Massachusetts employer confidence strengthened during February as optimism about long-term economic growth outweighed a volatile month in the financial markets.
The Associated Industries of Massachusetts Business Confidence Index (BCI) rose 0.4 points to 64.5, setting another 17-year high. The BCI has gained 2.4 points during the past 12 months as confidence levels have remained comfortably within the optimistic range.
Enthusiasm about the U.S. and Massachusetts economies, along with a bullish outlook on the part of manufacturers, fueled the February increase.
At the same time, hiring remained a red flag as the BCI Employment Index fell 4 points between February 2017 and February 2018. Almost 90 percent of employers who responded to the February confidence survey indicated that the inability to find skilled employees is either a modest, large or huge problem.
“Fourteen percent of respondents said finding employees represents a huge problem that is hampering their company’s growth. One-third of employers see employee recruitment as a big problem, while 29 percent see it as a modest issue,” said Raymond G. Torto, Chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and Lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Design.
“For the short-term, however, the state and national economies remain strong and the recent announcement by Amazon of a major expansion in Boston indicates that the trend should continue.”
The survey was taken before President Donald Trump roiled the financial markets last week by pledging to impose stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.
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 mixed during February.
The most significant gains came in the Manufacturing Index, which surged 3.9 points to 66.2, and the US Index, which rose 2.1 points for the month to 66.9 and 8.0 points for the year. The Massachusetts Index fell 0.4 points to 68.5, but was up 5.3 points for the year and still higher than the national outlook for the 96th consecutive month.
The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, rose 2.4 points to 64.1. The Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, declined 1.6 points to 65. The Current Index has risen 4.2 points and the Future Index 0.6 points during the past 12 months.
The Company Index, reflecting employer views of their own operations and prospects, was essentially flat, gaining 0.1 points to 62.4. The Employment Index also rose 0.1 points, to 56.4, versus 60.4 in February 2017.
Manufacturing companies (66.2) were more optimistic than non-manufacturers (61.9). Large employers (69.8) were more bullish than medium-sized (62.0) or small businesses (62.7).
“The special February BCI question about the ability of employers to find and hire skilled employees confirms our concerns about the long-term changes now facing the Massachusetts labor market,” said Alan Clayton-Matthews, Ph.D., School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs, Northeastern University, and a BEA member.
“Since the end of the Great Recession, total employment has grown by 355,600, the working age population has increased by 326,700, and the labor force has grown by 208,100. In other words, employment in Massachusetts has grown considerably faster than the working age population, and almost twice as fast as the labor force.”
AIM President and CEO Richard C. Lord, also BEA member, said member employers expressed broad optimism about the national economy in the wake of tax reform, but remain uncertain about Massachusetts given the prospect of ballot questions that would impose an income tax surcharge, mandate paid family leave and increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour.
“Massachusetts employers have been more bullish about the state economy than the national economy for 96 consecutive months, but the numbers are now very close – 68.5 for Massachusetts and 66.9 for the nation,” Lord said.
“Economic competitiveness is a constant struggle. AIM looks forward to working with the Legislature and Governor Baker during the next several months to ensure that Massachusetts companies are able to grow and prosper here.”
The monthly Business Confidence Index, initiated by AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors in July 1991, is based on a survey of AIM member companies across Massachusetts, asking questions about current and prospective business conditions in the state and nation, as well as for respondents’ own operations. On the Index’s 100-point scale, a reading above 50 indicates that the state’s employer community is predominantly optimistic, while a reading below 50 points to a negative assessment of business conditions. A number of component sub-indices are derived by analyzing responses to selected questions or those of particular groups of respondents.