Associated Builders and Contractors reported today that its Construction Backlog Indicator fell to 7.8 months in April, the series’ lowest reading since the third quarter of 2012.
The commercial construction backlog is down 0.4 months compared to March and 1.7 months from a year ago. Backlog has declined year over year in every industry classification, region and company size.
Construction backlog has generally been seen as a “protective shield” against recessionary forces, according to ABC Chief Economist Anirban Basu, but this is not the case with the current crisis, which has included unprecedented government shutdowns of all but the most essential construction work.
Roughly two in five ABC members surveyed indicated that their work has been interrupted by government mandates. Other sources of interruption to construction projects include labor force issues as well as a lack of personal protective equipment and/or key construction inputs. Only 30% of respondents have not had any interruption to activity.
The numbers reflect the downturn’s effect on all types of U.S. businesses and may indicate a decline in demand for new construction, he added.
“Given the large quantity of businesses that will likely not survive the public health and economic crisis, demand for construction services could be suppressed for quite some time,” said Basu. “Vacant storefronts, empty office suites and shattered state and local government finances do not serve as a solid foundation for robust demand for construction services.”
Despite the bleak outlook, confidence among U.S. construction industry leaders inched higher last month compared to the historically low levels observed in the March survey. Notably, the staffing level index rose to 51.4 in April, indicating positive hiring expectations over the next six months, good news for an industry that has been beset by a record level of layoffs and furloughs.
A first-quarter decline in U.S. gross domestic product also does not bode well for contractors, Basu said, noting that some project owners have become “skittish,” and have been actively contemplating whether or not to postpone or cancel projects that otherwise would have begun.
“Many owners may decide to rebid projects with the hope of garnering more favorable bids in what is perceived to be an emerging buyer’s market,” Basu said. Federal assistance to state and local governments and for infrastructure improvements would help construction activity to rebound quickly, he added.
Based on an ABC member survey conducted April 20 through May 4, medium-sized firms have lost the most backlog since a year ago, with those in the $30 million to $50 million range down 2.8% to 7.8 months and those in the $50 million to $100 million range down 3.1% to 7.9 months.
The country’s largest firms (over $100 million in revenue) have the most backlog at 11.1 months and lost the least of all contractors, 1.1% compared to last April. In line with these results, two of the country’s largest contractors reported major increases in backlog last week.
AECOM reported near-record Q2 new project awards of $8.6 billion that drove its backlog to an all-time high of $42 billion, and Jacobs Engineering Group said its backlog increased $2.6 billion to $23.3 billion, up 12.5% year over year.