Full Employment in Ireland-are we there yet?

The Irish unemployment rate fell to a fresh cycle low of 5.1% in June, from 5.6% in March and 6.6% a year earlier. The monthly estimate is subject to revision but on the face of it implies that  employment growth has accelerated from an already strong pace and that Ireland is approaching full employment. The  speed of the decline has  certainly surprised most analysts; the Department of Finance   anticipated unemployment bottoming out next year at 5.3% from an average 5.8% in 2018. In fact, Government budgetary projections are predicated on the view that the economy is already operating above is potential, although one rarely hears that articulated by Ministers.

Full employment does not mean a zero unemployment rate; there will always be churn in the labour market (frictional unemployment) and some workers may not have the skills, education or aptitude to take up the available jobs (structural unemployment). The scale of the latter, in particualr, is hard to gauge so estimates of what unemployment rate is consistent with full employment often vary and can change over time; the unemployment rate has surprised to the downside of late in both the US and the UK, for example. Ireland has also experienced  lower unemployment in the past, with a rate under 4% in the early noughties and a sub 5% reading  in the years before the 2008 crash.

That perhaps argues that the unemployment rate could certainly fall further, and particularly as the participation rate ( that proportion of the population over 15 in the labour force) is still much lower than it was a decade ago, averaging 62% over the past year as against well over 66% in 2007. A return to the latter level would equate to an additional 170,000 joining the labour force, equivalent to three years  employment growth given the current pace of job gains.

That kind of a move in the participation rate seems highly unlikely, however, given the modest level of net immigration currently seen relative to the pre-crash period. Nonetheless, the pool of available labour is bigger than captured in the labour force data, as the figures also record those who are seeking work , but not immediately, as well as those available for work but not yet seeking it. The CSO defines these two groups as the Potential Additional Labour Force (PALF) and this figure is sizeable, amounting to 120,000 in the first quarter. The unemployment rate adjusted for the PALF is therefore much higher, at 10%, although it is problematical to compare this with the historical experience as there was a step jump following the switch to a new survey methodology in the latter part of 2017.

Employment is now marginally above the pre-crash peak  and if labour is getting scarcer one might expect to see an acceleration in wage growth as firms bid for workers. That has not been evident, however, at least as yet. Average weekly earnings in the private sector rose by an annual  1.8% in the first quarter of 2018 following a 1.7% rise in 2017, but that followed  a 2.3% increase in 2016. Low consumer price inflation may be a factor but wage inflation is surprisingly soft in some areas where there is perceived to be a scarcity premium, notably construction, with average earnings growth of 1.1 % in the first quarter and only  0.3% last year.

It is also worth noting that although total employment is again  around the pre-crash peak  the composition  is more evenly distributed across sectors. Then, 10.5% of jobs were in construction alone but that proportion in 2018 is only 6%, with the total employed some 100,000 below the peak. Employment in industry too is 20,000 below the pre-crash level  and also lower in retail (36,000) and financial services (4,000) Indeed, although some private sector areas have seen job gains, notably Hotels and Restaurants (30,000 ) and Professional and Scientific (12,000), most of the increase has occurred in areas dominatd by the public sector, including Education (30,000) and Health (40,000).

Ultimately, the clearest sign that the economy has reached full employment is when the unemployment rate stops falling and that is only observed ex-post. However, the current distribution of employment, the absence of aggregate pay pressure and the relatively low participation rate all point to the likelihood of unemployment falling further in the absence of a demand shock. The latter is always a risk, of course, be it from Brexit or from a broader global slowdown.

Irish employment growth accelerates

The latest  Irish Household Survey, covering the second quarter of 2015, shows that the labour market continues to tighten and that job creation has accelerated again. Employment  ( on a seasonally adjusted basis) bottomed in the autumn of 2012 and picked up strongly in  the following year, averaging an increase of 15k a quarter, but then slowed sharply in the first half of 2014, with only 4k net jobs created. Employment growth  did pick up in the second six months, with a rise of 24k, and 2015 has seen a further acceleration: the numbers in work rose by over 15k in q1 and by 19k in q2, the latter the strongest quarterly increase since early 2007. Employment has therefore grown by some 57k over the past year, or 3%, and by 130k from the cycle low, although  still nearly 200k below the pre-crash high.

Virtually all sectors of the economy have generated additional jobs over the past year. The largest increase was in Construction ( 20k) , followed by Manufacturing (10k) with Financial services (6k) also showing notable growth. Education and Administration saw marginal falls, as did the Accommodation sector, perhaps surprisingly given the strength of tourism, although the decline followed a very strong rise in 2013.

The plunge in Irish employment from 2008-2012 also precipitated  a sharp decline in the labour force, fuelled by net emigration and a decline in the participation rate. That trend appears to be ending, with the rise in employment now prompting a rise in participation , particularly from those over 45, and a rebound in the labour force, which grew by 9k in the second quarter and by 14k on an annual basis.

The recovery in the Irish economy is also impacting migrant flows. The number of emigrants is still high , at 80k  in the year to April  from 81k the previous year, but immigration picked up, rising to 69k from 61k. As a result  net emigration slowed further, to under 12k from 21k in 2014 and a peak of 34k in 2012. The number of Irish nationals leaving fell to 35k from 41k, and to a net 23k (i.e. adjusting for Irish nationals returning). Only 10k of total emigrants classed themselves as unemployed with the majority having jobs, implying the decision to leave may have more to do with the rewards of employment in Ireland or quality of life issues. Yet  Ireland continues to attract migrants, with most now coming from outside the EU and leaving a job abroad.

The pick up in the labour force in q2 also resulted in a slowdown in the pace at which unemployment fell, to 7k , leaving a total of 207k. That decline was greater than indicated by the monthly data, which has been revised, as has the unemployment rate , which averaged 9.6% in the quarter from a peak of 15.1% in 2012. The unemployment rate for July is now put at 9.5%. This is below what the EU deem to be full employment in Ireland, which seems unlikely but if true, would imply some upward pressure on wages, which  are staring to rise, albeit modestly in the aggregate. The unemployment rate in Dublin is lower still, at 8.8%, which again would point to the prospect of some wage pressure in the capital.

Overall, a clear picture of strong job growth, falling net migration and a tightening labour market and one consistent with the pace of growth in domestic demand recorded in the national accounts.

Ireland now has jobless growth instead of growth-less jobs

The relationship between Ireland’s reported GDP and employment has been a puzzle of late. Output in the economy barely grew last year yet employment soared and this year has seen GDP growth pick up but employment effectively stagnate; growth-less jobs has given way to jobless growth. The unemployment rate is still falling, it has to be said, but the explanation for that is more to do with a decline in the labour force rather than any strength in labour demand. Average pay is also declining and so the picture painted by the recent labour market data is certainly at odds with the recovery narrative currently holding sway.

The main source of information on Irish employment is the Quarterly National Household Survey (QNHS), which means that sampling errors are always present. That aside, the data shows that employment bottomed in the third quarter of 2012, having fallen by a seasonally adjusted 327k (or 15%) and  then rose sharply in 2013, with the annual increase in the final quarter at 61k or over 3%. Not all industries participated and agriculture saw by far the biggest increase in employment, but on the face of it the pace of job creation was extraordinary, and one usually associated with a booming economy. Yet the recorded GDP data, which measures the output of the economy, initially showed a fall in 2013, and although subsequent revisions have been positive, the latest vintage still has real GDP growth last year of only 0.2%.Nonethelss the strength of job creation precipitated a substantial fall in the unemployment rate, to 12.2% at end 2013 from 14.2% a year earlier, despite a rise in the participation rate. The implied tightening of the labour market was not evident in terms of pay, however, as average weekly earnings fell by 0.7% last year.

The data revisions to the national accounts had left exports stronger than previously thought and a positive contribution from external trade was the main driver of the 2.7% rise in Irish GDP reported for the first quarter this year, offsetting another fall in domestic demand. The data left the annual growth rate in q1 at 4.1% and, as we expected, has prompted a substantial upward revision to the consensus growth projection for 2014 as a whole, with many private sector forecasts now  well over 3%. Many analysts are also anticipating a pick up in personal consumption, in part predicated on a strong employment figure, but the latest QNHS data, for q2, is very disappointing in terms of job creation; employment rose by 4.3k on a seasonally adjusted basis in the quarter bringing the increase in employment in the first half of the year to just 5.5k. Coverage of the figures tended to emphasise  the annual increase in employment of 37k but  the quarterly flow implies that  the annual rise will slow sharply by the end of the year .

The unemployment rate fell further in the quarter, to an average 11.5%, despite the weak employment figures, reflecting a fall in the labour force and a decline in the participation rate. The decline in the latter was particularly acute for those  over 16 and under 24, with more staying on at school or entering third-level. Emigration is a factor too, although the net figure fell  to 21k in  the year to April 2014, with an increased inflow of  61k partially offsetting a reduced outflow of 82k.

The surprisingly weak employment figures should also be set against the data on average earnings, showing an annual fall of 1.1% in the second quarter, which again would not indicate a tightening labour market overall, although some industries did see strong annual pay growth including construction (6%), the hospitality sector (5.3%) and manufacturing (4.2%). Some have pointed to the strength of income tax receipts as being inconsistent with the pay and jobs data, which is worth noting, although it should be remembered that the 2014 Budget did include measures to boost income tax by over €200mn as well as strong carryover effects from 2013.

As is often the case with Irish data we are left with a confusing picture- is the economy growing very strongly, as indicated by the GDP figures, or is it much weaker  as implied by the employment figures?. The latter does seem to suggest that domestic demand, and particularly the domestic service economy, where most jobs are located, remains in the doldrums. This does not preclude 3.5% GDP growth but it does mean that growth will again be driven by the multinantional export sector, which is not labour intensive.