Economist Mike Schüssler on Wednesday questioned the postponement of the release of the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) until the day after National Budget.
The release of the fourth quarter 2015 QLFS was scheduled for Monday, already a week later than usual. "Just last week I checked, it was scheduled for today (Monday). Are the results going to show horrible unemployment numbers and now have to be 'smoothed'?," asked Schüssler.
As a clue into expected dismal numbers, he cited that the personal income tax that has been forecast to grow with 12.6% in the last budget has in the last months averaged 4.1%, well below inflation (which was 5.2% in December) and well below estimated salary adjustments of around 7%.
"This is the weakest personal income tax collection growth since December 2009, which was just as we came out of the great recession.
"Remember too, that personal tax rates were increased last year and brackets were not fully adjusted for inflation, which meant another serious tax increase on the formal sector employees.
"So the 12.6% growth in collections could have been higher as was normally the case in the years gone by.
"That can only mean that the harsh winds of the depressive super cycle have hit our shores," said Schüssler.
The last QLFS showed that the working-age population was 36.1-million, of whom 15.8-million were employed, 5.4-million unemployed and 14.9-million not economically active, thus resulting in an unemployment rate of 25.5%.
The formal sector accounted for the largest share of employment at 69.1%, while agriculture accounted for the lowest share (5.7%).
Schüssler suspects that the unemployment numbers are up substantially and that the definitions may be changed again – "don't worry, Margret Thatcher did it about 20 times to the employment numbers – nothing new here, but still keep an open mind".
Schüssler cited "obviously false" examples to define employment, but said it "points to the fact that one can make the ability to be employed easier and easier. And yes one hour a week is all it takes to be employed and pay is not always a factor".
One such "ridiculously false" example read: "To be employed you only need to work an hour in the past three years for no pay in the family spaza 'enterprise' and be over 15. We could make it even easier by including everyone who has used Facebook this quarter."
The current official definition of employed persons are those aged 15 to 64 years who, during the reference week, did any work for at least one hour, or had a job or business, but were not at work (temporarily absent).
"Harsh, but I think we need to re-look the whole stats system, as I am starting to get the idea that our statistics are no longer as honest as they should be."
Schüssler conceded that trends do come forth no matter what; it may just take some time. "But the definitions will be very interesting to watch ...
"Statisticians are also often beholden to politicians as Marc Faber recently pointed out about Chinese data."
Statistic SA on Monday confirmed without explanation that the results of the QLFS will be released on 25 February, the day after Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan delivers his National Budget speech.
This year's budget will be watch very closely as South Africa faces the risk of a downgrade of its sovereign bonds to junk status.