Two reports issued today by Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) suggest that employers have grown wary of an economic recovery that appears to have lost momentum during the first half of 2015.
The big question, according to analysts, is how much has momentum slowed and for how long?
The monthly AIM Business Confidence Index fell for a second consecutive month in May after reaching a 10-year high in March. The Index lost 1.8 points to 57.3 on a 100-point scale, still comfortably in positive territory but showing moderating expectations for growth during the remainder of the year.
Meanwhile, the annual AIM General Wage Survey Report found that for the third consecutive year, a majority of AIM-member companies have targeted merit and general increase spending at 3 percent for 2015. Economists say the modest wage gains reflect the fact that many organizations have decided to keep pace with an expanding economy by boosting productivity and capital investment rather than payrolls.
Both reports come four days after the government announced that the US economy contracted 0.7 percent during the first three months of the year. The economic numbers have prompted the Federal Reserve to postpone an interest-rate hike that was widely expected in June.
Raymond G. Torto, Chair of the AIM Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) that produces the Business Confidence Index, said employer optimism is up 2.5 points from last May, “but coming off an upward surge from August through March, business confidence seems to have lost momentum.”
“The Index performed well during the first quarter of this year, but now it is weakening even as growth appears to be picking up,” said Torto, Chair of AIM's Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and Lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Design.
He noted that economists’ forecasts for expansion in 2015 have moderated. “Our survey does reflect lower expectations for the six months ahead,” he said. “We also see lagging confidence among manufacturers, whose exports are hurt by the strong dollar, and among mid-size companies.”
AIM’s Business Confidence Index has been issued monthly since July 1991 under the oversight of the Board of Economic Advisors. Presented on a 100-point scale on which 50 is neutral, the Index attained a historical high of 68.5 in 1997 and 1998; its all-time low was 33.3 in February 2009.
The May confidence report showed employer assessment of current business conditions down nine-tenths at 57.4, while their expectations for the next six months, lost 2.8 points to 57.1.
One bright spot came in the Employment Index, which reached its highest level since September 2005. Employment expectations for the next six months were particularly strong, with 37 percent of responding employers planning to add staff, while 14 percent expect reductions.
The General Wage Survey report, based on responses from several hundred Massachusetts employers, showed that overall merit increase budgets for 2015 average 2.69 percent when companies planning a zero percent increase are included. That figure is down from the 2.71 percent posted in 2014; higher than the 2.53 percent in 2013, 2.55 percent in 2012 and 2.4 percent in 2011. The percentage of companies providing no wage increases dropped in half from 14 percent in 2013 to 7 percent this year.
Those numbers are consistent with national compensation surveys that appear to agree that wages generally have not risen as predictably as they have in previous recoveries.
But Andre Mayer, Senior Advisor at AIM, says those aggregate numbers mask growing wage acceleration in many of the technical and managerial fields in which Massachusetts is strong.
“Even as the overall averages show only modest increases in compensation, the competition for experienced incumbent workers with high-demand skills is heating up. Employers are not only becoming more willing to hire, they are becoming more willing to pay a premium for the skills they need,” Mayer said.