Institute For Regional Forecasting
Houston’s Outlook Brightens as Job Growth Picks up Strongly in Early 2014
Employment in Houston has surged over the first four months of the year, according to the payroll employment data released by the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC). Seasonally-adjusted data show 38,700 new jobs through April, or if the pace continued through the year 116,100 new jobs. If such a year materialized, it would compare to the monster addition of 115,000 new jobs in Houston’s metropolitan area in 2012, before 2013 saw job growth slow to 76,000.
The current data show a sharp reversal of trends that led to the 2013 slowdown, especially a dramatic turn-around in jobs tied to oil- and gas-related drilling. This raises several questions. First, are the data to be trusted? After all, TWC payroll figures are estimates based on a relatively thin sample and substantial statistical modeling; they will be subject to repeated revision in the months to come. Can we, for example, confirm the pick-up in growth in other data series? Second, if it is real, what is driving it? And finally, is it a temporary bump or likely to continue through the year or even beyond? The answers we offer below are that it is real; it is a mix of temporary and more persistent events; and that it provides an improved outlook for Houston in 2014 and 2015. Based on these results, we have raised our forecast for 2014 to 86,000 new jobs, an increase of 21,000.
Is It Real?
Figure 1 shows payroll job growth in Houston running at 4.5 percent annual rates through 2012, slowing to below 2.0 percent by the spring of 2013, and pulling back up to 4.5 percent in early 2014. Preliminary data show job growth slowing to 3.0 percent by April, but the cumulative total of 38,700 jobs added through April is much bigger than had been expected.
There are other data series that support the proposition that Houston’s economic growth accelerated early this year. The Houston Chapter of the Institute for Supply Management conducts a monthly survey of local purchasing managers that results in a purchasing managers’ index (PMI) similar to the manufacturing index released by the national organization on the first business day of each month. The PMI is set so that 50 is neutral, above 50 indicates expansion, and below 50 implies contraction. Following the end of the 2010 recession, Houston’s PMI was consistently reported as being 5-10 percentage points higher than the national index, largely reflecting the ability of oil- and natural gas-related activity to move Houston onto a stronger growth path. Last year, with oil and gas exploration pulling back in the wake of a collapse in natural gas prices, the Houston and national indexes moved to comparable levels, as seen in the left side of Figure 2. However, in early 2014, Houston again separates itself from the U.S. index. The PMI is comprised of seven individual series, including responses to questions about sales, production, lead times, and other factors. The right side of Figure 2 shows that, according to this data, sales and production led the early-year acceleration of local economic activity.
Figures on unemployment also indicate an acceleration of local growth. Unlike the payroll employment data, which is based on a survey of local firms, unemployment figures are compiled from a telephone survey of households, and provide another check on recent economic strength. Since the end of the recession in late 2009, the number of unemployed workers in Houston has been reduced by about one-third. Progress in reducing the number of unemployed slowed through 2013, and then accelerated in 2014. By April, the local unemployment rate fell to seasonally-adjusted 4.9 percent from 5.7 percent in December, to reach its lowest point since July 2008.
Where Does It Come From?
Given three independent sources of data that confirm an early-year growth spurt, we can have some confidence that it won’t all be revised away. The most likely suspects for causing such acceleration in Houston are always the goods-producing sectors – oil and natural gas, construction, and manufacturing. Figure 3 shows that oil- and gas-related employment had been running at 10 percent annual rates in late 2012, but had slowed to a mild contraction by late 2013. It then suddenly surges back to double-digit rates in recent months. Similarly, construction employment had stopped growing by mid-2013, only to surge back to double-digit growth early this year. Manufacturing remains flat, however, as did the manufacturing sectors most closely related to oil and gas exploration – fabricated metal and machinery.
A chart very similar to Figure 3 can be produced by just replacing the Houston data with that for the state of Texas. It shows statewide oil- and gas-related jobs spiking up to a 15 percent growth rate, and construction to near 6 percent. Weekly hours in Texas oil and gas have quickly risen from 42 to 47 hours. Houston is sharing (or perhaps leading) similar trends seen across the state.
Temporary? Persistent? Permanent?
Unfortunately, the data do not come with neat explanations attached, leaving us to speculate about what is happening here. Let’s start with oil and gas, and two likely possibilities.
- One possible cause of a jump like that seen in Figure 3 would be the relocation of a large number of jobs into the Houston area by a major producer like Chevron, Exxon, or Occidental, all of whom have announced that such relocations will occur. We have no specific knowledge, but such an early-year transition of a large number of jobs to Houston payrolls could explain part of the jump.
- Second, the cold winter of 2013-14 produced a very large cash bonus for natural gas producers, as increased heating demands pushed up depressed natural gas prices. A $1 increase in the price of natural gas per thousand cubic feet, if maintained for a month, would produce a $2 billion increase in revenues to producers. Based on the increased natural gas prices between November and March, this is an additional $10 billion or so that went into the pockets of natural gas producers.
In addition, natural gas futures prices remain above $4.50 through next spring, as prices are expected to remain high until we can re-establish normal inventories of natural gas. In the spring of 2014, natural gas inventories had been pulled down by the harsh winter to only 45 percent of normal. These continued high prices offer producers the opportunity to sell their production forward for additional revenues.
Bonus money delivered by the polar vortex is apparently being spent by natural gas producers – mostly on oil-directed drilling in the Permian Basin. While other land-based drilling in Texas remains flat, the Permian Basin’s rig count has surged from 450 to 550 working rigs since November. The Permian Basin is the greatest of U.S. oil fields, and this finally marks its transition to horizontal drilling from vertical drilling. It is rich in opportunities for horizontal drilling and fracturing, but has until now the basin has been so rich in other opportunities, opened up by high oil prices and technology, that it has been too busy to turn to shale plays. As always, much of the capital, the high level executive oversight, the engineering, and the equipment will come out of Houston.
This is a one-time, weather-related event, but with stimulus that should carry through 2014 and into early 2015. It could bring to Houston an unanticipated bonus of several thousand jobs.
The only clear fact that emerges from the recent data on construction is that about 40 percent of the increase is related to heavy construction for utilities, roads, lot development, and other infrastructure. Probably backward looking, this is a continued effort to catch up with the rapid growth that has shaped the local economy for more than a decade.
The rest of the construction growth in 2014 is general building construction – single-family residential, multi-family, retail, office, light industrial, and heavy industrial. Out of this group, most can also be categorized as backward-looking, catch-up activities in response to past growth. The exception is heavy construction on the east side of Houston, new petrochemical and liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities, some of which are now entering the construction phase.
Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing of shale in the U.S. has produced an abundance of cheap natural gas and natural gas liquids. The liquids are produced along with the methane gas stream – butane, propane, ethane, and natural gasoline – and are used to produce intermediate products (petrochemicals) that ultimately become plastic or synthetic rubber. For example, ethane is used to make the chemical ethylene, the largest building block on the Ship Channel, which ultimately becomes polyethylene or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic.
The abundance of natural gas liquids that have resulted from fraccing have resulted in low feedstock prices and major competitive advantages for U.S.-based petrochemical producers. Houston is home to a major share of the U.S. industry, with four of the largest eight ethylene complexes in the world located here, and it is about to be home to three more – two in Baytown and one in Freeport. Historically in the U.S., we have produced petrochemicals for the U.S. market and exported opportunistically. However, these new plants are being built for export to take advantage of low domestic feedstock prices.
Table 1 compares two large and very similar projects proposed by ChevronPhillips and Exxon, each with a cost of about $6 billion. To put the cost and scale of these figures in perspective, a 30-story office building downtown might cost $250 million. These projects are each the equivalent of 20-24 such towers.
Horizontal drilling and fracturing has also produced large new supplies of natural gas for export. Six projects to liquefy natural gas and export it have now been approved by the Department of Energy, with three of them in the Beaumont-Lake Charles area, and one in Freeport. Each plant carries a price tag of about $10 billion and an expected completion date of 2018. A number of other potential plants remain in the permitting phase.
All of these projects are anxious to move forward. The large petrochemical projects, in particular, are now moving through permitting, procuring long lead-time equipment, and are anxious to be the first to market in 2016 to take advantage of what are currently very lucrative profit margins. Each plant is also concerned about craft availability and machine shop capacity, and does not want to be the last in line for these services in a crowded field. It is likely that these multi-billion dollar projects are finally playing a significant role in Houston’s construction activity, and now that the surge has begun, they will continue to play a major role into 2018.
It is a strange witch’s brew of events that have come together to propel Houston’s economy through the first four months of the year: a possible one-time producer relocation, a weather-driven push in drilling, some more predictable catch-up activity in construction and lot development, and likely acceleration in long-anticipated petrochemical construction. Based on its timing and the apparent early-year growth we have already seen, we need to reconsider our forecast for 2014.
Our initial take on 2014 was that the slowdown in upstream hiring was to stay with us through 2014, and that downstream construction would accelerate slowly through the year. We forecast 65,000 jobs, down from 76,000 in 2013. This was to be a transition year, as drilling and exploration handed off responsibility for the local expansion to petrochemical construction. Growth would accelerate again in 2015 driven by growing heavy industrial construction. Based on the twice-over but temporary shocks to the upstream, plus downstream building activity that is accelerating earlier than expected, we have increased the forecast by 21,000 jobs to 86,000. The revision is based on less solid fact than we would like to have, and considerable uncertainty about how these various factors will play out over the next 18 to 24 months. But it is explicit recognition that the Houston economy is now growing quite strongly.
Written by: Dr. Robert W. "Bill" Gilmer
Director, Institute for Regional Forecasting
June 5, 2014
Benchmark Revisions Confirm Loss Of Momentum in Local Job Growth
The most important and current data we receive on Houston’s economy are the monthly payroll employment figures. The monthly data are estimates of the number of Houston workers eligible for unemployment insurance under the Employment Security Program that is operated by the State of Texas. The initial estimates are based on a sample of employers, but after several months the unemployment compensation data stabilize to provide an actual figure for the total number of covered employees, as well as the final number of workers in many key industries. Each March, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Texas Workforce Commission look back to replace the sample data with actual — or at least much more accurate — counts, and to provide revised jobs numbers that cover a year or more. This latest benchmarking for Houston was released on March 7, and — as always — it rewrote recent economic history.
The latest revisions reached back as far as early 2012 and rebenchmarked data through the third quarter of 2013. Fourth quarter data and early 2014 remain sample estimates. The effect of the revision was to increase Houston’s estimated December to December job growth figure in 2012 from 105,700 to 114,500, and to reduce 2013 job growth from 82,000 to 76,200.
These new figures again confirm that 2012 was one of the greatest years ever for Houston job growth, but they also reinforce that we are seeing a broad pullback in the pace at which we are adding new jobs, and that slower growth began in mid-2013. Figure 1 shows annual rates of employment growth near 4.0 percent in 2012 and early 2013, but pulling back to a rate of 2.5 percent by year-end. The current 2013 estimate is a December to December change of 76,200 new jobs that closely matches our long-standing forecast of 74,000. The 2013 result is a 2.8 percent annual increase, well below the monster year of 2012, but also well above Houston’s long-term average of 2.2 percent.
Why the slowdown? A boom in upstream oil and gas drove domestic exploration and production spending at compound 20 percent annual rates from 2002-2012, but these E&P expenditures have been flat or growing much more slowly since the collapse in natural gas prices in late 2011. The Baker Hughes rig count is down by over 10 percent since its peak two years ago. The result for Houston-based oil and gas employment has been that the growth of jobs in oil production, oil services, fabricated metal, and machinery has shrunk from a 15 percent annual rate to nearer 2-3 percent. See Figure 2.
Economists also like to divide employment into basic and non-basic jobs. Basic jobs are those that drive growth by selling their products outside the 10-county metro area. The most obvious examples in Houston are energy related – oil services, oil production, machinery, refining, and petrochemicals. The non-basic jobs are followers that rely on base expansion for momentum, and are inherently local activities like laundries, dry cleaners, restaurants, and most construction and real estate. We don’t get rich taking in each other’s laundry or by building each other a new house or office building. Figure 3 shows the growth of base employment (proxied by mining and manufacturing) pulling back to rates near 2 or 3 percent, and the non-basic jobs are now falling into a similar trajectory. We know that over the long-run, basic and non-basic jobs will grow at the same rate.
In summary, the newly benchmarked revisions: 1) moved 8,800 jobs back to 2012 and, 2) showed 2013 job growth that was slower than previously thought, with 76,200 new jobs measured December to December. The data also show a rapid and sustained slowdown in basic employment led by upstream oil and gas. Our spring symposium on May 22 will be a search for a replacement for the momentum lost to this pullback in upstream E&P spending. We think the prospects for Houston remain solid, but we will rethink the current 2014 forecast of 64,000 jobs after looking closely at the petrochemical expansion underway on the east side of Houston, improved prospects for the U.S. economy, and a variety of other factors. Can one or more of these economic drivers step forward while Houston’s upstream sector steps back?
Written by Robert W. Gilmer, Ph.D.
Director, Institute for Regional Forecasting
March 10, 2014
Three Months of New Jobs Data for Houston Confirm Slowdown, Paint Slightly Better Picture for Economy
The shutdown of the federal government in early October delayed the release of September payroll employment and unemployment data for Houston until November 22, the regular release date for October figures. Counting the revision of August data that should have occurred in September, this latest news gives us insight into the last three months of local job growth. The new numbers confirm the slowdown already apparent in Houston’s job growth since mid-year, but also paint a slightly more optimistic picture of recent growth than earlier data.
Houston's payroll employment growth remains strong. (Figure 1) The prior data through August indicated that job growth had slowed on a year-to-date basis to an annualized 2.8 percent; the latest figures are 3.2 percent through October, a rate that would deliver well over 80,000 jobs if it continued through December. Both figures are excellent – well above Houston’s average of 2.2 percent annual growth since 1990 – and discussion of slower growth must be kept in this context. The slowing is from a beginning point of 4.0 percent job growth in 2012 and over 100,000 new payroll jobs.
There is good reason to be cautious about interpreting small changes in the data. First, strength has varied within the year, running four to six percent early in 2013, but averaging 2.7 percent during the last six months. Further, the most recent estimates from the Texas Workforce Commission have followed an erratic path, even when seasonally adjusted and smoothed with a three month average as in Figure 1. This suggests that the Commission may be struggling with the current estimates, and we could see significant revisions in coming months. For this reason, our forecast of local job growth remains near 75,000 for 2013.
The Houston unemployment rate tells much the same story. Figure 2 shows that Houston’s unemployment rate had been dropping faster than the U.S. since late 2010, but the trend was broken in 2012. Houston’s unemployment rate has been stagnant near 6 percent since last June, and the new data simply confirmed the pattern.
Why slower job growth? The primary cause is almost certainly the collapse of natural gas prices in late 2011, which led to 560 rigs being pulled away from natural gas directed drilling and a 2012 drop in the domestic rig count of over 12 percent. Figure 3 shows the rate of growth of jobs in Houston upstream sector (both producers and services) and in closely-related machinery and fabricated metal. Together, these sectors account for over 225,000 of the best-paid jobs for Houston. Both were growing at annualized rates of 15 to 20 percent in 2011, but have now settled in at about 5 percent. For the next 24 months a pick-up in this growth rate much above 5 percent seems unlikely.
In summary, the new data confirm a shift to slower but healthy growth in Houston. The data through October are slightly more optimistic about the extent of the slowdown, but the erratic month-to-month pattern of recent estimates raises questions about the durability of this interpretation. For now, we will stick with our forecast of 75,000 jobs for Houston in 2013 and 65,000 in 2014.
Written by: Dr. Robert W. “Bill” Gilmer
Director, Institute for Regional Forecasting
November 25, 2013
Houston Job Growth Slows at Mid-Year,
More Moderate Growth Ahead
Houston’s payroll job growth began to cool over the spring and summer, and has taken a step down from the rapid pace of 2012 and early 2013. Thanks to a very strong start to the year, year-to-date job growth through August is 2.8 percent; but the last six months have seen Houston’s growth slip to seasonally-adjusted annual rates near two percent. (Figure 1) The monthly employment changes reported by the Workforce Commission have swung widely, and the month-to-month revisions have been large, indicating difficulty in estimating recent job growth. The final revisions to the payroll employment data, which will come early next year, may be larger than usual.
Apart from the payroll data, a variety of other sources point to a cooling off of the Houston economy. The seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate has been flat near 6 percent all year; the Houston Purchasing Managers’ Index has fallen to levels similar to the U.S. in recent months; the weekly hours worked in Houston’s manufacturing sector were 49 hours per week a year ago, but 45 hours today. None of this is fatal to Houston’s economic outlook, but combined they point to a definite ratcheting down in the pace of Houston’s economic expansion.
The torrid pace of last year, 4 percent job growth and over 100,000 new payroll jobs, was probably not sustainable under the best circumstances, but certainly not when some of the fundamentals have moved against the local expansion. Houston’s economy depends on its ties to the U.S. economy, to oil and natural gas, and to global markets, and all three are less robust than a year ago.
The U.S. Outlook
The U.S. economy has provided little support to Houston since the end of the Great Recession. U.S. GDP growth has averaged only 2.2 percent, well below the long-term trend, and especially slow during a period of recovery from deep recession. Job growth has also disappointed, with current employment still 2 million jobs short of the prior peak in late 2007.
The good news is that the U.S. economy is finally showing signs of putting the financial crisis and recession behind it, perhaps ready to return to its long-term growth trend near 3 percent. The three areas of maximum damage sustained during the financial crisis were new home construction, personal consumption, and state and local government, and they have combined to slow growth since recovery began. The heart of the crisis was housing, and new single-family home construction fell by close to 80 percent. (Figure 2) The U.S. consumer was left seriously over-burdened by debt, much of it mortgage debt, and consumption suffered as they worked down this debt load. State and local governments were hurt by the decline in sales tax revenues as consumption fell, and by the loss of property taxes, and home values declined.
All three sectors are nearing the point where we can declare the financial crisis over and the damage finally repaired. The U.S. consumer, for example, has worked off much of the debt load incurred during the housing boom, and debt-to-income ratios are rapidly moving toward pre-crisis levels. This offers the opportunity for much freer spending on housing, autos, and general retail.
Also, the housing market made a definitive turn upward in the summer of 2012, with home prices rising across the country. Along with these price increases, the prospect of higher interest rates pushed many reluctant home buyers off the fence, and sales of new and existing homes began to rise quickly. New single-family permits are still only running at annual rates of 600,000, well short of the 1.0–1.2 million that would be considered normal, but new home construction is rising and adding to GDP again.
Finally, state and local government revenues were hurt twice over. The decline in consumption slowed sales tax collection; then the decline in home prices hurt property tax revenues. A combination of budget cuts and rising revenues have now returned most states to a balanced budget, while the prospect of improved consumer spending and rising property values can only enhance the outlook.
With crisis-related damage healed, most forecasts for U.S. economic growth have turned quite optimistic, with expectations growing for a return soon to historic long-term growth rates of 3.0 percent or higher. The bad news is that we are not quite there yet. Stronger growth has been delayed by $200 billion dollars in new federal tax revenues from payrolls, to fund the Affordable Care Act, and from expired tax cuts. Add to this fiscal drag another $85 billion in federal spending cuts. Real GDP growth in 2013 is again forecast to be 2 percent or less, adding yet another year of muddling through for the U.S. economy. But a variety of forecasters ranging from the Survey of Professional Forecasters to Goldman Sachs now see strong growth in 2014 and beyond, rising to a steady 3 percent GDP growth and staying there for the long-term.
Oil and Natural Gas
For the last decade, Houston has found itself at the heart of the greatest oil and natural gas boom in U.S. economic history, led primarily by drilling for oil and gas in shale. Capital expenditures for exploration and production (E&P) reached $279 billion in 2012, increasing by a factor of six in a decade. Even allowing for inflation, the 2012 expenditures were 4 times those of 1982, the point at which the great oil bust of the 1980’s began. (Figure 3) These E&P expenditures peaked in 2011, however, they were down about 10 percent in 2012, and are expected to be flat in 2013 compared to last year. The Baker Hughes rig count – a short-term indicator of the drilling cycle – tells much the same story as the expenditure data. The collapse in natural gas prices in 2011 led to a 13 percent decline in the rig count in 2012, and it has been flat through 2013. Drilling activity continues at a very high level, but is no longer growing, pushing the boundaries of the Houston economy and stimulating growth.
The outlook for a near-term pick-up in E&P spending is not strong. Our forecast is for very modest increases in the rig count through 2014, picking up in 2015 and beyond. These increases will be driven by stronger demand for natural gas due to faster U.S. growth, exports of liquefied natural gas, and the start-up of a series of petrochemical plants built to capitalize on low prices for natural gas liquids.
There is a built-in cushion against this upstream slowdown. Oil-directed drilling remains very profitable and stable; there is much midstream pipeline and processing infrastructure necessary to connect new shale plays to the Gulf Coast; and low natural gas prices have kicked off a boom in downstream petrochemical construction. The major risk to the near-term future would be a decline in the price of oil, with 80 percent of drilling – both domestic and abroad – now directed to oil.
The Global Economy
For the last decade, the global economy has been driven by China, India, Brazil, and other emerging markets. Houston has achieved a high growth rate through its ability to reach past a sluggish U.S. economy and to tap into the growth of these developing nations. This was done in part by exporting local products – crude oil, refined products, machinery, and petrochemicals – to these high-growth countries. In 2012, Houston passed New York to become the number one merchandise exporter among U.S. metropolitan areas. Perhaps more important, the growth of these emerging economies was responsible for very large increases in the price of oil, metals, agricultural products and food. Oil rose further and faster than other commodities, with all the increases in global oil demand over the last 10 years stemming from emerging markets. Houston has been a substantial beneficiary of these high oil prices.
Recent growth in Brazil, China, and India has slowed. (Table 1) After a decade of double-digit increases, China’s growth in 2012 fell to 7.8 percent, as the Chinese attempt a risky transition from an export-led economy to one driven by domestic demand. India saw growth slow from 7.7 percent in 2011 to 4.0 percent in 2012, with few signs of a pick-up in 2013. Brazil’s growth in 2012 fell to less than one percent.
This emerging-market slowdown is one more of the fundamentals of the Houston economy that is less robust than a year ago. And they pose risks going forward, perhaps now more than usual because of the slower pace of growth. Certainly some event, like the financial crisis that swept through emerging markets in 1997, would collapse the price of oil and threaten Houston’s near-term growth. Over the longer-term, the greatest risk would be the inability of emerging markets to sustain the high growth rates of recent years. There is a long history of developing nations that grow strongly, reach a mid-life crisis, and then require major legal, financial, energy, or labor reforms to continue their strong growth. Unable to make these reforms, they simply slow to a pedestrian pace. For Houston, it would mean the loss of exports and perhaps the loss of the major prop for the price of oil.
Outlook for Houston
The economic backdrop for Houston is changing. Energy and global expansion have stepped back as sources of growth, even as they continue to operate at very high levels. Meanwhile, as early as next year the U.S. economy should take a much bigger role in Houston’s economic expansion. Table 2 summarizes our current outlook for Houston through 2017, with local job growth falling to 73,700 this year, and 65,100 in 2014. The base case depends on a return to solid growth in the U.S. economy and a growing rig count by 2014. The conservative forecast assumes a less robust turn upward in U.S. GDP, with growth remaining near 2 percent.
Although the profile of the current slowdown in local economic activity is becoming clear, the future outlined in Table 2 is growing murky again. History tells us that the official data typically are the least reliable when we need them most – at moments of change like this one. We are likely to see major revisions to the employment data for this year. The continued debt ceiling debates in Washington, the ongoing sequester of federal funds, and Federal Reserve monetary policy will also have an important bearing on near-term growth prospects for both the U.S. and for Houston. For now the forecast for Houston remains much like that made last spring, but it is an uncertain and fluid time that bears close watching.
Written by: Dr. Robert W. “Bill” Gilmer
Director, Institute for Regional Forecasting
September 27, 2013