With phrases like, “broad based growth,” “robust employment” and “Texas will outpace the nation,” Mine Yücel, Senior Vice President/Director of Research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas (FRB), kicked off the first of four 2015 Economic Forecast panels. Yücel sees the likelihood of ending 2014 at a 3.5 percent employment growth rate for Texas while the U.S. rate is forecast to finish up 1.9 percent. Yücel spoke in both Dallas and Austin, and Anil Kumar, Senior Research Economist and Advisor, shared his observations and statistics in both Houston and San Antonio. The forecast events were held at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, the FRB Houston Branch and the FRB San Antonio Branch, and at the AT&T Conference Center in Austin. Collaborators for the 2015 Forecast events were Texas CEO Magazine, Texas Enterprise and the McCombs Alumni Network.
Who’s Got the Jobs?
While energy may top all others in sector growth at over nine percent, energy still represents only 2.6 percent of Texas jobs. The highest number of jobs added this year is in the professional and business services sectors with one-third of them in technical and scientific jobs. The next highest sector of growth in jobs was in trade, transportation and utilities, with retail jobs the largest gainer.
The high rate of growth has also led to labor shortages, especially in energy and construction. “We have one Houston contact who reported he was hiring armed guards to keep poachers away from his work sites,” noted Yücel. Specifically, there are shortages in specialized workers such as welders, masons, and plumbers and many employers tell Yücel they can’t find workers who can pass the Federal background checks.
While one construction sector, road and bridge construction, is not doing well, residential construction contracts are steadily growing and up about 6.4 percent year over year. “Our contacts are telling us there’s a shortage of developable lots and higher construction costs and labor shortages are limiting growth, and that’s also extended delivery time,” said Yücel.
Yücel cautioned attendees, “These labor shortages aimed at job growth can’t continue at this pace and it’s going to slow as we go forward.”
With Texas the number one producer of oil & gas in the nation, Yücel reminded everyone, “We don’t only produce oil, we supply the world with oil & gas services with one-quarter of U.S. refining capacity and 60 percent of the petrochemical capacity based in Texas.”
In addition to oil & gas jobs, Yucel noted there are jobs in professional services, construction and manufacturing within the energy sector paying very high wages – the highest wages among all industries – which is bringing significant amounts of income into the Texas economy. In 2012, Midland was the metro with the highest per capita income growth and highest per capita income at $83,000 – greater than New York or San Francisco.
The price of oil has been tracking downward in the last several months, and while that helps the consumer in gas prices, Yücel cautioned that oil from shale, the kind produced in Texas, is expensive and needs to be at $70 a barrel to be profitable, so if prices fall below $70 it will stifle growth in the industry and likely within Texas.
Yücel sees the world economy in a flux and the greatest risks to Texas are the economies of Europe and Asia, along with a labor shortage that will slow our growth rate.
Shortages of skilled workers and vacant lots for building have caused some bottlenecks in the construction sector, especially for single-family homes, noted Anil Kumar. The result is a reduced supply of homes on the market, with current supply levels sitting at 3.6 months statewide, much lower than the real estate market’s ideal 6-month supply.
This reduced supply has caused increased home prices, reducing the availability of affordable housing. Kumar sees this trend starting to change. “There is some good news,” Kumar said. “It appears the housing price appreciation has started to soften a bit.”
Following the economic crisis, mortgages that are 90-plus days delinquent or in foreclosure reached record highs, but they have been steadily declining and are now nearing pre-recession levels.
Engineering & Industrial Construction
In July there was a big jump – including a record high – for construction contract values in Texas. What did that? Construction on the new Dow Chemical plant project in Freeport began, part of a $4 billion Gulf Coast expansion project being built for Dow by Fluor Corporation. In addition, Exxon has also announced a new plant in Baytown, a multi-billion dollar petrochemical plant, also being handled by Fluor. Fluor provides engineering, procurement, construction, maintenance and project management services to their clients.
Fluor CEO David Seaton smiled as he shared the story of moving the company’s corporate headquarters from Orange County, California, to Dallas in 2006. “We were the company that tipped the scale for Texas to have more Fortune 500 companies than California,” noted Seaton. Fluor’s decision to move to Texas was based on a number of factors – energy, world class infrastructure, talent and a business regulatory environment conducive to business.
Seaton knows capital spend on the kinds of projects Fluor handles is a bellwether for the economic future. “We’re out there on the front lines in these communities building these plants before any company makes a dime,” Seaton said. He recognizes the courage it takes for business leaders to make the big spending decisions because companies don’t make any money off of capital projects until their plants go online. “The Dow project is a 40 month project and until they begin production, there’s no revenue from these decisions,” Seaton said.
While there is a bright future in industrial engineering and construction based on pent up demand, there are two areas of concern for Seaton: comprehensive immigration reform and availability of resources. Seaton said, “We need the immigrants to continue to grow.”
Consumer Package Goods
Tom Falk has a 30 year history with Kimberly-Clark and has witnessed a number of changes in consumer behavior on his way to becoming chairman & CEO. Focusing on today’s consumer, Falk sees shifts in purchasing based on ethnicity, age, earning power, and most importantly, innovation.
“First, let’s focus on the demographic shifts,” said Falk. Forty-nine percent of new births in Texas will be Hispanic and that demographic shift impacts how Kimberly-Clark sells Huggies and through what channels.
Falk also tracks age demographic shifts. By 2020, 35 percent of the population of the U.S. will be over age 50 and in Japan the adult care category is already bigger than the diaper category. Kimberly-Clark also sells Depend and Poise products.
Another trend Falk sees is the middle class being squeezed because income levels are under pressure, real wage growth is minimal, and health care costs are going up, leaving consumers with less money to spend. “The reality is,” said Falk, “what do you do about that? ”
Falk’s answer to growth is the need to drive real innovation. “If innovation is a little better like a new color or flavor, mom isn’t interested, but she is willing to spend for innovation and she’s willing to spend to trade up,” he said. “If you drive meaningful innovation, you can still convert the consumer.”
Continuing on the theme of consumer behavior, JCPenney CEO Mike Ullman reinforced the importance of retail to the U.S. economy – retail represents 70 percent of economic spending in the U.S., he said, and it’s the largest employer category in the country.
Ullman started with the positives for consumers: Fuel prices are low, which is having a positive influence on spending and confidence is high, so there’s a sense of well being.
The next influence to consumer behavior is what Ullman calls the AAS factor: Amazon, Apple and Samsung. In 2014, two-thirds of retail sales in the United States are projected to be from those three companies.
“Where did that money come from?” asked Ullman. “Right out of their apparel budget because nobody is going to give up their cell phone or technology in order to buy their fifth piece of sportswear.” Ullman says that’s putting a lot of pressure on retailers.
Continuing on that theme, Ullman pointed out malls are the site of discretionary spending. “If you unload the kids, they disappear into the stores and they can buy anything they want. Their spending is not really on apparel, instead it’s on technology.”
Ullman sees malls as global marketplaces. Where there used to be 65 companies operating department stores in various cities in the United States, today there are five or six. “Today,” said Ullman, “it’s all about globalization with companies like Zara and Mango.”
Ullman agreed with Tom Falk about innovation and recognizes the need for retailers to talk to consumers through mobile apps, in the store and online. “If you’re innovative and you recognize the consumer that spends online stays online, and if they spend in the store, they spend in the store,” he said. “If you have a customer who spends on both channels, you have much more valuable, loyal customer.”
If retailers can adapt to change, they can succeed. Ullman’s perspective is positive and optimistic and says today’s retailers need to give shoppers a sense of discovery and sense of excitement in the store.
“One thing about JCPenney,” said Ullman, “we operate 900 hair salons because it’s very hard to get your haircut online.”
As the economy of Texas continues to outpace the national economy, the energy sector continues to drive Houston’s economy. In fact, while crude oil production increases across the United States, Texas accounts for nearly half that growth – and that’s true even with recent price declines in crude oil.
Oil & Gas
Despite lower oil prices, the Federal Reserve says the energy sector is holding steady. And Greg Armstrong, chairman and CEO of Plains All American Pipeline, said the sector is full of good news. Production in the United States and Canada is on the rise, with significant “running room,” Armstrong said. Producers in the U.S. are spending about $100 billion a year at current activity levels, with major investments in Texas – primarily South and West Texas. In fact, Texas is responsible for about half the projected growth in U.S. production over the next four years.
Right now, production in the U.S. and Canada is 3.5 million barrels of crude a day. In the next four years, it’s expected to grow to 3.9 million, Armstrong said. But looking at supply and demand, how will that growth in production be handled without causing the price to crater?
“The challenge is the quality of the crude,” Armstrong said. “About two-thirds of the 3.9 million barrels a day are going to be medium and light, sweet crude oil and condensate. The majority of the 5.2 million barrels a day we import are heavy and medium sour. There’s a quality imbalance here that we have to handle.”
The petroleum industry is waiting for guidance from the government, Armstrong said, because the U.S. is prohibited from exporting light crude. “If the government would give us a little bit of clarity, we can expend some capital and handle that,” he said. “Right now they’ve gone silent and that’s the worst thing because that creates paralysis.”
The crude must be moved from the wellhead to the processors, another area of significant capital investment, said Armstrong, but that also means there’s a time of volatility coming because the quality of crude being produced doesn’t match the quality that most refineries are set up to run.
But while that volatility will seem chaotic, Armstrong said the outcome will be positive. “If you know the storms are coming, you can prepare for them and you know what the outcome is,” he said.
With the increase in production outstripping demand, Armstrong said we’ll need an increase in demand, less production from Saudi Arabia, and a halt to production in geopolitically conflicted countries.
U.S. companies spending $90-$100 billion a year require capital and “constructive” oil prices, Armstrong said. Many smaller producers are spending up to 140 percent of their cash flow and are relying on the capital markets to make up the gap. But even if the price of oil goes down to $75-$80 per barrel, many plays can still make a 15 percent return. The real question, Armstrong said, is: Will the boardrooms and shareholders embrace high spending in a lower price environment? He anticipates that the quick decline of existing production will trigger higher prices over the next six to 18 months.
“If we end up with low prices for a while it won’t last long before we have a correction and go right back up,” he said. “By that time, the world tends to expand demand with lower prices and we’ll reset the bar and go forward.”
Imports & Exports
The growth in oil production is having a major effect on the Port of Houston, said Janiece Longoria, chair of the Port Commission for the Port of Houston Authority. Commerce at the port is the strongest in its history, and the port is seeing large construction projects in export cargo.
“Our manufacturing partners on the Houston Ship Channel have invested approximately $35 billion in manufacturing and export capability in the last three years,” she said, and because of all of the manufacturing infrastructure in the petrochemical industry along the Houston Ship Channel, there is a significant increase in exports of manufactured petrochemical products to foreign markets.
Some of those projects include the construction of the world’s largest refrigerated ethane export facility at Barbour’s Cut. Six major plastic resin manufacturing projects have been announced on the Houston Ship Channel, all coming online between late 2016 and late 2017.
“Our petrochemical partners have advised us they expect their exports to double and possibly triple in the next two to three years,” Longoria said. “They have come to us with the message they need us to be ready to handle that significant additional export activity out of our port.”
Beyond petroleum, growth at the port is also being driven by growth in the regional population. “Our regional population is growing faster than any other region in the nation and it’s expected to double and even triple in the next 20 to 30 years,” she said. Regional population growth drives consumer demand, which in turn drives demand for products delivered as containerized cargo.
The expansion of the Panama Canal will also have a major impact on the port. Capacity of the canal will double, and it will be able to handle more and larger ships. That project will be ready in the spring of 2016. “We’re already the leading Gulf Coast port handling 66 percent of containerized cargo,” Longoria said, “and I believe because of our strategic location and our population reach, we will be the beneficiary of significant additional cargo across our docks with the expansion of the Panama Canal.”
She said the revived energy sector is leading to a growth in manufacturing, which leads to more exports, which leads to reaching more foreign markets through the canal.
To handle the expected growth, the Port of Houston is investing a billion dollars over the next five years in both dredging and infrastructure, Longoria said. Container terminals are being dredged from 40 feet to 45 feet and will be finished when the expanded Panama Canal opens. At the Barbour’s Cut container facility, the port will spend $700 million to double the container handling capacity and buy larger cranes to accommodate larger ships.
Refrigerated cargo is also a potential growth area. “The POH has a very small piece of refrigerated cargo imports, which is unusual, considering the size of our population and our consumer reach,” she said. To do that, the port needs more refrigerated cargo space. An RFP for cold storage and warehousing near the Bayport container terminal has already attracted some responses.
One area not directly affected by the oil industry is health care. Here, too, the outlook is positive. The Greater Houston Partnership says population growth will add 7,900 doctors and nurses to the employment rolls in 2014. And Dr. Bobby Robbins, CEO of the Texas Medical Center says the future is bright for large hospitals.
“I don’t think the future is bright for small hospitals in small towns,” he said. As incentives and rewards in health care change, hospitals will be forced to deliver the highest quality product at the lowest price with the best customer service. Robbins said that represents a change, because until recently, hospitals hadn’t had to emphasize customer service.
Now, hospitals are being held accountable for such metrics as patient mortality and length of hospital stays. “The big institutions like the ones in the TMC with healthy balance sheets that are forward looking and innovative, have gotten the message,” he said. “They are shifting from fee for service to value-based operations.”
Robbins said his biggest challenge is getting all of the institutions that make up the Texas Medical Center to work together on interdisciplinary projects. He mentioned Boston, where Harvard, MIT, Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Tufts University and Boston University all work together in the field of genomics. “Clearly they are the leading genomics institute in the world,” he said.
In Houston, “There are no real signature programs that you could point to that says, ‘this is a Texas Medical Center interdisciplinary program,’” Robbins said. He said it will be important to develop a Boston-style collaboration, because that will be important in terms of research funding.
Robbins said one example of that has already started. In early October, the country’s largest life science innovation center opened at the TMC. Robbins said the new center, “will allow us to be a real center for life science innovation and commercialization here in Houston, much the same of what goes on in Boston and New York.”
With perspectives on biomedical technology, financial services and private equity, there were more positive views from San Antonio.
Joe Robles, President and CEO of USAA, addressed low interest rates, which has pros and cons for those in financial services. Robles mentioned that current low rates don’t cause problems for those businesses offering credit at high rates, but can be detrimental to businesses’ balance sheets if the cost of credit rises or spikes.
While Robles said he wasn’t sure when rates will rise again, he said that a sharp rise in interest rates would be detrimental to business. He cited Europe’s current economic situation as an example of what could happen in the U.S. due to recent volatility in the markets.
For those who are at or near retirement, they want to see interest rates go up to get more out of their savings and fixed instrument investments because without an increase in rates, retirement is going to be more challenging, Robles stated.
Another area that concerns Robles is in the purchasing of annuities and life insurance policies. Currently life insurance ownership is at a 50-year low in the U.S.
The busiest areas for USAA are in the digital and mobile spaces. “We will do $500 million in transactions on mobile devices this year,” Robles said. He has seen Millennials eager to embrace new technology, while Baby Boomers want to use more traditional methods of moving money and paying bills. This difference requires businesses make options available that will work for members of the diverse generations. Robles suggested that the business world adjust to meet the needs of Millennials and move to newer ways of doing business or younger customers and employees will choose to go elsewhere.
On the fraud security front, Robles touched on a new technology in the U.S being that’s been used extensively in Europe, called chip and PIN that embeds a chip in all credit cards and requires a PIN to use. This chip provides better security to credit and debit card owners to reduce fraud and theft.
The biomedical sector provides one out of every six jobs in San Antonio. Ken Trevett, President Emeritus of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute and Board Chair of BioMedSA, said growth in biomed has been extensive in San Antonio, with more than 40,000 jobs gained in the sector in the last 10 years.
San Antonio is home to the San Antonio Medical Center and new additions to the University Health System and the Baptist Medical Center. Some larger biomedical companies, such as Innovative Trauma Care and Xanax, have moved to the area to take advantage of the multiple R&D parks, incubator facilities, venture capital, academic and research institutions.
The organizations within the South Texas Medical Center have a combined budget of $3.9 billion. Research expenditures have reached $151 million, and capital projects add up to $438 million with another $509 million planned for the next five years within the Health Science Center, according to Trevett.
“Overall, the biomedical center accounts for $29 billion in economic activity and is the largest economic center in the city,” Trevett said.
Trevett expressed concern over federal cutbacks on R&D spending. The National Institute of Health’s purchasing power has gone down 25 percent over the last decade. San Antonio does not have abundant jobs available to new Ph.D.s in the area with research facilities, since many companies do not do much hiring during the research phase of R&D.
Trevett hopes to draw more attention to San Antonio’s biomedical center, which sometimes gets neglected due to east coast/west coast bias.
“San Antonio and Texas are real players in biomedicine, and you can be proud of what’s gone on in the last 25 years; the growth is extraordinary,” Trevett said.
Rad Weaver, CEO of McCombs Partners, discussed the private equity market which is currently seeing its highest IPO activity since 2007. “Committed capital is over $500 billion right now, which is an amazing number,” Weaver said.
Weaver repeated the words of Leon Black of Apollo Global Management to define the current state of private equity, “We think it’s a fabulous environment to be selling in and we’re selling everything that’s not nailed down.”
Purchase price multiples for companies in the sub-$250 million of enterprise value are at their highest level in more than 10 years, according to Weaver. “We have strong debt markets, with debt to EBITDA at 2.5 and sub-debt at 3.7 times, which is the highest in 10 years.” There’s also plenty of money for making deals with the cash balances of strategic acquirers at $1.3 billion.
For McCombs Partners, there are four key areas of focus: automotive, retail, energy, and real estate
Weaver said the transportation sector makes for solid investing due to consolidation that allows for greater equity from those companies, which hasn’t been available for the last few years.
In the financial services sector, Weaver said that the current low cost of capital allows for more innovation and product creation. He expects to see this innovation bridging the gap between those who have credit and credit availability and those who don’t.
In the Q&A session following the presentations led by Professor Jay Hartzell, each speaker was asked for their view on the one or two most important things they were watching in the coming year. For Kumar it was declining oil prices and the recent trends in the strength of the dollar. For Trevett, the declining purchasing power in the academic sector from the federal side and the need for more venture capital to spawn new businesses were his concerns. Robles sees the financial services sector needing more automation and simplicity; and for Weaver, the price decline of a barrel of oil and the oil coming from Mexico due to their recent constitutional changes were top on his list.
At Austin’s 2015 Economic Forecast panel, speakers focused on bringing manufacturing back to U.S. soil, the future of Texas’ booming real estate market and what the drought means for water availability in Central Texas.
“There’s an opportunity on the horizon. The opportunity revolves around the rapid reshaping of the industrial economy – where access to technology is going to fundamentally change the dynamics for the U.S. and many countries around the world,” and with those words Alex Davern, COO of National Instruments (NI), launched the economic forecast in Austin with keen observations on the technology space and the industrial economy.
Citing the example of hydraulic fracturing as one way cutting-edge technology has solved an industrial problem, Davern said the industrial Internet of Things with its ability to have time synchronized networks, real time operating systems that leverage mass computing power, and the ability to have encrypted wireless communication in high volume, is going to fundamentally change the way the industrial economy works. The industrial Internet of Things is only now taking shape and will have a macro effect on the economy requiring the appropriate investments.
“The United States is the biggest market in the world for just about everything and has tremendous amounts of natural resources, so why is all of our manufacturing and production leaving our shores?” Davern asked, and then answered his own question. “It’s the lack of competiveness in some of the key elements of how we execute.”
Daven listed three challenges in being more competitive: the execution of manufacturing and competing with low cost labor from other countries, access to talent, and the taxation environment in the U.S.
Davern predicts more industrial and manufacturing jobs returning to the U.S. as the cost of labor becomes more expensive in the rest of the world and the evolution of technology continues. He said if companies can increase the efficiency of labor and production over a wide variety of products in switching to U.S.-based production, we will fundamentally reshape the U.S. economy.
When it comes to talent, NI will attempt to hire 250 new engineers and computer scientists in 2015 – and they are hard to find. For NI, not having those new engineers constrains their ability to grow their business in Texas and constrains their ability to drive the innovation necessary to take advantage of the technologies coming that can reshape the U.S. economy. He pointed out that immigration policies requiring international students to return to their original countries after graduation are one reason for the talent scarcity.
Davern said that while Texas is a very business friendly environment, the U.S. is the second least competitive tax environment in the industrial world – only France is worse. “We have to reshape the industrial economy of the U.S.,” Davern said. “We have to apply technology to the problem, which takes engineers, and we have to attract the capital and encourage it to remain onshore.” If those three things get done, Davern sees no reason why the U.S. can’t remain the number one economy in the world.
Jim Talbot, COO of Keller Williams, noted that while sales in Texas were down in 2014 versus 2013, it has been a good year for real estate. He attributed most of the decline to a reduction in distressed property sales along with a reduction in available affordable housing. Talbot expects a strong real estate year in 2015.
Gains in real estate prices in Texas continue to outpace the U.S. Talbot said national year-over-year price gains are expected to run between four and six percent; comparatively, Texas gains will reach between 6 and 10 percent. Home prices in Texas did not fall during the recession as much as the rest of the country and Texas median home prices remain just below the national average.
Inventory is tight, but Talbot said Dallas and Houston saw price increases up eight and nine percent, respectively, last year. Austin’s real estate is the least affordable in the state, 20 percent less affordable than Dallas and Houston. Talbot expects that affordability will continue to drop in Austin, coupled with other infrastructure issues such as traffic problems.
“For Austin, affordability is going to be a hot topic around here and if it continues much longer, it could affect the willingness of businesses to relocate here,” Talbot said.
Mortgage rates are the most important topic in the real estate industry, according to Talbot. Current low rates have been the chief cause of the real estate boom. Rates rose in the second half of 2013, but have declined again this year. Talbot said that rates may drop below 4 percent again, which would further spur the real estate market.
Besides affordability, Talbot tracks student loan debt and its effect on the market. Student loan debt quadrupled between 2003 and 2014, and first-time home buyers are waiting to pay down student loans before they are able to enter the real estate market. Talbot said these increased loans can dramatically affect Millennials’ ability to purchase homes. “There’s nothing we can see that’s moderating student debt, and it continues to grow,” Talbot said.
Housing permits are another indicator of how the market is faring. Multi-family permits are up more than 30 percent this year, while single-family permits are up 8 percent. Permits in Austin are starting to slow down, while the market waits to see if new construction can be absorbed. Single-family permits are starting to rise again, mostly in the suburbs and xburbs.
Electricity and Water
John Hofmann, Executive Vice President of Water at LCRA, spoke first about the new Ferguson Power Plant going online. The combined-cycle natural gas plant has 30 to 40 percent lower emissions and uses 35 percent less fuel than the plant it replaced. LCRA is also heavily invested in coal generation and is working through the EPA’s guidelines to curb emissions.
LCRA’s reservoir system is at 34 percent, which Hofmann said is a good number considering the extent of the drought. “The reservoirs are doing magnificently and doing the job they were designed to do,” Hofmann said. Water consumption has decreased in Austin due to raised awareness and sensitivity around the drought, moving from 200 gallons per person per day down to 130-140 gallons. “In the future in Central Texas on the edge of the desert, watering the grass that belongs in Florida may not be in our future,” Hofmann said.
Hofmann said finding new water supplies is difficult due to increased construction costs, extensive legal frameworks and complicated permitting. Currently ground water is mostly treated as a private resource but regulated locally. Most districts will only grant five-year ground water permits. Hofmann suggested that regulations need to be restructured to make the most of these resources.
By the end of this year, Hofmann expects the LCRA to break ground on its first new reservoir since the 1950s. This off-channel reservoir will operate differently than LCRA’s other systems. It will be a 40,000 acre-foot reservoir that can pump water from lower basin flooding into the reservoir.
LCRA is also moving to take its Bastrop power plant off surface and onto ground water to preserve supply.
Hoffman said LCRA has larger projects in its future, but environmental concerns and funding changes will create new challenges. “Everything we do must go through a lengthy and costly permitting process and implementation is going to be difficult,” he said.
There is a great deal of momentum in the key sectors of the Texas economy. What can slow down continued growth is a lack of engineering and skilled trades talent, a drop in the price of oil below $70 a barrel, and immigration policies – especially those tied to H-1B visas.
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