While the local economy continues to roar, there are signs on the horizon that should cause a little concern.
That’s the message Jesse Thompson, a senior business economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, told the Alvin-Manvel Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.
“Our economy is doing very well,” Thompson said, referring to the Gulf Coast region. “We’ve got a lot of momentum from things that started a few years ago. But we see if there are not mounting headwinds, there are fewer tailwinds.”
Thompson said uncertainty in the energy market is cause for some concern in an area so dependent on oil and gas.
“We expect Houston to slow down, but we haven’t so far,” Thompson said. “Does that mean it will happen in the next quarter? I don’t know.”
Thompson said the energy market remains the key to the Houston area economy, and he said there are concerns right now.
He pointed to three specific things leading to the concern — tensions with Iran, fewer wells being drilled and the resistance by banks to lend large amounts of money to the oil industry.
“We worry that the global market is slowing,” he said. “The market is clearly well supplied.”
Thompson said while there construction, pipeline construction has kept employment high. has been a slow-down in plant
“The rig counts are down, prices are down, but the jobs are increasing,” he said. “So what is going on? The biggest thing going on is pipelines.”
But that is just temporary, with several big pipelines scheduled to open this year and several more next year.
Thompson said improvements in technology have helped cut costs in the energy industry, but the cuts have also been seen in employment.
“We’re producing a lot more with fewer people,” he said. “All trends show that’s probably going to continue. All of the job growth seems to be in the field, not in the main offices.”
Another change in the energy industry is the U.S. and especially Texas no longer need to import oil to meet the demand.
“This is now a full-blown export industry,” Thompson said. “Every molecule of extra gas, every molecule of extra oil is going to be loaded on a boat and exported.”
Across all industries, the Houston region is seeing a lot of good news, but also some questions. There are very good job numbers, with 3.5 to 3.6 unemployment. But trends again show reasons for concern.
From 2013 to 2015, the region saw a strong influx of people moving here for jobs. But over the last two years, there are more people leaving than coming in. Thompson said the oil bust and Hurricane Harvey are the primary reasons, but it is still concerning.
“That’s worrisome if you’re in an industry that follows population like tourism or retail,” he said.
Real estate sales are also showing some interesting things. Thompson said there are almost no sales of homes under $150,000 because there are very few homes available in that price range. Even homes from $150,000 to $200,000 are becoming hard to find as almost all new construction is in a higher price range.
“This is the affordability crisis,” he said. “Housing is becoming unaffordable for a larger number of people. That’s why you’re seeing more apartments.”
While there are some clouds on the horizon, Thompson said for now things are looking good.
“There’s still average to above average growth for the region,” he said.