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Flat jobs numbers have the economy marking time

This week’s jobs data aren’t anything to be worried about but it’s clear the strong economic start to 2014 hasn’t been maintained, Bernard Keane and Glenn Dyer write.

A big rise in unemployment in NSW is behind this morning’s flat jobs figures, which continue to demonstrate that the strong start to the year we saw in the March quarter tapered off.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’s labour force figures for May had unemployment steady on 5.8% seasonally adjusted, but with employment falling by nearly 5,000 jobs, driven by a big fall in part-time jobs. Participation also fell 0.1 of a point back to 64.6% seasonally adjusted, the equal lowest since 2006. However, aggregate hours worked rose 1.7% seasonally adjusted.

The fall in employment was mainly due to a 22,000 fall in employment in NSW; Queensland and Victoria had employment growth, while South Australia lost 4,000 jobs and Western Australia was mainly flat. The rise pushed unemployment in NSW up to 5.7% — the rise was all among men — undoing the big fall in unemployment we saw in NSW in the first quarter.

The numbers are part of a series of mixed results after a strong March quarter lifted growth significantly above 2013 levels. Yesterday’s dwelling commitment figures for April were flat and last week’s April retail sales figures were also sluggish. Beyond the fall in part-time employment, there’s no sign yet that the fall in consumer confidence and retail spending that has hit some retailers (RCG Corp, Noni B, Flight Centre, The Reject Shop) has started damaging the demand for labour.

The extent to which these flatter numbers reflects the hammering that consumer sentiment has taken from the budget won’t be fully clear until we see more data.┬áThe ANZ job ads survey for May showed a sharp 5.6% fall (because of a 6% drop in the number of internet ads). If there is any impact on job creation from the budget-induced fall in consumer confidence (which has remained weak in the June report this week), then it should start showing up in the June labour force data in a month’s time.

For now, all we know is that the flying start to the year hasn’t been maintained into the final quarter of 2013-14.

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