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By Anirban Basu
October 3, 2017
Spending Edges up in August
Nonresidential construction spending expanded 0.5 per cent in August, totaling $691.8 billion on a seasonally adjusted, annualized basis according to data made available today by the U.S. Census Bureau. Though this represents an improvement from July’s total ($688.2 billion), nonresidential spending remains 3.4 per cent below its level a year ago and is down 3.8 per cent from the cyclical peak attained in May 2017. Spending levels expanded in ten of the sixteen nonresidential construction subsectors in August on a monthly basis. The manufacturing subsector experienced the largest absolute monthly decline (-$2.6 billion) and the greatest year-over-year decline (-$16.1 billion).
Though nonresidential construction spending expanded in August, there remains a disconnect between spending data and other data characterizing the level of activity, including data regarding backlog and employment. Collectively, nonresidential construction firms continue to hire, and staffing levels are well in advance of year-ago levels. That is consistent with a busier industry. As an example, Associated Builders and Contractors’ Construction Backlog Indicator continues to show that the average nonresidential construction firm can expect to remain busy, with a significant amount of future work already under contract. But the spending data show the industry has actually become somewhat less busy over the past year.
There are a number of possible explanations. One is that employers may be forced in many instances to replace each retiring skilled worker with more than one employee. This is also consistent with declining industry productivity measured in terms of output per hour worked. Another possibility is that the construction segments that have been expanding in recent years are more labor-intensive than those in which spending has been in decline. Spending declines have been especially noteworthy in several capital-intensive, publicly-financed segments, including in categories like conservation and development, and sewage and waste disposal. By contrast, spending increases have been apparent over roughly the past three years in segments requiring many workers specializing in time-consuming, high-quality finishes, including in the lodging and office categories.
Nonresidential Spending Growth, Millions of Dollars, Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate
1-Month % Change
12-Month % Change
Amusement and recreation
Highway and street
Sewage and waste disposal
Conservation and development
Source: US Census Bureau
Nonresidential Construction Plummets in June, July
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