Business confidence strengthened during April as growing optimism among employers about the prospects of their own companies outweighed a more cautious outlook about the state and national economies.
The Associated Industries of Massachusetts Business Confidence Index (BCI) rose 0.7 points to 64.2 last month after falling a full point in March. The BCI has gained four points during the past 12 months and remains well within the optimistic range.
The April increase was driven by 2.6-point surge in the index measuring employer confidence in their own companies, along with a 2.5 percent jump in the Employment Index.
Those increases offset slippage in employer views of both the Massachusetts and US economies. The trend appears to be tied to specific issues such as imposition of the employer health-care surcharge in Massachusetts and commodity price increases stemming from the Trump administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminum.
“While business is good, I am not confident in the general direction and tax policies of the federal government. My impression is that short term gains will come at the expense of future economic, social, and environmental stability,” wrote one employer.
Raymond G. Torto, Chair of AIM's Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and Lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Design, said the confidence numbers reflect a solid economy that is growing modestly – 1.6 percent annually on the state level and 2.3 percent annually for the United States.
“The Massachusetts economy is operating at virtually full capacity, but growth is slowing due to constraints on labor,” said Torto.
“Employers are certainly concerned about public policy issues, but those concerns for the moment are minimized by the underlying strength of their businesses.”
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.
The constituent indicators that make up the overall Business Confidence Index provided a study in contrasts during April.
The Massachusetts Index assessing business conditions within the commonwealth declined 2.8 points to 64.1, leaving it 0.8 points higher than in April 2017.
The U.S. Index ended the month at 63.9, down 1.3 points after rising 6.7 points during the previous 12 months. April marked the 98th consecutive month in which employers have been more optimistic about the Massachusetts economy than the national economy, though the gap has recently narrowed.
The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, gained 2.5 points to 65.1. The Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, declined 1.1 points to 63.3. The Current Index has risen 5.2 points and the Future Index 2.8 points since April 2017.
Employer views of their own companies were far brighter.
The Company Index increased to 64.3, up 4.1 points for 12 months. The Employment Index ended the month at 59.8, a 3.6-point increase for the year.
Manufacturing companies (65.3) remained more optimistic than non-manufacturers (61.1). Large employers (66.1) were more bullish than medium-sized (63.4) or small businesses (63.4).
“Massachusetts employers have maintained a positive view of the economy since the fall of 2013. The numbers move up and down in a small range, and there are certainly long-term concerns about labor availability, but business confidence remains comfortably in positive range amid a full-employment economy,” said Sara L. Johnson, Executive Director, Global Economics, IHS Markit and a BEA member.
Competitive Playing Field
AIM President and CEO Richard C. Lord, also BEA member, pointed to the recent announcement by Philips Lighting that it will end manufacturing at its Fall River plant as evidence that Massachusetts must still pay attention to the cost of doing business.
“Many of the employers who responded to the April Business Confidence Index Survey expressed concern about the new $200 million health-care surcharge and its effect on small business,” Lord said.
“The surcharge was levied to close a budget deficit in the MassHealth program for low-income residents. AIM continues to work with the Legislature to institute structural reforms that will put that program on sound financial footing for the long term.”