Despite the softer employment trends, the unemployment rate edged lower in May, to 5.4 per cent, to match the low of late 2017. This continues the trend which has seen the unemployment rate at 5.4 to 5.6 per cent for every month since May 2017. Importantly, the underemployment rate rose to a near record high 8.5 per cent of the workforce. Underemployment measures people who have a job but would like to work more hours. If it rises or is elevated as it is now, it reflects a weak economy where employers are reluctant or unable to offer their staff more hours even though those staff are keen to work more.
Adding the unemployment and underemployment rates together gives a good guide to underutilisation in the labour market and the fact this is around 14 per cent of the workforce is a worry given the headwinds confronting the economy. It is higher than at the peak during the global crisis.
In these circumstances, it is extraordinarily difficult for wages growth to pick up, as both the Reserve Bank and Treasury are hoping and forecasting. There are just too many people looking for work or hoping to work more hours for workers to go to their boss and ask for a decent pay rise. In these circumstances, it is impossible to imagine the RBA hiking official interest rates. Indeed, as this column has been arguing for some time now, it wont take much weakness in the labour market in concert with ongoing low wages growth and inflation, for the RBA to move to cut rates.
This is where the next round of wage and inflation data will be so important. If, as is likely, they remain low and there is further evidence of falls in house prices, the RBA would move to trim interest rates despite its current rhetoric which is that the next move in interest rate “is likely to be up not down” but only “if” (and it’s a big if) the economy improves.
The next few months will be fascinating for economy watchers and the markets.