Whatever way you want to interpret it, the Australian labour market continued to deteriorate in May 2020. The latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics – Labour Force, Australia, May 2020 – released today (June 18, 2020) continues to tell a shocking tale. All the main aggregates moved in an adverse direction. Employment fell by 1.8 per cent (227,700). Unemployment rose by 86,700 thousand. But that is a gross understatement of the problem given that the participation rate fell by 0.7 points, which meant the labour force fell by 142 thousand. Without the fall in the participation rate in May 2020, the unemployment rate would have been 8.1 per cent rather than its current value of 7.1 per cent). But relative to August 2019 (peak participation), the unemployment rate would have been 11.7 per cent. The broad labour underutilisation rate is now at 20.2 per cent. There are now 2,639.1 thousand workers either unemployed or underemployed. That number swells to 3,286.5 (or 25.1 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.
Today (June 16, 2020), the Australian Bureau of Statistics released their latest weekly employment data taken from Australian Tax Office data. They have slowed the release cycle on this data (for reasons they have not disclosed), so it is a month since I have analysed it. The latest edition came out today – Weekly Payroll Jobs and Wages in Australia, Week ending 30 May 2020 – which covers the new data from May 2, 2020 to May 30, 2020. The monthly labour force data to be released on Thursday covers a period that ends around May 12, 2020, so today’s data provides a more recent snapshot of the state of affairs. At the beginning of May, the data was suggesting that the worst of the job losses were over. The severity of the lockdown has eased a little since then, although the pattern of easing has been quite different across the states and territories. So we might have expected some variations to arise from that. And today’s data shows just that. In the Accommodation and food services sector, where some easing has occurred, jobs are returning, albeit at a slow rate. But in the Arts and recreation services sector, where little change in lockdown restrictions has occurred to date, there has been very little employment growth. The question is how many businesses will go to the wall before we get a more usual scale of operation and interaction. My prediction is that many will disappear and so the recovery in employment will be protracted given how many jobs have been lost to date. A much larger fiscal intervention is required and it has to be directed at workers rather than firms and support direct job creation. The problem now is that the Government is starting to reassert its neoliberal ideology and withdrawing the inadequate stimulus far too early. The future is not looking good. We might be virus free but there will be massive unemployment remaining into the distant future.
Last week, the results of a survey of Australian economists was released which showed that the majority supported freezing minimum wages, which normally are adjusted annually in June. The minimum wage case is currently being heard in the wage setting tribunal (Fair Work Commission) and a host of antagonists have assembled arguments to stop millions of the lowest paid workers getting a pay rise. In effect, they are advocating a real wage cut for these workers given inflation is running at around 1.8 per cent per annum at present. The Australian government is also claiming it will not extend the already inadequate fiscal support measures that have left more than a million low-paid, casual workers without any wage support since the lockdown began. And they have started winding back support in key sectors like child care which will impact disproportionately on low-paid women’s employment opportunities. But, some are still claiming that neoliberalism will not recover from this pandemic. That all the myths we have been fed about government fiscal policy capacity have been exposed for what they are and we will come out of this with a new economic paradigm. Not so fast. Not a lot will change yet. The struggle goes on.
On Tuesday (June 9, 2020), Eurostat published the March-quarter national accounts data for the EU and the Eurozone – GDP down by 3.6% and employment down by 0.2% in the euro area – which revealed that the decline in GDP “were the sharpest declines observed since time series started in 1995”. Of course, Europe went into this crisis in poor shape. Eurostat noted that “In the fourth quarter of 2019, GDP had grown by 0.1% in both the euro area and the EU.” So it was barely crawling anyway due to the austerity bias that is built into the monetary system. The larger Member States such as France and Italy (-5.3 per cent) and Spain (-5.2 per cent) are in terrible shape. In the last few weeks, we have been hearing and reading a lot of hype from European politicians about ‘Hamilton moments’ as various euro figures are bandied around about government support for the European economy. Emma Clancy’s article (June 6, 2020) – Behind the Spin on the EU’s Recovery Plan – is sobering if you are drunk on all the Euro elite hype. There isn’t really a recovery plan at all nor any significant shift in attitudes towards creating a functional federation, the only structure that will see Europe break free of this austerity bias. And as I examined the Eurostat data in more detail something very stark was apparent.
For various reasons, I am often in Melbourne and over the last few trips I have avoided public transport (trams) for obvious reasons. In my wanderings to various destinations in the inner city I have noticed that many shops that have been trading since I grew up in that city have now disappeared as a result of the coronavirus lockdowns and the shift away from store-based retail. They were struggling before the virus hit and have now gone. Whole retail shopping strips are in trouble (the famed Chapel Street, Bridge Road, and now Victoria Street, to name just a few retail areas in serious decline). When I arrive at the airport and move into the city I get this overwhelming feeling that all this infrastructure we have built is becoming redundant in a post-Corona world. It also reinforces my view that governments are going to have a major role in transforming these urban spaces to be better suited for the needs of whatever future there is to be. This view was strengthened when I read a recent report from a research group at Cambridge University in the UK – Townscapes: England’s health inequalities (released May 2020) – which found that health inequalities in England are rising as a result of the pattern of urban development over the period of austerity. In some of the “most deprived set of towns” residents are “much worse off than the least deprived on a number of key measures”. I suspect, similar outcomes would be found in Australia and elsewhere, should the research be done. With the virus fast-tracking major shifts in the way we relate to retailing and service delivery, now is the time to implement a new urban plan to green up our urban spaces, ensure there is viable employment bases in all cities, and maintain a close link between the social and economic settlements, a link that has been increasingly broken under neoliberalism.
On June 5, 2020, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – May 2020 – which shows that the US labour market has responded to the relaxation of lockdown controls in a modest way. I cannot believe that in Donald Trump’s words the US is “largely through” the Pandemic and it remains to be seen whether lockdown rules will have to be reintroduced when the infections rise again. But, for the time being, the payroll numbers improved as you would expect when shops reopened and people went back to work. But I stress this was a modest improvement. The numbers filing for unemployment insurance continue to rise and now top 43.2 million since March 7, 2020. A further 1.9 million filed in the week ending May 30, 2020. There were also some discrepancies noted by the BLS in the survey responses this month which adds to the uncertainty. Overall, the US labour market is in crisis and it remains to be seen how many jobs have disappeared and how many will emerge once the lockdowns are ended. Some 2.6 points of ‘unemployment’ lie outside the labour force (workers giving up looking), and as employment growth increases, those workers will come back into the recorded labour force and be classified as unemployed rather than not in the labour force. So how deep this catastrophe is remains a but uncertain. But I do not see appropriate policy responses in place. 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.
Governments save economies. Never let a mainstream economist tell you that government intervention is undesirable and that the ‘market’ will sort things out. Never let them tell you that large-scale government bond purchases by central banks lead to inflation. Never let them tell you that the government, when properly run, can run out of money. There is unlimited amounts of public purchasing capacity. The art is when to apply it and how much to release. That can only be determined by the behaviour of the non-government spending and saving and the state of idle capacity. It can never be determined by some arbitrary public debt threshold or deficit size. And the central bank can always buy however much debt they choose. At present the ECB is buying heaps and keeping the Member States solvent. That is not its state role but given there is no other institution in the Eurozone that can serve the fiscal function effectively and ‘safely’, it has to do that. Otherwise, the monetary union would quickly dissolve. I would take their bond buying programs further and write off all the debt they purchase. Immediately. Go on. Just type some zeros where they have recorded large positive Member State debt holdings. That would be something good to do in a terrible situation.
Australia has endured a sequence of unplanned disasters over the last 12 months. The lingering effects of a long drought. Massive bushfires. Floods. And, then, if that wasn’t enough, along comes the worst of them all – the coronavirus. The latest release by the Australian Bureau of Statistics of the – March-quarter 2020 National Accounts data (June 3, 2020) – is now recording the early impacts on our national economy from the Pandemic. It will be worse when the June-quarter figures are released in September. Today’s data confirms what we have been tracing for several quarters – the Australian economy has now crossed the line into negative growth with sustained negative contributions from all private sources of expenditure. Household Consumption expenditure fell sharply as households increased their saving ratio. The overall contraction is less than has been recorded to date in other nations. But we should wait until the June-quarter before we get too optimistic. The obvious conclusion is that the Federal government has not supported an ailing economy enough to avoid the damage that negative growth brings. An urgent and major shift in fiscal policy towards further expansion is definitely required.
In the wake of the $A60 billion bungle, the Australian government has turned its attention to creating smokescreens. Yesterday (May 25, 2020), the Treasurer released a statement - Temporary changes to continuous disclosure provisions for companies and officers - which…
On Friday, we had the extraordinary admission from our Federal government that they had overestimated the injection required to fund their wage subsidy JobKeeper program by some $A60 billion. When the overall program was announced the Treasury allocated $A133 billion to it. So now they are admitting to a 45 per cent forecasting error, which sort of dwarfs the worst errors that the IMF makes, and they sure make some bad mistakes in their projections. Whatever the reason for the mistake, the way the Treasurer has defended it is quite repugnant – claiming virtue out of the incompetence. And while all the Labor Party economists are talking about seeing the error from space, none of them picked it up or had the nous to realise that the figures didn’t add up when the Government originally released them. I am the only economist who wrote that the figures published by the Government didn’t make sense. I did that on April 29, 2020. I also wrote to the Treasury and the Treasurer requesting answers to questions that reflected my concern. They didn’t bother replying. Now everyone is wise after the fact. Anyway, the $A60 billion is a nice round figure. And I outline a plan in this blog post on exactly how the Treasurer can spend it and improve the well-being of more than a million Australians with a stroke of the pen.