Solid momentum behind Australian employment: Westpac's Justin Smirk

Solid momentum behind Australian employment: Westpac's Justin Smirk
Solid momentum behind Australian employment: Westpac's Justin Smirk

GUEST OBSERVATION

Total employment lifted a very solid 39.1k in January well clear of the market median of 15k and a market forecast high of 27k. The year has started with a solid trend pace of employment growth with a three month average gain of 31.9k. In the year to December total employment grew 268.5k, or 2.2%yr, with a solid momentum into year end with a six month annualised pace of 2.2%yr. While it is just one month into the year, employment grew 271k in the year to January (2.2%yr) with a very solid 2.9%yr six month annualised pace.

There is, however, an important caveat for the January Labour Force Survey – January is the peak holiday month in Australia as Christmas, New Year and school summer vacation all come together. As such it is the month where little happens in Australia and economic activity stalls. In original terms total employment fell –234.5k in January (an average of –263.9k in the previous three years) so we are always cautious about reading too much into a January print.

The mix of employment gains also painted a very solid picture with a +65.4k gain in full-time employment only partially offset by a –26.3k loss in part-time employment. In the month total hours worked rose 0.4% (total employment rose 0.3%) as hours worked per person gained 0.1%. In the year to January total hours worked has lifted 3.2%yr which is a robust pace compared to the 2.2%yr pace for employment.

Despite the strong gain in employment, the unemployment rate was flat at 5.0% (market median was for 5.0%) as a 0.1ppt lift in the participation rate to 65.7% (65.72% at two decimal places) boosted the gain in the labour force to 45.7k.

 Solid momentum behind Australian employment: Westpac's Justin Smirk

Source: Westpac

As 2019 starts, NSW picks up the mantle as the state with the strongest labour market. In the month, employment lifted 47.2k (161.6k in the year), unemployment fell to 3.9% (a new record low) and confirming this is a strong print (rather than a soft unemployment rate due to declining participation) NSW employment to population ratio has also hit a new record high of 62.6%.

 Solid momentum behind Australian employment: Westpac's Justin Smirk

Source: Westpac

In January Victoria continued to make gains (2.2k/114.2k in the year) but it was a different story in the other states. Queensland employment pulled back (–19.9k/5.6k in the year) while employment was flat in WA (0.8k/0.9k in the year) and fell in SA (–4.5k/1.6k in the year).

Victorian unemployment did lift in the month (4.5% from 4.2%) allowing NSW to clearly reclaim the mantle of having the lowest unemployment rate.

Solid momentum behind Australian employment: Westpac's Justin Smirk

Source: Westpac 

Victoria was the state showing the greatest improvement through 2018 with the unemployment rate down almost 2ppts to 4.2% in December while in NSW unemployment fell just –0.5ppts to 4.3%. The Qld labour market appears to have stalled with the unemployment rate lifting 0.1ppt to 6.1% while it has been flat in SA at 5.9% and lifted in WA from 5.8% to 6.4%.

Solid momentum behind Australian employment: Westpac's Justin Smirk

Source: Westpac 

We are closely watching how these trends continue through 2019 – NSW has surprised us by dipping below 4% while Victoria’s improvement looks to have stalled. Will this shift through the first half of 2019? How will these labour markets respond to falling house prices, a contraction in construction activity and weak retail sales. Our expectation is for the unemployment rate to rise in NSW and Victoria. 

It is also worth noting that 2018 produced a –0.2ppt decline in the underemployment rate from Q1 to Q4. In January there was a further improvement in underemployment to 8.2% (from 8.3%) the lowest print in underemployment since March 2015. Again we would caution that this is a January print so would not project that this improvement can be sustained but nevertheless, it is another indicator of just how robust the labour market was at the end of 2018.

For 2019 we are looking for a pause in the pace in employment growth due to the economic uncertainties surrounding the Federal Election at the same time as we expect to see a moderation in momentum in NSW and Victoria on the back of a moderation in housing activity. With reasonable estimates for the participation rate, our weaker jobs growth profile has the unemployment rate lifting to 5.5% in the second half of 2019 and further by end 2020.

Justin Smirk is ‎senior economist, Westpac Group and can be contacted here.

Tags: 
Employment Westpac

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