Employer confidence stabilized in Massachusetts during June despite a continued swirl of conflicting economic and political signals around the globe.
The Associated Industries of Massachusetts Business Confidence Index (BCI) rose 0.5 points to 57.6 last month, rebounding from a May drop that left it at its lowest level since October 2016.
The Index has declined 3.7 points since June 2018 but remains within optimistic territory. And though confidence levels are virtually unchanged since January, the AIM Index reflects constantly changing headlines about international trade, economic growth and the direction of interest rates.
“We’re seeing confidence go up one month and down the next in the same way that financial markets have been whipsawed by almost daily changes in the economic outlook,” said Raymond G. Torto, Chair of AIM's Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and Lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Design.
“Employers remain concerned about the prospect of an economic slowdown but were encouraged at the end of June by larger-than-expected job growth numbers, signs of a thaw in the US/China trade battle and signals that the Federal Reserve might ease interest rates.”
Tariffs continue to influence employer confidence.
“Have seen cost increases for construction materials due to the effect of tariffs. This is creating some uncertainty in the pricing of new construction projects,” one member wrote.
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 AIM BCI were mixed during June.
The Massachusetts Index assessing business conditions within the commonwealth rose 0.3 points to 61.2 while the US Index rose a full 3 points to 58.0. The Massachusetts reading has declined 1.6 points during the past 12 months and the US reading has dropped 2.0 points during the same period.
The Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, rose slightly, 0.2 points to 56.2. The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, gained 0.8 points to 59.0, 4.5 points lower than a year ago.
The Employment Index declined 0.4 points for the month and 2.2 percent for 12 months. Analysts say employers continue to struggle to find qualified workers in a state economy with a 2.9 percent jobless rate.
Non-manufacturers (60.1) were more confident than manufacturers (54.4), who have seen their confidence levels drop 8.1 percent since June 2018. Large companies (59.0) were more confident than small companies (58.4) or medium-sized companies (55.6). Companies in Eastern Massachusetts (58.5) continued to be more optimistic than those in the west (56.3).
Elliot Winer, Chief Economist, Winer Economic Consulting, LLC, and a BEA member, said continuing weakness in the Company Index, Manufacturing Index and Employment Index underscores some of the long-term challenges facing Massachusetts employers beyond the day-to-day headlines.
“Hiring and retaining skilled employees is becoming a barrier to expansion for some companies. The short-term issues affecting confidence will eventually be overshadowed by the long-term demographics of having large numbers of baby boomers leave the work force,” Winer said.
State Policy Gains
AIM President and CEO John R. Regan, also BEA member, said that Governor Charlie Baker and the Massachusetts Legislature have made several decisions recently that boosted employer confidence. Those decisions included postponing the start of contributions for paid family leave and allowing the MassHealth assessment to lapse as scheduled in December.
“Employer have been encouraged by the willingness of state policymakers to meet businesses halfway on some of these complex issues,” Regan said.
“Our hope is that lawmakers will continue this mindful approach to the economy.”