Strong jobs growth yet to spur wages and spending: Elliot Clarke

Strong jobs growth yet to spur wages and spending: Elliot Clarke
Strong jobs growth yet to spur wages and spending: Elliot Clarke

EXPERT OBSERVATION

Labour market data provided two contrasting perspectives on Australia’s economy. Meanwhile, consumer sentiment strengthened, and business conditions remained above average.

Following last month’s 5.0% unemployment rate, a level historically regarded as consistent with full employment, the Australian labour force survey for October was keenly awaited. It certainly did not disappoint, with the unemployment rate remaining at 5.0% despite a partial reversal of the 0.2ppt decline in participation seen in September. On a multi-month basis, it is employment not participation that is driving the unemployment downtrend. At October, annual employment growth stood at 2.5%yr, nearly a percentage point above population growth. Furthermore, those gains have largely been full-time in nature.

The above trend is favourable for household income growth, increasing aggregate hours worked across the economy and reducing slack. However, this tightening of the labour market is yet to stoke wages growth. In the September quarter, the wage price index rose just 0.6% (2.3%yr) and was weaker still for the private sector at 0.5% (2.1%yr). Arguably this disconnect between wages and employment growth is in part due to considerable underemployment (those working less hours than they would like to). That said, the current level of underutilisation is historically consistent with wages growth around 2.5%yr, not the 2.1%yr currently being seen in the private sector. Herein is evidence of other factors being at play, principally globalisation; technology; and a focus on efficiency amongst large corporates.

In terms of the outlook for wages, it is troublesome that the states of NSW and Vic, who have seen a more aggressive downtrend in unemployment and underemployment, are also yet to see a substantial lift in wages growth, respectively 2.2%yr and 2.5%yr at September.

The enduring disconnect between wages and employment arguably is a key reason why family finance perceptions continue to lag households’ economic and labour market expectations; and now, even as family finance views are shifting to above long-run average levels, why ‘time to buy a major household item’ is at 18 month lows and spending intentions for Christmas are the weakest they have been since 2014. House price expectations, which are now on par with their lowest ever level back to mid-2009, are decidedly unfavorable for spending, as is the pressing cash-flow reality of high household debt. Weakness in consumer spending was also evident in the NAB business survey for October, particularly in NSW. That said, while confidence is now below average in aggregate, conditions for businesses remain above average overall on the back of robust trading conditions and profitability.

Moving offshore, data released this week for China points to the investment trend having troughed. That said, the acceleration in activity will be slow in coming amid headwinds from ongoing structural change in the finance sector and, to a lesser extent, uncertainty associated with trade policy. On that front, murmurs of the US’ being willing to compromise with China on trade bolstered markets overnight. President Trump will meet President Xi at the end of the month. The hope is that this conversation can turn the tide and stop any further intensification of tensions. This would only be a starting point for negotiations however. Many hurdles must be overcome for a lasting solution to be attained.

For the US, data has been light but broadly supportive of the ongoing robust, non-inflationary uptrend in activity continuing, with the CPI benign in October (annual core inflation at 2.1%yr) as retail sales beat expectations (0.8%). Admittedly retail sales were bolstered by Hurricane season replacement spending in October and higher oil prices in the month, but underlying momentum remained robust. Chair Powell again showed confidence in the US economy and the outlook this week despite weakening residential investment and uncertainty over the lasting benefit of fiscal policy to growth. Recent market volatility is not a material concern, nor are global risks and trade tensions. But all are being watched closely. The move to hold a press conference after every FOMC meeting and to review “strategies, tools and communication practices” highlight a desire by Chair Powell and the Committee to be more nimble as this cycle matures. 

For Europe (and the UK), Brexit has again been the focus. A brief respite from Brexit uncertainty was seen mid-week as the UK Cabinet rubber stamped a transition deal agreed by UK and European negotiators. But multiple ministerial resignations the day after consequently put Prime Minister May’s position and the deal in jeopardy. It is not at all clear if the current deal will remain let alone what a replacement deal might look like. Of course the final deal, whatever its terms, then has to be passed by both the UK and EU parliaments. On the Italian budget, the Government has remained steadfast in not adjusting the proposal in response to disagreement from the European Commission. Whether the European Commission goes through with imposing infringement penalties will be of key interest in the weeks ahead.  

Elliot Clarke is senior economist at Westpac and can be contacted here.

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Employment Elliot Clarke

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