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.
Southeastern Transportation: Tapping the Brakes?
The Atlanta Fed's Trade and Transportation Advisory Council met on October 6 at the Jacksonville Branch to discuss economic conditions in the industry. According to a majority of council members, transportation activity has been affected by slowing of exports resulting from tepid global demand, a stronger dollar, and increased inventory levels. Although the European economy appeared to be doing better, the slowdown in China was having an impact on every key global market.
Council members reported seeing growth in inventory-to-sales, which reduced customers' needs for transportation services, and most members perceived the extra inventory as a result of slower sales rather than from overpurchasing or hedging against future price increases.
Employment and labor markets pose continuing challenges
Finding appropriate labor in logistics at all levels continues to be a challenge. Issues negatively affecting recruiting include failing substance abuse tests, experience and education gaps, and difficulty attracting talented youth into the sector. As these issues continue, domestic trucker and qualified mechanic availability remains a concern.
Costs, prices paint a mixed picture
Driver shortages continued to plague the industry, and persistent increases in driver pay have not alleviated the problem. Demand for talent has been pushing wages up for professional levels as well. However, some reported different types of pressure that are causing turnover and recruitment challenges. For example, younger workers expect flexibility, access to technology, and scheduling autonomy, conditions that are difficult to accommodate in businesses that require a specific work schedule.
Declines in fuel costs were reportedly keeping overall nonlabor costs steady by offsetting increases in other input costs. Increases in insurance premiums and an uptick in equipment costs were examples of upward pressure on costs. Congestion at West Coast ports was cited as a cause for an increase in nonproductive operating costs.
Regarding pricing power, rail continued to see strong pricing power as capacity remains tight across other modes of transportation. For others, the softening of the economy has dampened the ability to raise prices. Therefore, pricing power is limited, and increases engender considerable customer pushback. The majority of council members, however, expect to be able to increase rates one year out and beyond, though opportunities could become limited if the economy does not continue to improve and fuel prices do not rebound.
International trade plays a regional role
The appreciation of the dollar has continued to exert downward pressure on exports. The economic slowdown in China, the larger Asia-Pacific region, and Latin America (specifically, the recession in Brazil and ongoing economic turmoil in Venezuela) is substantially affecting air trade. However, these markets have not had a material impact on some transportation businesses such as rail since exports' direct exposure to the Chinese economy is limited.
Over the horizon...
Although the overall message from this council meeting was one of decelerating activity, the majority of council members anticipate the same level of growth during the next three to six months, and they expect the same or higher level of activity during the next two to three years.
Topping the list of challenges for the industry down the road are the lack of drivers, finding and retaining quality/qualified labor, and a tighter regulatory environment, which may exacerbate the driver shortage in the coming years. Council members said long-term strategic planning and capital investments in ports and highway infrastructure will be necessary to continue to meet demand.
By Sarah Arteaga, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch
Southeast Manufacturing Slows in August
Southeast manufacturing activity had been fairly sturdy this year, according to the Southeast Purchasing Managers Index (PMI). The PMI averaged a healthy 56.2 reading from January through July and, with the exception of one subpar month, new orders and production levels had been robust. However, the latest report indicated that factories pumped the brakes in August. According to the August report, new orders and production both slowed significantly.
The Atlanta Fed's research department uses the Southeast PMI to track manufacturing activity in the region. The Econometric Center at Kennesaw State University produces the survey, which examines 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. An index reading above 50 indicates that activity is expanding, and a reading below 50 indicates that activity is contracting.
The overall PMI declined 5.5 points from July and now stands at 48.8 (see the chart). The August report marks the first month the overall index has been below the 50-point threshold since November 2014. The most disconcerting aspects of the report centered on the month-over-month declines in the new orders, production, and employment subindexes.
- The new orders subindex fell 7.1 points from July to a reading of 49.1.
- The production subindex dropped 15.2 points from the previous month to a reading of 49.1.
- The employment subindex declined 6.3 points to a reading of 50.0, which indicates no change in employment levels at Southeast factories.
- The supplier deliveries subindex increased 3.6 points to 50.9.
- The finished inventory subindex decreased 2.7 points to 44.6.
- The commodity prices subindex fell 10.7 points and now reads 34.8.
On its own, the fall in the Southeast PMI is nothing to get too worked up about. Historically, the Southeast PMI subindexes are prone to volatile month-over-month fluctuations. Still, there are other factors to consider. For instance, the August national PMI index fell to its lowest reading in more than two years, and the August employment report indicated that the U.S. economy shed 17,000 manufacturing jobs. It's also possible, if not probable, that the strong U.S. dollar coupled with weak global demand is dragging down U.S. exports and reducing demand from domestic manufacturers.
No matter the cause, other aspects of the Southeast and national economy appear strong. We'll be monitoring the developments and hoping for some acceleration in the near future.
By Troy Balthrop, senior analyst with the Regional Economic Information Network at the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch
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
Auto Manufacturing an Economic Boon for Tennessee
Making cars has been giving an economic boost to the Volunteer State since the early 1980s, when Nissan built the state's first large-scale auto manufacturing plant in Smyrna. General Motors followed by establishing a plant in Spring Hill in 1990. The latest automaker to set up camp in Tennessee is Volkswagen, which opened its plant in Chattanooga in 2011. About a year ago, Volkswagen announced plans for an expansion at its Chattanooga facility. The Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) at the University of Tennessee recently released a report detailing the economic impact of the Volkswagen expansion, which, needless to say, should be significant.
Image copyright Volkswagen of America Inc.
The purpose of the Volkswagen plant expansion is to manufacture a new midsize SUV for the U.S. market. State and local governments offered incentives of nearly $300 million to entice Volkswagen to build its new SUV in Chattanooga and, according to the CBER report, the state should receive a high return on its investment. The expansion will add more than 500,000 square feet to the facility and an additional 1,800 employees. Tied to the expansion, Volkswagen plans to establish the North American Engineering and Planning Center in Chattanooga, which will create 200 jobs. The plant expansion and the R&D center together will create 2,000 new jobs, which will nearly double Volkswagen's current Chattanooga workforce of 2,358. These numbers are impressive, but they only scratch the surface of the estimated overall impact.
The CBER report breaks down the overall impact of the plant expansion into two phases: the construction phase and the operations phase. The CBER projects the construction phase alone to be quite lucrative for residents of the state. It estimates that the construction and development stage will create 5,391 full-time jobs for a year. The report also anticipates the generation of $217 million in new income during that year for Tennesseans. State and local municipalities stand to gain a one-time increase in tax revenues equal to $20.5 million. During the operations phase (after the plant is fully operational), the plant is expected to create 9,799 new full-time permanent jobs in the state. These jobs would not only include new Volkswagen employees but also the jobs created at the numerous Volkswagen suppliers located in Tennessee.
New income for Tennesseans will be in the neighborhood of $372.6 million, according to CBER estimates. The income generated during the construction phase may be direct or indirect income. (An example of indirect income would be the hiring of construction workers who are employed by Tennessee construction firms, which then spend their earnings on goods such as food or clothing in the state.) The report estimates that every dollar spent on construction of the plant will result in 47 cents of income for Tennessee. (An example of direct income would be the salaries Volkswagen pays its new employees, and estimates indicate that Volkswagen will pay $100.9 million in salaries to its new employees.) In addition, Volkswagen plans to purchase many inputs directly from Tennessee suppliers, so every dollar spent during the operations phase is estimated to lead to $3.69 of income for Tennesseans.
There are also intangible benefits to consider, such as an increase in charitable giving as incomes rise. The multiplying effects of the plant expansion will touch many aspects of not only Tennessee's economy but also the entire regional economy. It will be interesting to watch as auto manufacturing continues to put down roots in the Southeast. Hopefully, the economic benefits are just beginning to rev their engines.
By Troy Balthrop, a senior Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch
Southeast Manufacturing Rebounded in June
The Southeast Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) report, released on July 5, showed that manufacturing activity in the Southeast rebounded from a less-than-spectacular May. If you'll recall, May's PMI reading was heading in the wrong direction. The overall index had fallen to its lowest level this year, and new orders and production also appeared to be falling, but June's Southeast PMI got us back on the right track.
The Atlanta Fed's research department uses the Southeast PMI to track regional manufacturing activity. The Econometric Center at Kennesaw State University produces the survey, which analyzes 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. An index reading above 50 indicates expanding activity, and a reading below 50 indicates contracting activity.
The PMI index rose 2.7 points in June to 55.1 from May's 52.4 (see the chart). Most of the subindexes indicated positive movement as well, particularly new orders and production.
- The new orders subindex rose 9.3 points to 55.3, after falling into contractionary territory in May.
- The production subindex increased 8.9 points compared to the previous month and now reads 57.9.
- The employment subindex declined 3.0 to 57.0.
- The supplier deliveries subindex decreased 3.4 points to 52.6.
- The finished inventory subindex increased 1.6 points to 52.6.
- The commodity prices subindex fell 1.4 points and now reads 52.6.
The rise in the overall index is welcome news, but even more welcome are increases in the new orders and production subindexes. The new orders subindex is the most forward-looking indicator in the survey. When new orders fall, it generally suggests that future demand for manufacturing products may be weakening and future production may be lower. As a result, employment levels at manufacturers could also decline. It would normally take several months of subpar activity for this to occur, and a one-month drop is nothing to get excited about. Still, it is always nice to rebound quickly. June's report will hopefully set the stage for a strong third quarter.
By Troy Balthrop, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch
Southeast Manufacturing Dips in May
National manufacturing activity hasn't been particularly strong so far this year. It hasn't been particularly horrible mind you, but there hasn't been much to get excited about, either. Southeastern manufacturing activity—until recently—has been a different story. The Southeast purchasing managers index (PMI) and the Institute for Supply Management's national index both indicated that southeastern activity had been outpacing national activity in each of the first four months of 2015. I hate to throw cold water on the strong numbers, but according to the latest PMI report, released on June 5, that trend may be reversing.
The Atlanta Fed’s research department uses the PMI to track manufacturing activity in the Southeast. The survey, produced by the Econometric Center at Kennesaw State University, analyzes current market conditions for the manufacturing sector in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The PMI is based on a survey of representatives from manufacturing companies in those states and analyzes trends concerning new orders, production, employment, supplier delivery times, and inventory levels. A reading above 50 indicates that manufacturing activity is expanding, and a reading below 50 indicates contracting activity.
The Southeast PMI has averaged a 57.9 reading so far in 2015, compared with a 52.4 for the national index. However, the May Southeastern PMI's overall index fell 5.2 points from April to 52.4, clocking in below the national index for the first time in four months (see the chart).
The index remained above the 50 threshold for expansion, but the subindexes of the May report contained some disconcerting numbers:
- The new orders subindex fell 11.0 points to 46.0.
- The production subindex decreased 16.0 points compared with the previous month and now reads 49.0.
- The employment subindex declined 1.0 to 60.0.
- The supplier deliveries subindex increased 3.0 points to 56.0.
- The finished inventory subindex decreased 1.0 points to 51.0.
- The commodity prices subindex rose 9.0 points and now reads 54.0.
The 11-point fall in the new orders subindex was discouraging since it is the most forward-looking indicator of future activity. The new orders subindex has seen large one-month fluctuations in the past. For instance, it fell 27 points last December only to rebound 23.4 points the following month. So it could be a one-month aberration. Let's hope so. The 16-point fall in the production subindex was also an abnormally large fall, but—like new orders—it has happened before. Optimism for future production also decreased from April to May. When asked for their production expectations during the next three to six months, only 38 percent of survey participants expected production to be higher going forward, compared with 46 percent in April. The good news is that the employment subindex registered a strong reading, which is a good indication that manufacturers are still adding to their payrolls. So even though production outlooks have come down, firms still seem to expect that they will need employees to work more hours in the future, which could be a good sign for employment.
We should remember that the overall index still indicated expansion in manufacturing. Hopefully, as the summer heats up, so will manufacturing activity. I hate to throw cold water on our hot streak, but this time of year, a little cold water can feel good.
By Troy Balthrop, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch
Assessing the Impact of Oil Price Declines on Louisiana's Economy
It's no big secret that the energy sector is a huge contributor to Louisiana's economy. According to the Energy Information Administration, Louisiana is one of the nation's biggest energy producers and consumers, largely because of the industrial sector, which includes many refineries and petrochemical plants. In fact, with 19 operating crude oil refineries, Louisiana ranks second in the nation in both total and operating refinery capacity. Nearly 112,000 miles of pipelines transporting crude petroleum and natural gas run throughout the state and the Gulf of Mexico. Additionally, the Henry Hub natural gas distribution point in Erath, Louisiana, is the interconnecting point for nine interstate and four intrastate pipelines that provide access to major markets throughout the country.
A 2014 study by Louisiana State University economist Loren Scott cited that the oil and gas industry's total direct and indirect annual impact on the state economy is around $73.8 billion from taxes, royalties, fees, salaries and other money spent in Louisiana by the industry. Also, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), oil and gas extraction and petroleum and coal products manufacturing accounted for more than 12 percent of Louisiana's real gross domestic product in 2012.
Consequently, what happens in energy markets influences Louisiana's economic performance. So when oil prices tumbled in 2014, I wondered about the extent of the impact on the state's economy. A barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude oil fell from a peak of more than $105 in mid-2014 to less than $50 a barrel in early 2015. The price has since recovered a bit, to about $61 a barrel as of June 11, yet it remains a fair distance from last year's peak (see chart 1).
Earlier this year, the Atlanta Fed's Energy Advisory Council shared some insights about changes in business activity and investment in the region as a result of lower energy prices, which I recapped here. But what about the labor market? During the last several months, I've seen numerous announcements of worldwide oil and gas layoffs, which Houston consulting firm Graves & Co. tallied at more than 100,000 jobs. How many Louisiana energy sector workers will be caught up in those layoffs?
Unfortunately, the true impact is not very easy to extrapolate. It's not as simple as extracting employment data on oil and gas industries, since pieces of so many other industries (such as manufacturing and construction) support the energy sector. Plus, even more industries are influenced by the energy sector's growth or contraction, such as education, health care, tourism, and services industries—it's extremely difficult to determine the number of "spillover" jobs created or lost. Using an input-output table constructed by the BEA, the impact study cited above estimated that for every job created in the extraction, refining, and pipeline industries, 3.4 additional jobs are created in other industries in Louisiana. Holding all else constant, that multiplier should apply to jobs lost in Louisiana's economy.
Business contacts in the Atlanta Fed's Regional Economic Information Network (REIN) have cited instances of layoffs tied to falling energy prices over the last few months. Furthermore, various media outlets have reported recent layoffs in Louisiana's energy sector (for example, here, here, and here). However, REIN contacts also indicated that firms that generally compete with oil and gas companies for workers in a very tight labor market have scooped up recently laid off workers, likely masking the net impact and potentially clouding the multiplier calculation.
If the focus is on jobs lost in Louisiana's energy sector alone as a result of falling energy prices, at this time I'll concentrate on what's happened in the segment that encompasses the bulk of energy-related jobs: the goods-producing sector, which includes the mining and logging, construction, and manufacturing subsectors. When more detailed industry data through the first quarter of 2015 are published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) later this year, I'll revisit the impact on specific energy-related industries.
In mid-2014, when the price of oil peaked and then began to fall, jobs in the goods-producing sector in Louisiana followed a very similar trajectory (see chart 2).
In July 2014, the goods-producing sector contributed about 4,000 new jobs on net in Louisiana. Then, as the price of oil began to fall, job creation followed suit, and in January 2015 the sector subtracted nearly 3,000 jobs. Judging from the data, as well as REIN anecdotes, it is clear that oil price declines from mid-2014 to early 2015 resulted in job losses in Louisiana's energy sector. Recent BLS data reflected just 800 net goods-producing jobs lost in the state in April. So is the environment improving, considering oil prices recovered a bit?
Reports from REIN contacts have been mixed. Some business leaders indicate that the volatility of lower energy prices has become better understood and integrated into flexible business plans, positioning firms to respond to the current environment. However, their response, in some cases, has involved and continues to involve layoffs, though these reports have tempered recently.
Time will tell what the ultimate impact of this period of precipitous oil price declines will be on Louisiana's economy and labor market. I'll revisit this topic after our next Energy Advisory Council meeting and the release later this year of detailed industry data from the BLS.
By Rebekah Durham, economic policy analysis specialist in the Regional Economic Information Network at the New Orleans Branch of the Atlanta Fed
Seeking the Slack
Where is the excess slack in the labor force?
Last week, the April Employment report from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate (U-3) edged down slightly to 5.4 percent (after rounding) over the prior month, which is well below the high of 10.0 percent in late 2009. Despite this encouraging improvement, wage growth remains low, and many agree that slack remains in the labor market. The consensus of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) has been that more progress can be made, as noted in the Chair’s press conference in March. One factor we have been paying particular attention to here at the Atlanta Fed is excess slack in the labor market captured in the U-6 unemployment rate, which includes the unemployed, those who are working part-time but would prefer full-time employment (part-time for economic reasons, or PTER), and those who have stopped looking for work during the last 12 months but were willing to work (marginally attached).
Below is a chart showing the U-3 unemployment rate (depicted in blue) and the U-6 rate (in red). The difference between the two is often referred to as “the gap,” and this area shaded below in light red represents the excess slack in the labor force. Between 2000 and 2008 the gap averaged 3.7 percentage points but then rose to a high of 7.3 percentage points during the recession. Since late 2011, the gap has declined and was 5.4 percentage points in April, but it remains well above the usual amount of excess slack in the labor force experienced earlier in the decade. Earlier analysis by my Atlanta Fed colleague Pat Higgins identified a significant connection between U-6 and the subdued wage growth the economy has experienced in recent years.
Just as the U-3 unemployment rate varies widely across states, so too does U-6.
Below is a map that shows where the gap between U-6 and U-3 was greatest during the first quarter of 2015. States shaded in red have a gap higher than the United States overall, and states with a lower-than-average gap are shaded in green.
Twenty-one states are shaded red, and they are mostly concentrated along the West Coast, the Southeast, and the Great Lakes region. The gaps were largest in Arizona, Nevada, and California, respectively—the so-called Sand States—where the housing boom and bust were most dramatic.
The gap was below the U.S. average in 29 states and Washington, DC. Notably, the central part of the country is shaded green. The smallest gap is in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, states that have benefited in recent years from a boom in mining activity or energy extraction.
Of course, a large or small gap relative to the U.S. average does not tell us if the gap is unusual. For example, the red states in the chart also tend to be states whose U-3 rate and U-6 rate are also above the U.S. averages.
A way to get a sense of whether the gaps are abnormally high is to compare the gap on a state-by-state basis with that state's average gap prior to the Great Recession. (Here, I use data from 2003 to 2007 to create a prerecession baseline for each state.) As the map below shows, most states remain above their prerecession average gap and are shaded red, although a few exceptions are shaded green and sit slightly below the prerecession average. Nevada and Arizona's gaps remain stubbornly high and actually worsened in the latest quarter.
Clearly, many states have a ways to go to attain the average labor market conditions they experienced prior to the Great Recession.
By Whitney Mancuso, a senior economic analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department
Middle Tennessee Consumer Confidence on the Rise
Last week, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's research director Dave Altig wrote a macroblog post that emphasized the importance of consumer spending as the economy tries to rebound from a disappointing first quarter. Incoming data indicate that consumers haven't been willing to open up their wallets as much as expected considering recent economic conditions. The underlying fundamentals that influence consumer spending would suggest a higher level of consumption than the economy is currently experiencing. In a recent speech, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart pointed out these fundamentals, which included real personal income growth, household wealth, access to credit, and consumer confidence. According to the Middle Tennessee Consumer Outlook Index, released on May 1, Middle Tennessee has the confidence fundamental covered.
The Middle Tennessee Consumer Confidence survey is conducted by the Office of Consumer Research at Middle Tennessee State University, headed by Professor Timothy Graeff. Students in Graeff's marketing research course conduct the survey by phone. The 11-question survey asks questions related to economic conditions in the United States as well as Middle Tennessee.
The overall index rose to its highest level since June of 2004 (see the chart).
Participants felt particularly more optimistic about the local economy than the national economy. A solid 65 percent of survey participants indicated that business conditions in Middle Tennessee were good, but only 27 percent felt that conditions were good for the nation.
Looking forward, the future expectations index also rose since the last survey, suggesting that people are more optimistic about the economy over the near term. When asked what conditions for Middle Tennessee would be like in six months, 44 percent indicated things would be better, and 50 percent felt things would be about the same. The national numbers were less optimistic than the local but still represented an improvement over the last survey, with 26 percent indicating conditions would improve and 57 percent stating conditions would stay about the same.
The national consumer confidence indexes have trended up overall since the depths of the recession but still have not reached levels seen in the mid-2000s (see the chart).
Still, as Dave Altig pointed out in his macroblog post and President Lockhart in his speech, the fundamentals suggest that consumer spending will pick up in the not-too-distant future. Our confidence may be slightly guarded, but we are optimistic. Just like Middle Tennessee.
By Troy Balthrop, a senior Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch
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.
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
- Southeastern Transportation: Tapping the Brakes?
- Southeast Manufacturing Slows in August
- It's Mostly Sunny in Florida
- Auto Manufacturing an Economic Boon for Tennessee
- Southeast Manufacturing Rebounded in June
- Southeast Manufacturing Dips in May
- Assessing the Impact of Oil Price Declines on Louisiana's Economy
- Seeking the Slack
- Middle Tennessee Consumer Confidence on the Rise
- Trials and Tribulations in Transportation
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