The wisdom of the Bank of England’s decision to move the goalposts on forward guidance, away from the single metric of the ILO 3-monthly average unemployment rate to a more holistic range of economic indicators, has been brought into stark relief by the latest employment data, released on 16 April.
The headline rate fell unexpectedly to 6.9 per cent, its lowest level since Feb 2009, from 7.2 per cent last month, and well below the expectated 7.1 per cent. The more contemporaneous Claimant Count Rate, fell to 3.4 per cent in March from 3.5 per cent in February, presaging further falls in the ILO rate next month and taking this measure to its lowest level since November 2008 - the pit of the financial crisis.
The unemployment rate for the single month of February was 6.6 per cent, meaning that the decline since November’s 7.4 per cent was the largest 3 month fall since 1992, and an unemployment rate of 6.6 per cent is getting uncomfortably close to the Bank of England’s own NAIRU estimate of 6 to 6.5 per cent, so that one of her new favoured indicators, the amount of labour slack in the economy, may be disappearing rather quickly.
The last BOE Quarterly Inflation Report, in February, forecast unemployment at 6.9 per cent at the end of Q1. Well, we’re already there and sure to be below that if March’s single month reading stays below 7.0 per cent.
However, there are pockets of less impressive news buried within the report. Average Weekly Earnings for February, now very closely watched by the BOE as a leading indicator for inflation, disappointed a little at 1.7 per cent, up against an expectated 1.8 per cent, but were still up 1.4 per cent in January - and I would expect further increases over the coming months; for the first time in nearly six years, weekly earnings have finally overtaken inflation. There is still some way to go however; as at Q4 real wages were still 6.5 per cent below their pre-crisis peak. The average work week fell, somewhat inexplicably, from 32.2 hours to 32.0, which won’t impress the Monetary Policy Committee.
Finally, although the rise in employment, at 239k, and in the participation rate, from 63.6 per cent to 63.8 per cent, both looked like great news, one can pick holes and point to the composition of the 239k gain; only 45k were full-time employee jobs and self-employment grew by 146K in the three months to February. However, it looks like number of people working part-time because they could not get a full-time job has peaked, which is very healthy.
All-in-all, these statistics alone, nor the recent raft of other encouraging indicators such as house prices, PMI’s, Industrial Production and Retail Sales, will not yet be enough to break the MPC’s unanimity when it comes to keeping rates at 0.5 per cent, but if the trend continues - with annualized growth approaching 4 per cent, then the minutes of June or July’s MPC meeting could make very interesting reading.