Saturday, July 11, 2015
The employment figures we got from the Bureau of Statistics this week confirm – and so make a lot more believable – the amazing figures we got a month ago saying the official rate of unemployment had stabilised at 6 per cent.
Barring some unexpected disaster, it's now looking less likely the Reserve Bank's forecast that unemployment will rise to 6.5 per cent by June next year will be realised.
Let's cut through the month-to-month volatility that so many in the markets and media love by sticking to the smoothed seasonally adjusted estimates known as the "trend" figures.
They show that total employment grew by 215,000 over the year to June, an increase of 1.9 per cent. More than half these extra jobs were full-time.
Since the labour force – all those people either in a job or actively seeking one – grew at about the same rate as employment, this was sufficient to get the rate of unemployment back down to where it was in June last year – 6 per cent.
And this happened despite the rate of participation in the labour force – the proportion of the population aged 15 or over who were either employed or unemployed – rising from 64.7 per cent to 64.8 per cent during the year. Not bad considering the retirement of the baby-boomer bulge is working to lower the participation rate.
As I say, this is the same story the figures were telling us a month ago. So where have the extra jobs come from? Well, Kieran Davies, of Barclays bank, has used somewhat different figures – they say we had employment growth of 240,000 over the year to May – to tell us.
He follows the Reserve Bank's practice of splitting the economy into five broad sectors: household services (including accommodation and food services, education, health, recreation and other services), business services (information technology, media and communication, finance, real estate services, professional services and administrative services), goods (farming, mining, manufacturing, utilities and construction), distribution (retail and wholesale trade and transport and storage), and public administration.
Davies found very strong jobs growth in household services of, in round figures, 180,000, with strength in healthcare (90,000), accommodation and food services (50,000), and recreation and arts (40,000).
He makes the point that household services account for a third of total employment, and have driven total jobs growth since the global financial crisis.
Business services, which account for almost a fifth of total employment, have been the next most important sector, with growth of about 80,000. This was driven by professional services, up 90,000, offset by falls in employment in other categories, such as real estate services (20,000) and finance (10,000), but small gains in other categories.
Modest contributions to total jobs growth came from goods distribution (20,000) and public administration (10,000).
Against this, however, there were job losses in mining (30,000), farming (30,000), manufacturing (5000) and utilities (5000), which more than offset jobs gains of 20,000 in construction.
As you see, as well as this quite strong growth in employment overall, there's been a change in the composition of employment, with relatively small contractions in various goods industries more than offset by big increases in service industries.
If this news of strong overall employment growth comes as a shock to you, that's hardly surprising. The economy's been growing at below its "trend" (medium-term potential) growth rate of 3 per cent for a number of years.
And it's often repeated that the economy has to grow at its trend or potential rate of 3 per cent a year just to stop unemployment rising. (This 3 per cent rate of growth in the economy's potential capacity to produce goods and services comes from labour force growth of 1.7 or 1.8 per cent a year, plus growth in the productivity of labour of 1.3 or 1.2 per cent a year).
So, with real gross domestic product growing by just 2.3 per cent over the year to March (and needing to achieve an unlikely 0.8 per cent growth in the June quarter to achieved the Abbott government's budget-time forecast of average growth of 2.5 per cent in 2014-15), how on earth is it possible for employment to be growing fast enough to hold unemployment steady?
Well, one possibility is that the economy's actually growing a lot faster than the national accounts say it is, but this doesn't seem likely.
A more likely explanation is that the economy's potential rate of growth is no longer as high as 3 per cent a year. It's more likely to have fallen to 2.75 per cent – or even 2.5 per cent, as some are suggesting.
Why? Because slower growth in the population than we've had in recent years – slower than the econocrats were expecting – is causing slower growth in the labour force.
Population growth is slower because fewer Kiwis are coming to Oz and more are going back home where, for the moment anyway, the economy's prospects are brighter. As well, the end of the mining construction boom means fewer workers and their families are coming in under temporary 457 visas.
If the economy's potential growth rate is lower, that means we can stabilise unemployment at a lower rate of actual growth. In our present circumstances, employment growth is probably being encouraged by the lower dollar and the exceptionally slow growth in wage rates.
Note that when the economy grows more slowly because the population is growing more slowly, we're not left worse off in terms of growth in income per person. But lower immigration does make it easier to get on top of unemployment – something economists prefer not to mention.