Has Irish Unemployment hit its cycle low?

During the Celtic Tiger years the Irish unemployment rate was consistently below 5% and most forecasters envisage a return to  that position in 2019. The monthly data had put the January figure at 5.3% and although the pace of decline had slowed it seemed reasonable to assume that the strength of job creation would be sufficient to  again  push the unemployment rate below 5%, before hitting full employment.

That view  is now open to question, following the release of the latest Labour Force Survey, covering the final quarter of 2018. Figures for employment, the labour force and the numbers unemployed are derived from that survey, based on a sample of households, and it is often the case that the published monthly unemployment estimates are then revised. That is again the case; the q4 average unemployment rate  is now put at 5.7% from the previous 5.4%, with the January figure  also revised up to 5.7%.

In fact  it now transpires  that the unemployment rate is unchanged at 5.7% for the past six months, with the actual numbers unemployed some 10,000 higher in January than previously thought. Indeed, seasonally adjusted unemployment, now at 137.000, has been ticking up for the past five months, so the prospect of a sub-5% unemployment rate  suddenly looks optimistic rather than realistic.

Why is the unemployment rate becalmed? A decline requires  employment growth to outpace that of the labour force which has been the case since early 2012. For example, the annual change in employment in q4 was 50,000 or 2.3%, against a 35,000 (1.5%) increase in the labour force, resulting in a fall in the unadjusted unemployment rate to 5.4% from 6.1% a year earlier.

The pace of employment growth slowed in the second half of last year, however;  the seasonally adjusted increase was only 8,300 in the final quarter, following a 9,500 increase in q3. Labour force growth over that period was 20,000 , so giving rise to the modest tick up in  the numbers unemployed and an unchanged unemployment rate.

Where to from here? A key driver of any change in the labour force is the participation rate ( the proportion of those  over-15 in the workforce).The Irish participation rate ticked up in response to brighter employment prospects but has been broadly unchanged now for some time, at around 62%. If that  continues the labour force will grow at the same pace as the over-15 population, currently at 1.5%, implying an annual rise of around 35,000. Unfortunately, employment growth, having slowed in the second half of 2018, is now  down to that 1.5% pace.

Brexit related uncertainty may be a factor on the employment side but it could well be that the  decline in Irish unemployment is  already at or near its cyclical low.

Irish Employment growth slows in final quarter of 2015.

The latest Irish Quarterly Household Survey, covering the final three months of 2015, revealed a surprising slowdown in the pace of employment growth; the increase  was just 4,700 or just 0.2%. Moreover, male employment fell in the quarter, by some 4,000, and  male unemployment actually rose. Total employment had grown rapidly in the first half of the year, by over 30,000, so the annual rise in the final quarter was still a healthy 44,000 (2.3%)  but forecasts for employment growth in 2016 may be  trimmed a little .

The labour force rose strongly in the quarter, by 9,000, and increased by 18,000 over the full year. The participation rate (the proportion of those over 15 in the labour force) is picking up again, albeit modestly. Net emigration  slowed to under 14,000 in the year to April 2015 and appears to have fallen further in recent months, so supporting labour force growth.

As a result of this interaction between employment and the labour force the numbers unemployed  in the final quarter fell only marginally, by 1.700 to 196,000. This was 26,000 lower than a year earlier, but again most of that decline was in the first half of 2015.

The unemployment rate also declined in q4, to 9.1% , but  the fall was modest, from 9.2% in q3. The former was  above the  previously published  monthly estimates , prompting a revision, with the result that the unemployment rate in January is now put at 8.9% instead of the original 8.6%.

The quarterly employment figures can be volatile and have shown unexpectedly soft readings before ( for example in early 2014) which have not proven the start of a trend. On that basis it would be premature to read too much in to this data, although it should be noted that Ireland is operating well above capacity, according to Department of Finance forecasts, and hence above ‘full ‘ employment , implying a large structural unemployment issue. That assumption may be wrong ,of course, but if true means that the unemployment rate may not fall as rapidly from here as the consensus predicts.

Irish unemployment falls below 200k, unemployment rate at 8.9%

The pace at which Irish employment collapsed during the recession surprised everyone, and now the pace of jobs growth is also much more rapid than generally envisaged  a few years ago. Seasonally adjusted employment grew by 29k during 2014  and has picked up momentum in 2015,  rising by 43k over the first three quarters of this year. That takes the total increase over the past three years to 140k,  leaving total employment in the third quarter of 2015 at 1.98 million and  2.9% above the figure a year earlier.

Most industries have seen employment grow over the past year, notably manufacturing (+14k) and construction (+15k), with the latter total now at 127k from a cycle low of 96k, although still  a long way from the cyclical peak of 274k. Financial services saw one of the few declines, alongside retail, but the general picture is of an economy in which  the growth of domestic spending is translating into  robust demand for labour,

The labour force   is also responding to the changed environment, and although broadly flat in the third quarter has risen by some 13k over the past year. That was dwarfed by the annual  rise in employment (56k) so the numbers unemployed fell  by 43k  and by a seasonally adjusted 9k in the quarter. That left the total unemployment figure  at 197k, the first sub-200k reading since the  final quarter of 2008.

The  CSO estimated the unemployment rate in q3 at 9.1% , again the lowest in seven years. Moreover, the initial monthly estimated unemployment rate for the quarter had been put at 9.5% and has consequently been revised lower, leaving the October estimate at 8.9% from the initial 9.3%.

The Irish economy , as captured by real GDP, actually bottomed out in the final quarter of 2009 and recent data revisions show that it grew in every subsequent year, albeit marginally in some cases. Yet the general public  did not perceive a recovery ,in part due to the absence of employment creation. That has well and truly arrived and the tightening labour market is likely to generate general upward pressure on wages, which is already appearing in certain sectors of the economy.