PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 February, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 February, 2002, 12:00am

AS USUAL, most of the commentary on the latest unemployment rate figures concentrates on that headline number of 6.7 per cent. Let us peer a little at some of its more interesting features.

The simple way to calculate the unemployment rate is to subtract the number of people employed from the number of people in the labour force. You then take the result - people unemployed - as a percentage of the labour force.

But leave professional statisticians to do it and you quickly get fancy refinements. Ours goes by the name of X-11-ARIMA and I have been told how it works but it is so convoluted that I forget.

In any case that 6.7 per cent comes from the X-11-ARIMA technique. Do it the old simple way and, as the first chart shows, you get only a 6.3 per cent unemployment rate, not a record. The figure was higher two years ago. It is my guess that some people in Census and Statistics are beginning to regret they opted for fancy games with figures.

I am all the more sure of it because when it came to saying how many more people were unemployed last month they did not cite 22,000, the X-11-ARIMA figure, but 9,200, the straightforward old style number.

This, however, still leaves us with the vexed question that pops up every month. Was this rise in unemployment caused by fewer jobs or by more workers in the labour force looking for jobs? The politicians always talk as if it were all job loss and, as usual, the politicians are wrong.

We had 8,100 more people looking for jobs last month and only 1,100 net losses in jobs. Add them up and you get 9,200. It is the same old story. Unemployment is rising not primarily because jobs are vanishing but because the labour force is growing rapidly, in large measure because of all the migrant labour flowing in to Hong Kong.

There is another twist here too. The unemployment report last month showed a net loss of 200 jobs in December but these preliminary figures have been revised. Guess what. They now show that we had not a net loss but a net gain of 1,900 jobs in December. Even with last month's job losses we had more people in work at the end of last month than we did at the end of November.

Just think about how unusual that is for what is meant to be sorely difficult times. Recession? What recession. We may be in a slowdown but these employment figures say our economy is holding up extremely well.

Finally, look at the second chart for evidence that we are not alone in our unemployment troubles. The blue line shows you our old-style unemployment rate (let's go back to it) and the red line shows you the average unemployment rate in Asia excluding Japan and China (excluded to compare ourselves with more comparable economies).

Now if only we could get some of our politicians to take note of things like this we might get some informed comments from them when they talk about unemployment.

Graphic: jake25gbz