US: Banking turmoil stirs up new headwinds for construction

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Signs point to decreased construction activity in coming months as financing costs for many developers have become prohibitively high, sources told Construction Dive.

For example, increased interest rates are making construction projects more risky and less profitable, said Nicolas McNamara, director of project management at CBRE, a Dallas-based commercial real estate services firm.

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“Increased financing costs remain a concern around construction.” said McNamara. “Developers are challenged with projects that simply are not penciling due to increased rates.”

Recent uncertainty in the banking industry is compounding that issue for construction firms, he said.

The impacts of those headwinds are already visible. Construction backlog decreased to 8.7 months in March, its lowest level since August 2022, according to Associated Builders and Contractors.

Meanwhile, the Dodge Momentum Index, a benchmark that measures nonresidential building planning, tumbled 8.6% in March, a fall that Sarah Martin, Dodge’s associate director of forecasting, tied to banking insecurity.

“Lending standards for small banks in particular have substantially tightened as banking insecurity intensifies,” said Martin. “As a result, owners and developers are more likely to pull back in the short term.”

This uncertainty will cause big banks to either be cautious in lending or to mitigate risk with higher rates, said Todd Burns, president of project and development services at Chicago-based JLL, a real estate services company. These large banks, such as JP Morgan, Citi and Morgan Stanley, tend to set the market price for the cost of capital.

“The increased interest rates and the cost of capital will continue to influence financing negatively,” said Burns. “If the cost of capital is high, then financing will obviously be high as well.”

That trend is fueling increased concerns about access to capital in general, and the development of a vicious cycle where lenders charge more to limit their risk, and developers won’t or can’t pay higher interest rates to achieve their targeted returns. The result could trigger a long-talked about recession, said McNamara.

“Banks do face asset issues, such as unhedged exposure to government securities and exposure to falling real estate values,” said McNamara. “The current situation could lead to tighter credit conditions and the possibility of a moderate recession in the second half of 2023.”

Long lead times for materials since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic are compounding these lending challenges.

“Longer lead times increase the cost to carry the goods for contractors and developers,” Burns said.

Lead times remain at “unprecedented levels,” especially for critical mechanical and electrical equipment, said Richard Kennedy, president and CEO of Skanska USA. Although some materials have become more readily available, the overall supply chain still remains in a fragile state, according to a first quarter CBRE market trends report.

For instance, Harrington Industrial Plastics, a Chino, California-based supplier, reported experiencing supply issues for all materials, according to a recent report from XL Construction. Meanwhile, Ryan Herco Flow Solutions, a Burbank, California-based supplier, recently ran out of one type of piping supply, resulting in additional delays, according to the XL Construction report.

That, in turn, only inflates the actual cost of capital even more.

Long lead times still pose challenges for contractors
MaterialAnticipated lead time
Polypropylene piping12 months
MEP equipment16-35 weeks
Fabricated structural steel20-24 weeks
Metal bar joists18-24 weeks
Plumbing fixtures16-20 weeks
Drywall4-16 weeks
Concrete10 weeks
Reinforcement bars8 weeks
Steel piping6-8 weeks
Insulation4 weeks
Lumber2 weeks

SOURCE: XL Construction

“That cost has to be covered by financiers,” said Burns. “This could potentially lead to banks continuing to charge high rates for cash thus prolonging economic headwinds.”

Nevertheless, the Federal Reserve’s liquidity support during the Silicon Valley and Signature Bank failures, and the implied guarantee of uninsured deposits at other banks could begin to stabilize the situation, said McNamara. The International Monetary Fund also said April 11 that bank failures last month may cause a credit squeeze that bolsters central bank efforts to curb price pressures.

In addition, many observers think the banking failures could ultimately force the Federal Reserve to put the brakes on interest rate hikes. In March, it raised rates a quarter percentage point but indicated the increases could come to an end.

McNamara added the industry likely is not facing a crisis like 2008, though admits it is “too early to be certain.” That’s because although the regional bank failures in the U.S. were significant, international contagion remains limited.

“The silver lining is that it may help the Fed restrain a buoyant private sector and combat inflation. Interest rate rises are still expected, but moderate rate cuts could begin in the fourth quarter,” said McNamara. “A moderate downturn is more likely than a hard landing, given stronger consumer and business balance sheets, the absence of a major construction boom and a healthier international economy compared to 2008.”