Thursday, February 2, 2012

Talk to Fairfax employment group, Sydney, 6.2.12

I want to say a few words about the outlook for the economy in general and employment in particular, but before I do I have to issue a standard consumer warning: economists have a very bad record in forecasting what will happen in the economy, so you’d be wise not to take a blind bit of notice of anything I say.

But let me give you my prediction: the economy’s performance this year is likely to be just a fraction below average, but it will feel a lot worse than average - particularly when it comes to employment. Why? Because the media will be making it sound worse than it is.

Let’s start by talking briefly about the overseas situation. We’ve heard a lot about the troubles of the euro area - and those troubles are very real - but the forecast I’m about to give and all the forecasts we’ve been hearing lately are based on the assumption the Europeans muddle thru: they go through a period of significant weakness, where they’re a drag on the rest of the world economy, but they don’t implode and become a major restraint on world growth. In recent days the situation in Europe has been looking a bit better - a bit less like it’s about to implode - which is nice, and may it continue. Even so, the risk of things in Europe turning really bad is still uncomfortably high.

Around the middle of last year there was a lot of concern about the weakness of the US economy, but it’s been looking a bit better in recent times - not brilliant, but growing fast enough to slowly reduce unemployment. So that’s good.

In such a world - but, of course, with China and the rest of developing Asia still growing quite strongly - the outlook for us, which the Reserve Bank is likely to announce later this week, is for the economy - real gross domestic product - to grow by 3.25 per cent this year. This is the economy’s long-run rate of growth. Where will the growth come from? Particularly from the huge surge in business investment spending on the construction of new mines and, especially, natural gas facilities. But also - and contrary to anything you might have heard - from reasonably strong consumer spending. It used to be true that households were increasing their rate of saving, but it hasn’t been true for some time. The rate of household saving has been steady at 10 pc of disposable income for about a year, meaning consumer spending must being growing at the same rate as disposable income is growing. If you find that surprising, it may be because you’re confusing consumer spending with retail sales. Retail sales have been very weak, but they account for only about a third of consumer spending.

The labour force grows by a percent or so every year thanks to natural increase and immigration, so employment has to grow by that much just to hold unemployment steady. Normally growth at the average rate of 3.25 per cent a year would be sufficient to hold unemployment steady, but employment grew unusually strongly in 2010, and since then a lot of employers seem to have been holding off hiring more workers, allowing their existing workers to work more hours, but waiting to see what happens to the economy. If they keep thinking this way it seems likely the unemployment rate will slowly creep up, from its present 5.2 pc to about 5.5 pc in June and maybe 6 pc by December. That wouldn’t be good, but remember that an unemployment rate of between 5 and 6 pc is still a lot better than we experienced for most of the past 20 years. And 5 pc is getting towards the lowest point the Reserve Bank will allow unemployment to fall to because of its concern to keep inflation under control. As the unemployment rate falls close to 5 pc or lower, the Reserve starts to raise interest rates; if it starts rising towards 6 pc the Reserve starts cutting interest rates. It did that twice towards the end of last year, and if it doesn’t cut them again tomorrow, most economists are confident we’ll get more cuts this year.

Just because unemployment is likely to rise a bit doesn’t mean no new jobs will be created. For a start, and as we’ve just seen, total employment can still grow modestly even though unemployment is drifting up. Only if unemployment is shooting up is it likely that total employment is unchanged or falling. But, in any case, there’s a further point to understand - one that’s very important to the job you guys are doing. The figures the media quote each month for employment and unemployment are figures for the net change between this month and last month. If total employment around Australia is up by, say, 35,000, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that only 35,000 positions were filled during the month; every existing worker stayed in their job, and they were joined by 35,000 more workers, presumably coming from being unemployed. Fortunately, it’s not like that. The truth is that, on average, every month about 370,000 people leave their employers and about the same number take up jobs with a new employer. So when the figures tell you employment rose by 35,000 last month, what this actually means is that the number of people taking up new jobs exceeded the number leaving jobs by 35,000. In other words, there’s huge turnover in the job market every month - even in the depths of a recession - even if the net change in total employment isn’t very big - in either direction. If you think that figure of 370,000 is so huge it’s hard to believe, you’re forgetting how big the workforce is. It’s almost 11.5 million, meaning about 3 per cent of workers leave their jobs every month - to get a better one, to have a baby, to retire, to go on an extended overseas trip, or whatever. My point is, don’t think just because employment is likely to be growing only slowly and unemployment to be creeping up, there won’t be many potential customers for you. There should be.

Finally, I said the economy wouldn’t be too bad this year, but the media will be making it sound worse than it is. Why do I say that? Because the media, knowing we regard bad news as a lot more interesting than good news, will be doing what it always does: emphasising the bad news about the economy and not saying much about things that are going OK. But I suspect there’ll be a special reason this year. The very high dollar is making life particularly tough for manufacturers, the tourist industry and overseas-student education. Some employers have been laying off workers, and it’s a safe there’ll be more. It’s an equally safe bet those lay-offs will be highly publicised by the media. This is likely to create the impression in people’s minds that the jobs market is a lot weaker than it actually is - for three reasons. First, people don’t realise how big our economy is, so they’re more impressed by relatively small numbers than they should be. Last week Toyota announced its intention to reduce its numbers by 350. That seems a lot, but beside the third of a million workers who leave their jobs every month it’s a fleabite. Second, you wouldn’t know it from the way the media talk, but the high dollar isn’t destroying Australian jobs so much as reducing them in some industries and increasing them in others. People may be losing jobs in manufacturing, but employment will be rising in other industries. Such as? Mining and construction, as the obvious ones, but also many parts of the services sector: health care, finance and insurance, public administration, various professions and arts and recreation. Finally, people tend to lose their jobs in bulk, whereas employment tends to increase in dribs and drabs. We get to hear about the big layoffs, but not the individuals being taken on.

All up, it should be too bad this year.