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This year is beginning in unknown territory. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is flirting with 20,000, the Trump administration is setting up shop on Pennsylvania Avenue, and Raleigh is home to a Democratic governor and Republican House and Senate. Business North Carolina magazine and Campbell University’s Lundy-Fetterman School of Business assembled a panel of experts, representing some of the state’s most important sectors, to share their takes on how these and other issues will shape the economy in the months ahead.
The discussion was moderated by Ben Kinney, Business North Carolina publisher, and hosted by Campbell University’s Lundy-Fetterman School of Business at the university’s law school in Raleigh. Additional support was provided by North Carolina Association of Realtors and Northwestern Mutual. The transcript was edited for brevity and clarity.
What will North Carolina’s economy look like this year?
STECKBECK: North Carolina raked in 2016 awards. Site Selection magazine ranked it the most competitive state, and Forbes said it’s the No. 2 state for business. Real GDP was up to 3.1% in 2015, and it looks to be up 2% to 2.1% in 2016, which is about the national average. Median household income is less than the national average. It went down in 2013 and up in 2014 and 2015. Once the final numbers are in, it should be up in 2016. Housing starts were up 31% in 2016. Two years ago, I said I was cautiously optimistic. I would say I’m optimistically cautious today.
YUHASE: Trends are positive, especially in the Triangle and Charlotte. North Carolina is home to 12 Fortune 500 companies and two of the most influential financial institutions on the planet, [Charlotte-based] Bank of America Corp. and [Winston-Salem-based] BB&T Corp. The population is expected to continue growing — 11% between 2010 and 2020 — particularly in the Triangle and Charlotte. North Carolina is a national leader in research and science, technology, engineering and math. That attracts top-quality people. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the amazing things happening at Research Triangle Park and American Underground, an entrepreneurial hub in Durham.
BOWMAN: People continue to move to North Carolina, where Duke connected more than 125,000 customers last year. Electricity sales are growing. While smaller and more efficient houses use less energy, there are more electronic devices. My kids have smartphones and tablets. I plug in devices at home every night. The energy sector will continue to modernize the electrical grid and add infrastructure. Duke completed its purchase of Piedmont Natural Gas last fall. It’s focused on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which will bring natural gas from West Virginia to eastern North Carolina customers by the end of 2018. [The pipeline] will create jobs, particularly in construction, and pay property taxes. It also will hopefully attract businesses that require a large volume of natural gas, such as food processors that bake or dry products. We’re looking at deploying more smart meters, which communicate with the utility and customers via an app. It shows your electric usage in real time.
CHUNG: The U.S. will remain an attractive market with a lot of consumption power. If presidential campaign rhetoric becomes policy that builds trade barriers, such as tariffs or renegotiated deals, some companies could move manufacturing to the U.S. If the Trump administration renegotiates the North American Free Trade Agreement, for example, that might entice automakers that want to sell in the U.S. to move assembly lines there rather than Mexico, where many have invested. That’s an opportunity for North Carolina. The day after the election, we instructed our international offices to get in front of manufacturers, especially automakers.
DAWSON: Home prices will increase this year, though how much depends on the market. The average house for sale in the Triangle, for example, receives several offers and is under contract in about three days. There is plenty of inventory at the higher end — $500,000 or more — but affordable housing is at a premium, especially in Charlotte and the Triangle. Rising interest rates reduce how much first-time buyers can purchase. The mortgage industry has been strict. We’re asking for leniency for buyers with good credit and on underwriting. We’re starting to see deals collapse the night before closing. Home sales will increase but not as much as they could because of inventory. The number of female homeowners is growing. In 2015, 15% of single women bought a home, compared to 9% of single men. Baby boomers will drive the market as more retire and downsize. Many millennials, on the other hand, are living with their parents or a roommate. They struggle to save for down payments because of expensive rent, especially in downtowns, which they prefer. Most are waiting until marriage or children to buy a house. And when they do, they’re headed to suburbs farther from cities. If transportation is good, people will live farther from work. That could help rural communities, where real estate has been struggling. Wilmington real estate had a phenomenal October 2016, about 40% over the year prior, thanks in part to second-home buyers, who disappeared during the Great Recession. Hurricane Matthew didn’t help Fayetteville, which is one of the state’s slower markets. The sales that were going to happen didn’t, and they won’t for a while.
SIMPSON: Construction people are making money again. In March 2016, two-thirds of voters approved the $2 billion Connect NC bond. A large portion of it will pay for buildings, repairs and renovations at state universities and community colleges. Two legislative committees are looking at other needs. One is examining our transportation network, and the other is examining building needs. N.C. Department of Public Instruction estimates that school boards will require $8 billion of capital investment in the next five years. N.C. Department of Environmental Quality estimates that local governments will need between $7 billion and $11 billion for wastewater and between $11 billion and $15 billion for drinking water infrastructure over the next 20 years.
REICH: That bond includes $94 million for an Agriculture Department laboratory complex, where food, drugs and fuels will be tested. Recovery will be a big part of agriculture this year. Commissioner (Steve)Troxler says, “If you’re a farmer, it’s always too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry.” We covered those in 2016. Hurricane Matthew hit in early October, when cotton, soybeans, sweet potatoes and peanuts were in the field, which spurred crop-loss fears. Fortunately, about five weeks of good weather followed Matthew, allowing most of the crops to be harvested. Losses don’t appear to be as large as first feared. USDA Farm Service Agency’s initial estimate was $400 million. Emergency management barely caught its breath before the wildfires in the west. We deployed hundreds of people, most from the forest service. Many others, from Alaska to Florida, joined the fight, which lasted to the end of the year. We are very fortunate that property loss and injuries were minimal.
What is the employment outlook for the coming year?
STECKBECK: The unemployment rate was 4.9% in October 2016, up from 4.7% the month prior. North Carolina’s employment-population ratio is lower than the national average, 57.7% versus 59.3% in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means many people have left the workforce. Baby boomers are retiring, and there are more college students, but there is a skills gap at work, too. I recently met with furniture industry executives in Hickory. They’re struggling to find workers who can operate the modern equipment they’re using in some factories. The bigger issue is how we retrain more workers.
SIMPSON: Many people have left construction since 2008, and we’re trying to get them back. Construction careers pay well. With community-college training, electricians, plumbers, drywall installers or carpenters can earn upward of $90,000 a year.
BOWMAN: North Carolina was No. 3 in the nation for solar electric capacity in 2015, according to [Washington, D.C.-based] Solar Energy Industries Association. Our line crews are focused on connecting it to the grid, and we need more of them to meet growth.
How will last year’s elections affect your industry and the state economy?
STECKBECK: The presidential election spawned uncertainty. Business investment could slow until the administration finds its course. I expect fewer regulations, which will help businesses operate more efficiently. I’m sure many are looking forward to that, and maybe that’s driving the upswing in the stock market. Its high P/E ratio is concerning, though. Trump tweeted in early December about the cost of a new Air Force One, being built by [Chicago-based] The Boeing Co., which owns many Pentagon contracts. Its stock dropped almost immediately. Then when it came to light that the aircraft maker gave $1 million for Trump’s inaugural events, the same it gave President Obama in 2013, it appeared as a pay-for-play system.
YUHASE: Corporate tax reform in North Carolina is continuing to lead, with the N.C. Department of Revenue announcing that general fund tax collections were enough in fiscal year 2015-16 to reduce the corporate tax rate to 3% for years beginning on or after Jan. 1. Our industry will continue to have global-market challenges. Repatriation of wealth, for example, will leave giant holes in the global economy. Consumers realize that the domestic markets are riding unjustifiable all-time highs. While it doesn’t affect the average family, it is affecting the top income earners, who are stocking cash. That means less money is trickling into markets. It’s an opportunity for average investors to create financial plans that will outlive any four- or eight-year elected official.
CHUNG: North Carolina had the sixth-largest population increase in the U.S. between July 2014 and July 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Wake County, for example, welcomes an average of 63 people each day. I moved here two years ago, and the commute from my Raleigh home to my Cary office takes longer each day. It might be a few seconds, but it’s palpable. Trump has talked about investing in transportation infrastructure. We’ll need something, or we will choke on congestion, especially around Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte. More international cargo traffic is shifting to East Coast ports from West Coast ones. That’s partly due to the recently expanded Panama Canal, which gives large container ships easy access to the Atlantic Ocean from Asia. It’s an opportunity for states on the East Coast. Port of Wilmington can play in that space, but it needs additional upgrades. If not, that business will sail to Savannah, Charleston, Norfolk and other well-established ports.
BOWMAN: President Trump wants changes to energy policy. They could include rolling back some of the EPA’s clean-power plan. It’s too early to tell. We’re monitoring that.
SIMPSON: I recently attended a luncheon where Gov. Roy Cooper spoke about policy issues that are in contrast with the current legislature. It will be interesting to see the dynamic between him and Republican majorities in the state House and Senate. President Trump wants to spend $1 trillion to fix infrastructure nationwide over the next decade. I hope he makes good on that promise. It would be great for the construction industry.
DAWSON: We’re watching any changes to the mortgage interest tax deduction. It was capped a couple of years ago, and last year they were trying to add more things, such as health insurance, into that cap. Tax on services is a concern that we don’t want to return. It has already impacted real-estate people. That cost is passed to the buyer, reducing buying power.
What challenges will the state’s economy face?
SIMPSON: Soaring health care costs are hurting businesses. It will be interesting to see if the newly elected officials will usher in changes and what they’ll be.
YUHASE: I didn’t discuss retirement health care costs with clients 10 years ago. It’s mandatory today because of exponentially rising costs and a bigger burden being placed on consumers. Most small-business owners want to provide good benefits to their employees and feel guilty because they can’t continue to provide them at the same level. Health care costs are consuming 10% to 15% of an employee’s annual expenditures, and that’s rising. Until there’s solid reform, health care will lead financial-planning conversations.
STECKBECK: Securing a loan is more difficult today than 10 or 15 years ago. Venture capital hasn’t been a big player in North Carolina, but that’s starting to change. It’s great that about three-quarters of businesses want to expand over the next 12 months. The challenge will be finding the capital to do it. The state’s poverty rate is currently higher than the national average — 16.4% and 13.5%, respectively — according to the census.
CHUNG: North Carolina attracts businesses for many reasons, including no-cost custom workforce training from the community-college system. But that inflow is depleting our stock of commercial real estate, such as vacant buildings or shovel-ready sites at industrial parks. If you don’t have a ready place for an incoming business, it’s going elsewhere. It’s a problem across the state. Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte continue to do well, but that same degree of prosperity isn’t seen in rural regions. North Carolina is largely governed by people from those regions. That dichotomy can be counterproductive to policymaking. I saw it when I worked in Missouri, where there are two dominant cities — St. Louis and Kansas City — and a large rural region. That’s one reason why EDPNC has closely worked with the Agriculture Department on attracting food processors, which prefer rural regions.
DAWSON: Sales are only part of a strong real-estate industry. The association’s economic-development committee partners with EDPNC to develop communities statewide. We need to continue to bring people to North Carolina and support their needs, or people won’t be buying or selling homes. We all have things that impact each other’s business, and that’s where we can cooperate and make a difference.
REICH: Low prices for commodities are shrinking farmers’ incomes. Farmers want more customers for their products, but more people also means more competition for natural resources such as land and water. Agriculture and agribusiness is the state’s No. 1 industry — $84 billion, according to [Raleigh-based] N.C. State University economist Michael Walden. Commissioner Troxler wants to grow it. The local foods movement is strong in North Carolina, and it reinforces efforts such as farmers markets. There are more registered meat handlers, who are farmers that sell directly to consumers. Some dairy farms are selling cheese and milk onsite. Agritourism, from produce stands to craft breweries, is becoming more popular.