Employment stats show continuing robust trend: Westpac's Justin Smirk

Employment stats show continuing robust trend: Westpac's Justin Smirk
Employment stats show continuing robust trend: Westpac's Justin Smirk

EXPERT OBSERVATION 

The expected bounce in employment appeared in the October Labour Force Survey with a 32.8k rise.

The market median was for 20k. However, just as we saw in September, the mix was again positive with a 42.3k rise in full-time and a small 9.5k decline in part-time employment. In addition hours worked rose 0.3% following on from a 0.4% gain in September.

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Employment stats show continuing robust trend: Westpac's Justin Smirk

 

Source: Westpac IQ

Perhaps more important is the continuation of the trend improvement in unemployment.

Sure, in the month unemployment was flat at 5.0%, but this is a good result seeing as the 0.3ppt drop in unemployment to 5.0% in September was due to a large drop in participation rather than a strong employment print.

As such there was always a risk the participation rate would bounce this month. Participation did rebound this month, but the 0.1ppt rise to 65.6% still left it under the 65.7% print in August.

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 Employment stats show continuing robust trend: Westpac's Justin Smirk

Source: Westpac IQ

Last month suggested that you need to take a holistic view of the Labour Force Survey and accept that some of the monthly volatility is associated with the survey groups being rolled into, and out of, the sample. This meant that while the 5.6k print (revised to 7.8k) on employment was too soft compared to underlying momentum, the fall in unemployment to 5.0% was also too aggressive. As such Westpac was forecasting a bump in employment in October and also a rise in unemployment (to 5.1%).

The fact that employment had a robust rise in October, and the unemployment rate was flat due a modest rise in participation, suggests the trend decline in unemployment remains in place. We had been forecasting that unemployment would end the year around 5.1%. Based on the current trend, it is more likely to be around 5.0%, if not below. It is only our expectation for participation to drift back up to 65.60% (currently 65.56%) that is holding unemployment at 5.0% at year end.

In terms of risks for November, the ABS notes that the outgoing sample group has the same employment to population group as the sample average, so by itself, the rolling of that group will not impact employment. However, that same group has a higher unemployment rate compared to the sample average so rolling that group out will lower the sample average. All else held equal, this presents downside risk to our unemployment forecast for November.

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Employment stats show continuing robust trend: Westpac's Justin Smirk

Source: Westpac IQ

For a few months we have noted the robust labour market conditions in Victoria where unemployment had fallen to be almost on par with NSW (the national low for a large state). The last time this happened was when Victorian unemployment was on a rising trend. This matters because Victorian wages have been more responsive to changes in labour market conditions than the other states but especially compared to NSW. This month unemployment fell 0.1ppt to 4.5% in Victoria while it was flat in NSW at 4.4% (a 10 year low for this state). So Victoria continues to narrow the gap to NSW in terms of unemployment suggesting we need to keep a close eye on Victorian wages going forward.

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Employment stats show continuing robust trend: Westpac's Justin Smirk

Source: Westpac IQ

By state, the largest gains in employment were in NSW (+16.3k following +1.1k in September) while Victorian employment fell (–3.5k after a robust +20.7k). It is the ongoing trend decline in Victorian participation that has been a key driver of falling national unemployment hence we are a little nervous about following this trend to generate a sub 5% unemployment rate by end 2019. Victorian female participation has trended below female participation in NSW, a very rare event. In that regard, while we would expect to see female participation rise in Victoria, we have to acknowledge that female participation could ease in NSW from its current record high level.

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Employment stats show continuing robust trend: Westpac's Justin Smirk

Source: Westpac IQ

Employment fell again in Qld (–3.2k following –11.9k in September) and unemployment rose 0.3ppts to 6.3. Meanwhile, the recovery in the other mining state, WA, continues with a 3.1k lift in employment (+3.3k in September) while the unemployment rate fell again by 0.3ppt to 5.7%. This is the first time WA unemployment has been below 6.0% since January 2018.

Overall, we emphasise the need to look through the monthly volatility in the Labour Force Survey and focus on the broader trends in the labour market. The pace of employment growth has eased back from the 4.3%yr peak in 2017 to 2.5%yr in October and the six month annualised pace is also 2.5%. Both seem about right compared to leading indicators if you take into account the employment overshoot through 2017/2018. As such, while we do expect participation to trend higher, the rising trend in female participation may have come to an end (for now) just as male participation has stabilised.

The October survey is a sound update and it increases the risk that the unemployment rate could end this year with a 4 handle.

Justin Smirk is senior economist at Westpac.

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