Confidence among Massachusetts employers weakened during March amid roiling international trade tensions and volatile financial markets.
The Associated Industries of Massachusetts Business Confidence Index (BCI) declined a point to 63.5, retreating from a 17-year high in February. The BCI has gained 1.1 points during the past 12 months and remains comfortably within the optimistic range.
But virtually every element of the March confidence survey lost ground, led by a 1.7-point drop in the US Index of national business conditions. Several employers blamed the Trump Administration’s decision to level tariffs on steel, aluminum and other products for their uncertain outlook.
“Tariffs on stainless steel and aluminum will negatively impact our bottom line in the short run and could prevent our customers from providing new projects due to increased costs,” wrote one employer.
Raymond G. Torto, Chair of AIM's Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and Lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Design, said the steel and aluminum tariffs raise the prospect of retaliation by other nations against products made by Massachusetts companies.
“Trade wars reduce the competitiveness of Massachusetts companies and increase costs for consumers. Announcement of the tariffs sent financial markets into a tailspin last month and some of that uncertainty rubbed off on employers,” said Torto.
Cranberries, for example, a key Massachusetts agricultural export, were among the products targeted for retaliation by the European Union before the administration exempted that region from the steel and aluminum tariffs. Massachusetts companies exported $27.5 billion worth of products to foreign markets during 2017, with the largest share (13.5 percent) going to Canada.
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 were mostly lower during March.
The decline in the US Index was matched by a 1.6-point decline in the Massachusetts Index assessing business conditions within the commonwealth. The Massachusetts Index stood at 66.9, leaving it 3.2 points higher than in March 2017.
The U.S. Index ended the month at 65.2, 5.3 points better than a year ago. March marked the 97th 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, lost 1.5 points to 62.6. The Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, declined 0.6 points to 64.4. The Current Index has risen 0.8 points and the Future Index 1.4 points during the past 12 months.
The only element to gain ground was the Employment Index, which rose 0.9 points for the month but remained 1.7 points behind its level of a year ago. The Company Index, meanwhile, reflecting employer views of their own operations and prospects, was off 0.7 points to 61.7.
Manufacturing companies (65.4) were more optimistic than non-manufacturers (61.3). Large employers (68.8) were more bullish than medium-sized (60.3) or small businesses (65.2).
“There is no question that the whirlwind of events taking place in Washington, from the tax bill to trade sanctions, are affecting the outlook of Massachusetts employers,” said Barry Bluestone, Professor of Political Economy at Northeastern University, and a BEA member.
“But it’s also worth noting that the only two elements of the BCI that have declined during the past year are the Company Index and the Employment Index, two measures tied to the performance of individual companies. Overall confident remains strong, but those elements will be worth watching.”
AIM President and CEO Richard C. Lord, also BEA member, said the announcement of tariffs and subsequent modifications of those tariffs by the administration has generated uncertainty among employers.
“Trade barriers are cause for concern in a state that exported more than $27 billion worth of goods in 2017,” Lord said.
“AIM and its member employers continue to believe that free trade and open markets remain the best way to ensure growth in the global economy.”