‘Recovery? What Recovery?’ Ask Bridge Builders, Tractor Makers

With Covid vaccines rolling out nationwide, Congress putting $900 billion into Americans’ pockets and the stock market gaining 16% last year, there’s a great deal of talk about a rapid recovery for the U.S. economy in 2021.

Tell that to the companies that pave, manufacture and build. Some may not hit their 2019 revenue levels until at least 2025, according to analysts’ forecasts. Economic bellwetherCaterpillar Inc.’s third-quarter sales were down 20% from a year earlier.

Infrastructure projects this year face cancellations as states and municipalities revenues plummeted in 2020 amid the lockdowns. Without an aid bill, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association forecasts the market will shrink 5.5% in 2021, and the value of work will drop $16 billion.

About one of every 10 jobs in America is related to infrastructure, and every billion dollars lost takes away some 13,000 jobs across public and private sectors. By this metric, almost 210,000 jobs related to infrastructure could disappear in 2021, right as the economy is supposed to be opening back up and offering new work.

“You see cities across the country, regardless of where they are, putting a pause or canceling much needed infrastructure improvements,” said Irma Esparza Diggs, director of federal advocacy for the National League of Cities, a group pushing for expanded municipal stimulus. “They don’t know what’s coming next.”

It’s unclear what the Biden administration will do about infrastructure stimulus and not everyone sees a sector in distress. Some believe a group of large companies with a robust lobbying capacity is crying wolf. Keybanc Capital Markets says infrastructure spending was actually up 5.5% in 2020, following similar boosts in recent years. Federal, state and municipal spending and public-private partnerships have kept projects well-funded, it argues.

Despite concerns that their earnings will be slow to recover, shares of the largest U.S. machinery producers, steelmakers and aluminum companies surged in the second half of 2020, boosted by optimism that the economy may reopen more quickly.

While Caterpillar gained 23%,U.S. Steel Corp. rose 47% andAlcoa Corp. climbed 7.2% in 2020, analysts point out that they were recovering from depressed levels. U.S. Steel is expected to book a $198 million loss in 2020, while Caterpillar’s full-year sales are seen dropping 27% and Alcoa’s per-share loss is estimated to have widened by a third.

Still, last summer, statessaid they’d cancel and delay projects if Congress didn’t pass a stimulus, and cancellations are starting to pile up, hitting not only behemoths like Alcoa and Caterpillar but smaller companies like DeFoe Corp., a paver in the New York City borough of the Bronx.

DeFoe President Dario Amicucci says without stimulus, he’ll lay off part of his 150-person workforce and face a 40% decline in sales.

“All the work we do is infrastructure, so it would be devastating to our company,” said Amicucci, whose firm hauls in about $140 million in revenue during a good year. He says his business won’t get back to pre-pandemic levels for four or five years.

Part of the reason these industries are worried is because most projects are funded a year in advance, and 2020 brought shutdowns. Revenue streams from toll booths, property, gasoline and sales tax aren’t flowing this year either.

Alison Black, chief economist for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, has a running model on the shortfalls for all 50 states. And she’s worried.

The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says state revenues for the fiscal year could fall as much or more than they did during the worst year of the Great Recession. Contrary to President Donald Trump’s claims, the potential losses aren’t just in states run by Democrats. The center forecasts drops in Texas, Wyoming and Kentucky, home to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who said he’s not going to backstop “blue state bailouts.”

Reluctance to dole out funds for infrastructure projects is showing up in the municipal bond market. More than a third of long-term debt issued through mid-November of 2020 was to refinance outstanding debt.

Governments have sold more than $170 billion in new money bonds for infrastructure projects so far this year, but that’s only in line with last year, data compiled by Bloomberg shows, despite a 16% uptick in overall issuance.

As a candidate, President-elect Joe Biden pledged some $2 trillion — mostly federal aid — over four years for infrastructure. If he links a bill to green-friendly initiatives, that would multiply its effect because greener highways, bridges and buildings require new construction rather than upgrades.

Some say that even if the new Democratic-run Congress passes a stimulus package, companies will run into a labor shortage.

“As little as 12 months ago and maybe even today there was a shortage of skilled workers in the non-residential building channel,” said Phil Gibbs, an analyst at Keybanc.

Manufacturing also faces the prospects of a multi-generational shift in non-residential construction demand, part of the Covid ripple effect, said Darrell West, a vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

“Everyone has moved to online learning, telemedicine, remote work, and that has a lot of ramifications for manufacturing,” he said. “We’re not going to need nearly as much commercial space if more people are working remotely, companies will downsize their building needs. That will affect the building sector, that then affects heating and office supply manufacturers.”

U.S. plant usage hit 73% in November, 6 percentage points below its 47-year average after touching a low of 64% in April as the pandemic led to widespread lockdowns. It was the worst November since 2009 and third-worst since 1967.

“We can’t keep letting infrastructure week be a Washington punchline,” Pete Buttigieg, the nominee for transportation secretary said in a recent television interview, reflecting the industry’s view. “There’s no way we can do what we must do as a country unless we move the transportation sector forward.”

— With assistance by Grace I Kay, and Nic Querolo

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