The Indicators I’m Tracking
In presenting 2022 forecasts, leading construction economists expressed reason for optimism, pointing to strong demand and healthy backlogs.
However, economists also warned of an increased level of uncertainty, due to the unknowns related to supply chain, material costs, labor, the state of the pandemic, geo-political tensions and more.
How can glass companies make smart planning decisions when faced with such an unusually cloudy forecast?
I’m neither an economist nor a forecaster. However, there are a few key market indicators I’ve been tracking in recent months in an effort to see though those forecast clouds.
4 Key market indicators
1. Port delays
What to track: Monthly port congestion data from the BTS
Supply chain delays have been a major concern for North American glass and glazing companies. Some of those delays can be traced right to overloaded ports, which have struggled in 2021 and 2022 to keep up with record levels of imports while facing pandemic-related labor shortages. Consider, during the first 11 months of the year, the value of U.S. international freight increased by 22.2 percent year-over-year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
The BTS provides information on how many cargo ships are coming into U.S. ports, how long those ships are waiting to dock and how long it takes for cargo to leave the ports.
2. Freight costs
What to track: FBX Global Container Index from Freightos
Industry companies are also grappling with skyrocketing shipping costs. Global shipping costs for 40-foot containers increased 122 percent in 2021, according to the FBX Global Container Index from Freightos Ltd.
In November, Freightos’ head of research, Judah Levine, said the “ocean peak season seems to have come to an end.” However, he continued, “prices are likely to be kept well above the norm by port congestion, low inventories and still-elevated consumer demand.”
3. Construction material costs
What to track: Producer Price Index for construction materials from the BLS
Construction material costs increased by 26.6 percent year-over-year in 2021, according to the Producer Price Index from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While the sector did see a slight decline in costs in December, cost increases still exceeded the rise in contractors’ bid prices, which increased 12.4 percent during the year.
BLS provides a Producer Price Index series for construction materials that looks at 15 products, from plywood to cement to diesel. The industry saw double-digit gains for 13 of the 15 products on this construction material list in 2021; however, the cost increases began to show signs of slowing in the final three months of the year.
4. Construction employment
What to track: Monthly jobs report from the DOL
The January Jobs Report from the Department of Labor offered surprisingly strong numbers, despite surging omicron cases across the country. Employers gained 467,000 jobs during the month. Additionally, the BLS revised jobs data sharply upward for December (510,000 new jobs, up from initial reports of just 199,000 new jobs) and November (647,000, up from initial reports of 249,000). The U.S. labor force gained a record 6.665 million jobs in 2021.
Despite the overall growth in jobs, construction employment slipped during January, losing 5,000 jobs. The sector’s employment continues to sit 1.3 percent below pre-pandemic levels, according to AGC of America Chief Economist Ken Simonson. “Contractors are struggling to fill positions as potential workers opt out of the labor market or choose other industries,” said Simonson in an AGC release. “In addition, soaring materials costs and unpredictable delivery times are delaying projects and holding back employment gains.”