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Australia jobless at 4-year high, revives rate cut risk

Saeed Khan | AFP | Getty Images

Australia suffered a surprising drop in employment in August that pushed the jobless rate up to a four-year high of 5.8 percent, a disappointingly soft report that revived the chance of a cut in interest rates and knocked the local dollar lower.

The currency skidded by almost one U.S. cent as Thursday's data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed employers shed a net 10,800 workers in August, well below forecasts of a 10,000 increase and a second straight month of losses.

The jobless rate was the highest since August 2009, when the economy was weathering the global financial crisis, and would have been even higher if not for an unexpected drop in the participation rate.

(Read more: Australia's election is over, now what for the economy?)

The local dollar was plucked off a six-month high of $0.9355 and unceremoniously dumped to $0.9260 following the data. Investors began to wager on another cut in interest rates, having almost abandoned thoughts of a move given recent better economic news from China and much of the developed world.

"It's a bit of tempering of that optimism that emerged about the economic outlook in the last few weeks," said Michael Blythe chief economist at Commonwealth Bank.

"It's the old story that as long as the unemployment rate is trending up, as it is at the moment, then the RBA will still be thinking about interest rates each month and whether they need to cut them again."

(Read more: Is the Aussie dollar heading for parity?)

Interbank futures show a 50 percent probability of a rate cut by Christmas, compared to just 38 percent before the jobs report. Yields on three-year government debt pulled back to 2.90 percent from a six-month peak of 3.0 percent.

Swap rates swung back to pricing in an easing on a 12-month horizon, albeit only of 2 basis points. Early in the week they were implying almost 10 basis points of hikes.

Straws in the wind

The central bank cut rates to a record low of 2.5 percent in August and has been hoping lower borrowing costs would encourage consumers to pare back their high levels of savings and spend more. That in turn would give businesses a reason to invest and help offset a cooling of the mining boom.

(Read more: Australia holds rates at record low, mum on policy outlook)

There was some encouragement this week when surveys showed a marked improvement in confidence among consumers and business, in part on expectations an election on Sept. 7 would lead to a new government, which it did.

The pro-business Liberal-National coalition won with a handy majority, so ending three years of often fractious minority rule by the Labor Party.

There was also tentative signs that consumers were less worried about losing their jobs. A measure of expectations on unemployment from Westpac and the Melbourne Institute recoded its biggest improvement in almost a year.

Still, for now, these are just straws in the wind when it comes to a recovery in the labor market.

(Read more: Australia's growth solution— more Australians)

Especially troubling has been a steady decline in the employment to population ratio, which measures the proportion of the working age population in a job.

That dropped two tenths of a percent to 61.2 percent in August, the lowest since early 2006.

"The RBA is looking to engineer a recovery in the non-mining economy and consumer spending, retail sales and credit growth, but the labour market fundamentals aren't supporting that yet," said Ben Jarman, an economist at JPMorgan.

"It still looks like it'll have to do more in this easing cycle."

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