Confidence among Massachusetts employers hit a 13-year high during February, fueled by optimism among manufacturers and an increasingly positive view of the national economy.
The Associated Industries of Massachusetts Business Confidence Index (BCI) rose 0.7 points to 62.1 last month, seven points higher than its level of a year earlier and the highest reading since August 2004. Driving the increase was the U.S. Index of national business conditions, which has risen 11.5 points during the past year, and the Manufacturing Index, which surged 9.1 points.
The results came amid increasingly mixed economic signals that included a 2.8 percent Massachusetts unemployment rate and a significant slowdown in economic growth both in Massachusetts and nationally during the fourth quarter.
“The increase in confidence was more modest than we have seen in previous months. Employers projected a generally positive view of the economy, but were also taking the measure of potential economic policy changes in Washington,” said Raymond G. Torto, Chair of AIM's Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and Lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Design.
“Employers remain more optimistic about the future than about the present - a good indicator of the potential for continued growth and investment both in Massachusetts and nationally.”
The AIM Index, based on a survey of Massachusetts employers, has appeared monthly since July 1991. It is calculated on a 100-point scale, with 50 as neutral; a reading above 50 is positive, while below 50 is negative. The Index reached its historic high of 68.5 on two occasions in 1997-98, and its all-time low of 33.3 in February 2009.
The index has remained above 50 since October 2013.
Almost all of the sub-indices based on selected questions or categories of employer were up during February.
The notable exception was the Massachusetts Index, assessing business conditions within the commonwealth, which declined 0.2 points to 63.2. The state index nevertheless remained 6.8 points higher than in February 2016.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Index of national business conditions gained ground for the fifth consecutive month. Employers appear encouraged by the possibility that Congress and the new administration will pass growth measures that could include tax and regulatory reform.
February marked the 82nd consecutive month in which employers have been more optimistic about the Massachusetts economy than the national economy.
The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, increased 0.5 points to 59.9 while the Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, rose 1.1 points to 64.4. The future outlook was 8.5 points better than a year ago and higher than at any point since May of 2004.
The sub-indices bearing on survey respondents’ own operations were mixed.
The Company Index, reflecting overall business conditions, rose 0.9 points to 62.8 while the Employment Index gained two points to 60.4. The Sales Index lost 0.4 points to 62.6.
The AIM survey found that nearly 39 percent of respondents reported adding staff during the past six months while 19 percent reduced employment. Expectations for the next six months were stable – 37 percent hiring and only 10 percent downsizing.
Michael Tyler, Chief Investment Officer, Eastern Bank Wealth Management, and a BEA member, noted that the traditional confidence gaps between manufacturing companies and non-manufacturers, and between companies located in the eastern and western portions of Massachusetts, have closed in recent months.
“Confidence among Massachusetts manufacturers has risen 9.1 points during the past year and now stands at 61.2 compared to 63.0 for non-manufacturers. And confidence among companies in western and central Massachusetts hit 61.8 in February compared to 62.6 for companies in the eastern part of the state,” Tyler said.
"Those results suggest that the benefits of economic growth are finally spreading from Greater Boston to the entire state. What's more, as the dollar's rise has stabilized, manufacturers are finally sharing the positive view that service sector employers have felt for several years."
AIM President and CEO Richard C. Lord, also a BEA member, said the 2.8 percent unemployment rate in Massachusetts and the commonwealth’s designation last week as the best state in the nation by US News and World Report underscore the fact the Bay State economy remains strong.
At the same time, Lord said, employers face an uncertain mix of policy initiatives in Washington.
“Employers are certainly enthusiastic about lower corporate taxes, streamlined regulation and a meaningful infrastructure program. They are not as enthusiastic about withdrawing from trade agreements and once again having to process major changes in health reform,” he said.