Friday, 28 October 2011

Hard times

A friend of mine asked me to write something about the impact of the current financial crisis on the construction sector. What follows are my personal impressions about the threats and opportunities currently confronting the sector.

Since the beginning of the financial crisis, things have panned out in a somewhat strange way. First, the impact on the construction sector was a long time coming. There were many public sector projects already in progress, which was part of the government's problem at the time. They had continued to spend on major public sector projects at considerable rate, and all those major projects in the pipeline kept construction companies in work, though at a more relaxed rate until well after the labour government was unseated in a coalition of conservatives and liberal democrats, when there was no outright majority in the 2010 general election. The new government soon discovered that the adventurous public spending by the previous administration had all but exhausted the countries reserves, so a comprehensive public spending review soon put paid to many planned construction projects. As work for the construction sector finally dried up, new major projects were announced, and the tap of public sector investment was quickly turned on again, to try to avoid too many insolvencies and consequent redundancies. Thus, while there is not a lot of work about, the public sector investment programme has maintained a low level of work that seems to have provided a buffer. But the private sector has slowed significanctly, largely through the disappearance of capital markets. Once  the full impact started to hit the construction sector, insolvencies were seen to rise much higher in the construction sector than in others, with a 20% increase in some quarters, compared with the previous year. But most of the time we seem to be seeing insolvencies running at about 10-15% higher than the previous year. Of course, these headline figures are increases, not the proportion of companies disappearing. Headline grabbers are great for creating disquiet. Normally, I would expect construction insolvencies to run at the same rate as all business sectors (contrary to popular belief). But construction insolvencies are always slightly higher in recessionary periods, as they are now. But, still,the vast majority of businesses are continuing to trade, although they would prefer to be busier.

Few developers can raise capital from banks, because the banks do not have any. Clearly, this is a very lean period for the construction sector.  Construction workers are being laid off and a proportion of business are disappearing. Since most work is sub-contracted, the sector is very resilient. Those contractors and suppliers with workflow are now in an odd situation, becaue if they are making profits, there is a real problem in terms of what to do with their reserves. Contractors typically manage their projects so that there is a positive cash flow, ensuring that payments out are always some weeks behind payments received. Few people seem to notice that this means contractors do not need to invest in projects; their clients do. This positive cash flow means that contractors with projects have surplus cash to invest, typically in developments of their own. But in such an austere period, the markets into which they sell their own developments are somewhat moribund. Since this is often quite lucrative, times are hard. Moreover, trade contractors who design and manufacture the things that they install are reliant on investment in their processes, in a way that others in the sector may not be. And they are also hit with the double problem of very competitive pricing levels and nowhere to invest surpluses. Since the banks are not lending, there is not much happening in the private sector capital markets. So those with surpluses appear to be  shepherding their money for now, to see them through continuing lean patches. What development there is, is relying on capital, rather than debt financing. 

In the longer term, locally and globally, I feel that there is chance the construction sector might be able to finally move away from being a cash cow. If we are to make this into a 21st century business sector, it is essential that we abandon the Victorian business models and ideals that have served us so well throughout the 20th century. I sense that there is an opportunity for businesses to take more of a stake in the things that they are producing. If we can get contractors and trade contractors to invest in the things that they make, and take a greater proportion of their payment after completion, then we shall see greater incentives and rewards for innovative (and, perhaps, sustainable) products and practices. And what better time than now to enable large, successful companies to pump-prime their clients' developments with cash? Many more contractors are establishing capital arms to invest in their own and their clients' projects. This is interesting. If it continues, we could see the end of a business sector based on large volumes of cash being pumped around construction sites, and the growth of significant investment-driven construction companies which will be able to weather financial storms as successfully as any other business sector.

So, who knows what will happen? Even in this difficult time, there are great opportunities. One thing is for sure, as someone once said, "if you always do what you have always done, you'll always get what you've always got".

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Reading, Berkshire, United Kingdom

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