2017 SB&D 100: Stack the Deck!

Eight years into this recovery, the South is still dealing.

By Michael C. Randle

What can we make of the South’s economy in today’s nutty nut political world? There are signs of weakness and a changing labor landscape, for sure. The South’s gross product by state averaged out to 1.7 percent as a region in the fourth quarter of 2016, and it was predicted to perform a little better in the first quarter of this year. The region’s GDP growth rate topped the nation’s rate of 1.2 percent in the first quarter, yet both rates are nothing to swagger about.


Last year, the U.S. economy grew at 1.6 percent according to the Commerce Department. The South grew at 1.5 percent without Texas or Oklahoma contributing much at all due to the downturn in the oil and gas industry last year. Oil and gas has come back to a degree, so the South’s share of GDP should surpass the U.S. this year. Growth in the 2 percent range has been the norm since the end of the recession, and that is not expected to change anytime soon. There are outliers, like Florida, Utah, Texas and Washington, where 3-plus percent growth is currently seen.


Another sign that indicates the economy may be waning a bit is that we are seeing new car and light truck sales slow, as well as layoffs in the South’s largest industry sector — automotive. Additionally, worker productivity rates are flat. Of course, what worries us the most is what most folks don’t talk about, and that is the fact that total world debt is three times the size of the entire global economy.


Perhaps the biggest threat to 3 or 4 percent growth, which this administration is shooting for, is the fact that we are running out of labor in the U.S. We are at full employment, meaning we will find out later this year and beyond whether or not the South and the nation are at full productive capacity. President Trump keeps talking about the 95 million people in the U.S. who are outside the labor force, meaning they are not working and not looking for work. He infers there are 95 million people in this country who are available for work. The problem with that argument is that 93 million of those 95 million have a reason not to work. They are retirees, caretakers, and the incarcerated and disabled, the mentally ill, drug addicts, high school students age 16 and over and college students.


In April, Germany-based Commerzbank published an economic briefing that indicated the U.S. — at 4.5 percent unemployment — was at full employment. As of May, that rate dropped to 4.3 percent, the lowest in 16 years. But there’s more. Over the last three years, the U.S. saw just 70,000 people on average per month enter the workforce, when for decades that figure was about 200,000 per month.


Therefore, the reserve of idle workers in the U.S., according to the German bank, is shrinking by more than 100,000 people per month. Even by using the U6 unemployment rate of 8.4 percent (the underemployed), there are only about 1 million people available for full-time jobs in the U.S., according to Commerzbank. If the U.S. averages just 100,000 jobs created per month this year, the “labor reserve will be gone in less than a year, creating upside risks to wage and CPI inflation,” according to Commerzbank’s briefing.


Late last year, the San Francisco Federal Reserve said that the U.S. economy only needs to add about 75,000 jobs per month, and possibly as few as 50,000 going into next year, to keep the economy stabilized. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just means strong economic growth will be checked simply because the people simply aren’t there for large job generation. In short, we are aging and the fertility rate is the lowest it’s been since the 1930s.


A depleted labor shed that we predicted would appear this year in this SB&D 100 story a year ago, is now showing up in monthly job numbers. In May, the Labor Department reported that non-farm payrolls increased by just 138,000. It’s our opinion that total will be revised lower. It should be noted that in 2016, the U.S. averaged about 180,000 jobs per month. The Labor Department also revised job growth in March to 50,000, down from 79,000. It also revised April’s job numbers down to 174,000 from 211,000, meaning the average job growth over the past three months is just 121,000. Look for that to continue to drop, not because of politics or any factor other than a lack of available labor. You can’t create gobs of jobs when the labor shed is made up of slim pickings.


Again, maintaining an economy like that seen in Japan and other countries that are aging and void of large labor sheds is not such a bad thing. But to get to 3 or 4 percent growth, we would have to do one or two of three things according to Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari: “We can either accept slower growth, we can subsidize fertility, which is pretty expensive, right, or you can embrace immigration,” Kashkari said at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., in April. He followed up by saying, “And those are the three choices, and that’s literally math, and you can pick which one you like.”


What? The government offering additional tax credits to people to have babies? Yes, we are at the point where the slack in the labor market has simply vanished. There could be another month this year when we see 200,000 jobs or more created, but those months will become increasingly rare unless immigration is doubled from what is now 1 million persons per year or less.


It’s been a nice, long run

At 95 months, the U.S. economic expansion that began in the summer of 2009 is currently the third longest in history. Only 1961 to 1969 (106 months) and 1991 to 2001 (120 months) were longer. And at 79 consecutive months, this is by far the longest sustained period of job growth in U.S. history, or since the government started keeping track in 1939.


While slower growth may be on the horizon, the economic development data the last three years screams that the South’s economy is about as good as it gets. In fact, the economic data we have observed over the last three years is the best we have seen in almost 25 years based on project activity.


I am certainly not an economist, but rather an economic development journalist. An economic development journalist determines how strong or weak the economy is based on project activity and the quality of those projects. Our data shows that since 2014, the South’s economy is not only comparable to the mid-to-late 1990s — the nation’s last lengthy economic expansion — it has exceeded the 1990s by a wide margin in project numbers.


The 2017 SB&D 100: Another remarkable year for economic development in the American South

The methodology of the Southern Business & Development 100 can be found on page 63 in the 2017 Top Deals and Hot Markets report. The short version of the methodology of this ranking is this: we document every publicly announced project in the South made in the previous calendar year that meets or exceeds $30 million in investment and/or 200 jobs. Why $30 million and/or 200 jobs? Well, back in the day, if the project didn’t meet one or both of those thresholds, many states wouldn’t let the local economic developer use the state plane for site visits.


We rank and publish on page 58 the top 100 job announcements from calendar year 2016 and on page 60 are the top 100 investment announcements from last year. But those are simply the top 100 projects for each sector. This, the 23rd annual SB&D 100, saw 695 projects meet or exceed 200 jobs and/or $30 million in investment, the second best total in the ranking’s history. Only last year’s SB&D 100, with a record 730 projects meeting or exceeding our thresholds, topped this year’s total.


As to the point that the last three years have been the most successful in SB&D 100 history, consider these facts (see Chart 1). In the first 20 years of this ranking, the yearly average of big deals announced in the 15-state American South was 520 projects. That figure of 500 represented the benchmark for an outstanding year for the first 20 years of the SB&D 100. Not anymore. In the last three years, we’ve seen 668 projects (2014), 730 projects (2015) and 695 projects in calendar year 2016. That’s a three-year average of 697 projects, obliterating the annual average of the first 20 years of the “100.”


So, yes, if you base the health of an economy on corporate and industrial project activity, this three-year period in the South is indeed as good at it gets. We have been in rare air and the last three years may represent the best we’ve got for years to come if the labor shed is indeed exhausted.


The only year that can even remotely compare to the last three years is 1997 when 636 big deals made the big board. But even the go-go 1990s can’t compare with the average of 697 big deals the last three years. From 1995 to 2000 — formerly the best stretch in total projects until this three-year string — the yearly average of SB&D 100 projects was 566. Of course, the low point in the last 23 years was the recession year of 2009 when only 367 deals met or exceeded our thresholds, meaning project activity found in each year’s SB&D 100 directly correlates with a superior or inferior economy.


Breaking down this year’s SB&D 100

For the third consecutive year, something extraordinary materialized with the 2017 SB&D 100. Again this year, both the manufacturing (353 projects) and service sectors (342 projects) had outstanding years. That rarely occurs.


The reasons why manufacturing and services rarely have great years in the same year are historical in nature. Back in 1994 and 1995 — the first two years of the SB&D 100 ranking — the South’s economy was essentially the same as it was from the ’60s, ’70s and through the ’80s. During those decades, manufacturing ruled the region. But something happened in 1996. For the first time ever, services outperformed manufacturing in total projects meeting or exceeding our thresholds. With only 212 manufacturing projects and 361 services deals, it’s apparent now that 1996 was the year when offshoring manufacturing plants out of the South began in earnest.


Because the manufacturing sector was cratering in the mid-1990s, and with President Clinton’s blessing, lawmakers in Washington passed all kinds of legislation that drove job growth in the services sector to offset job losses in manufacturing. By 1997, when services posted 407 big deals and manufacturing could muster only 229 deals, we had morphed into a service-based, consumer-run economy almost overnight. By the time the next decade began, manufacturing projects had dropped to all-time
lows. In 2002, only 164 projects meeting our thresholds came from manufacturing. Experts at that time had essentially kissed manufacturing in America goodbye. It was truly a sad time. Simply put, the U.S. was not competitive with its Asian rivals in the 1990s.


Over the last several years, the SB&D 100 has been populated by numerous Amazon fulfillment centers. No company in the South has announced more projects in the last five years than Amazon.So, from the mid-1990s until 2006, the South’s economy was steered by the services sector because manufacturers had simply beelined to China, Mexico and other low-cost countries. In some years in that decade, the service sector doubled up manufacturing in total announced projects.


Moving on to 2006, something cropped up in the South’s economy that no one could have predicted. For the first time in 11 years, manufacturing project totals beat service’s totals. Then, in 2007, manufacturing posted 301 deals (the best year since 1995), and services posted a mere 209 deals. Something was up, yet, we had no clue what was happening at the time.


Then, in August 2011, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) published the piece, “Made in America, Again.” The report showed how competitive the U.S. had become compared to China. As a result of the fracking frenzy, the U.S. had become the world’s least expensive energy nation. The BCG report also outlined how labor costs in China had risen dramatically and the authors concluded that reshoring was occurring in the form of companies bringing back plants from abroad. Eureka! Our changing data in the SB&D 100s from 2006 to today had finally found a logical meaning.


Since 2006, manufacturing has beaten services in the “100” every year. In fact, the exact opposite of what materialized the previous decade was occurring with manufacturing topping service deals some years from 2008 to 2013 by a two-to-one margin. For example, in the 2014 SB&D 100, manufacturing posted 410 big deals to services’ 185.


It was as if the South’s economy had done a total reversal from the decade of 1996 to 2005, when services dominated the big deal scene. Today and since 2006, manufacturing has ruled project activity in the South. The age of reshoring, onshoring, nearshoring, make it where you sell it (whatever you want to call it) has been shaping and driving the South’s economy for more than 10 years now.


With 353 manufacturing projects and 342 service deals (see Chart 1), this year’s SB&D 100 is the most balanced between the two sectors of any in the 23-year history of the ranking. Manufacturing set a record with 424 big deals last year, and the drop to 353 this year is a little concerning. Yet, manufacturing has averaged 343 projects meeting or exceeding 200 jobs and/or $30 million in investment over the last 10 years. In comparison, the previous 10 years (1997-2006) saw an average of 214 large manufacturing announcements in the South. That validates current claims from many economists that we are in the midst of a manufacturing renaissance, at least in the American South.


China-based Sun Paper announced a $1 billion project in Arkansas in 2016. Pictured are Sun Paper and Arkansas officials.On the services side, with 342 projects of 200 jobs or more, a wave of consumerism has washed up in the South very similar to the late 1990s when the average year (1996-2000) saw 364 large service projects averaging about 660 jobs each. Sectors such as automotive, distribution, food and beverage, headquarters and financial services, always do well when there is more disposable income out on the street. Last year was such a year, as was the year before it.


The services sector in the 2017 SB&D 100 performed better than it has since 2005. Every time the services sector expands with deals in the South, it seems like the economy reaches full employment. If 4.3 percent unemployment is full employment, like plenty of economists claim it is, then it is not a coincidence that big service sector years like 2016, 2005, 1999, 1998 and 1997 have all come during full employment years. In other words, manufacturing cannot bring a region to full employment like it could 50 years ago. Yet, a thriving service sector, as seen in the late 1990s, can achieve full employment even when manufacturing is suffering.


The sectors that led the 2017 SB&D 100


To give you an idea of how strong the automotive industry is in the South, check this out: even in a year when we saw the first layoffs in automotive in years, the sector still outperformed every other business and industrial division in the region (see Chart 1). Automotive has led all sectors in the number of large projects in the South 22 out of the last 23 years. The only sector to total more projects was call centers in 1998.


Continental Tire’s 2,500-employee, $1.45 billion plant in Clinton, Miss., was one of this year’s largest projects and was the largest automotive project in the 2017 SB&D 100.Last year, automotive led all categories by a wide margin with 111 big deals. That total fell to 85 this year, but it still accounted for almost one-quarter of the 353 manufacturing projects posted on this year’s “100.” The largest automotive project was Continental Tire’s 2,500-employee, $1.4 billion plant in Clinton, Miss. Other large projects announced last year were GM expanding its plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., Sentury Tire’s greenfield facility in Troup County, Ga., and GM’s expansion in Bowling Green, Ky.


Automakers sold a record 17.55 million vehicles in calendar year 2016, beating 2015’s 17.47 million, according to industry tracking firm Autodata. Yet, this year sales have been choppy. There were only three assembly plant expansions in 2016, when there were 11 in 2015. The South is home to 18 major assembly plants counting Volvo’s facility, which is under construction in Berkeley County, S.C. Only three expansions of assembly plants in the Southern Automotive Corridor (see SouthernAutoCorridor.com) last year is a sure sign that sales are expected to slow down this year and next.


The big gainer this year on the manufacturing side was aviation and aerospace with an amazing total of 55 projects meeting or exceeding our thresholds. The previous record for the aerospace industry was 30 deals in 2013. The South is home to more aviation and aerospace companies than any other region. The vast majority of space launches are conducted in Florida, and Brevard County, Fla., continues to kill it in the aerospace sector in manufacturing to complement its launch business. Other markets in the South contributing to the best-ever aviation and aerospace year include Huntsville; Mobile, Ala.; North Charleston, S.C.; Dallas-Fort Worth; South Florida; Oklahoma City and St. Louis, among others. In the last three years, GE Aviation has been a particularly aggressive aerospace company with plants operating all over the region.


Last year, Boeing invested $78 million and added almost 500 jobs to its guided missile and space vehicle unit in Huntsville, Ala.The South is also home to two of the three full assembly jetliner complexes in the U.S. Those two facilities — Airbus in Mobile, Ala., and Boeing in North Charleston, S.C. — are maturing and assembling more A320s and Dreamliners than ever before. Other growth states in aviation in the South include Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia. It took 23 years for it to happen, but this year was the first year ever that automotive and aerospace came in No. 1 and No. 2 in projects in the manufacturing category of the SB&D 100.


Other sectors that ranked fairly high in the manufacturing division this year include food and beverage, petrochemicals, building materials, pharmaceuticals (which had a banner year), metals and electronics. It should be noted that the petrochemical boom on the Gulf Coast is moderating a bit, most likely because of labor constraints. The fact that petrochemicals dropped from 70 big projects in 2015 to 41 in 2016 was definitely reflected in the investment total of the SB&D 100. This year’s total of $51.5 billion for the top 100 investment projects in the South in 2016 pales in comparison to the big investments seen in last year’s SB&D 100, which set a record of $90.5 billion. Also, there were only 10 projects in this year’s “100” that topped the $1 billion mark. . .the lowest number of billion-dollar projects since 2011.


Furthermore, oil and gas projects fell from a high of 73 in 2012 to 25 in this year’s SB&D 100, which also would reflect in the investment total. The 25 oil and gas projects announced in calendar year 2016 was the lowest total in the history of the SB&D 100. And for the fifth year out of six, renewable energy beat fossil fuel energy in large projects — 19 deals to seven (see Chart 2).



As mentioned, this year is the best show from services in total projects since 2005. Leading the service sector parade is distribution with a record 66 hefty projects. The previous record for distribution was 58 in 1999, another year when consumerism was at its height in the South.


NCR is spending $145 million on its new headquarters in Midtown Atlanta. The project will create 1,800 jobs.Financial services, which we believe is one of the leading indicators for an economy’s performance, had another great year, even though total projects fell from 69 in last year’s SB&D 100 to 47 this year. Still, 47 total projects is a little higher total than financials’ record run in the late 1990s when the average was 43 big deals. What we didn’t see this year in financials was the sheer number of deals coming out of the fintech sector. Some of the larger FIRE (finance-insurance-real estate) sector deals include State Farm (1,500 jobs, Atlanta), NCR (1,800 jobs, Atlanta), Paycom (1,000 jobs, Oklahoma City) and Citigroup (1,000 jobs, Tampa).


It was the financial services industry that totally collapsed during the recession, dropping the service sector to record lows for several years. As late as 2011, when financials only put up nine big deals, the sector was still reeling. It really didn’t gain traction until 2013 when it posted 31 projects.


Headquarter projects dropped from 36 deals last year to 32 this year, and that’s down from 42 in the 2015 SB&D 100. Still, 32 projects is double the 23-year headquarter projects average of 16. Some of the largest headquarter projects this year include NCR (1,800 jobs, Atlanta), Telemundo (1,300 jobs, Miami) and CompuCom (1,500 jobs, Lancaster, S.C.).


Health care saw a nice increase in deals from last year, but it is still off its high of 43 projects in 2014. Two of the three largest job projects announced in the South last year were healthcare deals in Ochshner Clinic’s big 3,227-job expansion in the New Orleans metro and St. Jude Children’s 1,800-job expansion in Memphis. Other service sectors that did well this year include call centers and IT.



Last year’s SB&D 100 was all about the automotive and petrochemical industries. Not so much this year, even though automotive topped all other industry sectors for the 22nd time in 23 years (see Chart 1). The four most improved industries this year are aviation and aerospace, distribution, pharmaceuticals and life sciences. The industries that saw their project totals fall the most from last year are automotive, financial services, petrochemicals and oil and gas.


Of course, automotive, petrochemicals and oil and gas are the three most capital intensive projects, and a loss of 67 huge projects from last year’s totals in those sectors was evident in the investment total of the top 100 deals, which dropped from $90.5 billion last year to $51.5 billion this year.


It should be noted that there is a new industry sector listed on Chart 2 that shows the performance of each sector over the last six years. Cybersecurity has never been listed as a sector in any SB&D 100, simply because there weren’t enough cyber deals to post. Yet, with eight big deals, cybersecurity made it onto the list for the first time. As that industry matures, look for plenty of projects coming out of Northern Virginia and Augusta, Ga., where the new Army Cyber Command is being built at Fort Gordon.


Of the 695 projects announced in the South in calendar year 2016 meeting or exceeding 200 jobs and/or $30 million in investment, 392 were expansions, 275 were new projects and 28 were relocations. That works out to about 56 percent expansions, 40 percent new projects and four percent relocations.


So, the 23rd SB&D 100 is in the books. With 695 projects, this year’s “100” is the second best ever, second only to last year’s 730 project total. These last four years have seen project totals not seen in the history of the SB&D 100. The South has posted totals since 2013 of 597, 668, 730 and 695 projects meeting or exceeding our thresholds.


As a result of achieving full employment for the first time in 17 years, is this the last year of the strongest four years in SB&D 100 history? If the labor force is not somehow repopulated, through immigration or some other source that we don’t know about, then we certainly will see the effects of a tight labor market in next year’s SB&D 100. Then again, automation in the office and on the factory floor could replace millions of workers in the next decade, which would solve our labor issues. Regardless, economic development in the South is at its optimum level today and we have reached an unequaled period of project activity the past three years.


Chart No. 1

Manufacturing vs. Non-Manufacturing


SB&D 100 1994-2016

Year Mfg. Non-Mfg. Total Projects
2016 353 342 695
2015 424 306 730
2014 375 293 668
2013 410 185 597
2012 363 160 523
2011 350 189 539
2010 335 259 594
2009 227 140 367
2008 291 138 429
2007 301 209 510
2006 257 225 482
2005 219 370 589
2004 292 297 585
2003 189 277 466
2002 164 245 409
2001 165 282 447
2000 209 312 521
1999 194 346 540
1998 228 344 572
1997 229 407 636
1996 212 361 573
1995 310 243 553
1994 281 189 470

Totals are derived from all projects announced in the American South 1994-2016 calendar years meeting or exceeding 200 jobs and/or $30 million in investment. Source: SB&D



Chart No. 2

Top Industries Number of Projects 2011-2016
  2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011
1. Automotive 85 111 81 83 81 82
2. Distribution 66 54 51 26 39 30
3. Aviation/Aerospace 55 26 28 30 18 23
4. Food & Beverage 51 63 45 50 36 33
5. Financial Services 47 69 42 31 19 9
6. Petrochemicals 41 70 47 37 51 46
7. Headquarters 32 36 42 14 15 10
8. Healthcare 27 19 43 37 23 39
9. Building Materials 26 21 35 29 15 15
10. Call Centers 26 26 33 26 15 25
11. Oil & Gas 25 37 51 53 73 57
12. IT 24 20 25 16 7 9
13. Pharmaceuticals 22 7 6 6 2 3
14. Renewable Energy 19 19 12 15 8 24
15. Metals 18 14 15 22 12 5
16. Misc. Services 18 19 3 9 10 5
17. Misc. Manufacturing 16 24 36 18 40 35
18. Electronics 13 6 6 18 15 12
19. Data Centers 12 14 16 15 7 6
20. Life Sciences 11 5 2 4 8 1
21. Paper 10 12 5 4 6 7
22. Apparel 8 5 8 6 9 0
23. Textiles 8 11 7 13 4 0
24. Cybersecurity 8 n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a
25. Fossil Energy 7 7 19 8 5 14
26. Furnishings 7 5 3 7 6 1
27. Software 6 11 8 4 3 2

Totals are derived from all projects announced in the American South 2011-2016 calendar years meeting or exceeding 200 jobs and/or $30 million in investment. Not every sector is included in the chart. Source: SB&D



Chart No. 3

Total Investment by The SB&D 100 1994-2016

Year Investment
2016 $51.5 Billion
2015 $90.5 Billion
2014 $78.2 Billion
2013 $53.9 Billion 
2012 $50.8 Billion
2011 $41.9 Billion
2010 $35.9 Billion
2009 $27.4 Billion
2008 $53.7 Billion
2007 $45.1 Billion
2006 $44.2 Billion
2005 $26.7 Billion
2004 $22.2 Billion
2003 $22.1 Billion
2002 $18.3 Billion
2001 $25.0 Billion
2000 $25.8 Billion
1999 $24.6 Billion
1998 $22.6 Billion
1997 $19.8 Billion
1996 $23.8 Billion
1995 $22.6 Billion
1994 $18.8 Billion

Totals are derived from the 100 largest investment announcements made in the American South from 1994-2016 calendar years. Source: SB&D    



Chart No. 4


Number of Announced Projects of $1 Billion or More in the South 2004-2016

Year Projects
2016 10
2015 20
2014 17
2013 20
2012 13
2011 7
2010 9
2009 6
2008 14
2007 11
2006 10
2005 5
2004 1

Source: SB&D



Chart No. 5


Total Jobs Created by The SB&D 100 1994-2016

Year Jobs Created
2016 79,000
2015 79,916
2014 111,926
2013 90,421
2012 63,932
2011 70,573
2010 83,739
2009 78,075
2008 75,211
2007 71,188
2006 82,513
2005 92,847
2004 91,135
2003 75,418
2002 68,651
2001 82,826
2000 111,758
1999 113,136
1998 116,721
1997 125,226
1996 136,442
1995 124,011
1994 118,550

Totals are derived from the 100-largest job announcements made in the American South from 1994-2016. Source: SB&D       

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