Surviving Sequestration: The 2nd Half of FY 2013 Could See $300 Billion in Federal Contract Dollars

Published: April 05, 2013

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Increasingly, we hear from companies in the federal marketplace that they struggle to plan and forecast their business prospects. There have been so many delays, false starts, and misaligned priorities that it is sometimes hard to know what opportunities are real and how to position your firm to compete. Now, the impacts of sequestration are beginning to ripple through an already skittish market, adding to the uncertainty. Yet, there are some things to consider that might indicate the contracting potential for the rest of fiscal 2013 and beyond.
Whenever things get unbearably uncertain it is important to have access to good data and information, plus a little creative thinking. It is the only way I know how to keep from making reactionary decisions and to get into proactive mode. So when it comes to thinking about the business prospects for the remainder of fiscal year (FY) 2013 it helps to build some historical context.
To get a sense of the historical pace and relative magnitude of federal spending for the remaining two fiscal quarters of 2013 I looked at the reported quarterly contract obligations across the federal government for the last five years. As I have noted in the past, we have seen a shift in federal spending to later and later in the fiscal year. Spending in Q1 and Q2 (in varying degrees) has shifted to Q3 and Q4. Even with some yearly fluctuation, the trend has been fairly stable. (See chart below.)
These shifts have occurred during a period where we have seen increasing use of continuing resolutions (CR), omnibus appropriations and other delays to funding federal agencies. FY 2013 is not particularly unique in this respect, so it does not seem unreasonable to conclude that the trend will hold this year as well. 
Projected Spending for the Rest of FY 2013 – a Possible Scenario
Now that we have received data for the first two quarters of FY 2013 it becomes possible to perform some rough projections of what might be still on the table for Q3 and Q4. I used FY 2012 data as a basis to make these projections. For FY 2012, adding together Q1 and Q2 departmental obligations and then dividing that sum by the department’s total obligations gave me the relative percentage of total obligations that occurred in Q1 and Q2. (See the table below for the top 20 federal departments and agencies.)
Assuming that agency contracted spending in FY 2013 will be at least 90% of what it was in FY 2012 (sequestration may represent about a 7% cut, so this 10% difference seemed reasonable to me) I followed a similar approach to calculate estimates for Q1 and Q2 percentages and potential remaining obligations for the remainder of FY 2013. 
For example, in the table below the Army had combined FY 2012 Q1 and Q2 obligations of $41.6 billion, which was 38% of their total FY 2012 obligations. The Army had a total of $17.8 billion in contract obligations for Q1 and Q2 of FY 2013, which represents 18% of the projected potential total FY 2013 spend, using my 90% of FY’12 assumption. Applying the percentage left over (i.e. 82%) to my total FY 2013 estimate results in a potential remaining obligation balance for Q3 and Q4 of $79.6 billion for the Army.
Granted, performing estimates at this macro level has its limitations and it requires certain broad assumptions for consistency, like a comparable year-over-year obligation rate and that, to some degree, these expenditures are for recurring needs. Some departments have a measure of cyclicality that is underrepresented in a chart covering just a few years. For example, Energy tends to run cyclically between 40% and 68% for Q1 and Q2 every other year or so like a pendulum. Further analysis into the specific contracts is needed to understand why.
Comparing the 2012 and 2013 percentages reveals that nearly all of the top 20 departments are behind in obligating funds, even with an assumed 10% reduction in spending from FY 2012. While the one-two punch of delayed budgets and sequestration might explain much of this it still remains that these agencies will need to obligate their remaining budgets by the end of the fiscal year. Even (or especially) in this uncertain budgetary environment, agencies will not likely leave money unspent. It is still a “use it or lose it” world out there. So there may likely be some significant pent-up demand that we could see play out in the remaining two quarters.

If this simple analysis holds even close to reality the potential remaining total contract obligations across all federal departments and agencies could be over $300 billion in Q3 and Q4, or 70% of total FY 2013 contract obligations. The second half of fiscal 2013 could potentially see federal contract dollars really flow.