looking forward

2021 will be a 'bipolar year' and other key takeaways from the Greater Houston Partnership's economic outlook

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its annual economic outlook event online — here's what the numbers indicate for Houston business in the new year. Photo via Getty Images

As much of the world is ready to celebrate a new year — one likely to be drastically less affected by COVID-19 — the Greater Houston Partnership released an annual report about what Houston's economy will look like in 2021.

Senior vice president of research Patrick Jankowski and his team put the Houston Region Economic Outlook report together and shared some its highlights at a virtual event hosted by Bob Harvey, president and CEO of GHP.

Of course, much of the study focused on how the coronavirus — as well as the impending vaccine — will affect the region's economy.

"At this point last year, neither Patrick nor any of us could have predicted the arrival of COVID-19 and its devastating impact on the global economy," Harvey says at the event. "Here in Houston COVID wreaked havoc on industries across the spectrum from energy to hospitality."

In the early weeks, the Houston region lost 350,000 jobs, according to the report, and in the months since, the region added back about half with 176,000 jobs.

Below are some more key takeaways from the report — and in most cases, the outcome depends on how COVID-19 case numbers are affected by the holidays and the accessibility of the vaccine.

"The weeks and months ahead are likely to be some of the most difficult of the pandemic," Harvey cautions. "We cannot afford to let our guard down now as we approach the finish line."

Energy will continue to struggle

Photo via Getty Images

The past six years have been rough for oil and gas, and in Houston specifically, Houston has lost nearly 100,000 upstream energy jobs, and the energy industry's share of Houston's GDP has fallen from 35 to 40 percent (a GHP '14 estimate) to 20 to 25 percent (a GHP '19 estimate).

The Russia-Saudi Oil Feud in March brought this decline to its head and it's not looking like it's getting back to normal any time soon. "Next year won't be any easier for the industry. While global demand has improved, it will remain three to five million barrels per day below pre-COVID levels," reads the report.

The new administration is expected to have several goals that will affect the industry, such as bringing the U.S. back into the Paris Agreement, negotiating new mileage and emission rules for autos and trucks, slowing or halting oil leasing on federal lands and in the Gulf of Mexico, increasing environmental scrutiny during the pipeline permitting process, and more.

Jobs in some industries will come back

Chart via GHP

According to the report, Houston's unemployment rate, at 3.9 percent in February, jumped to 5.5 percent in March, then 14.3 percent in April — the highest on record.

"Unemployment has improved — we're at 7.9 percent now," Jankowski says at the event.

But recovery depends on the industry. Jankowski predicts that retail and energy are both expected to continue to lose jobs, and other industry sectors — such as government, arts and entertainment, and educational services — aren't expected to grow by much.

However, some of the sectors hardest hit in 2020 — construction, manufacturing, support services, and restaurants — are expected to bounce back with thousands of new jobs.

The chart gives a range of job growth — there's a lower and a higher outlook. Jankowski says it depends on how well the vaccine is doing.

If by mid-year, we don't have much of the population inoculated, it's going to be closer to that lower number," he says.

2021 will be a "bipolar year"

Patrick Jankowski of the GHP. Photo via Houston.org

The first and second halves of the year are going to look different, Jankowski says, it's just a matter of how different at this point. In addition to the vaccine and COVID case numbers, the things the GHP as well as Houston businesses are watching is the new Biden Administration

"We won't see any significant growth in the economy until we get to the second half of the year," he says

The first quarter of 2021 will be especially tough for Houston, according to the report, since the region always experiences job losses in January as retail, restaurant, and transportation workers hired for the holiday season are rolled off. Additionally, contract workers employed to meet year-end deadlines are released and plans for reorganization are implemented.

"No one should be surprised when Houston loses 40,000 or more jobs this January," the report reads. "Houston's recovery will likely lag the U.S.'s by a few months, but growth will resume in the second half of '21."

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Building Houston

 
 

2020 brought over $700 million in venture funding deals into Houston, and startups saw larger deals in the first half of the year with a growing interest in angel activity. Image via Getty Images

Houston startup's venture capital deals continue to grow in 2020, according to a new report from Houston Exponential. Last year, VC dollars were up, while deal count was down, representing more mature deals coming into the ecosystem — but the second half of the year was defined by a growth in angel investment interest.

The report by Serafina Lalany, chief of staff for HX, found that the Bayou City brought saw $715 million across 117 VC deals, according to Pitch Book data. It's the fourth year Houston has seen VC growth, and last year the city reported over $563 million across 168 deals.

"Houston has put concerted efforts into building its innovation ecosystem," says Harvin Moore, president of HX, in a release, "and 2020's record-breaking results show we are seeing not only resilience in the tech sector, but a significant increase in the rate of formation and success of growth-stage companies, which have an outsized effect on our local economy in terms of high paying job potential and Houston's increasing attractiveness as a great place to work."

Last August, HX published a report on the first half of the year and that study found that Houston — facing the challenges of both the pandemic and the oil price drop — managed to see a 7 percent increase in funding compared to the national average of 2.5 percent. With the second half of the year, the city's VC increase from last year was over 25 percent and up 252 percent since 2014.

The other difference between the first and second halves of the year for Houston VC was the stages of the deals made. Most of Houston's larger deals took place in the first and second quarters — and even the beginning of Q3 — of 2020:

But the second half of the year seemed like Houston's earlier stage VC activity returned, and Blair Garrou, managing partner at Houston-based Mercury Fund, confirmed this to InnovationMap on the Houston Innovator's Podcast in December.

"Seed rounds have definitely bounced back. We're seeing a lot of seed activity, because there's been a lot of seed funds raised," Garrou said on the podcast, adding that he's observed an increase in angel investment interest. "People are realizing that money is in innovation and tech — especially in software."

In her report, Lalany found that in Houston, angel investments are out-pacing seed, creating a "competitive environment."

"The addition of multi-stage and nontraditional investment firms into the arena has created upward pressure in deal valuations and sizes. The average seed round in 2015 was $1 million, whereas today it's double that," the report reads. "With these firms turning inward to focus on protecting their current investments at the start of the pandemic, the propensity for smaller, more riskier investments have declined."

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network, said she's seen a rise in new membership for the organization. Last August, she was on track to get to 150 members — up from just 60 in 2018.

"Despite COVID, we've continued to grow," Campbell told InnovationMap, adding that she's heard investors express that they have more time now to dive in. "People are very much still interested in learning about deploying their capital into early-stage venture. They're looking for a network of like-minded individuals."

In contrast to this early stage activity, the VC activity that was still occurring was defined by larger deals. With VC essentially halting in March and April — especially in cities like Houston, Garrou adds — it makes sense that investors wanted more "sure things" and would invest more funds into companies they already know, versus being able to source new deals in person.

"When you go to later stages, there are a lot fewer deals going on," Garrou continues on the podcast. "Now, there may be larger investments being made, but I think they are into fewer companies, and I think that's just due to the the pandemic and the ability just to not be able to do face-to-face."

As Houston moves through 2021, the city is poised well for more growth and a continued diversification from just oil and gas, as Moore says in the release.

"Houston Exponential was created four years ago by civic and business leaders to deal with an existential problem: our dependence on the energy and medical sector without a thriving startup culture to lead us towards a future that will look very different from the past," he says. "COVID and the de-carbonization movement have made that need much more urgent — it's both a huge challenge and an enormous opportunity."

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