Business confidence surged during May to its highest level since the summer of 2000, driven by improving employer outlooks about the state and national economies.
The Associated Industries of Massachusetts Business Confidence Index (BCI) rose 2.4 points to 66.6 last month after increasing modestly during April. The BCI has risen in five of the last six months and now stands 5.8 points higher than its level of a year ago.
Confidence remains well within the optimistic range. The only whiff of concern came in the index that measures hiring, which dropped 1.5 points for the month and 0.2 points during the year.
Economists believe the weakness in the AIM Employment Index reflects the persistent shortage of workers in Massachusetts that has forced some employers to postpone expansions or to decline new business opportunities.
Raymond G. Torto, Chair of AIM's Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and Lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Design, cautioned that major month-to-month movements in the Index like those in May sometimes reflect statistical or sampling anomalies. He noted, however, that the numbers are consistent with a general sense that the US and state economies are picking up steam in the second quarter after a slow start to 2018.
“There are signs GDP growth gathered momentum early in the second quarter, with solid consumer spending, business investment on equipment and industrial production,” Torto said.
The nation’s economy grew at a 2.2 percent rate during the first quarter. Hiring across the US remains strong, with the government reporting on Friday that employers added 223,000 jobs during May.
“And the Massachusetts economy continues to operate at virtually full capacity, creating significant constraints on the availability of labor,” said Torto.
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 largely higher in May.
The Massachusetts Index assessing business conditions within the commonwealth surged 5.9 points to 70.0, leaving it 7.9 points higher than in May 2017.
The U.S. Index ended the month at 69.3, up 5.4 points for the month and 14.4 points for the year.
May marked the 99th 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, gained 1.5 points to 66.6. The Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, increased 3.3 points to the same 66.6 level. The Current Index has risen 6.2 points and the Future Index 5.3 points since May 2017.
Employer views of their own companies were mixed.
The Company Index increased slightly to 64.5, up 2.1 points for 12 months. The Employment Index ended the month at 58.3, a 1.5-point decrease for the month and 0.2 points lower than a year ago. The Sales Index rose 1.7 points for the month and 3.3 points for the year.
Manufacturing companies (66.8) and non-manufacturers (66.3) were equally optimistic about the economy. Companies in the eastern part of Massachusetts (67.9) were more bullish than those in the west (64.6).
“Massachusetts employers remain confident, but economic growth in the commonwealth is increasingly bumping up against the structural shortage of skilled workers,” said Alan Clayton-Matthews, a BEA member and professor in the School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs, Northeastern University.
Clayton-Matthews told MassBenchmarks earlier this year: “Retiring baby boomers will continue to dampen labor force growth this year and throughout the next decade unless the commonwealth is able to attract young workers from across the country and the world.”
The BCI increase came as the Mass Insight index of consumer confidence in Massachusetts suffered its biggest quarterly decline in years, from 134 in February to 121 in May. The index remined in optimistic territory, but fell below a comparable index for national consumer confidence for the first time since 2014.
AIM President and CEO Richard C. Lord, also BEA member, said the increase in business confidence underscores the underlying strength of the economy at a time when employers are receiving mixed signals from government.
“On the one hand, employers are seeing benefits from federal tax reform. On the other hand, they are struggling to process the new Massachusetts health-care surcharge and looking ahead warily to the possibility that Massachusetts voters may approve a graduated income tax that could harm small businesses,” Lord said.
“AIM and the employer community are seeking to negotiate reasonable compromises on issues such as paid family/medical leave and a $15 per hour minimum wage, compromises that would allow employers to continue creating jobs for Massachusetts residents.”