Construction Spending Turns South, Driven by Big Drops in Residential & Retail

But other construction segments are hot.

Residential construction is starting to make folks nervous. Total residential construction spending – 99% is “private” rather than “public” spending – dropped 8.4% from a year ago, the sixth month in a row of year-over-year declines, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $507 billion, according to the Census Bureau this morning. This was down 11% from the peak in April 2018, and the lowest annual rate since December 2016.

Residential construction spending never fully recovered from the 65% collapse following the peak in February 2006 ($684 billion annual rate) that led 22 months later to the official start date of the Great Recession. For months now, residential construction spending has once again been heading south in a disconcerting way:

Construction spending is a major factor in the US economy with big local consequences, including well-paid jobs whose economic benefits ricochet to local businesses from car dealers to sandwich shops.

In 2006, residential construction was the equivalent of 4.5% of nominal GDP ($13.8 billion). When residential construction collapsed from $650 billion in 2006 to $250 billion in 2009, it took a big bite out of the economy. But it no longer plays this kind of huge role. In 2018, residential construction was down to about 2.2% of nominal GDP ($20.5 billion), and the current downturn in residential construction is being felt less.

Overall construction spending – thanks to the diminished role of residential construction spending – inched down only 0.8% in March, compared to March last year, the second month in a row of year-over-year declines, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $1.28 trillion:

Annual rate means that at this pace, construction spending for the whole year would total $1.28 trillion.

With residential construction declining sharply, nonresidential construction came to fill the holes – and much of the heavily lifting, so to speak, was done by the public, by federal, state, and municipal governments (bridges, sewer projects, administrative buildings, etc.):

  • Private nonresidential construction (red line) rose 2.1% year over year to $461 billion annual rate
  • Public nonresidential construction (black line) soared 9.0% year-over year to $315 billion annual rate

During the Great Recession, private nonresidential construction spending collapsed by over 40% in a short period of time, from an annual rate of $420 billion to $240 billion. Public construction rose until March 2009, and then as states and municipalities got squeezed by the budgetary effects of the Great Recession, with California famously running out of money and having to pay bills with IOUs for the second time in its history, projects got trimmed back or cancelled, and public construction spending began to decline.

It took 10 years, and 10 years of inflation, to bring public construction back to where it had been in March 2009. This was boosted by a surge that started at the end of 2017: in those 15 months, public construction spending jumped 11%.

Private nonresidential construction spending is growing at a red-hot pace in some segments and declining at a red-hot pace and one segment, “commercial,” mostly warehouses and retail – the effects of the brick-and-mortar mortar meltdown on the construction of shopping malls.

Here are the largest segments, with year-over-year growth rates in March (amounts in seasonally adjusted annual rates):

  • Power (blue line in the chart): +4.2%, to $95 billion
  • Commercial (red line): -8.6%, to $82 billion
  • Manufacturing (black line): +10.9%, to $70 billion
  • Office (purple): +7.5%, to $67 billion,
  • Lodging (green): +8.0%, to $33 billion
  • Healthcare (yellow): +2.4%, to $34 billion.

Construction of manufacturing facilities (black line) grew strongly starting in 2011, peaked and turned around in mid-2015 when the oil bust hit equipment and supplies manufactures and when truck makers were hit by the transportation recession. It bottomed out in May 2018, and has since started to recover.

So what could tip overall construction spending into a steeper decline? A recession could and will. But barring that scenario, public construction looks to be on a growth path, especially if a significant infrastructure plan gets passed by Congress. And most major private nonresidential construction segments are on a growth track as well. Their growth will have to counterbalance falling commercial and residential construction in order for overall construction spending to not decline at a faster pace.

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  56 comments for “Construction Spending Turns South, Driven by Big Drops in Residential & Retail

  1. Lance Manly says:

    > especially if a significant infrastructure plan gets passed by Congress.

    Which will be financed by a huge expansion in pixie dust.

    • California Bob says:

      Where’s the ‘Like’ button?

    • Help! says:

      Another infusion for the rich. You know, those government contracts…

    • Terrance Woodard says:

      Ive been in home Remodeling all my life in the Houston Tx area and this Spring is like those of the foreclosure era just as bleak and still like know in the past 3 or 4 years I thought it was just my company but this article confirms

  2. Old Engineer says:

    I wonder how much of the increase in spending on public and commercial construction is simply due to the increase in cost of the steel used in many of the buildings due to the large increase in tariffs on the steel beams which mostly come from China. Local governments have been de-scoping, postponing, and cancelling some projects due to the additional cost the tariffs on steel added to the buildings.
    But then, that would be inflation, wouldn’t it? And silly me, there is no inflation. The central committee for economic activity just said so.

    • kevin says:

      The fact is, private residential construction will be down because the vast majority of peeps has no cash for home purchases and households can’t borrow squat now, with their credit ratings thrashed.

      But don’t worry, Big-G always has the wherewithal to spend “easy-money” tax dollars and “free” printed money. lol

      Once again as in the last 2008 crisis, Communist China may be the one to “Save Western Capitalism” with massive government spending… this time probably with their One Belt One Road projects to build out transportation links, dams, freight ports and railways to span the globe.

      Dear Wolf, great discussion you have going. Now, besides collapsing property starts, perhaps its time to do another take on collapsing new car sales too.
      You know the Carpocalypse drill.

      • Wolf Richter says:


        New-vehicle sales are NOT “collapsing.” In Q1, they were down 3.2% from a year ago. So that’s a decline, not a “collapse.” New “car” sales have collapsed (hence my term Carmageddon), but new “truck” sales (Pickups, SUVs, crossovers, and vans) have soared. And those are the more expensive vehicles that are selling. For total sales of new cars and trucks, it amounts to a smallish decline of 3.2% in Q1 year-over-year:

        To see a “collapse” of auto sales, you have to go back to the financial crisis, whose declines eventually amounted to about 50% from the prior peak.

        • MattFoley says:

          No joke (despite my handle), I just bought a new van to drive around the country and camp in, so I’m doing my part. I got the van, the river, the whole kit and caboodle!

        • Wolf Richter says:


          WOW! Enjoy!

        • kevin says:

          Ok, I guess we’re all still waiting too long for the “collapse” to arrive.

          If this is NOT the beginning of the end, then the residential construction trends are also just a small (single digit) down blip. Nothing to worry about too.

          In fact, all the line charts above seems to show the UP trend is still alive, no? :)

      • kevin says:

        And oh btw, Wolf, your charts are great, but maybe we should focus a little more on the human cost behind those charts.

        I’m looking forward to your next Carpocalypse or rather …Carmageddon article.

        Meanwhile, here’s a great read on GM’s real impact on families and the community, when the inevitable happens:

  3. Rowen says:

    Blowing some people up (war) and trying to make other people immortal (health care) is the economy now.

    • Rosebud says:

      How many construction workers live in their vehicles, Unable to afford what they are making?

      • Robert says:

        It’s a wonder they can afford to live in their vehicles- $50,000 for a Ford pickup! (but no inflation.)

      • Wolf Richter says:

        Not many. Construction jobs pay well (the three Ds: difficult, dirty, and dangerous).

        • Old Engineer says:

          Well, I don’t often disagree with you, Wolfe, but here in Huntsville, in North Alabama, the average construction worker makes $12 to $15 an hour on the days they work. Electricians get about $20 an hour. They don’t work on rainy days (we have 54 inches of rain a year here), they get replaced if they miss a day due to sickness, illness or spending the day getting a driver’s license. No health care, no dust masks or safety equipment required, and in the summer the daytime temps average 92 to 94 with 65% to 80% relative humidity.
          As a consequence of all this, the general finished quality ranges from poor to worse, though the houses sell for $250K to $500K.
          But I do agree, the work is difficult, dirty, and dangerous.

        • California Bob says:

          I’ve followed construction in the Central Valley for most of my life (65 years). It used to be a good ‘starter’ job for a young man with a high school education, or less, or a career path if the young man got his contractor’s license and built a business (my ex ‘sister-in-law’ and her husband were millionaires in their twenties thanks to their roofing business). All of the construction workers in this area now are Hispanics, residence status unknown, and if they’re getting paid more than minimum wage–cash only, of course–I’d be surprised. Health and other benefits are out of the question.

        • Paulo says:

          For Old Engineer, (down below)

          Those wages you cited are absolutely slave rates and criminal. It must be an incredibly depressed area to live in, Alabama.

          Where I live house carpenters make at least $35/hour, minimum. (Vancouver Island) My son (who has a small business on the side) is paying his 4th year electrical apprentice $40 – $50 per hour on contract, depending on the job as residential pays less than commercial or industrial. They are booked up solid for the next month doing service upgrades which means no days off for over 40 days for son. My brother-in-law, a new 1st year apprentice carpentry, is starting at $25 per hour (same place, VI). Son’s base rate for electrical in Alberta is $60/hr + another $7 per hour for pension…… working 12s which means an additional 5 hours per day at just under $100 per hour. Plus, full benefits, medical, dental, LTD, eye glasses, life insurance, etc. The trades in this company all make the same hourly rate; HD Techs, welders, electricians, etc.

          I haven’t made $20 per hour for over 30 years. Think about it, if you work 40 hours per week (and it sounds like they don’t get much work in Huntsville) that would be around 40K per year. You can’t live on that and have a family, home, or future.

          A country will not survive with a perpetual underclass and a declining middle class. It is a race for the bottom.

        • Paulo says:

          Forgot to add,

          We get 96 inches of rain here, plus snow…and we work everyday. Maybe roofers don’t do a tear off if it’s pouring, but everyone else works unless the crew takes a rain vote which I have never seen but is available. As my mom used to say, “Get outside, you won’t melt”.

        • California Bob says:

          ” country will not survive with a perpetual underclass and a declining middle class. It is a race for the bottom.”


        • California Bob says:


          It sounds like Canadian construction workers are unionized. The US has been, uh, ‘discouraging’ unions since Saint Ronnie of Reagan went after air traffic controllers.

        • alex in san jose AKA digital Detroit says:

          Paulo – The most I made as an employee is $11.50 an hour back in the late 80s. Now, inflation adjusted I think it amounts to $20-odd now, and it was amazing. I had an apartment, a motorcycle, was paying off my student loans. … obviously this didn’t last.

          On my own, selling on Ebay pre-crash, 1997-2007, I was grossing about $25 an hour, but … obviously this didn’t last.

          Now, as a 1099 working 20 hours a week, I make $300 a week and my employer and I call it $16 an hour … min. wage here is $15-odd.

          I have a theory that every job reverts over time to the min. wage. This is why we need a min. wage that’s a live-able wage.

          This is in keeping with my theory of a halving of wealth per decade. 10+ years ago I had a car, 10 years ago I had a motorcycle, now I have a bicycle, and in 10 years I’ll feel very fortunate if I have a good pair of shoes.

    • Nat says:

      Actually that is just the “real” part of the economy. A whole lot of the GDP now is empty (non-constructive) financial activity. So add a third category: “imagination” or “fiction” to your summary of what the economy is now.

    • Prairies says:

      From what I see in the US, health care is not the money maker. Health insurance is, remove that middle man and then you will be paying for health care.

  4. Andrei says:


    “equivalent of …% of nominal GDP ($… billion).”

    I can’t understand… You probably meant trillion?

  5. HR01 says:


    Many thanks.

    That first chart is an eye-opener. Seasonally adjusted annual rate of residential construction is about where it was back in 2004!

    One wonders just how long services can keep GDP afloat? Speaking of which, locally have been seeing significant inflation in some services. As a pet owner, we’ve seen huge price increases in vet services the past three years. Prices have doubled. Automotive repair up bigly. Delivery services up sharply.

    Combined with the enormous food and gasoline inflation we’ve seen this year, Powell and Co. best get ready to hike again, soon. Mr. Market seemed to get the message today.

    • qt says:

      No inflation said the FED!

    • Rowen says:

      Market concentration prices on pet meds.

      I’m assuming that the vet profession has gone the way dentistry. No more independent practitioners (unless working for one’s relative) because of student loan debt and startup costs. Everyone ends up working for deeper pockets (e.g. Aspen Dental) as glorified sales persons.

  6. TXRancher says:

    From my knot hole here in North TX the economy is booming. Large number of big rigs an the road, large number of dump trucks and equipment trucks on the road, large number of service trucks on the road and large number of personal vehicles on the road. Downtown Dallas has large number of construction cranes and new office buildings in the works. Restaurants are typically 70% full. And real estate seems to be moving too.

    • Real estate was moving well during the last two months, but it hit the wall again in April. That dive in mortgage rates only provided a temporary respite from the stagnating Dallas Texas housing bubble.
      Preliminary stats from the North Texas real estate market show a red-hot real estate sector in terms of closings for April, but with pending contract activity falling off significantly.
      Not surprising when you think about it. All the carnival barkers did was pull demand forward by jawboning rates lower and the markets higher. What should be concerning for those paying attention is the fact that mortgage application and contract activity are stalling again with rates which are still below levels seen a year ago. Law of diminishing returns in action.
      The data suggests the DFW housing market is peaking early this year, which could make for a disappointing summer if rates don’t dive further…

      • Rowen says:

        What i saw were a lot of people who were on the sidelines the past couple of years because the market was too frothy finally deciding to catch the knife because of price reductions and low rates. Once this supply of purchasers has been exhausted, who knows.

        Also, a lot investors are waiting for the market to compress, once the owners of 2M+ homes that are languishing start cutting prices. That 2M home is now 1.5; the 1.5 is now 900K; etc etc etc

    • and crude prices are where? report back to us when crude prices are cut in half.

      • Prairies says:

        Oil is still half of what it was at it’s peak a few years ago, the oil industry shifted to cheaper locations like Texas for exploration projects. Lower crude prices will only make them busier.

      • TXRancher says:

        A B – Dallas not really dependent on oil business – Houston yes but Dallas boasts a broadly diverse business climate, with technological industries in the lead. Major industries include defense, financial services, information technology and data, life sciences, semiconductors, telecommunications, transportation, and processing.

  7. Mean Chicken says:

    Didn’t he just say – Lack of inflation is transient and developing nation economies are strengthening?

  8. Unamused says:

    Manly Lance:

    =>[public nfrastructure] Which will be financed by a huge expansion in pixie dust

    The US already has more than enough financial liabilities going, including debt, to crash itself, so what’s a little more? In for a penny, in for a pound. Politicians expect to get some short-term political gain from it, since that’s all there is, and besides, it’s not as if it’s their money.

    Old Engineer:

    =>I wonder how much of the increase in spending on public and commercial construction is simply due to the increase in cost of the steel

    Not that much, but it doesn’t take much to render previous plans infeasible.

    Mr. Richter:

    =>Construction jobs pay well (the three Ds: difficult, dirty, and dangerous).

    They used to pay well. $20/hour was a lot of money thirty, forty years ago, but the cost of living has gone up since then. Worker safety regulations are in decline, of course, so the danger is still there – over 5,000/year dead, about a hundred a week, 14/day.


    =>Powell and Co. best get ready to hike again, soon. Mr. Market seemed to get the message today.

    Mr. Market is mostly concerned about the cost of liquidity and hardly at all about the state of the real economy. That’s bad enough, but it gets worse.

    Mr. Market seems unconcerned about financial gamesmanship of the kind which caused the Great Recession, because that’s where the returns are, never mind the risks.

    The last time, the Financial Industrial Complex nearly blew up the global economy because nobody was going to stop them. The corrupting influence of the FIC in politics was and is decisive, but back then it was still possible to save them from themselves with extreme measures. As before, nobody is going to stop them now, but now they’ve taken the gaming to the next level, beyond the possibility of saving them from themselves, so this time the detonation will succeed.

    What they say about self-destructive lemming behavior is not actually true about lemmings, but it is true about financiers due to a number of interesting quirks in human psychology and social behavior related to habit, reliance on institutions, and self-deception.

    It’s not just financiers. Most people assume that since it’s not their job to deal with these problems, and that the system is after all getting by, that there are people out there who are dealing with these problems and are taking care of them. It’s what Douglas Adams called a Somebody Else’s Problem field, and most people live in one. In fact, the people doing the driving are often drunk with power, are not in their right minds, and in many countries have either lost their constraints or are compelled by powerful people with severe personality defects. Politicians typically need changing as often as diapers, and for the same reason.

    Spoiler alert. This time, the trigger won’t be the unraveling of severe distortions in residential mortgage financing, brought on by fraudulent loans and fraudulent related financial instruments, like CDOs. It will be the unraveling of distortions in corporate financing, brought on excessively low interest rates.

    People in developed countries will largely be reduced to subsistence, which won’t work for most because of the dependence of large western populations on industrial economies for their support, and those will be pretty damaged. But that is another story and will be told another time.

    • HR01 says:


      “This time, the trigger won’t be the unraveling of severe distortions in residential mortgage financing…It will be the unraveling of distortions in corporate financing…”

      Absolutely. $3T in BBB corporate debt eventually comes home to roost. No downgrade to junk needed (though much of it likely will be), simply the threat will do. The buyback machines stop. Dividends stop growing, get reduced, eliminated in some cases.

      Also all these corporate cash piles? Where are they invested? Big chunks in, what else, corporate debt. AAPL a prime example. 47% of its “cash” is in the form of corporate debt securities vs just 21% in U.S. Treasuries.

    • Saltcreep says:

      Unamused, it has long been my contention that the systems we put in place, both in politics and commerce, are systems tailor made to advance the more sociopathic amongst us into positions of influence. Since it seems it is always and everywhere so, I’d assume it’s basically a social imperative that we can’t escape.

      By the way, I’ve done some walking in the mountains during lemming years, and they certainly do exhibit self destructive behaviour. Not in the sense that they deliberately go charging over cliffs in hordes, but after dark they’ll sit around screeching at you as you pass them. The cute little critters don’t back down. They basically present themselves as a lemming buffet for passing predators during the lemming years.

      They also have the same self destructive behavior that all lifeforms share, in that, when circumstances permit, they allow their populations to boom to unsustainable levels and then crash again. Sort of just like we do, which brings us neatly back to the starting point, and to such philosophical questions as whether we actually have free will…

      • Unamused says:

        =>philosophical questions as whether we actually have free will…

        ” . . . and reasoning thus they arrived at Bordeaux.”

        Actually, the rarity of Malthusian overexploitation has long puzzled naturalists, but a correct elucidation of the dynamics of population ecology, and that of human overpopulation and overexploitation specifically, is rather outside the scope of this blog.

      • Unamused says:

        => systems tailor made to advance the more sociopathic amongst us

        That much seems certain. Moreover, it appears to guarantee the Great Undoing, since modern methods ensure it can no longer be mitigated as it has been in the past.

  9. nick kelly says:

    WR; incredible piece on BC TV this PM about crashing prices of high end Van RE. One listed in 2017 well over 10 M just sold for 5.5
    Piece had 5 or so examples, not a one off.
    Was Channel 9 here.

  10. nicko2 says:

    Great article and comments as always!

  11. Setarcos says:

    There is a shortage of construction workers. Anyone only making $12/hr in Huntsville needs to move.

  12. Just Some Random Guy says:

    There is zero sign of this supposed construction slowdown in my area

    I live in a sub-division that was started in 2016 and we were one of the first buyers. That is both good and bad. Good is you get in first and builders offer more incentives to get people in. Bad is you live in a construction zone for a year.

    Anyway, about 200 homes built so far and the construction zone is now far away from us now. But I take the dogs for a walk around daily and keep a mental note of what’s going on construction wise.

    The builder’s model is start building and put the property up for sale right away. Then buyers get to pick a lot of options during the process. It’s 1/2 spec 1/2 custom, depending on how early/late in the process the home sells.

    Last summer it was pour foundation, “SOLD” sign went up right away. In the fall/winter, it got to almost the entire house was ready before it sold. But still selling consistently. And today, we’re back to foundation is poured, “SOLD” sign comes out.

    And pricing today on a per sq ft basis is about 40% higher than what I paid for my house, with smaller lots. That’s the other advantage of being first in, you get the big fat juicy lots, then each phase they get smaller and smaller.

    • sc7 says:

      Ah, the good old set of anecdotes to make me feel good about my purchase and convince myself I didn’t purchase at the cyclical peak.

    • Harrold says:

      I always thought those “SOLD” signs were just meant to make people think they had better act quickly before everything sold out.

    • Mean Chicken says:

      Sounds like you did some good homework, mine didn’t appreciate much at all as the buildout progressed. I felt like I was lucky to get slightly more than I paid, really liked the house and location.

      This was over a decade ago so maybe the approaching FED financial crisis had something to do with my situation.

  13. MikeT says:

    The reason so many Red states have such low wages is that they voted to become “Right to Work” states. Essentially helping to give up their collective bargaining power (shooting themselves in the foot). Here in Missouri, we voted against it!
    Red states can improve this by trying to reverse voting to become a right to work state but the large companies who are paying their workers, harsh wages have more room now to fight against it. Americans fought for a long time to create unions and collective bargaining and were not intelligent enough to keep it. Instead, they were duped into voting against their own best interests.

    • sierra7 says:

      Mike T:
      Too many Americans have no historical memory as to how the “middle class” was evolved…….they do not understand how many individuals died on the bricks to bring the decent wages/healthcare etc. to so many. Bye-Bye American worker!!

      • California Bob says:

        Don’t forget the GI Bill–one of those big ‘gubbermint’ policies that never, ever work–was the path to white-collar middle-classdom for many returning soldiers, sailors and marines after WWII.

        • Unamused says:

          => the GI Bill–one of those big ‘gubbermint’ policies that never, ever work

          It’s not that socialist programs don’t work. The problem is that socialist programs work too well – and corporatists don’t get the whole pie.

      • alex in san jose AKA digital Detroit says:

        Read a copy of Hard Times by Studs Terkel. Yes, there are a few capitalists in there who consider the FDR years to be a time of “treason” but overwhelmingly, there are people with a sense of community and benevolence and “we’re all in this together” that’s astounding. And many of them say that if a Depression were to happen again “now” when they were interviewed, in the 1960s/1970s, it’d be bad, really bad, because people don’t care about each other any more.

        Something got broken post-WWII. That’s when we really became hyper-individualistic.

    • Jason says:

      Unfortunately, there are two different kinds of unions… Private labor unions,(carpenters,electricians, pipefitters etc)
      And tax funded public unions, (firefighters, police, teachers etc)
      I can tell you that private unions have to sit down and negotiate a contract with contractors and come up with a package that works for both…And that is a good thing..And most folks, in a right work state or not, will choose to be a union member. Yes there are a few rogue people that will go against that but in general, they will join…Afeter all, this is America, and we don’t like to be told what to do….lol
      We hire union and folks are begging to get in constantly….In my area, illegal immigration has kept wages down and makes it extremely tuff to be competitive (especially as a UNION contractor)….And I’m in a deep blue state…what the answer to all of this is the life long debate..
      And BTW, no one has forgotten history.. Most understand that safety and wages etc etc in the labor work force came from years of nasty fights backed by majority unions…

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