16 posts categorized "Small Business"

More recharging personal batteries at national parks

Even in the digital age—or maybe because of it—the great outdoors continues to be a tourism draw, as evidenced by growing visits to the country’s national parks, according to data from the National Park Service (NPS). And those visits are translating to the Ninth District economy.

Attendance has been trending upward at many parks, especially since the recession. Last year, attendance grew 6 percent among the 13 national parks in the Ninth District with annual attendance of at least 100,000, and is up almost 20 percent since 2008 (see Chart 1). In 2014, attendance at these district parks hit 9 million for the first time.

Among these large national parks in the district, two of them—Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and Glacier National in Montana—are responsible for half of all visitors. (The list does not include Yellowstone, portions of which are in Montana, but which lies mostly in Wyoming.) The biggest jump in attendance last year occurred at the Apostle Island National Park. Located in Lake Superior off the northern tip of Wisconsin, it saw attendance double to almost 300,000 in 2014 thanks to an impressive formation of ice caves on the island, coupled with a uniquely long viewing period.

Those visitors are spending money and creating jobs, according to a separate NPS database. Visitor spending hit nearly $1.2 billion last year, supporting more than 20,000 jobs (see Chart 2) in district states.

National parks

Ninth District economy grew in January and February

Oil has dominated the headlines, but the Ninth District economy continued to expand in January and February, with many indicators exhibiting strength and labor markets appearing to have tightened. Several sectors, particularly energy and other commodities, are dealing with low prices. But counteractive, positive conditions for consumers and others helped limit the negative effects. Mild winter weather has had similarly mixed effects.

A wide swath of sectors saw growth. For example, a manufacturing index increased, indicating expansion in the Dakotas and Minnesota. A manufacturer of capital equipment reported that demand in January was stronger than expected. In the services sector, a merger and acquisition services firm noted increased consulting activity and a web design and programming firm noted increased interest from newer firms. In addition, railroads plan to invest more in capital equipment in 2015, and several retailers noted sales increases.

Labor markets continued to tighten, as unemployment rates dropped in many areas of the district. Business owners in South Dakota and western Montana noted difficulty finding workers to fill open positions. A Minnesota staffing firm reported that finding workers was difficult and that competition for those workers increased recently.

As labor markets have tightened, wage pressures appear to have increased in some areas. While data suggest that overall wage increases have been moderate, there were more frequent reports of wage increases above 3 percent during the past couple of months. A recent ad hoc survey by the Minneapolis Fed also found that more employers planned to increase starting pay. Nevertheless, overall wage increases generally remained moderate. Lower energy and other commodities prices affected different regions of the Ninth District.

Lower oil prices affected producers as they cut back on new development in North Dakota and Montana by nearly 30 percent from the beginning of the year, leading to reduced hours and layoffs of oilfield workers (see chart). The number of job postings in the region has also decreased, but several companies in various sectors are still looking for employees. Wage pressures and apartment rental prices have eased somewhat in the energy-producing region.

Beige book blog 3-10-15

Among other commodities, the evidence is mixed. For example, lower metal prices caused a Montana copper-silver mine to shut down. Even though iron ore prices have been dropping, an iron ore analyst expects production to increase slightly in 2015. Low crop prices have hampered farmers, but benefited animal producers due to lower feed costs.

While some sectors have suffered from lower commodity prices, district consumers have benefited. For example, Minnesota gasoline prices in mid-February were over a dollar per gallon lower than a year ago. This may have helped boost consumer spending, as district retailers noted growth in retail sales. For example, a North Dakota mall noted that sales were up in January compared with a year ago, and a bar and restaurant chain in Minnesota reported strong sales during January compared with last year. Recent light truck and car sales were relatively solid in Montana, according to a representative of an auto dealers association.

The increasing value of the dollar has made U.S. products more expensive for foreigners. For example, the stronger U.S. dollar and Canadian exchange rate dampened demand from Canadian tourists and shoppers as border crossings and related sales decreased in district states.

The winter has been relatively warm and dry, which aided commercial construction firms that were able to build more and required less heating. Ranchers benefited from less winter stress on their animals. However, not all benefited from mild weather. Several auto body shops complained they had less demand due to better driving conditions that reduced accidents. Some apparel stores had difficulty selling winter clothing due to relatively mild weather conditions during December and January. In addition, a lack of snow slowed winter tourism activity in several areas.

Ad hoc survey: Ninth District businesses plan to ramp up hiring, increase starting pay

The Ninth District economy is in growth mode and employment is expected to increase, based on a recent poll of 140 business contacts from around the district (see methodology below).

Businesses are expecting to expand, with 46 percent of respondents planning to increase employment at their firms and 58 percent of these firms citing anticipated high sales growth as the most important factor behind increased employment. Only 3 percent plan to decrease employment. In the same survey a year ago, 41 percent planned to increase employment and 9 percent planned to cut jobs (see chart).

Other important factors cited for new hiring were overworked staff, the need for additional skills and improved financial condition of firms. The vast majority of respondents plan to use current employee referrals, word of mouth and advertising to get new employees. Forty-eight percent plan to use a recruiting firm, which is up from 22 percent of respondents in last year’s poll. Twenty-seven percent of respondents also plan to raise starting pay compared with only 8 percent last year.

Feb ad hoc survey Ch1+meth -- 2-13-15

Methodology: On Dec. 1, 2014, the Minneapolis Fed emailed a web-based survey to about 600 Beige Book contacts from around the Ninth District. By Feb. 12, 140 contacts had filled out the survey. The respondents come from a variety of industries (see table).

Beige Book recap: Modest growth in Ninth District

Over the past two months, the Ninth District economy has seen modest growth, according to the latest Beige Book information released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Increased activity was noted in consumer spending, professional services, manufacturing and non-energy mining. Activity was level in tourism and mixed in commercial construction, commercial real estate and agriculture. Energy, residential real estate and residential construction were down. Labor markets continued to tighten since the previous report. While overall wage increases remained modest, there were examples of steeper increases in some regions and industries.

Consumer spending and tourism: Consumer spending increased moderately. Mall and retail representatives across district states reported solid traffic and sales. Overall tourism was about level with a year ago, according to a variety of sources. Construction and real estate: Construction activity was mixed in the district’s larger cities. In Sioux Falls, S.D., the value of November commercial permits increased from a year ago, but fell in Billings, Mont.

Residential construction: Activity was mostly lower. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, the value of December residential permits decreased 9 percent from a year earlier and also dropped in the Bismarck, N.D. area (November data). Residential activity was stronger in Billings and Sioux Falls, however. Home sales were generally lower from a year earlier (in November). In the Sioux Falls area, home sales were down 12 percent, inventory increased 1 percent and the median sales price increased 6 percent relative to a year earlier. Sales were also down in northwestern Wisconsin, and the median sales price was 6 percent lower. Minnesota home sales were down 13 percent, inventories of homes for sale increased 5 percent and the median sales price rose 3 percent. Home sales in the Bismarck area were about level with last year.

Manufacturing: Activity increased slightly. A manufacturing index increased in December from the previous month in Minnesota and South Dakota, but fell slightly in North Dakota. However, the index pointed to continued expansion in all three states. Through October, manufactured exports in district states were up 1 percent compared with the same period a year earlier.

Energy and mining: The energy sector slowed slightly in response to lower output prices. Oil and gas exploration activity decreased in late December compared with a month earlier in Montana and North Dakota. Mining activity increased slightly. District iron ore mines were operating at or near capacity, with November production slightly higher than a year earlier.

Agriculture: Conditions remained mixed, with livestock and dairy producers faring better than crop farmers. A Minneapolis Fed third-quarter survey found that a majority of farm incomes had fallen from a year earlier and that capital spending also decreased. The fourth quarter outlook was also weaker, according to the survey. Prices received by farmers in December decreased from a year earlier for corn, soybeans, wheat, hay and milk; prices increased for cattle, hogs, eggs and poultry.

Employment and wages: Labor markets continued to tighten since the previous report. Overall wage increases remained modest, but there were examples of steeper increases in some regions and industries. Some construction firms in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area noted that labor costs have increased recently. In addition, some managers at Minneapolis-St. Paul area restaurants indicated that they were increasing wages to attract employees.

See the full Beige Book report for more details on the national and Ninth District performance.

Ninth District businesses remain optimistic

There has been a fair amount of attention given to the possibility of an economic slowdown in 2014. While only a small anecdote in the volume of economic data, a recent survey still suggests a positive outlook in 2014 for the Ninth District economy.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis conducted an ad hoc survey of 135 Ninth District firms and asked them about their outlook for 2014 (see methodology). Over 80 percent expressed optimism for their community’s economy over the next 12 months. This is comparable to the 74 percent of respondents to the November 2013 fedgazette Business Outlook Poll. Results by sector show that construction respondents were the most positive with 9 out of 10 reporting optimism, followed by manufacturing (87 percent), professional services (80 percent) and finance, insurance and real estate (79 percent).

“Seeing improved trends,” said a Minnesota banker, reflecting the overall mood of respondents; 53 percent expect increased sales for their operations compared with only 9 percent that expect decreased sales. Part of the sales increase is due to higher productivity, which 65 percent said occurred at their firm over the past 12 months. Higher sales expectations are partially reflected in the 39 percent of businesses that expect to increase prices, while 8 percent expect to lower prices.

More companies also plan more capital investment—30 percent expect an increase over last year’s spending, while 12 percent predict a decrease. Companies are having a better time financing these capital expenditures through better access to bank credit; 19 percent reported improved access, while only 5 percent noted deteriorated access.

More companies are hiring, too, with 34 percent expecting more employment and only 9 percent expecting less. Firms are facing some challenges; 44 percent noted that securing workers was a challenge, and over half reported that complying with government regulation was a challenge. FIRE respondents, at 69 percent, reported the most concern about complying with regulations.

Ad hoc survey methodology: On Feb. 10, an email was sent to 1,000 business contacts from various sectors around the Ninth District. By 5 p.m. on Feb. 12, 135 responses were received, representing a 13.5 percent response rate. The largest number of respondents came from finance, insurance and real estate (44 percent), professional services (24 percent), manufacturing (14 percent) and construction (10 percent). The disproportionate number of FIRE responses could have some unknown influence on results.

Businesses expect hiring to continue in 2014

There are renewed signs that the Ninth District economy continues to grow based on a recent poll of more than 100 business contacts from around the district (see methodology).

Businesses are expecting to expand; 41 percent plan to increase employment at their firms, and 58 percent of these firms cited expected high sales growth as the most important factor. Only 9 percent plan to decrease employment. In the same survey a year ago, 40 percent planned to increase employment and 7 percent planned to cut jobs (see chart).

Other important factors cited for new hiring were overworked staff, the need for additional skills, and improved financial condition of firms. The vast majority of respondents plan to use current employee referrals, word of mouth and advertising to get new employees. Twenty-two percent plan to use a recruiting firm, and only 8 percent plan to raise starting pay.

For those respondents not planning to hire additional people this year, most reported that finding skilled candidates is hampering hiring, or they wanted to keep operating costs low or expected sales growth to be low.

Ad hod survey chart -- 1-14-14

Methodology: On Jan. 13, the Minneapolis Fed invited, via email, about 500 Beige Book contacts from around the Ninth District to answer the special question in a web-based survey. By Jan. 14, 104 contacts had filled out the survey. The respondents come from a variety of industries (see table).

Ad hod survey table -- 1-14-14

Newborn businesses crawling again, jobs not following in tow

It’s well known that starting a business is tough. New data on establishments suggest that entrepreneurs are starting to regain their appetite for risk after getting scared to the sidelines during the recession and slow recovery.

According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, the annual number of establishments that are less than one year old has been slowly rising. While still not above prerecession levels across Ninth District states, all states saw positive growth in 2012; for most, it was the second consecutive year (see Chart 1). For North Dakota, it was the second straight year of record new establishments.

New establishments Ch1 -- 7-31-13

It’s also well known that these young businesses are an important source of employment because young companies tend to be growing and thus require more labor compared with older companies (for those who need convincing, see the July 2011 fedgazette). Jobs have been rising at these young establishments, but the overall track record is a little less consistent and upbeat. For most district states, last year was the first real year of solid job growth (see Chart 2). These jobs declined last year in Wisconsin, its trend line zig-zagging since 2009 along with Minnesota’s.

New establishments Ch2 -- 7-31-13

Annual job levels are still well below prerecession levels in four states. That’s because average employment at these young establishments has been going down steadily (see Chart 3). Minnesota’s average employment has gone down by one and a half workers since 2007; Wisconsin and South Dakota saw a drop of almost one worker.

The exception to all the job trends is North Dakota, whose economy is the best in the country and comparable to almost no other state right now. Last year, both new establishments and total jobs at these businesses outstripped those of Montana, whose population is more than 40 percent larger. North Dakota even saw small growth in the average number of jobs per young establishment between 2007 and 2012.

New establishments Ch3 -- 7-31-13

More evidence that businesses expect to grow, increase hiring

Signs are upbeat that the Ninth District economy will continue to grow, according to a recent poll of more than 300 business contacts from across the district (see methodology below).

For starters, 40 percent plan to increase employment at their firms, and nearly three-quarters of these firms cited expected high sales growth as the most important factor. Only 7 percent plan to decrease employment. In the same survey a year ago, 38 percent planned to increase employment and 10 percent planned to cut jobs.

Other important factors cited for new hiring were overworked staff, improved financial condition of firms and the need for additional skills. The majority of respondents plan to use word of mouth and advertising to get new employees. Twenty-eight percent plan to use a recruiting firm, and surprisingly few (9 percent) plan to raise starting pay.

For those respondents not planning to hire additional people this year, most expected low growth sales and a desire to keep operating costs low. Many reported difficulty finding skilled candidates. Though fiscal policy developments were not a factor for most respondents, 35 percent said they had a detrimental effect on hiring and 4 percent said they would increase hiring plans.

The survey also asked about wages and benefits; 36 percent expected wage growth of 2.5 percent or more, and a similar amount expected positive wage growth of less than 2.5 percent (see Chart 1). Respondents generally believed benefit increases would be larger than those for wages (see Chart 2).

  Ad hoc survey Ch 1-2 -- 2-5-13

Methodology: On Jan. 15, the Minneapolis Fed invited, via email, about 1,000 Beige Book contacts from across the Ninth District to answer the special question in a web-based survey. By Jan. 31, 303 contacts had filled out the survey. The respondents come from a variety of industries (see table below).

Ad hoc survey METHOD TABLE -- 2-5-13

The biggest trophy: Out-of-state hunters and anglers

A new U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey shows that district states have a unique profile when it comes to wildlife recreation, particularly when it comes to economic activity resulting from the great outdoors.

The survey, conducted every five years, measures participation in and expenditures for hunting, fishing and wildlife watching (observing, photographing and feeding wildlife; includes those who do it from home or nearby). Almost across the board, Ninth District states have higher than average rates than the nation as a whole—maybe not surprising given the natural assets and wide-open spaces in each state (see Chart 1).

Those activities bring with them considerable revenue, and the more who come for the outdoors, the higher the returns. Spending per participant in most district states is very consistent with the national average of about $1,500. But South Dakota and (especially) Montana are exceptions, seeing significantly higher spending by participants (see Chart 2, right bars). With high participation and high average spending by those participants, those states see almost quadruple the in-state spending on a per capita basis (see Chart 2, left bars).

  Hunting Ch1-2 -- 9-19-12

The large majority of those revenues are generated by hunters and anglers, despite the fact that there are considerably more wildlife watchers in most states (Minnesota and South Dakota are exceptions). Across district states, the average hunter/angler spends two to five times more than the average wildlife watcher (see Chart 3, at bottom).

But more fundamentally, high participation rates and expenditures are driven by nonresidents, who tend to spend more money than residents on travel, accommodations, food, equipment and other needs. For example, Montana has high rates of nonresident hunters (31 percent) and anglers (30 percent) who come to find big game and to fish world-famous trout streams in the Rocky Mountains. Montana also sees much higher spending from nature watchers—double the average of most other district states—again, often attracted from other states to the natural splendor of the Rockies.

South Dakota has exceptionally high rates of nonresident hunters (53 percent) and anglers (42 percent) as well, many of whom come to hunt pheasants throughout the state and to fish walleyes and other species in the cavernous Missouri River reservoir system, among the largest freshwater bodies in the world. Though the state has the highest rates of nonresident participation in the district, the relative accessibility of good hunting and fishing spots in South Dakota likely helps keep a lid on nonresident spending, at least compared with a trip to Montana’s Rockies.

The survey is done to benefit natural resource and conservation agencies, academic researchers and wildlife related recreation industries, which use the information to estimate demand and identify recreation trends. The methodology used for this survey changed from previous versions, according to the agency, making current results incomparable with previous surveys.

Hunting Ch3 -- 9-19-12

Health insurance: Minnesota leads the high-deductible trend

Over the past decade, high-deductible health insurance plans have caught on with firms as a way to reduce the costs of providing health care benefits—primarily by shifting a larger share of medical expenses to employees. These plans include health savings accounts, tax-exempt funds owned by employees that can be used to pay for medical care.

A recent annual survey by America’s Health Insurance Plans, a national trade association, found that HSAs provided coverage for more than 13.5 million people in the United States—about 8 percent of total private insurance enrollment. That’s a marked increase since 2008, and most states in the Ninth District mirror the trend (see chart, at bottom).

The recession and a tepid recovery have had something to do with those increases; cash-strapped employers have turned to high-deductible health plans as an antidote to rising insurance premiums. But the AHIP data reveal considerable variation among Ninth District states in participation in such plans—differences that are difficult to attribute to the downturn or a general rise in premiums.

As of January, 487,000 Minnesotans—roughly 14 percent of private insurance enrollees in the state—were covered by an HSA. In Minnesota and Montana, HSAs accounted for a bigger share of private health insurance coverage than in the country as a whole. However, in other district states, HSA participation rates were lower than the national average.

Some of the divergence in HSA uptake among district states may be a statistical fluke; in this year’s survey, over 2.7 million people nationwide were not assigned to any state because some health plans missed AHIP’s reporting deadline. But health care experts point to differences in health care models and average business size across states as possible explanations.

“Minnesota was an early proponent of high-deductible health plans” in the early 2000s, giving it a head start in HSA growth, said Stephen Parente, a professor of health finance at the University of Minnesota. And Parente notes that a large share of Montana employers are small businesses with fewer than 50 workers. Small firms paying relatively high small-group premiums tend to offer less comprehensive health coverage than big firms.

Less aggressive marketing of HSAs by insurers and a greater emphasis on managed care in clinics may partly account for lower participation rates in Wisconsin and the Dakotas.

HRAs in 9th D -- 6-13-12