interactive map you can use to view state rankings and data easily.

Photo of Rebekah DurhamBy Rebekah Durham, economic policy analysis specialist in the Atlanta Fed's New Orleans Branch


July 9, 2014 in Alabama, Education, Florida, Georgia, Jobs, Labor Markets, Louisiana, Mississippi, Southeast, Tennessee | Permalink

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