Our amazing resilience

Despite the dark clouds hanging over our economy — including falling natural resource prices and the real estate bubble — Canada is still powering ahead.

Like many observers, I’ve long expected that the Canadian economy would wake up with a hangover after partying a little too hard in recent years. I must confess: I was wrong. At least for now.

Despite the dark clouds hanging over our economy — falling natural resource prices, the real estate bubble, worrisome personal and provincial government debt, significant job losses in certain provinces — Canada is still powering ahead. This makes me think of the Road Runner being chased by Wile E. Coyote, who keeps running even though he’s gone well past the edge of the cliff.

Where’s the wall?

The real estate bubble, which has been in the news for a while now, stubbornly refuses to deflate, even though, according to market research firm North Cove Advisors, the country’s inflation-based housing price index has doubled since 2000, and salaries have not followed suit. Every day, Canadians reach a higher level of indebtedness. Despite our fears of hitting the proverbial wall, it’s not yet visible on the horizon.

I recently read that since 2007, car loans have quadrupled in Canada, thereby putting consumers and banks in a precarious position should the economy slow down. According to Argent, a Montreal-based French-language economic news channel, the value of personal car loans has grown to about $64 billion in 2013 from $16.2 billion in 2007. Canadian banks are cornering this market, drawn to the profits to be made from higher interest rates. The market is now based on the balloon loan, which involves going into debt by buying a new car before paying off an existing loan on another car. When it comes to living on credit, our imagination knows no bounds.

It’s important to note that the Canadian economy is heavily dependent on the price of natural resources. For example, at the time of writing, gold was trading at US$1,275 an ounce compared with US$1,900 just three years ago. Canadian gold producers’ earnings are dropping, as are their share values.

As for oil, the price of a barrel went from more than US$100 in 2011 to less than US$50 this winter. The International Energy Agency recently pointed out that one in four petroleum development projects would be at risk if the price of oil were to drop below US$80. While many projects break even starting at US$75 a barrel, and some can even survive at lower prices, others are financially viable only when oil prices reach US$100 a barrel.

A sustained decline in the price of black gold will have significant repercussions in Canada. Remember, the vast majority of jobs created here in the past year were in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where oil is an important economic driver. In other provinces, Quebec in particular, job losses are piling up at an alarming rate.

Following the US lead

According to a recent BMO Financial Group report, however, we need not worry. The report claims that the Canadian economy is poised for broad-based growth in 2015. I, for one, don’t think I’ve ever seen a major bank predict a tough economic year.

This optimistic scenario is almost exclusively based on US economic growth, which would drive demand for our products and Canadian exports. Unfortunately, the outlook for the US economy is rather pessimistic. Among others, Bloomberg Businessweek magazine predicts that growth in 2015 will be only slightly better than in 2014, not to mention that many “experts” are anticipating a worldwide recession in 2015.

Is Canada truly resilient? Without a doubt. But for how much longer?
 

About the Author

David Descôteaux


David Descôteaux is a Montreal-based business columnist.

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