Indicators suggest construction is in a holding pattern overall but with large differences between residential and nonresidential construction.

The DATA DIGest, Dec. 2-9

Two indicators last week suggest construction is in a holding pattern overall but with large differences between residential and nonresidential construction. On Friday, Dec. 6, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that seasonally adjusted construction employment in November, at 6,541,00, was virtually unchanged compared to October and to the previous six months. The figure was 88,000 (1.3%) below the year-ago number, compared to a decline of 0.2% in the entire economy. General building contractors employed 2% more workers than in November 2001; heavy construction, except building, 4% fewer; and special trade contractors, 2% fewer. However, average weekly hours for construction workers slipped to 38.2 from 38.4 in October, 38.8 in September and 39.3 a year ago. As a result, average weekly pay in the industry was virtually unchanged from a year before.

The seasonally adjusted value of construction put in place in October was $835 billion, up 0.2% from the revised September figure. The 10-month total was also 0.2% above the first 10 months of 2001. Comparing 10 months of 2002 and 2001, private residential building construction (including improvements) was up by 6%, private nonresidential building construction was down by 17%, and public construction was up by 7%. On a year-to-date basis, standout sectors included public educational (+14%) and transportation facilities (+10%), private health-care (hospital, medical building and special care, +13% combined), and multi-family housing (+11%, surprisingly higher than single-family, +5%). The big losers have been private manufacturing (-45%), office (-30%), lodging (-28%) and warehouse structures (-25%).

The Institute for Supply Management's monthly manufacturing and nonmanufacturing indexes for November also continued their respective-and divergent-trends. The manufacturing index was at 49.2, the fifth month close to the 50 mark that signals no growth in manufacturing. ISM says the November level, if sustained, indicates growth in gross domestic product of 2.4%. In contrast, the index of activity among 370 nonmanufacturing companies in 62 industries rose to 57.4 from 51-54 in August-October, suggesting accelerated growth. Construction was one of four industries reporting a decline in order bookings.

New orders for manufactured goods, seasonally adjusted, rose 1.5% in October, partially offsetting declines of 2.4% in September and 0.4% in August, Census reported Wednesday. Orders for construction machinery surged 10% following drops of 7% and 1%. Orders for construction materials and supplies edged up 0.2%, after gains of 0.5% and 0.1%.

Chain-store sales for November were generally up weakly at stores open more than a year, according to a variety of retailers' reports last week. However, comparisons are adversely affected by the fact that Thanksgiving, the traditional start of the retail rush, came on November 28 this year and the 22nd last year. The chains, unlike Census, do not report seasonal (including "trading day") adjustments. New-vehicle sales, based on manufacturers' figures, were down by 13% in November compared to November 2001, when 0% financing was introduced. "But dealers and industry officials said last month's sales were stronger than October's, suggesting demand isn't collapsing," the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

The DATA DIGest is a newsletter produced by Kenneth D. Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America, 333 John Carlyle Street, Suite 200, Alexandria, VA 22314, 703-837-5313; fax 703-837-5406; e-mail; website