A quick rant about the unemployment figures

This might sound counter-intuitive, given everyone (the ONS included) is proclaiming that today’s labour market data showed a rise in unemployment, but the reality is that the jobless total actually dropped A LOT in the most recent month. In fact, unemployment fell in March by 202,000 – the fifth biggest one-month fall since 1995.

It’s now at 2.37 million, compared with 2.57m in February. The unemployment rate is down from 8% to 7.4%.

You might have realised by now that these figures bear little relation to the numbers being reported elsewhere this morning, which show the unemployment rate at 7.8% and the number up by 15,000 to 2.52 million.

This is because those figures – the ones the ONS quotes and everyone else follows suit – are an average over three months rather than one month on its own. That’s fine and makes plenty of sense. However it’s telling a story that’s effectively out of date: yes, if you compare unemployment in the final quarter of 2012 with unemployment in the first quarter of 2013 (as the ONS is doing) then it’s a touch higher. But that’s to ignore the fact that in the most recent month the labour market has been improving, not deteriorating.

If you compare the (three month period Jan-Mar) figure the ONS quotes in its release today – 2.52 million – to the the three-month period it cited in last month’s release, Dec-Feb, it is also lower – by around 45,000. Come to mention it, it’s only a few thousand above where it was in Nov-Jan. In other words there is no doubt that the direction of travel this latest month, compared with last month, is down. Why the ONS has to confuse us by giving the impression that unemployment is on the rise is beyond me.

There we are. Hope that’s clear. Rant over.