Operations & Technology

Construction Spending Falls But Nonres Boosts GDP Revision

Construction spending in April totaled $1.12 trillion at a seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR), down 0.4% from March and 3.9% from April 2007, the Census Bureau reported. (Seasonal adjustment is a statistical technique to remove normal weather or holiday-related variations; annual rate means the monthly number has been multiplied by 12 to allow comparison to full-year figures.)

Public construction spending slipped 0.3% for the month but rose 6.8% from April 2007; private residential spending plunged 2.3% and 21%; and private nonresidential spending climbed 1.6% and 15%. Among private nonresidential categories, growth was notable for lodging, 7.6% and 45%; manufacturing, 3.5% and 25%; power, 2.9% and 33%; and office, 0.5% and 15%.

Commercial (retail, warehouse and farm) construction was up 1.9% for the month but only 0.3% compared to April 2007. The largest public category, educational, fell 0.3% for the month but rose 7.3% compared to April 2007, while highway and street construction inched up 0.1% from March and 5.2% from April 2007.

New private single-family construction tumbled 4.4% for the month and 38% from a year ago; new multi-family rose 0.4% from March but slumped 13% from April 2007.

Gross domestic product, net of inflation, or real GDP, increased 0.9% (SAAR) in the first quarter, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) announced in its “preliminary” estimate, rather than 0.6% as reported in the “advance” estimate released in late April. One contributor to the upward revision was real private investment in structures, which increased 1.1% instead of shrinking 6.2%, as estimated in the advance report. (BEA’s definition of structures includes wells and mineshafts as well as what Census counts as construction.) The price index for real private investment in structures climbed 2%, not 1.4% as in the advance estimate.

Price increases continue for construction materials. In the past few days, Data DIGest readers have sent reports of immediate price increases for asphalt and aggregate; roofing products and metal wall panels, effective June 1-August 1; “a steel guardrail increase of 40% since February [and] rebar for concrete barrier jumped 23% in the last 30 days;” “a serious round of increases [for vinyl chloride resin for polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which] will impact pricing for plastic pipe, vinyl siding, vinyl flooring and vinyl window pricing.”

The July futures price of natural gas, the feedstock for PVC, hit the highest level since December 2005, following Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. There were also multiple reports of fuel surcharges. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that the national average retail price of highway diesel fuel dipped 1.6 cents per gallon from last week to $4.71, 68% above the year-ago level. Last year, diesel prices remained between $2.80 and $3 per gallon until late September, making it likely that surcharges based on year-ago prices will stay very high for the next several months.

The Institute for Supply Management reported that purchasing executives with manufacturing firms reported price  increases in May for these items important to construction: aluminum, copper wire, diesel fuel, freight and fuel surcharges, and steel, including stainless and, structural. Steel was one of three items reported in short supply.

EIA reported that the national average retail price of gasoline climbed to $4.03 per gallon, up 4 cents from a week ago. Earlier, EIA had reported U.S. gasoline demand down 0.6% this year compared with the same period in 2007. The Federal Highway Administration reported on May 23 that vehicle miles of travel fell 4.3% from March 2007 to March 2008, the largest drop since records began in 1942. The drop in gas purchases will lower gas tax receipts in federal and state highway trust fund accounts, imperiling funding for new highway construction contracts.

Data posted by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (www4.fdic.gov/QBP/index.asp) show that the number of “noncurrent” 1-4 family residential construction loans at banks insured by the agency jumped to 6.8% of the total outstanding amount in the first quarter of 2008 from 4.3% in the fourth quarter of 2007 and 1.3% in the first quarter last year. For all other construction loans, noncurrent loans climbed to 3% from 2.1% an 0.7%.

Secondary mortgage lender Freddie Mac announced that its “Conventional Mortgage Home Price Index (CMHPI) Purchase-Only Series registered a 10.4% drop in U.S. home values during the first quarter of 2008 on an annualized basis, following a downward revised 9.9% annualized drop in the fourth quarter. Over the four quarters ending with the first quarter of 2008, home sales prices fell an average of 4.4% in the CMHPI Purchase-Only Series - the largest annual fall in values over the 39-year history of the series. The CMHPI Purchase-Only Series excludes all refinancings in its calculation.

Freddie Mac also produces a CMHPI Classic Series, which includes data from both home purchase transactions and mortgage refinancings, with the latter home values based on appraisals. The CMHPI Classic Series indicated that home values fell 2.4% nationally during the first quarter on an annualized basis, the steepest quarterly decline since 1971.

Over the year ending with the first quarter, home values depreciated 0.8% on average in the Classic Series, the first annual drop in this index over the 39 years spanned by the series. Forty-six states registered price declines in the first quarter and 29 states had declines measured from the same time a year ago, according to the CMHPI Purchase-Only Series. Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina and Wyoming had modest price gains during the first quarter. In general, states in which the local economy remained more vibrant tended to have better home-value performance than other states.”

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