Today the ABS released the Labour Force data for December 2009 and it confirms that the Australian economy is still recovering under the steam of the fiscal stimulus. Total employment has grown by three times more than expected and participation is constant. Which means that unemployment has started to fall although underemployment hasn’t budged. While the media commentators today (including myself) have been fairly upbeat I have been reminding the public in media interviews that I have done that broader labour underutilisation (sum of unemployment and underemployment) remains at 13.5 per cent. But optimistically the trend is now looking as though the aggregate unemployment rate may have peaked. So it is now to start looking beyond the peak.
I have been doing some work again on the costs of unemployment and this blog gives a snapshot of part of that research. One of the strong empirical results that emerge from the Great Depression is that the job relief programs that the various governments implemented to try to attenuate the massive rise in unemployment were very beneficial. At that time, it was realised that having workers locked out of the production process because there were not enough private jobs being generated was not only irrational in terms of lost income but also caused society additional problems, such as rising crime rates. Direct job creation was a very effective way of attenuating these costs while the private sector regained its optimism. In fact, it took about 50 years or so for governments to abandon this way of thinking. Now we tolerate high levels of unemployment without a clear understanding of the magnitude of costs that that policy position imposes on specific individuals and society in general. The single most rational thing a government could do was to ensure that there were enough jobs to match the available labour force. Mostly, they fail badly to achieve this level of sophistication.
Today and tomorrow I am hosting a workshop – ARCRNSISS Methods, Tools and Technologies workshop in Newcastle for the Spatially integrated social science research network that I am part of. This is a technical workshop on regional modelling which I host annually. So back to back with the CofFEE Conference last week means we have been very busy. I will write a blog about the work we do in the regional science area another day (it is very technical). But today the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) published the November Labour Force Survey data and it shows that full-time employment is growing and the unemployment rate has fallen (by 0.1 per cent to 5.7 per cent). While underemployment is constant, the data suggests that the negative impact on the labour market may have peaked. But as I caution in this blog, regional disparities are huge and it is not the time to start talking about fiscal contraction.
In the last few days I have seen more calls from commentators for policy makers to take new initiatives to generate jobs and growth. Some of these calls have come from commentators and research centres that sit on the “progressive” side of the macroeconomic debate. Unfortunately, their proposals are always compromised by their demonstrated lack of understanding of how the monetary system operates. In my view these proposals actually undermine the need to advance an understanding that sovereign governments can create true full employment and should do so as a matter of urgency. By playing ball with the conservatives and choosing to focus on deficit outcomes these progressives divert the policy focus away from the real issues. In short, the federal budget deficit outcome should never be the focus of policy.
Today the latest Labour Force data came out from the ABS and it surprised everyone who watches these releases. Employment is up (full-time stronger than part-time); working hours are up; participation is up, unemployment is down and the demand-side outstripped the supply-side, so the unemployment rate falls by 0.1 percentage points. Everything about that is good. Several commentators are now saying that the RBAs decision on Wednesday to put the short-term interest rate up is now vindicated. I don’t think so. Things remain grim and that last thing we need now is any contractionary policy impulse.
The Labour Force data yesterday certainly raised some questions from journalists – both written and radio media. Some journalists are definitely starting to question the idea that everything is going okay and recovery is progressing. I did several media interviews yesterday and most were interested in the idea that focusing on the unemployment rate – which was unchanged – is an sure way to making a deluded assessment of how grim things are at present.
The glow from last week’s National Accounts figures is now gone with the yesterday’s Retail Sales data and today’s Labour Force data showing that the Australian economy is far from being healthy and might better be termed hanging on by the skin of its teeth with strong fiscal support. The data also confirms why I am now calling this the underemployment recession. I could use this blog to show further flaws in the Austrian School’s approach to the labour market but I will leave that theme until another time.
Today I have been looking at long-term unemployment as part of a larger project. It is on the rise again and always lags behind the overall unemployment movements given it takes time for people to work their way through the duration categories until they get to 52 weeks. The longer the recession the higher average duration of unemployment becomes and the larger the pool of long-term unemployed. However, the way we feel about long-term unemployment is conditioned heavily by how it is defined. Moreover, we also have built up an elaborate set of myths about the way long-term unemployment behaves and consider it needs to be dealt with via training rather than job creation – the so-called irreversibility hypothesis. This blog looks at these issues.
Today I have analysing the ABS Gross Flows data which reveals the underlying dynamics in the labour market that combine to give us the unemployment rate and other labour market aggregates. The current downturn is revealing itself to be quite different (so far) to the 1991 recession. While the chances of an unemployed person finding a job have fallen in a similar way to 1991, the chances of an employed person losing their job has not deteriorated markedly in the current recession, in contradistinction to what happened in 1991. The difference is in the hours data that we analysed yesterday. In 1991, the labour market contracted largely via unemployment whereas this time around it is contracting via underemployment. The flows data also reveals fundamental differences between Australian and the US in the sense that the American labour market is contracting more traditionally at present compared to our “underemployment” recession.
Today’s Australian Bureau of Statistics Labour Force data confirms the trends that have been evident in the broader data series in recent months that the economy has slowed dramatically but hasn’t yet crashed. While unemployment is rising the main worry is the rapidly increasing underemployment. It is also been a common theme in recent months that firms are hoarding labour. While the new data series that the ABS has published today (hours worked) suggests that this is occuring, most of the hours adjustment in the labour market is arising from the loss of full-time employment in manufacturing and elsewhere. In other words, it is a sectoral story rather than a within-firm story. So while the unemployment rate is stable, there is nothing to cheer about in this data.