The direction of commercial construction output in the UK, Europe and USA differs, according to a range of official reports. UK output fell in May 2017 by 1.2%, in both the month-on-month and three-month on three-month time series.
These figures from the Office for National Statistics appear in its most recent report, published 7 July. The three-month on three-month decrease represents the largest such fall in output since September 2012.
It is driven by falls in both repair and maintenance, and all new work. The main downward pressure on month-on-month growth came from all new work, most notably from infrastructure, which fell 4.0% following strong growth in April 2017.
Construction output also fell month-on-year, falling by 0.3% in May 2017, the first consecutive month-on-year decrease in output since May 2013. Construction output for April 2017 has been revised up 0.5% points from negative 1.6% to negative 1.1%.
The ONS figures are echoed in the industry's monthly purchasing manager indices. The figure for total activity fell to 54.8 in June, down from 56.0 in May. The monthly business survey, Construction Output, collects from businesses in the construction industry in the UK.
Output is defined as the amount chargeable by commercial construction companies to customers for building and civil engineering work done in the relevant period excluding VAT and payments to sub-contractors.
This is the first batch of commercial construction sector statistics release where ministers and other officials did not receive access to the information prior to publication.
Independent broker Liberum says
- After a strong start to 2017, there was a 12.7% decrease in construction levels in May versus April
- The number of construction projects within the UK decreased 3.6% in May versus a year earlier
- UK Construction PMI has recovered since the Brexit vote (it was 45.9 in July 2016)
- New work increased 0.4% in Apr 2017 versus Apr 2016 due to strength at public housing, infrastructure and private commercial
- Work on repairs and maintenance decreased 2.5% in Apr 2017 versus Apr 2016, largely due to weakness in public housing
EU figures from Eurostat
The broader European Union picture looks perkier. According to figures from Eurostat, the EU's statistical office, in April 2017 compared with April 2016, production in construction increased by 3.2% in the euro area and by 2.7% in the EU28.
In April 2017 compared with March 2017, seasonally adjusted production in the construction sector increased by 0.3% in the euro area (EA19), while it remained stable in the EU28. In March, production in construction fell by 1.1% in the euro area and by 0.5% in the EU28.
Among member states for which data are available, the highest increases in production in construction were recorded in Sweden (+3.8%), France (+3.5%) and the Czech Republic (+1.6%), and the largest decreases in Romania (-7.7%), Italy (-4.1%) and Hungary (-2.6%).
Across the Atlantic
Figures from the US Census Bureau show that construction spending during May 2017 was estimated at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $1,230.1bn, nearly the same as (±2.5%) the revised April estimate of $1,230.4bn.
The May figure is 4.5% (±2.5%) above the May 2016 estimate of $1,177.0bn. During the first five months of this year, construction spending amounted to $469.2bn, 6.1% (±1.3%) above the $442.4bn for the same period in 2016.
Spending on private construction was a seasonally adjusted annual $943.2bn, 0.6% (± 0.7%) below the revised April estimate of $949.3bn. Residential construction was a seasonally adjusted $509.6bn in May, 0.6% (±1.3%) below the revised April estimate of $512.7bn.
May below April
Non-residential construction was at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $433.6bn in May, 0.7% (± 0.7%) below the revised April estimate of $436.7bn.
In May, the estimated seasonally adjusted annual rate of public construction spending was $286.9bn, 2.1% (±5.3%) above the revised April estimate of $281.0bn. Educational construction was at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $74.3bn.
This is 5.1% (±3.3%) above the revised April estimate of $70.7bn. Highway construction was at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $90.6bn, 0.9% (±16.9%) below the revised April estimate of $91.5bn.
Liberum on the USA
- Non-resi construction recovery is continuing
- Non-resi construction sentiment has improved in every quarter since Q1 2010
- The change in annual US construction spend has remained positive since 2011
- Consensus predicts 5.6% construction growth in 2017 YoY
- In April, the Construction Products Association (CPA) increased its forecast for construction output for 2017, 2018 and 2019
Moody's sees moderate growth
In its 2017 global construction industry outlook, debt rating agency Moody's wrote of moderate growth in EMEA and modest growth opportunities in the US. In the US it sees growth in low single digits with competitive market conditions limiting margin upside.
Residential construction will grow at a modest pace driven by low interest rates, healthy job creation and low debt service ratios. Inventory shortages will limit the upside. Non-residential construction should continue its gradual recovery.
Growth could accelerate supported by $305bn in transportation funding and additional government infrastructure investment.
Very modest in Canada
Moody's expects very modest growth in Canada with competitive conditions limiting margin upside Residential construction growth will likely slow to a more modest pace due to new mortgage rules and capital gains tax changes.
Non-residential construction could recover along with commodity prices and infrastructure investment.
Nine things you probably didn't know about Costain, one of Britain's favourite construction companies
- The Costain Group was founded in Liverpool in 1865 by Richard Costain, aged 26, a jobbing builder from the Isle of Man
- In 1935, Costain built 11 miles of the Trans-Iranian Railway, seven tunnels and two viaducts in isolated mountainous terrain - for £1m
- Costain built the Skylon and Dome of Discovery for the 1951 Festival of Britain
- Costain has produced more than 50m precast concrete railway sleepers since commercial production began in 1943
- Wartime work included 26 aerodromes, part of the Mulberry Harbours, munitions factories and 15,000 post-war prefabricated Airey houses
- Costain was a founder member of the Channel Tunnel joint venture
- Costain has built more than 100 Tesco stores since 1967
- The Royal Citadel fort, Plymouth, was built by Sir Francis Drake, and rebuilt by Costain
- Construction of the new stands at Murrayfield Stadium started the day after the 1992 rugby season ended and were ready for the next season - 42 weeks later
What affects the commercial construction sector’s share prices?
Economic confidence. Gross domestic product growth. Supportive government spending plans.
What can make one commercial construction company buck the trend?
A clearly focussed business and strategy model such as at Costain. Building of positive momentum as with Morgan Sindall. Recovery on track (Balfour Beatty). Good acquisition and integration. Potential for recovery (Kier). Track record of innovation.
Is the company a market-leader? What are its relationships like with its workforce? Does a company have a specialisation, such as Morgan Sindall in regeneration, currently a popular topic for public sector spending? Does the company enjoy preferred bidder status?
What can makes commercial construction companies' share prices fall?
Involvement in cost-cutting leading to disaster and large-scale loss of life. Poor management leading to overall collapse in confidence, as happened with construction and other services provider Carillion.
The Carillion balance sheet is a mess, say analysts at independent broker Liberum. “And more cash is needed. Disposals should raise a further £125m over the next 12 months. There will also be a restructuring with further cost savings to be quantified later.
“At the moment, we question whether Carillion has the funds to restructure. Carillion is exiting construction projects. They are exiting construction markets in Qatar, where there are clearly significant political issues.
“They will only undertake highly selective future construction, which will clearly be negative for cash since construction has negative working capital.”
Given the weaker profits, higher debt, need for restructuring, limited proceeds from disposals and working capital unwind in construction, Liberum's analysts believe that Carillion will need to raise a significant amount of more money.
Poor acquisition and integration are a constant threat for any company demonstrating any kind of ambition. As do relationships with the workforce. A track record of innovation can also be concern, if only because newer is not always better.
What should I look out for in company accounts?
What is the direction of sales? What is the direction in costs? What is the direction in margins? What does cash flow look like? How does the company treat unagreed income Does it have any problem contracts?
What is the value of capitalised bid costs on the balance sheet? What is the value of capitalised mobilisation costs on the balance sheet? Is there large-scale capital expenditure planned?
What is working capital like? And what is the trend? Improving or deteriorating? What are debt levels like? What is the trend? Growing or shrinking? Growth in EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation).
What else is there to watch out for?
What is the order book policy? Does include only signed contracts? Does it include concession revenues from PFI investments? Does it include probable orders? What does the order book look like? Growing or decreasing?
Are there anomalies? That is, do some companies report figures that are notably out line with their peer group? Pension liabilities; consider pension plan deficits and how they are being addressed.
Level of cash tax. Levels of non-current receivables. Level of provisions and direction of travel. Restructuring costs (these could be a good omen if they are being undertaken to address underlying weakness, but the restructuring itself could of course go wrong).
Aggressive accounting: early recognition of income, delay in recognising costs and overenthusiastic provisioning by new management. Liquidity of assets.
Is there a non-sterling element of the business that will benefit from currency weakness boosting sterling-denominated profits? Is there any debt refinancing imminent? Is the company using non-standard financing arrangements which could hint at weakness?