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China's US$10 trillion economy may soon have reliable jobs data

China's statistics authority is seeking to improve its employment data as Premier Li Keqiang pushes for a better reading of the world's largest labor market.

[BEIJING] China's statistics authority is seeking to improve its employment data as Premier Li Keqiang pushes for a better reading of the world's largest labor market.

Starting in July, some 15,000 surveyors will fan out across China each month with iPad-like devices to visit households and send responses directly back to the capital, the National Bureau of Statistics in Beijing said in an e-mailed response to questions from Bloomberg. The bureau will publish the complete data "as soon as possible," without specifying when a regular monthly series may start.

China's US$10 trillion economy has lacked the kind of regularly published employment statistics that developed-nation policy makers such as Janet Yellen rely on to shape decisions. The push for a better jobs barometer coincides with efforts to further open the country's capital markets and a bid for reserve currency status from the International Monetary Fund.

A broader and more accurate survey-based unemployment rate "will be a key indicator of short-term fluctuations in China's economy," said Lu Ting, chief economist at Huatai Securities Co. "It can provide an important base for an accurate and more scientific approach to China's macro policy decisions."

The current quarterly registered urban jobless rate is based on the number of people who apply for state benefits and job-seeking assistance in the event they find themselves out of work. Migrant workers - those who have moved to cities to find employment - can't register for benefits in their new locales because they typically don't have residency permits, meaning the reading effectively excludes more than 200 million people.

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The existing rate barely fluctuates. It was 4.05 per cent in the first quarter, slightly below the peak of 4.3 per cent during the global financial crisis six years ago.

Premier Li first alluded to the new, survey-based number early last year, even though it isn't regularly released. That level was about 5.1 per cent in May, according to a June 12 statement from the statistics bureau.

"Many countries make macro economic policies following survey-based employment rates," Mr Li said two days before the NBS release, according to a statement on the government's website. "The employment indicator is of key importance."

Mr Li - who famously called China's growth figures "man made" in 2007, years before his current role - wants the new rate to be "the real authoritative data." The new reading has been about 1 percentage point higher than the existing official measure each time it was sporadically been announced, either by the NBS, Premier Li himself, or the National Development and Reform Commission.

Even using the higher jobless number, the labour market has been resilient through China's slowdown. Pledging in March to protect job creation as the leadership presses on with economic reform, policy makers have eased monetary policy and orchestrated a debt swap to keep local governments spending.

"Labour markets have so far proved robust to declining growth and may even be strengthening slightly as the stimulus bolsters demand," Bloomberg economist Tom Orlik wrote in a report last week. "China's government has said that a rise in unemployment would trigger a more aggressive policy response. Stability in labor markets is another reason to expect a measured approach."

The new survey's design will follow the International Labour Organization's standards and the NBS will hire third- party supervisors to monitor the household visits, according to the bureau's e-mail to Bloomberg. The survey will be extended to all prefecture level cities, according to the NBS. China has about 300 such cities and districts.

Surveyors will collect the data with a handheld device in 120,000 households and report real-time to the NBS "so we can reduce the middlemen and ensure the timeliness and accuracy of the survey data," the bureau wrote. The US employment report features the results of surveys into 60,000 households.


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