Whatever way you want to interpret it, the Australian labour market fell off a very steep cliff in the four weeks from around March 12 to April 12. The latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics – Labour Force, Australia, April 2020 – released today (May 14, 2020) is shocking. Like all the data releases at the moment. All the main aggregates moved in extremely adverse directions. Employment fell by 4.6 per cent (594,300). Unemployment rose by 104,500 thousand. But that is a gross understatement of the problem given that the participation rate fell by 2.4 points, which meant the labour force fell by 489.8 thousand. Without the fall in the participation rate in April 2020, the unemployment rate would have been 9.7 per cent rather than its current value of 6.2 per cent). Monthly hours of work fell by 9.2 per cent. And the broad labour underutilisation rate is now at 19.9 per cent, after underemployment rose by 4.9 points to 13.7 per cent. There are now 2,639.4 thousand workers either unemployed or underemployed. That number swells to 3,142.6 (or 23.4 per cent) if we add the rise in hidden unemployment back into the ‘jobless’. Any government that oversees that sort of disaster has failed in their basic responsibilities to society. Its fiscal stimulus is totally inadequate.
Last month’s analysis of the US labour force data – Tip of the iceberg – the US labour market catastrophe now playing out (April 6, 2020) – presaged what was to come. We now know more about the size of the iceberg. It is unimaginably large. Words fail really. This is one of those all-time historical events that make the severe crises of the past (early 1980s, 1990s, GFC – look like blips). On May 8, 2020, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – April 2020 – which shows that the US labour market has collapsed into territory never before recorded. And, given that the data released was drawn from samples that went up to April 12 (establishment survey) and April 18 (household survey), and so doesn’t fully capture the extent of the unfolding catastrophe. More recent data released by the US Department of Labor (unemployment insurance claimant data) shows the situation worsened in the last two weeks of April. In the last two weeks of April 2020, more than 9 million extra workers registered unemployment insurance claims. All the aggregates are demonstrating dramatic shifts to the point that graphs are becoming rather binary – the rest of history and now. The employment-population rate plunged 8.7 points to 51.3 per cent, which is the largest monthly fall since the sample began in January 1948. The U6 measure of broad labour underutilisation increased by 14 points to 22.8 per cent. This is the largest monthly rise in this measure since it was first published in January 1994. The situation will get worse. Its already catastrophic and it demonstrates a massive policy failure from the Federal government. Instead of directing trillions into the top-end-of-town, the US government should have guaranteed all incomes and introduced large-scale job creation programs and a Job Guarantee as an on-going safety net. Instead it is watching over people dying and people’s material prosperity being destroyed.
I reported in this blog post – Policy failure – Australian unemployment rate probably already around 10.9 per cent (April, 2020) – that the The Australian Bureau of Statistics has started publishing weekly employment data on a two-week cycle. The data is drawn from a new series made available as a result of the Single Touch Payroll data provided by the Australian Tax Office and provides researchers like me with much more timely data than the monthly labour force survey. The latest edition came out today (May 5, 2020) – Weekly Payroll Jobs and Wages in Australia, Week ending 18 April 2020 – which covers the new data from April 4, 2020. The results are shocking. The conclusion from my analysis of the latest available data is that some sectors in the Australian labour market have experienced a sudden and catastrophic contraction – like nothing we have ever seen in the data. Both employment losses and major wage losses are underway and the policy response is totally inadequate for the task. A much larger fiscal intervention is required and it has to be directed at workers rather than firms and support direct job creation.
When Kevin Rudd was faced with the threat posed by the unfolding GFC in late 2008 his government became very pragmatic and immediately ditched the narrative they had been pushing out throughout that year about inflation being a threat and the need for tighter fiscal policy and surpluses. They introduced, in two rounds, a fairly significant fiscal stimulus (around 4.2 per cent of GDP) which effectively saved the Australian economy from entering a recession. A significant part of that intervention was that it had various temporal properties – a cash handout in December 2008 designed to get spending power into the hands of consumers just before Xmas (the famous ‘flat screen’ payment – there were a lot of TVs purchased), which obviously was an immediate focus, and, a longer term component, which included their plan to put insulation into every home. This was aimed at job creation clearly, to address the cyclical needs, but, it was also intended to address the longer term climate crisis, that were beyond the GFC cycle. When appraising what government’s should be doing now – to deal with the socio-economic consequences of the medical crisis – that style of thinking is essential. The questions that need to be asked are: 1. What can be done now to avert an economic collapse? 2. What do we want to change about the pre-structure of the economy into the future? 3. How can we use the stimulus intervention to make those changes, while addressing Question 1. In this blog post, I go through some of that style of thinking. I also provide some specific estimates of the investment needed to introduce a Job Guarantee in Australia.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics has started publishing weekly employment data – Weekly Payroll Jobs and Wages in Australia, Week ending 4 April 2020 – which is drawn from a new series made available as a result of the Single Touch Payroll data provided by the Australian Tax Office. For the first time, researchers like me can have up to date information as the economy cycles. Usually we get the labour force data some 5-6 weeks behind time and although a lot doesn’t necessarily happen in a month, this crisis is the exception – the whole box-and-dice is collapsing so quickly that we need weekly data, like is provided in the US through the Department of Employment’s unemployment claimants data to stay in touch with how things are tracking. But for now I estimate that the unemployment rate rose to around 10.9 per cent in the 3 weeks to April 4, 2020 (up from 5.2 per cent for the March data – which was surveyed in the early part of the month). In that time, unemployment has more than doubled and is around 1.5 million and rising. The conclusion from my analysis of the latest available data (released April 21, 2020) – is that some sectors in the Australian labour market have experienced a sudden and catastrophic contraction – like nothing we have ever seen in the data. Both employment losses and major wage cuts are underway and the policy response is totally inadequate for the task. A much larger fiscal intervention is required and it has to be directed at workers rather than firms. I will say more about those issues next week. But I am guessing that the Government’s response so far is less than half of what it should have been – it needs at least another $A200 billion.
It is Wednesday and I offer a few snippets for readers today. I have a number of projects on the go at present and time is short today. Apart from introducing a stunning guitar player (now long dead) that very few people have ever heard of but is one of my favourites (what does that say?), I ask the question: Why does anyone read the New York Times? I also announce the development and publication of our latest Employment Vulnerability Index (EVI) now in its third iteration. You can look at colourful maps as a result of this work! And tomorrow I will be trawling through employment losses around the world. All along the path to releasing my 10-point plan later next week.
The survey week for the – Labour Force, Australia, March 2020 – data, released by the ABS today (April 16, 2020) was before the major policy interventions (lockdown etc). In other words, the data released today is not likely to resemble where the economy was by the end of March or where it is now. Even so, the results are indicative of a slowing economy with weak employment growth failing to outstrip the underlying population growth. As a consequence, unemployment rose by 20,300. Those numbers will be dwarfed in the coming months. The broad labour underutilisation rate (sum of unemployment and underemployment) rose by 0.2 points to 14 per cent. There were a total of 1,924 thousand workers either unemployed or underemployed. This is a deplorable result. My overall assessment is that the Australian labour market remains a considerable distance from full employment and that that distance is increasing. With the coronavirus about to dwarf everything, the prior need for a fiscal stimulus of around 2 per cent has changed to a fiscal stimulus requirement of several times that. There is clear room for some serious fiscal policy expansion at present and the Federal government’s attempts to date have been seriously under-whelming. I estimate the Government will have to inject at least another $A130 billion into the economy (around 40 per cent more than it already has). Not good times ahead.
I am monitoring the US Department of Labor’s weekly data releases for the unemployment insurance claimants account, that I reported in my last commentary on the US labour market – Tip of the iceberg – the US labour market catastrophe now playing out (April 6, 2020). Their latest release (April 9, 2020) – Unemployment Insurance Weekly Claims – shows that in the prior week ending April 4, 2020, the initial claims rose by 6,606,000, but this was down on the increase the week before by 261,000. In the last three weeks, the total initial claims is 16.8 million persons. The impacts are quite stark already. For example, as you will see, in just one month (March), service sector occupations have shed 36.7 per cent of the total jobs that were added in the ‘recovery’ period between January 2010 and February 2020. And given the timing of the surveys (biased towards earlier in the month), the situation was much worse by the end of March. It is quite obvious that this crisis is impacting heavily and disproportionately on the least-advantaged workers and communities in the US. This cohort always suffers during a recession. But this time, the specific occupation biases are exacerbating the problem and inequity, given the nature of the economic shock (closures, shutdowns etc). It means the fiscal support should be heavily weighted to assisting the most impacted both in terms of people, their families and the regions they live in. The maps show that the spatial impact of the downturn to date is also very uneven. As yet, I have not seen a commensurate response from the US government. The fiscal support funds so far announced do very little for the most impacted communities and people. They certainly shore up the top-end-of-town which, while predictable, will come back to haunt the nation in the years to come.
On April 3, 2020, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – March 2020 – which shows a deteriorating labour market situation due to the coronavirus crisis. However, as I explain below, the data released was drawn from samples that went up to March 12 (establishment survey) and March 14 (household survey), and so doesn’t fully capture the extent of the unfolding catastrophe. More recent data released by the US Department of Labor (unemployment insurance claimant data) doesn’t leave anything to doubt. In the last two weeks of March 2020, 9.955 million workers registered unemployment insurance claims (6.6 million in the last week). If we consider that shift, then the US unemployment rate would be around 9.8 per cent by the end of march and rising. All the aggregates are demonstrating dramatic shifts. The employment-population rate fell by 1.1 points to 60 per cent, which is the largest monthly fall since the sample began in January 1948. The U6 measure of broad labour underutilisation increased by 1.7 points to 8.7 per cent. This is the largest monthly rise in this measure since it was first published in January 1994. The situation will get worse.
The buzz-word at the moment in Australian government and policy circles is ‘hibernation’ – the government is hoping, that the economy can behave like a crocodile and find some ‘river bank’ and have a ‘good sleep’ until the pandemic is over, at which time, it will burst forth into a new growth phase and unless the virus mutates into something worse in the meantime then all will be well. Their policy interventions to date – while they have been like dragging a chain as their conservative instincts are being dragged very quickly into the demands and realities of real world macroeconomics, which is different to the nonsense that is taught by mainstream economists in our now depleted universities – have been crafted to ensure nothing important changes in a structural sense in our socio-economic lives. The problem is that the existing system, which they are hoping to put into hibernation for a while, is putrid to the core and needs major changes if we are to achieve a socio-ecological transformation. Remember the failings of neoliberalism? Remember climate change? Remember the poles melting? Remember the engineered cuts to workers who rely on penalty rates at weekends to maintain a sense of material prosperity? Remember the 13.7 per cent labour underutilisation rate? Remember the failed public transport and energy sectors, privatised and lacking in investment? Remember the financial markets that were exposed by the recent Royal Commission as corrupt, inefficient and downright dangerous to the our material and psychological prosperity? We don’t need a hibernation. We need the Government to take advantage of the dislocation that is currently occurring to make some basic changes. Like wiping out the gig economy. Like … read on. At present, the stimulus interventions, which are mostly about saving capitalism from itself. We should be demanding much more.