According to data released this morning by the ABS, in January the amount of employed Australians fell by 3,600, seasonally adjusted. This is a reversal of last year’s trend when Australia’s workforce expanded by more than 300,000. However, thanks to a fall in the participation rate, the official unemployment rate fell by 0.1% to another record low of 4.5%.

This result, if correct, signifies a further tightening of the labour market which must concern the RBA. But, as we’ve said before, this number is likely a significant understatement of unutilised labour.

Meanwhile, the big miners are officially swimming in cash and, like all great champions, Rio Tinto’s and BHP’s respective bosses are departing while at the top of their game.

Late last week, Rio Tinto’s retiring CEO, Leigh Clifford, reported a yearly profit of more than $9 billion, up a hefty 43% for 2006. Yesterday, BHP Billiton’s own retiring chief executive Chip Goodyear reported its seventh successive record half-year profit of $8 billion.

These results show that the commodity boom is far from over and, indeed, mining share prices at present do not fully reflect the existing commodity prices.

BHP could think of little more to do with the cash than to buy back its own shares, announcing a massive $13 billion share buyback over the next 18 months. Goodyear was eager to highlight that his departure, along with the hefty return of funds, will not limit BHP’s ability to pursue sizable acquisitions: “With regard to significant M&A, it is by no means on hold,” Goodyear said.

With such a track record, Henry doesn’t doubt Chip’s confidence.

Goodyear’s confidence was such that he also took on what is usually considered to be the industry’s Achilles heel – carbon emissions. Responding to calls from union leader Tony Maher for an increase in spending on ways to decrease emissions, Goodyear said BHP was committed to the cause: “We’ve been investing in the R and D (research and development) aspects of clean coal technology, and we’ve been heavily involved in carbon trading in Europe … which we manage out of the Hague.”

Goodyear also hinted that the company’s new climate change policy, to be released in June, will strongly support an emissions trading scheme: “To have an economic system where we can price carbon and allow parties to put a value on it on an international basis is something that makes a whole lot of sense.”

It is unclear whether Goodyear supported the prospect of Australia going it alone on such a scheme, or whether BHP would support us waiting on the creation of a global scheme, but the hyperbole was promising.

The first issues paper released by the PM’s task group on emissions trading warns of the consequences of inaction (see graph here) but, according to background papers prepared for the PM’s taskforce on emissions trading, we could still be decades away from an effective market-based global trading scheme.

This may mean we are at a standstill with regard to implementing effective emissions-reducing policies – a sorry state given that, according to a Morgan Poll from last year, 71% of Australians say that “if we don’t act now, it will be too late”.

Read more at Henry Thornton.

Peter Fray

Save 50% on a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

The US election is in a little over a month. It seems that there’s a ridiculous twist in the story, almost every day.

Luckily for new Crikey subscribers, we’ve teamed up with one of America’s best publications, The Atlantic for the election race. Subscribe now to make sense of it all, and you’ll get a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year’s digital subscription to The Atlantic (usually $70AUD), BOTH for just $129.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW