I received an interesting email from Ray Crotty of C3 systems some days ago now. It was in essence a challenge to look at the industry over 20 or 30 years and see if "we're seeing anything now that we haven't seen before in terms of economic adjustment at work in construction".
Ray's view is that we probably are not seeing anything much different, and that journalists and commentators (I assume I am included in this bunch) are over reacting and feeding hysteria and really what we are seeing now is the natural correction back to trend after years of good times.
This is a point often made in various ways and it made me ponder on just how to construct a response.
I could naturally go to the numbers which would show that, yes, the construction industry is a cyclical industry with a proven track record of volatility.
I could say and show that each time we have a boom we have a bust. That is the nature of things. I could say the past dozen or so years have been exceptional and an adjustment was in many ways almost inevitable. You could see those years as exceptionally lucky, as even when the industry faced skills shortages, fortune smiled. An army of Eastern Europeans arrived with talents and attitudes that put to shame our local lads. So in a world of yin and yang we were due a rough patch.
Then again I could of course make my response more personal and recount my experience of recessions.
I could tell how in the mess that followed the "Barbour Boom" and the first oil price shock in the early 1970s my father left the RAF. He struggled to find work, we struggled as a family.
I could write about how when we plunged into the deep recession of the early 1980s I was coming out of university. Of the 200 or so who graduated with me from the Leeds University Civil Engineering department, I would be surprised if 20 are still in the industry. It was a pitiful time for budding engineers, talent fled the industry and it was tough to draw it back in.
I could reveal my experiences as a journalist on Construction News through the last recession. I covered subcontractors. I found that particularly hard. I had no trouble looking for stories, they came to me. I wish not to remember just how many calls I took from desperate subcontractors who were not being paid. I knew that for most of them their companies would fold and most likely they would lose their homes and probably their families. They wanted my help, what advice could I give? Their fate was sealed.
Naturally I have the figures at hand. I can put them into an historic perspective. We can look at the aggregated numbers or the sectoral numbers that make up construction output over 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years - the series goes back to 1955. And the figures will say: "yes this is all as it should be, yin yang, boom bust, thesis antithesis - take your pick".
But the figures will not tell the real story and the real story is what happens to people. The reality is that recessions hurt. Although some do well out of recessions, most people suffer at least a bit. But the pain is not shared equally or fairly. Some people suffer very badly, there lives are ruined, often through little fault of their own.
So, I don't mind being accused of hysteria if I am shouting "WATCH OUT RECESSION COMING".
I know enough to be sure that it is not hysterical and I know enough about recessions to feel the need to warn people if I suspect one is on the way, so that they perhaps have a little more time to get some of their riskier activities under control.
Journalists are there to scream "He's naked" when the emperor has no clothes. That is their job. And if they go a bit overboard to sell more papers or garner more viewers or listeners, so be it.
I was rather taken by comments made by Evan Davis former economics editor at the BBC as he chastised himself and his colleagues in the media over their role in the housing boom and bust. His central regret was that the media did not shout loud enough.
Now let me get out of the way and let you judge without the intervention of the media. If you have a few moments this is a web chat that I tripped over this morning when looking for something else. It is what prompted me to write this blog.
The site appears to be for people recently moved to or are looking to move to Australia. One guy - he works in house building - is worried his dream may be shattered.
Two lines that struck me:
In one entry he writes: "I for one am twitching as we speak. I know if i lose my job thats our house repossesed and with that comes no move to oz."
Later he writes: "I am in need of a huge glass of wine as soon and my little boys goes to bed!"
I love numbers and data and particularly data and numbers about construction. But the one thing I do try to remember in all my excitement is that economics ultimately is about people. The real story of recessions is not really found in the numbers, but in real lives.
Oh, and for those who feel this downward drift in construction will remain in house building. I recall the argument a year ago that the UK housing market would not follow the US, because we were better placed. I for one didn't really believe it, though I will say that I had no expectation things would get this bad.
And yes I do agree with Ray Crotty. What we are seeing is probably nothing more than what we have seen before. But I can't say that provides me with much comfort.