Good News - but No Cause for Celebration Just Yet

The fact that 57.5% of the adult Israeli civilian population was employed in the second quarter of the year is good by Israeli standards, not international though.

One of the most important socioeconomic goals of this government, and every government for that matter, is to achieve high employment and a low jobless rate among all sectors of the population. The fact that 57.5% of the adult Israeli civilian population was employed in the second quarter of the year is good by Israeli standards; but by international standards, the levels of workforce participation here are low.

In fact, they are about 15% lower than the customary levels in the developed world as a whole. This, to a large extent, is the result of the low levels of workforce participation when it comes to ultra-Orthodox men and Arab women in Israel. The low rate of workforce participation in turn depresses Israel's gross national product and increases the burden of the government's social-welfare expenditures.

Nonetheless, Israel's 5% October unemployment rate, which was announced on Monday and follows a consistent decline in the jobless rate from 6.2% in January, is good news by any socioeconomic yardstick.

None of Israel's economic policymakers or financial analysts anticipated such a low unemployment rate, the lowest since 1978. At the risk of spoiling the celebration, however, it has to be pointed out that the rate at which Israelis are only employed part-time at low wages, despite wanting full-time work, is higher than elsewhere in the Western world.

In addition, salary levels did not increase substantially in 2009 and 2010, meaning that although the economy expanded, the average wage remained static. The typical wage-earner didn't share in the economic growth, and this should be a matter of concern because if the economy suffers a reversal, as most of the indicators predict, the average wage will actually go down.

One must also view the monthly jobless numbers with a degree of caution inasmuch as they are subject to volatility and even retroactive revision. On the assumption that the number released on Monday is correct, however, the figure is an accomplishment of worldwide magnitude. In Spain, for example, the jobless rate is 22%. The October average jobless figure for the Euro Zone as a whole was 10.3%. The United States saw a decline in November in the unemployment rate to 8.6%. A 5% jobless figure is basically considered full employment in that most jobseekers have either just begun looking for work, after graduating from college or completing army service, for example.

This is not the time to celebrate. Israel is a major exporter to the West, which is in deep crisis. Domestically, too, Israel transitioned from growth in the first half of the year to a more sluggish situation in the second half, and no one say for sure than we won't see a recession next year. Most of the economic indicators in Israel over the past several months point to a slowdown. Nonetheless, if the unemployment rate is to go up, better it do so from a starting point of 5% rather than 8%.