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|15 May, 2019

Australian wage growth stalls, builds case for rate cut

Swati Pandey and Wayne Cole

A businessman talks on his Apple iPhone as he walks along a street in the central business district (CBD) of Sydney in Australia, October 24, 2017.

A businessman talks on his Apple iPhone as he walks along a street in the central business district (CBD) of Sydney in Australia, October 24, 2017.

Reuters/David Gray

SYDNEY - The pace of growth in Australian wages stagnated last quarter, adding to evidence that exceptional strength in the labour market is not enough to boost pay rewards, consumer spending and inflation.

Wednesday's data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) showed the wage price index rose 0.5% in the three months ended March, unchanged from the December quarter.

"The fact that wage growth isn't responding at all to the continued tightening of the labour market is worrying," said Marcel Thieliant, Singapore-based economist at Capital Economics. "The stagnation in wage growth...supports our view that the RBA will cut interest rates soon."

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Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) Governor Philip Lowe has repeatedly said annual wage growth must start with a 3 for inflation pressures to lift. But that prospect seems increasingly distant now. The annual pace of wage growth has been stuck at 2.3% since the quarter-ended September.

Tepid income growth has become a key issue ahead of a national vote on Saturday with the opposition Labor Party pledging to "get wages moving again" and its leader Bill Shorten declaring that the 2019 election is a "referendum on wages."

The miserly pace of wage growth amid other economic uncertainties weighing on consumption is a major reason the central bank is seen certain to cut rates later this year from current record lows of 1.50%. 0#YIB:

Expectations of policy easing led investors to dump the Australian dollar AUD=D4 sending it to a 4-1/2-month trough of $0.6924.

EYES ON JOBS

In the private sector, utility services and health care and social assistance enjoyed the highest quarterly pay rises of 1.0% and 0.9%, respectively. In most other sectors, including construction, retail, rental and real estate services, the increase was a piddly 0.2%.

Gains in mining wages doubled to 0.6% in the quarter but is still nowhere close to the rate enjoyed during the decade-long mining boom that began in the early 2000s.

Wage weakness is a global phenomenon linked to everything from the rise of China, the fall of union membership, technological change, job casualisation and the increasing concentration of market power in the hands of a few giant corporations.

RBA policymakers still hold out hope for an eventual recovery in wage power, though progress is proving glacial.

However, further progress requires the labour market to keep tightening and a survey of business from NAB this week had some potentially troubling news on that front.

The survey's main measure of employment turned negative for the first time since 2016 and suggested jobs growth would no longer be fast enough to prevent unemployment from rising.

Economists are now focusing on the April jobs report due on Thursday at 0130 GMT, where the unemployment rate is seen ticking up to 5.1% from 5.0% now.

"This outcome can be expected to keep weighing on the AUD and short bond yields," said Annette Beacher, Singapore-based economist at TD Securities.

(Editing by Sam Holmes and Jacqueline Wong) ((Wayne.Cole@thomsonreuters.com; 612 9321 8162; Reuters Messaging: wayne.cole.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

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