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Employer Confidence Flat During July

BOSTON — Confidence levels among Massachusetts employers were virtually unchanged during July as strong economic growth balanced persistent concerns about tariffs and escalating international trade tensions.

The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index dropped 0.1 point to 61.2 last month after tumbling more than five points in June. The drop left the BCI three-tenths of a point lower than a year ago, though still comfortably within optimistic territory.

Raymond Torto, chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design, said employers grew justifiably bullish about the state and national economies during July while expressing uncertainty about their own prospects.

“The Manufacturing Index has dropped more than eight points during the past two months, pretty much concurrent with the escalation of trade tensions that are increasing prices, disrupting global supply chains, and putting some companies in the crosshairs of retaliatory tariffs,” Torto said.

One BCI survey participant in the construction industry wrote: “the tariffs are escalating building costs. We get several price increases per week. It’s harder for most people to have the means to spend on upkeep, much less renovation or new construction.”

The AIM Index, based on a survey of Massachusetts employers, has appeared monthly since July 1991. It is calculated on a 100-point scale, with 50 as neutral; a reading above 50 is positive, while below 50 is negative. The Index reached its historic high of 68.5 on two occasions in 1997-98, and its all-time low of 33.3 in February 2009. It has remained above 50 since October 2013.

The constituent indicators that make up the overall Business Confidence Index were mixed during July. The Massachusetts Index assessing business conditions within the Commonwealth gained 2.3 points to 65.1, leaving it 1.9 points ahead of July 2017. The U.S. Index ended the month at 61.9, rising 1.9 points after sliding 9.3 points the previous month. The US Index was 4 points better than a year ago. July marked the 101st consecutive month in which employers have been more optimistic about the Massachusetts economy than the national economy.

The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, rose 0.1 point to 63.6. The Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, fell 0.4 point. The Current Index gained 2.4 points during the year, while the Future Index lost 3.1 points.

Employer views of their own companies weakened. The Company Index declined 1.5 points to 59.7, down 2.5 points for 12 months. The Employment Index ended the month at 54.5, a 0.5-point decrease for the month and 1.2 points lower than a year ago. The Sales Index lost 0.6 point for the month and 2.3 points for the year.

“The Massachusetts economy itself remains strong, and it accelerated sharply in the second quarter, bucking the expectation of slower growth due to low unemployment and demographic constraints,” said Elmore Alexander, dean of the Ricciardi College of Business at Bridgewater State University. “The recent surge in state economic growth reflects strong gains in employment, earnings, and consumer and business spending.”

AIM President and CEO Richard Lord, also a BEA member, said employers spent much of July digesting a raft of new public policies passed by the Massachusetts Legislature as it wrapped up the formal portion of its 2017-18 session.

“Employers face new restrictions on the use of non-compete agreements, imposition of paid family leave, an increased minimum wage, and a wholesale shift in the generation of the energy they use,” Lord said. “And that’s on top of the $200 million annual assessment on employers to close a budget gap in the MassHealth program. Employers clearly have a lot to think about.”

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