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Massachusetts Companies Wary of Economic Downturn

Posted by Christopher Geehern on Oct 7, 2019 8:30:00 AM

Two-thirds of Massachusetts employers surveyed by Associated Industries of Massachusetts anticipate an economic contraction before the end of 2020.

ManufacturingWorkerSmallMany of those companies are taking defensive measures ranging from hiring fewer people to paying down debt to limiting capital expenditures.

The survey results are based on responses from 111 Massachusetts companies representing almost every sector of the state economy. AIM collected the information as part of its monthly Business Confidence Index survey.

The sobering economic news comes as the Massachusetts Legislature debates billions of dollars in new spending on education, transportation and tax measures.

“A possible take-away from the survey for state policymakers as they begin considering billions of dollars in new spending is this could be a difficult time ahead for the state economy,” said John Regan, President and Chief Executive Officer of AIM.

“Businesses are assuming a defensive posture and significant tax increases - beyond the $1 billion for the new paid family and medical leave system - even for worthwhile causes, could harm the overall economy, most especially the manufacturing sector.”

Seventy-five companies that participated in the survey expect a contraction before the end of next year and 36 do not.

The companies that see a recession on the horizon are carefully managing payrolls, reducing expenses and developing relationships with customers insulated against downturns.

Comments include:

  • Scaling back on hiring plans. Slowing down certain capital expense/equipment purchases until we get a clearer picture of what the next six months will bring.
  • We have temporarily eliminated overtime work that was formerly unlimited.
  • Diversifying our service offerings.
  • Being a small manufacturing company, we can react quickly to changes in the business climate. Also, we will only invest in capital projects that significantly improve efficiencies and process with a payback of 18 months or less.
  • Concentrating on expense reduction - evaluating closely the need to replace positions as all employment related costs continue to increase - using methods such as combining roles in the short-term, hiring part-time as a replacement, reducing headcount by attrition or reorganizing an area.
  • Our workforce has already dropped ... Conditions have been very volatile for us, one month were up two or three months were down, next two months are up, two months after that were down considerably, next month moderate.
  • We have hired an outside firm to pursue sales opportunities.
  • We have cut our work force of temps and are currently on work-share. As we supply many markets, the two most impacted are agricultural equipment and trucking. The latter is a canary in the coal mine and has always been ahead of the economy. The agricultural industry is suffering from the cut in exports and the loss of markets due to tariffs. The continued list of tariff exemptions on imports for products we make also has a depressive affect.

Other companies believe they will ride out a downturn.

  • We think we'll be immune from the contraction.
  • Our industry is counter-cyclical. When the economy contracts, our industry usually receives a boost. 

The Massachusetts economy has continued to expand throughout 2019, though at a moderating pace as the year has progressed. Economic growth slowed from 2.7 percent in the first quarter to 1.4 percent in the second, according to MassBenchmarks.

The AIM Business Confidence Index has likewise remained in optimistic territory during the year but has lost 3.7 points during the past 12 months.

Conversely, the Massachusetts unemployment rate remains at 2.9 percent and private employers created 6,700 jobs between August 2018 and August 2019.

"The AIM survey ultimately argues for economic prudence and fiscal caution in the short term to allow the recent legislative and regulatory changes that have occurred over the last two sessions to take effect," said Brooke M. Thomson, Executive  Vice President of Government Affairs at AIM.

“Massachusetts is flourishing in many ways, and in the wake of such recent changes, we need policies and practices that will ensure the economy remains strong and that creates economic stability and regulatory certainty for employers.”

Topics: Associated Industries of Massachusetts, Massachusetts economy, Massachusetts employers

Tanglewood Makes Sweet Music for Berkshire County Economy

Posted by Christopher Geehern on Sep 23, 2019 2:11:17 PM

Associated Industries of Massachusetts presented a 2019 AIM Next Century Award last week to Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, citing the organization's contributions to the economy of Berkshire County. AIM President and CEO John Regan presented the award to Bart Reidy, the BSO's Chief Strategy Officer, during the annual AIM Employer Celebration in Pittsfield.

Topics: Massachusetts employers, AIM Next Century Award

Business Confidence Tumbles during August

Posted by Christopher Geehern on Sep 10, 2019 8:00:00 AM

Business confidence continued to seesaw during August as employers warily eyed a possible economic slowdown and the escalating trade war between the United States and China.

BCI.August.2019The Associated Industries of Massachusetts Business Confidence Index (BCI) fell 3.3 points to 58.7 last month after surging 4.4 points during July. The Index has lost 4.5 points since August 2018 but remains within optimistic territory.

The August decline was driven by growing concern about the US economy and the outlook among manufacturers- both elements driven by trade concerns.

Analysts cautioned against reading too much into the month-to-month gyrations of the Business Confidence Index but noted that every measure of confidence now sits below its level of a year ago.

“The imposition of 15 percent tariffs on $112 billion worth of Chinese goods on September 1 underscores the uncertainty facing employers, particularly manufacturers, who do business in overseas markets,” said Raymond G. Torto, Chair of AIM's Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and Lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

“At the same time, employers are beginning to see evidence from both customers and suppliers of a slowdown in the US economy. That caution is reflected in the 7.4-point confidence drop in the national outlook.”

The nation’s gross domestic product — the broadest gauge of economic health — grew at a moderate 2.0 percent annual rate in the April-June quarter, down from a 3.1 percent growth rate in the first quarter.

The AIM Index, based on a survey of more than 100 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.

Constituent Indicators

The constituent indicators that make up the AIM BCI all decreased during August.

The Massachusetts Index assessing business conditions within the commonwealth fell 4.3 points to 63.9 while the US Index dropped to 55.2. The Massachusetts reading has decreased 0.8 points and the US reading 9.5 points during the past 12 months.

The Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, declined 3.9 points to 56.9, leaving it 3.3 points lower than a year ago. The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, lost 2.7 points to 60.5, 5.6 points lower than its reading of August 2018.

The Employment Index slipped 1.5 points for the month and 3.8 points for the year even as the state unemployment rate fell to 2.9 percent. Employers continue to struggle to find qualified workers in a full-employment state economy.

Non-manufacturers (60.3) were more confident than manufacturers (57.1). Small companies (61.5) remained more confident than large companies (58.7) or medium-sized companies (56.3). Companies in Eastern Massachusetts (60.7) continue to be more optimistic than those in the west (56.0).

Katherine A. Kiel, Professor of Economics at the College of the Holy Cross, and a BEA member, said business confidence reflects the same volatility that has shaken global financial markets in recent months.

“Economic growth in Massachusetts slowed from 2.7 percent during the first quarter to 1.4 percent in the second.

Employers remain optimistic overall but see growing downside risks ranging from demographic constraints on the labor force to international uncertainty caused by factors such as tariffs and Brexit,” Kiel said.

State Policy Gains

AIM President and CEO John R. Regan, also BEA member, said employers will be watching closely this fall as the Massachusetts Legislature debates an education funding bill that could begin to address the persistent shortage of skilled workers in the economy.

“The 3,500 member companies of Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) who depend upon the public schools to prepare the workforce of the future support education reform that contains specific and measurable performance objectives. Anyone who owns or manages a business tracks return on investment and the investment we make in our public schools and students should be no different,” Regan said.

Topics: AIM Business Confidence Index, Massachusetts employers, Economy

Employer Confidence Rises Despite Uncertainty

Posted by Christopher Geehern on Aug 6, 2019 8:18:48 AM

Massachusetts employers shrugged off mounting evidence of an economic slowdown during July and expressed growing confidence in both the state and national economies.

BCI.July.2019The Associated Industries of Massachusetts Business Confidence Index (BCI) rose 4.4 points to 62.0 last month, reaching its highest level since September. The Index has gained 0.8 points during the past 12 months and remains comfortably within optimistic territory.

The confidence surge was driven by optimism in the Massachusetts economy and a strengthening outlook among manufacturers.

“We have to be cautious in reading large month-to-month changes in the Business Confidence Index, but the fact that employers are more optimistic than they were a year ago and six months ago is a good sign,” said Raymond G. Torto, Chair of AIM's Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and Lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

“With a host of seemingly conflicting indicators at play – unemployment in Massachusetts remains at a low 2.9 percent while economic growth slowed from an annualized rate of 2.7 percent to 1.4 percent during the second quarter – it will be interesting to see how employer optimism holds up for the rest of 2019.”

The AIM Index, based on a survey of more than 100 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 July confidence survey was taken after the government reported that US employers added 164,000 jobs during June and before President Donald Trump announced another round of tariffs on Chinese products.

Constituent Indicators

The constituent indicators that make up the AIM BCI all increased during July.

The Massachusetts Index assessing business conditions within the commonwealth surged 7 points to 68.2 while the US Index rose 4.6 points to 62.6. The Massachusetts reading has risen 3.1 points and the US reading 0.7 points during the past 12 months.

The Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, rose 4.6 points to 60.8, leaving it 2.1 points higher than a year ago. The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, gained 4.2 points to 63.2, virtually even with its reading of July 2018.

The Employment Index gained 1.9 points for the month and 0.2 points for the year. Employers continue to struggle to find qualified workers in a full-employment state economy facing a demographic challenge as baby boomers leave the work force.

Non-manufacturers (63.6) were more confident than manufacturers (60.5), who remain concerned about the consequences of tariffs and trade tensions. Small companies (65.2) were more confident than large companies (58.9) or medium-sized companies (62.3). Companies in Eastern Massachusetts (63.3) continued to be more optimistic than those in the west (59.8).

Michael D. Goodman, Executive Director of the Public Policy Center at UMass Dartmouth, and a BEA member, said business confidence remains volatile amid a swirl of economic and political issues ranging from trade to the availability of qualified workers.

“Employer optimism may reflect the fact that the Massachusetts economy should be somewhat insulated during these final stages of the economic expansion by a unique industry mix dominated by technology and innovation companies,” Goodman said.

Wrong Time to Raise Costs

AIM President and CEO John R. Regan, also BEA member, said Massachusetts employers already burdened with business and compliance costs could face more of the same soon as the state Legislature debates ways to raise revenue for big-ticket issues such as transportation and education.

“Beacon Hill is awash with calls for more revenue. But the slowing of the economy during the second quarter means this is exactly the wrong time to place additional cost burdens on business,” Regan said.

“If the economy goes into a downturn while costs are increasing that will create big challenges for employers.”

Topics: AIM Business Confidence Index, Massachusetts economy, Massachusetts employers

Employer Confidence Stabilizes in June

Posted by Christopher Geehern on Jul 9, 2019 8:46:46 AM

Employer confidence stabilized in Massachusetts during June despite a continued swirl of conflicting economic and political signals around the globe.

BCI.June.2019The 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.

Constituent Indicators

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.”

Topics: AIM Business Confidence Index, Massachusetts economy, Massachusetts employers

Meet 2019 AIM Vision Honoree Wayfair Inc.

Posted by Christopher Geehern on May 22, 2019 2:47:54 PM

Associated Industries of Massachusetts last week presented its 2019 Vision Award to Wayfair Inc., a Massachusetts-born technology company that has redefined how people shop for their homes. Wayfair has more than 5,500 full-time employees in the commonwealth and continues to grow its presence in Boston and beyond. Here is the company's story.

Topics: AIM Annual Meeting, Massachusetts employers, AIM Vision Award

Employer Confidence Rises in April

Posted by Christopher Geehern on May 8, 2019 8:55:23 AM

Massachusetts employers grew more confident during April as the state and national economies regained their footing.

BCI.April.2019The Associated Industries of Massachusetts Business Confidence Index (BCI) rose 2.4 points to 60.3 last month. Confidence remains well within optimistic territory, though still 3.9 points below its strong reading of April 2018.

The April 2019 increase reflected growing employer optimism about economic prospects for the next six months and about the future of their own companies.

All of the constituent indicators that make up the BCI rose during April with one notable exception. The Employment Index fell 1.5 points to 54.4, suggesting that employer sentiment continues to be tempered by a persistent shortage of qualified workers.

“The Business Confidence Index continues to show a conflict between short-term economic optimism and long-term concern about the prospect of finding enough appropriately skilled workers to run Massachusetts businesses,” said Raymond G. Torto, Chair of AIM's Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and Lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

“The immediate news for employers is positive as economic growth in Massachusetts surged to an annual rate of 4.6 percent during the first quarter of 2019 and US growth came in at 3.2 percent.”

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.

Constituent Indicators

The constituent indicators showed a broad-based strengthening of confidence during April.

The Massachusetts Index assessing business conditions within the commonwealth rose 1.5 points to 63.2, while the US Index gained 2.8 points to 58.3. The Massachusetts reading has declined 0.9 points during the past 12 months and the US reading has dropped 5.6 points during the same period.

The Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, surged 3.1 points to 60.5. The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, rose 1.7 points to 60.0, still 5.1 points lower than a year ago.

The decline in the Employment Index left that measure 5.4 points lower than in April 2018. One good sign for job seekers is that the Sales Index, a key predictor of future business activity, rose 3.9 points during the month.

Non-manufacturers (64.1) were more confident than manufacturers (57.3). Large companies (60.7), medium-sized companies (60.5) and small companies (59.7) all had similar confidence outlooks. Companies in Eastern Massachusetts (64.5) continued to be far more bullish than those in the west (55.5).

Edward H. Pendergast, Managing Director of Dunn Rush & Co. and a BEA member, said employer confidence reflects first-quarter economic growth that was stronger than most experts anticipated. That growth sent US stocks to record highs in April before this week’s selloff.

“The consensus on Wall Street is for slowing growth as the year progresses, but the economy is setting a solid and predictable pace that reassures employers that there is little immediate threat of recession,” Pendergast said.

Training and Education

AIM President and CEO Richard C. Lord, also BEA member, said the sluggish Employment Index underscores the urgency for business and government to collaborate on ways to train and educate the workers who will drive the economy in the future.

“The persistent shortage of workers will become more severe as large numbers of baby boomers continue to leave the work force. It is imperative that we address the next generation of workers, so we can extend opportunity broadly to the people of Massachusetts.”

Lord’s commentary is his final one before retiring as President of AIM next week.

Topics: AIM Business Confidence Index, Massachusetts economy, Massachusetts employers

Employer Confidence Slips in March

Posted by Christopher Geehern on Apr 2, 2019 8:30:59 AM

Business confidence weakened slightly in March amid signs of both a cyclical global slowdown and persistent demographic factors limiting the growth of the labor force in Massachusetts.

BCI.March.2019The Associated Industries of Massachusetts Business Confidence Index (BCI) lost 0.3 points to 57.9 during March. Confidence remains within optimistic territory but has lost 5.6 points during the past 12 months.

The decrease reflected employer concerns about economic prospects for the next six months. Those concerns outweighed growing optimism among manufacturing companies and rising confidence in the Massachusetts economy.

The March Business Confidence survey took place as the government announced that Massachusetts created only 20,000 jobs during 2018 instead of the 65,500 previously estimated. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that average payroll job growth in Massachusetts fell from 1.3 percent in 2017 to 0.9 percent last year.

“Massachusetts employers continue to struggle with the challenges of a full-employment economy complicated by demographic issues such as the retirement of large numbers of baby boomers,” said Raymond G. Torto, Chair of AIM's Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and Lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

“U.S. economic growth appears to be slowing, as well as world economic growth, but recession fears are still low.”

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.

Constituent Indicators

The constituent indicators that make up the overall Business Confidence Index moved in a narrow range during March.

The Massachusetts Index assessing business conditions within the commonwealth gained 0.9 points to 61.7. Confidence in the Massachusetts economy has declined 6.1 points since March 2018.

The U.S. Index measuring employer sentiment about the national economy slipped 0.5 points to 55.5, leaving it 9.7 points less than a year ago.

Employers were slightly more optimistic about current conditions than about the future. The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, rose 0.6 points to 58.3 while the Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, fell 1.3 points to 57.4. The Future Index has fallen 7.0 points during the past 12 months.

The Employment Index, measuring employer optimism about hiring, rose 1.2 points to 55.9.

Non-manufacturers (60.6) were more confident than manufacturers (55.4). Small companies (60.8) were more optimistic than large companies (55.2) or medium-sized companies (57.5). Companies in Eastern Massachusetts (60.0) continued to be more bullish than those in the west (55.0).

Northeastern University professor Alan Clayton-Matthews, a BEA member, said the downward revision of the Massachusetts job-growth numbers was consistent with demographic trends such as the large number of baby boomers retiring from the work force.

“The last New England Economic Project forecast projected a slowdown in payroll job growth from 1.7 percent in 2017 to 1.1 percent in 2018 and 0.6 percent in 2019 and a slowdown in labor-force growth from 1.6 percent in 2017 to 0.6 percent in 2018 and 0.4 percent in 2019. This forecast was largely based on demographic projections assuming a full-employment economy,” said Clayton-Matthews.

“The state economy seems to be running at full capacity, and the basic state indicators don’t suggest a lack of demand, though it’s hard to spot turning points until there is enough hindsight.”

Mixed Signals

AIM President and CEO Richard C. Lord, also BEA member, said employers remain concerned as Beacon Hill lawmakers undertake a broad discussion of how to fund expensive policy priorities such as transportation infrastructure, public education and clean energy. He noted that AIM will be part of a group assembled by the state Senate to look at the Massachusetts tax code.

“AIM undertakes these debates conscious of the oppressive cost burdens already facing Massachusetts employers. Massachusetts must develop a fair strategy to address its spending needs without harming employers who are already struggling to implement a $1 billion paid family and medical leave program along with the rising cost of both health insurance and energy,” Lord said.

Topics: AIM Business Confidence Index, Massachusetts economy, Massachusetts employers

Maximum Unemployment Duration Drops to 26 Weeks

Posted by John Regan on Mar 26, 2019 6:49:33 PM

An obscure provision of the 2005 Massachusetts Unemployment Insurance Reform Law will next week accomplish what employers have sought for several decades – a reduction in the maximum duration of unemployment benefits from 30 weeks to the 26 weeks common in most states.

The provision mandates that if the unemployment rate drops below 5.1 percent in the 10 labor market regions of the state, then UI benefits are available for 26 instead of 30 weeks.  The Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development certified today that the jobless rate in all Massachusetts labor markets has dropped to less than 5.1 percent so new UI recipients as of next week will be able to collect for 26 weeks.

The benefit period will return to 30 weeks if during any month of a claimant's 26-week benefit period the 12-month average monthly unemployment rate in any one of the metro areas rises above the 5.1 percent threshold.

Cost savings associated with the 26-week maximum benefit period are $40 million in the first year and $84 million in the second year, state officials said

“I don’t think anyone at the time this provision was negotiated believed it would ever take effect,” said AIM President and Chief Executive Officer Richard C. Lord.

“The change underscores the fact the the duration of Unemployment Insurance remains one of the major competitive disadvantages that affect companies doing business in Massachusetts. We urge the Legislature to move to 26 weeks permanently.”

Topics: Unemployment insurance, Massachusetts employers

Business Confidence Slides Again in January

Posted by Christopher Geehern on Feb 12, 2019 8:30:00 AM

Stabilizing financial markets and continued strong employment were not enough to brighten the outlook of Massachusetts employers during January as business confidence fell for the fifth time in seven months.

BCI.January.2019The Associated Industries of Massachusetts Business Confidence Index (BCI) lost 0.9 points to 57.7, its lowest level since October 2016. Confidence has dropped 6.4 points during the past 12 months.

The retreat was led by a 7.3-point drop in employer views of the Massachusetts economy, and a 2.4-point drop in opinions about the national economy.

Overall confidence remains within optimistic territory, but every element of the AIM Index is now lower than it was a year ago.

A separate survey within the January Business Confidence Index found that while 71 percent of Massachusetts employers have seen some effect from the US government’s imposition of tariffs on goods form China and other nations, only 10 percent of companies characterize the effect as “significant” or a threat to the existence of their business.

The most common consequence of the tariffs has been an increase in raw-material prices, followed by changes to the supply chain, supply interruptions, products affected by retaliatory tariffs and loss of overseas customers.

“The Massachusetts economy grew at 2.1 percent during the fourth quarter of 2018 and continues to operate at near full capacity,” said Raymond G. Torto, Chair of AIM's Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and Lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

“At the same time, employers continue to confront uncertainty surrounding trade policy, demographic constraints on the labor market and the implementation of a sweeping paid family and medical leave program in Massachusetts.”

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.

Constituent Indicators  

The constituent indicators that make up the overall Business Confidence Index were mixed during January.

The 7.3-point drop in the Massachusetts Index assessing business conditions within the commonwealth left that indicator at 57.4. Confidence in the Massachusetts economy has declined 11.5 points since January 2018.

The U.S. Index measuring employer sentiment about the national economy dropped 2.4 points to 52.7, a decline of 12.1 points year-over-year. It marked the lowest reading for the U.S. Index since November 2016.

The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, fell 1.8 points to 58.2. The Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, remained flat at 57.3 but has declined 9.3 points over 12 months.

Manufacturers (57.8) and non-manufacturers (57.7) were equally confident. There was also little difference in the confidence readings reported by large companies (57.9), medium-sized companies (57.7) and small companies (57.6). Companies in Eastern Massachusetts (59.4) were more bullish than those in the west (55.3).

Economist Barry Bluestone, retired Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University and a member of the BEA, suggested that employers face two parallel sets of challenges - uncertainty about political issues such as tariffs and a more fundamental uncertainty about the limits of a full-employment state economy. He noted that wage and salary income growth was strong in the fourth quarter, rising 7.2 percent in Massachusetts on an annualized basis.

“A 3.3 percent unemployment rate, combined with an aging population and slow labor force growth will challenge the ability of Massachusetts employers to expand during 2019 and beyond,” Bluestone said.

Piling On Costs

AIM President and CEO Richard C. Lord, also BEA member, said the significant weakening of confidence in the Massachusetts economy also reflects frustration among employers with a cascade of expensive new state mandates, including a two-year MassHealth assessment, an increase in the minimum wage and the impending start of paid family and medical leave.

“We hear frequently from Massachusetts employers who feel under siege from both the sheer expense of these programs and the administrative burden they place on companies, particularly smaller companies,” Lord said.

Topics: AIM Business Confidence Index, Massachusetts economy, Massachusetts employers

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