Banks are repaying their bailout loans. New housing construction is bouncing back. Even the AIA Architecture Billings Index has been climbing out of the doldrums. But just when the worst of the recession seemed to have passed, today came news that architecture firms’ billings have slumped once again, erasing recent gains and sowing further uneasiness in the industry.
In November, the AIA index of firms’ billings fell to 42.8, down from a 14-month high of 46.1 in October. The index had been on a three-month upturn, but the November numbers suggest that recovery is not yet here, leaving the industry in much the same territory it has seen all year. “There continues to be a lot of uncertainty in the construction industry that likely will delay new projects in the near future,” Kermit Baker, the AIA’s chief economist, said in a statement.
The relatively good news is that inquiries for new work remain high, at 58.5, the same as in October and a level not seen since early 2008. A robust level of inquiries, however, may also signal anxiety on the part of clients who are now expressing interest in work as much to drive down prices through competing offers as to express genuine interest in new work. (A measure above 50 for billings or inquiries means they are rising, while anything below means they are falling.)
Further underscoring the industry’s predicament, billings by region and sector continue to oscillate in the low- to mid-40s. A few notable movements included a dip in the West, where billings dropped 0.3 points to 41.1 but stayed above the 30s, where the region has languished for the past year. Commercial and industrial billings rose 4.1 points to 45.8, continuing a five-month run. And institutional work, normally a strong performer during recessions, plummeted 8.0 points to 40.7 after a three-month surge.
Baker hopes that the Obama administration’s recently announced jobs bill will provide a lifeline. “Perhaps the President’s plan calling for loans for small business, funding for infrastructure projects and rebates for homeowners making energy efficient improvements will help speed a recovery in the construction industry.” It is worth noting, however, that the previous—and far larger—stimulus bill had only a marginal effect on the index.