Unemployment rate will hit over 5 percent and continue rising - experts

Economists weigh in on rising unemployment figures ahead of household labour force survey results
Economists weigh in on rising unemployment figures ahead of household labour force survey results Photo credit: Getty.

Leading economists expect New Zealand's official unemployment rate to land somewhere between 5 and 6 percent, and warn it will continue to rise.

On Wednesday, Statistics New Zealand will announce the unemployment rate for the June 2020 quarter under its household labour force survey.

The survey polls 15,000 to 16,000 households across the quarter and represents an overall average. The current official unemployment rate is 4.2 percent.

Cameron Bagrie, at Bagrie Economics, said his pick is the June unemployment figure will rise to the "mid 5s" - but this won't be the peak.

"They're going to provide partial information: they're not going to tell the full story," he said.

The wage subsidy has kept a lot of jobs temporarily protected and that's still rolling off. Although New Zealand came out of lockdown better than expected, we're now in "wave two" of the COVID-19 crisis. The global outlook and prolonged closed borders will have an impact.

"We still face a long slog ahead: the unemployment rate is going to continue to rise," Bagrie said.

Ministry of Social Development figures at July 24 put the number of people receiving the COVID-19 relief payment at just over 20,000: an increase of 1431 compared to the previous week.

Given that New Zealand's labour force is about 2.7 million, if the current run rate (1500 per week) continues, he expects another 200,000 jobs to go in the current quarter.

"You're talking another 4-to-8 percent increase in unemployment in the September quarter - that's before taking into account the impact of the wage subsidy extension rolling off," Bagrie added.

Echoing Bagrie's view, Kiwibank chief economist Jarrod Kerr expects the June 2020 rate to be around 5.2 percent. The wage subsidy has helped to keep many jobs viable, making headline data "less ugly" than if it hadn't been paid.

"We're forecasting an almost 2 percent decline in employment over the [June] quarter, which equates to around 50,000 fewer people in paid employment," Kerr said.

If wage subsidies are extended as expected, this will further delay the inevitable rise in unemployment numbers.

"We forecast a peak in unemployment around 9 percent in the first quarter of 2021," Kerr added.

ANZ chief economist Sharon Zollner said the bank is forecasting unemployment to peak slightly earlier in December, at 10.6 percent, decreasing to 8.2 percent in March 2022.

Statistics New Zealand labour market manager Sean Broughton said people who want to understand the impacts of COVID-19 on the workforce should "look beneath" the headline unemployment rate.

A set of additional data, called "underutilisation measures", will be available as part of the survey, which for the June quarter, Broughton expects will carry a lot more weight.

Many Kiwis were working under capacity, wanted a job but weren't actively applying, or were temporarily unavailable. 

To be counted as 'unemployed', in addition to not having a job, the survey criteria required people to have been able to take an available job in the last week and to have been actively looking for work in the last month.

"The wage subsidy has helped to keep businesses afloat, instead of laying off staff, some might have cut hours so [staff are] still employed. Therefore, these people want more income, they're underemployed," Broughton explained.

"The number of hours worked will be interesting reading tomorrow."

Although there's a small overlap between job-seeker and official unemployment figures, job-seeker numbers include part-time workers, and only capture unemployed people receiving a benefit.

"People can be working part-time, but still be receiving the job-seeker benefit. When you look at the household labour force survey, even if they're only working one hour per week, they're classified as employed."