A clear feature of the economic landscape post the Covid-19 pandemic is mass unemployment. We should firstly note that this is and will continue to create quite a bit of suffering and angst. Also that all the easing policies of the central banks over the past decade or so were supposed to avoid this sort of thing. But if the system was a rubber band it had been stretched towards breaking point and now all they can do is pump it all up even more. But for our purposes there is another issue which is that we have little idea of either how much unemployment there is or how long it will last. Let me illustrate by looking at the numbers just release by Italy.
The Italian Job
As you might expect employment fell in May.
On a monthly basis, the decline of employment (-0.4%, -84 thousand) concerned more women ( 0.7%, 65 thousand) than men (-0.1%, -19 thousand), and brought the employment rate to 57.6% (-0.2 p.p.)…….With respect to the previous quarter, in the period March – May 2020, employment considerably decreased (-1.6%, 381 thousand) for both genders.
Also unemployment rose.
In the last month, also unemployed people grew (+18.9%, +307 thousand) more among women (+31.3%, +227 thousand) than men (+8.8%, +80 thousand). The unemployment rate rose to 7.8% (+1.2 percentage points) and the youth rate increased to 23.5% (+2.0 p.p.).
Now the problems begin. Firstly I recall that last time around we were told the unemployment rate was 6.3% which has seen a substantial revision to 6.6%. There my sympathy is with the statisticians at a difficult time. But for the next bit we have to suspend credulity.
In the last three months, also the number of unemployed persons decreased (-22.3%, -533 thousand), while a growth among inactive people aged 15-64 years was registered (+6.6%, +880 thousand).
If we look further back we just compound the issue.
On a yearly basis, the decrease of employed people was accompanied by a fall of unemployed persons (-25.7%, -669 thousand) and a growth of inactive people aged 15-64 (+8.7%, +1 million 140 thousand).
As I pointed out last month the issue is how unemployment is defined.
Unemployed persons: comprise persons aged 15-74 who:
were actively seeking work, i.e. had carried out activities in the four week period ending with the reference week
to seek paid employment or self-employment and were available to start working before the end of the two
weeks following the reference week;
The definition fails when you have a lockdown as some cannot go to work and others quite reasonably think that there is no point. If we assume that the rise in activity is all a type of hidden unemployment then we get an unemployment rate of 12.4% in Italy. Our estimate will be far from perfect so let us say we think it has risen from ~11% last in April to more like 12% in May.
An even grimmer situation is shown by youth unemployment. The official reading is bad enough.
the youth rate increased to 23.5% (+2.0 p.p.).
But if we apply the same methodology we get to a rather chilling 46.3%. The inactivity category here is huge at 4.6 million which I hope is pretty much students. I have to confess that I am reminded of the Yes Prime Minister quote from the 1980s that education was mostly extended to reduce the unemployment numbers. Anyway it is a blunt number but frankly will be much nearer than the official one. Also there will be many young Italians who have had little hope of a job post credit crunch as it was and it just got worse.
What we do learn is how few people are surveyed for these numbers.
The number of interviewed households for May 2020 is about 17,000 (almost equal to 35,500 individuals) and is
approximately 10% lower than the average number of interviews used for the production of estimates related to a
If we switch to the Ministry of Labour we get a barrage of numbers.
Unemployment is reduced in all sectors except agriculture and among claimants “without previous employment”
There are fewer unemployed registered in ten autonomous communities
In June 308,985 more contracts were signed than in the previous month
Almost six million people received SEPE benefits in May.
These numbers look both more useful and realistic. Things started to get better last month with around 309,000 new jobs but the Furlough scheme count in May of 6 million gives a perspective. Also unemployment edged higher.
The registered unemployment in the offices of the State Public Employment Service (SEPE) has increased by 5,107 people compared to the previous month. This represents an increase of 0.1%, which deepens the trend of slowing down the growth rate of unemployment that began in May.
So we end up with this.
The total number of unemployed persons registered in the SEPE offices amount to 3,862,883.
There is an irony in using registered unemployment numbers as they fell into disrepute due to the way they can be manipulated and fiddled. But right now they are doing better than the official series. El Pais summarises it like this.
The total number of jobseekers in Spain has risen to 3.86 million, the highest figure registered since May 2016……The rise in unemployment for June is the first increase seen since 2008, just months before the fall of Lehman Brothers and the year of the financial crisis. The increase in contributors to the Social Security system for the month is also the smallest since 2015.
So we see that there are also still around 2.1 million people on the furlough scheme. In total these benefits were paid out.
In May, the SEPE paid 5,526 million euros in benefits, of which 3,318 million were dedicated to paying ERTE benefits and 2,208 million to unemployment benefits, both at the contributory and assistance level.
If we use these numbers are plug them into the official unemployment series we end up with an unemployment rate of 16.8%.
This morning’s official release tells us this.
In May 2020, a third month marked by COVID-19 containment measures in most Member States, the euro area seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate was 7.4%, up from 7.3% in April 2020……..Eurostat estimates that 14.366 million men and women in the EU, of whom 12.146 million in the euro area, were unemployed in May 2020. Compared with April 2020, the number of persons unemployed increased by 253 000 in the EU and by 159 000 in the euro area.
Unfortunately we do not have an update on inactivity so we can have a go at getting a better picture. We are promised more but not until next week.
To capture in full the unprecedented labour market situation triggered by the COVID-19 outbreak, the data on
unemployment will be complemented by additional indicators, e.g. on employment, underemployment and potential
additional labour force participants, when the LFS quarterly data for 2020 are published.
As you have seen earlier this is a “Houston we have a problem moment” for unemployment data as it rigorously calculates the numbers on the wrong football pitch. It creates problems highlighted by this tweet from Silvia Amaro of CNBC.
That creates the impression things are much better now when in fact they may well be worse. Without the furlough schemes they certainly would be. What we fo not know is how long it will last?