First District--BostonBusiness contacts in the First District continue to report modest increases in revenues and sales. Respondents in several sectors cite negative effects of severe winter weather. Firms report little hiring and wage increases remain very modest. Price pressures are reportedly minimal, but a few contacts note specific items for which prices are rising or are expected to rise. The outlook is generally positive, albeit cautiously so.
Retail and Tourism
This round's retail contacts completed their 2013 fiscal years at the end of December or in mid-February. Most report 2013 year-over-year sales increases ranging from 3 percent to the mid-single digits, though one cites an increase in the mid-teens. Several respondents report continued good results so far in 2014, but two retailers indicate that the pace of sales has slowed a bit. Some of this softness is said to be due to weather-related issues or to tough year-over-year comparisons with the post-Hurricane Sandy rebound. A furniture retailer reports that President's Day sales were extremely strong. Prices remain steady overall, though contacts say a modest increase in apparel prices is coming, reflecting a rise in some raw material prices and overseas labor costs. Retail respondents expect continued overall improvement in U.S. economic conditions and consumer sentiment in 2014.
Boston area hotels attained new record highs for hotel occupancy rates and revenues in 2013, building on the strong records sent in 2012. Expectations are for continued strong growth in 2014, though hotels expect to see revenue growth but not increases in occupancy rates; these are forecast at 80 percent, a 1 percentage point increase over 2013. Severe winter weather in January and February had hotels faring well, but restaurants, museums, and other venues losing revenue due to the harsh weather conditions. An industry contact says that this pattern seems to hold for much of the eastern seaboard.
Manufacturing and Related Services
Of 13 manufacturers contacted this round, nine report higher sales than the same period a year earlier. Two firms, a toy manufacturer and a publisher, cite flat sales but the reasons appear to be idiosyncratic. Two others, a manufacturer of electrical equipment for residential and commercial buildings and a maker of membranes, report falling sales but both attribute the drop to the weather. The direct effect of the storms was the loss of several days of production in February. In addition, demand fell both because some of their products are intermediate goods for other plants in afflicted areas and because end users demanded less. For example, reduced construction meant that there was less demand for electrical supplies. Three firms in the semiconductor industry report strong sales, confirming the end of that sector's slowdown, which began in 2011. Two firms, a maker of electrical equipment and a tool maker, both reported that residential investment was a significant driver of growth.
The news on inventories is mixed. Six contacts say that they continue to make a concerted effort to reduce inventories. However, one contact was building inventory on the assumption that the drop in sales due to the winter weather would lead to an increase in demand in the second quarter to make up for it. An electrical equipment supplier said that in some product lines, bad weather led to higher demand for replacement parts which reduced inventories. None of our contacts report any major pricing pressure, up or down, either from suppliers or customers. One contact said that pressure on pipeline capacity in New England is driving up natural gas prices.
Most firms report increased capital spending in 2013 and plans to increase again in 2014. However, most of those plans were already in place and there is little evidence of positive revisions in recent months. Five contacts report flat employment, four note positive hiring, and four cite reduced staffing. Respondents say engineering staff remains somewhat difficult to find, but otherwise none of our contacts have complaints about the labor market.
Eleven of 13 contacts report positive or very positive outlooks for 2014. The exceptions are a toy maker, who is generally cautious, and a publisher anticipating falling sales.
Software and Information Technology Services
First District software and information technology services contacts generally report stronger-than-expected business activity through February, with revenue growth exceeding earlier forecasts. For example, a healthcare contact expected a large year-over-year revenue decline due to the expiration of federal stimulus for health records software; however, the firm ended the year with just a marginal dip in revenues and positive net income growth. Only one contact, a provider of payment and banking software, reports accelerated growth, with year-over-year revenue increases in the 15 percent range. The majority of firms are maintaining headcount; one contact added positions in sales and marketing. Wages remain steady, with firms awarding (and in one case reinstating) merit increases in the 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent range. Both selling prices and capital and technology spending have gone largely unchanged. The outlook among software and IT contacts is cautious optimism, with expectations of modest revenue growth through the end of the quarter. Contacts remain concerned about general macroeconomic conditions and uncertainty surrounding healthcare reform.
New England staffing contacts report softened business conditions in recent months, attributed to both the holiday season and the large number of snowstorms occurring throughout the Northeast. Although revenues are up slightly year-over-year, they are down on a quarter-over-quarter basis. Despite these difficulties, labor demand remains strong across most industries, with contacts noting particularly high demand in the software, engineering, legal, specialty manufacturing, and healthcare sectors. Demand has weakened in the defense sector. On the supply side, contacts cite a shortage of candidates to fill nursing, specialized manufacturing, and IT roles. This reportedly reflects a skills mismatch, amplified by the holidays and severe weather. In response, firms continue to invest in social media initiatives to reach a broader audience of candidates. The temporary-to-permanent conversion rate remains strong. Bill rates and pay rates have generally held steady, with the exception of two contacts reporting an upward trend in pay rates and one contact reporting a slight increase in bill rates. Looking forward, staffing contacts are optimistic that growth will accelerate as weather conditions improve, expecting mid-single-digit revenue growth through the next few months. Several contacts express concerns about continued uncertainty regarding how healthcare reform will affect the staffing industry.
Commercial Real Estate
Commercial real estate activity was mixed across the First District, but contacts report that leasing fundamentals were largely stable in recent weeks. In Providence, demand for multifamily housing remains strong downtown, while industrial leasing activity is still weak. In Boston, office demand continues to be uneven within the city, with strength in the Seaport District, increasing demand in some suburban areas, and comparative weakness--including downward pressure on rents--in the Financial District. In Boston and Hartford, severe winter weather modestly reduced office leasing inquiries. Also, according to one contact, investment sales activity slowed in the region in the aftermath of a year-end surge in transactions. At the same time, contacts indicate that investment demand for commercial real estate remains strong across the region, and especially strong in Boston. A Portland contact characterizes leasing activity as solid and notes that land sales continue to gather momentum. Planned developments in Portland include a diverse mix of structures: recreational facilities, hotels, office space, and specialty retail. According to a regional banking contact, the bank lending environment for commercial real estate remains highly competitive, with solid loan demand across numerous sectors, albeit including fewer condominium development loans than had been expected. Recent trends in construction activity persist, with slow growth in the institutional sector, a declining pipeline of multifamily structures, and an increase in planned mixed-use developments and speculative office construction in parts of Boston.
While contacts are mostly optimistic concerning the outlook for commercial real estate in their respective markets, some downside risks are noted, including renewed macroeconomic uncertainty stemming from recent, weaker-than-expected employment reports, an uncertain future path of interest rates, and fallout from unrest in the Ukraine, Syria, and Venezuela. Other factors seen as restraining growth include rising construction and maintenance costs, and, in Rhode Island, political stagnation stemming from the current gubernatorial election.
Residential Real Estate
The First District experienced mixed results for sales of single family houses and condominiums in December. Contacts in New Hampshire and Rhode Island cite declines in sales of single family homes, while Massachusetts experienced no change, and respondents in Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont cite increases in sales relative to December 2012. Scarce inventory is said to be the most significant constraint on the growth of sales, while uncertainty from new qualified mortgage rules and flood insurance reforms are also believed to be causing buyers to remain cautious about making offers. Contacts in Connecticut say that sales are being affected by weak consumer confidence and a shortage of stable employment opportunities. Median sale prices increased year-over-year in four of the six New England states, decreasing only in Connecticut and Vermont. In Massachusetts, particularly in the Greater Boston area, price appreciation driven by low inventory levels has become a concern as realtors caution that high prices could keep first time home buyers out of the market.
Pending sales suggest the market for single family houses and condos is off to a good start in 2014, increasing in all states except Rhode Island. Contacts express optimism about local housing markets looking forward but say they expect the snowy winter to depress sales in the near term.