Monday, 23 May 2011

Fall in unemployment is likely to be temporary

By Michael Burke

The latest data show a fall in the UK unemployment rate to 7.7% and an increase of 36,000 in the employment total. This is the fifth consecutive quarterly fall in the unemployment rate, which peaked at the end of 2009.

However, even the Tories constrained their boasting about the data, with employment minister Chris Grayling saying only that it “was a step in the right direction”. Neither Cameron nor Osborne made any pronouncement at all on the employment release.

The caution is well-advised. Economists generally regard unemployment as a lagging indicator of activity. That is, unemployment responds after changes in output with a time lag between the two. So it is often the case that unemployment will continue to rise even after a recovery has begun. This is mainly because there is an inevitable delay between a business reaching a decision to hire more workers or open a new factory or shop and the new workers starting their employment.

This is illustrated in the chart below, which shows the unemployment rate (red line) and the year-on-year growth in GDP (blue line). For example following the recession of the early 1980s the unemployment rate carried on rising for another 21/2 years. Similarly, the jobless rate continued to rise for over a year after the end of the recession in the early 1990s.

Figure 1

11 05 23 Unemployment

A number of analysts have noted that the rise in unemployment in this recession has been more muted than in either the Thatcher or the Major recessions - when the unemployment rate rose by 5.6% and 3.2% respectively. The increase in the unemployment rate in this recession was 2.1%, with the Office for National Statistics providing the official assessment that this is particularly striking as the loss of output in this recession of 6.4% is nearly as large as the other two combined (7.1%) .

A crucial difference is politics. The policies of both the Thatcher and Major governments’ were to engineer a rise in the unemployment rate in order to drive wages down and profits up. If there is any doubt on this question, it should be dispelled by this 1 minute video interview with Sir Alan Budd, Thatcher’s chief economic adviser .

By contrast, no Labour government maintaining any link with the unions could hope to set out on the same path and survive. Labour politicians who did adopt these policies such as Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden had to break with Labour to implement them.

It is not surprising that the official analysis of the subdued rise in unemployment in this recession should neglect this determining political factor. But it also overlooks an important aspect of the most recent trends in unemployment.

Crucially, the rise in unemployment from its cyclical floor of 4.8% began in the second half of 2005, nearly three years before the recession began. This is a much longer period than ahead of either the Thatcher or Major recessions, when unemployment began to rise about a year before recession. From mid-2005 onwards overall employment growth failed to keep pace with the natural growth of the workforce over the period. This applied to nearly all categories of employment, including public sector health, education and administration jobs, which grew a little over 2% between mid-2005 and the beginning of the recession in the 2nd quarter of 2008. This was approximately one-third of the pace required to prevent a rise in unemployment. The three exceptions to this general picture were real estate jobs (but not finance jobs) which grew by 20% over the period and manufacturing and private sector administration jobs, which both saw outright falls in employment.

In short, parts of the private sector were shedding jobs in order to boost profitability. The rest of the private and the public sector were not growing fast enough to absorb these or the natural growth in the workforce. This rise in unemployment was taking place an exceptionally long period before the recession began. This may help to explain why the decline in jobs was more subdued when the recession actually did begin.

The recent improvement in both employment and unemployment simply reflects the lagged effects of last year’s growth. If previous patterns are repeated this improvement may last another quarter or two. But the economy has already begun to stagnate under the weight of Tory cuts and these will be much deeper this year. Therefore the jobless totals are likely to rise once more as government policy takes effect- especially as driving down wages is an aim of policy.

A rational policy based on optimising growth would be set out to reverse these negative trends on a sustained basis, with a goal of full employment. That is the surest way to maximise the well-being of the population, and, not incidentally the best means also of reducing the public sector deficit.

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