Anyone who's sure they know what's happening in the economy is either a liar or a fool. Last week the Bureau of Statistics' national accounts told us things weren't too flash in the economy up to the end of March. This week its employment figures told us things were looking quite a bit brighter in the labour market up to the end of May.
The jobs figures are good news – which is why the media didn't shout about them - but also puzzling news. The two key economic indicators – for the increase in production of goods and services, and for the increase in employment – don't fit together.
I wrote last week that real gross domestic product grew by only 2.3 per cent over the year to March, whereas it needs to grow by about 3 per cent just to stop unemployment rising.
That general rule remains true, but it's contradicted by this week's jobs figures. Let's step back and look at the movement in the figures over the year to May, and let's get a clearer picture by using the "trend" (or smoothed seasonally adjusted) estimates.
They show that total employment grew over the 12 months by more than 200,000 people, with a bit more than half those jobs being full-time. That's an annual increase of 1.75 per cent.
Over the same period, the size of the labour force – that is, the number of people either in work or actively seeking it - grew by 1.8 per cent.
So employment grew at essentially the same rate that the labour force did, meaning the unemployment rate in May last year was 6 per cent and in May this year is also 6 per cent – something the production figures imply shouldn't have happened.
Which is good, if puzzling, news. The best – and even more puzzling – news is that between last May and this May the unemployment rate rose to 6.2 per cent by last August and stayed there for the seven months to February, before falling back to 6 per cent in May.
Get it? These numbers make it look very much as though unemployment has peaked and is now falling back a fraction – which I'd have to say may be too good to be true. It's certainly no guarantee that unemployment won't resume its upward climb if, as seems likely, production continues to grow at a below-average rate.
Remember that the demand for labour is "derived demand" – it's derived from the growth in the demand for goods and services. As businesses increase their production of goods and services in response to the public's greater demand for them, those businesses need to hire more workers to help increase their production.
This is one of the biggest reasons economists (and journalists like me) obsess so much about the quarterly figures for the growth in real GDP. They're the best indication we've got of what's likely to happen to unemployment in coming months (and I, for one, care a lot more about unemployment than about economic growth, as such).
When the two indicators are telling us different stories – which isn't all that uncommon – economists have to don their overalls and climb inside the numbers to see what's going on, who's right and who's wrong. I'll keep you posted.
Meanwhile, someone asked me this week why there was so much focus on GDP when it was such a poor indicator of our wellbeing. I've just given you the answer: if you care about unemployment you have to care about GDP.
But economic growth and our overall wellbeing are quite different things, and every economist will tell you that whereas GDP is (usually) a reasonably accurate measure to use in managing the economy, it's not, and was never designed to be, a good measure of our wellbeing.
This is why, some years ago, Fairfax Media commissioned Dr Nicholas Gruen, chief of Lateral Economics, to construct a better measure of wellbeing, the Fairfax-Lateral Economics wellbeing index.
The index is calculated quarterly, with its results published on the Saturday following the release of the quarterly national accounts. (Sorry, at present the background to the index is between websites.)
The beauty of our wellbeing index is that it's built on GDP, modifying it to turn it into a broader measure of Australians' wellbeing, while leaving it directly comparable to GDP. Last week's figures showed that while real GDP grew by 0.9 per cent in the March quarter, our measure of wellbeing fell by 0.4 per cent.
As I wrote last weekend, GDP is only one of the bottom lines that can be derived from the Bureau of Statistics' national accounts. Many economists agree that the broadest and most appropriate bottom line available for Australian households is "real net national disposable income" (nicknamed "rinndy").
The national accounts showed that whereas real GDP grew by 0.9 per cent, rinndy grew by only 0.2 per cent, mainly because falling export prices have reduced the international purchasing power of our incomes.
The wellbeing index takes rinndy and adjusts it for various important influences over our wellbeing not taken account of in the national accounts: the change in human capital (the value of our "know how"), the depletion of natural capital (the using up of non-renewable resources, less resources added through exploration), the change in the inequality of income, the change in our health, and the change in work satisfaction (the costs of unemployment, under-employment and overwork).
But the change that did most to turn a rise in rinndy of 0.2 per cent into a fall in wellbeing of 0.4 per cent was a sharp rise in long-term unemployment and the consequent increased cost of "skills atrophy" – the longer you're unemployed, the more your skills are lost, to yourself and to the rest of us.
If you care about wellbeing, you have to care about employment.