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Canadian economy was resilient in 2018, but troubling signs ahead

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The Canadian economy entered 2018 on an unexpectedly impressive run, and will begin 2019 on a healthy note. But signs of weakness have raised a key question: How long before the good times end?

Through much of 2018, Canada’s unemployment rate hovered near a 40-year low and job creation remained strong as the evidence pointed to an economy going at close to full tilt.

The handoff was a good one, too — the country had posted three per cent growth for all of 2017, largely thanks to strong household spending. We’ll have to wait a little for the final numbers, but forecasters say 2018 has likely delivered still-sturdy growth of about two per cent.

But as 2019 approaches, there are worries the solid economic expansion is starting to show its age.

Last month, the federal government’s fall economic statement projected two per cent growth again for 2019, but many predict the number will likely come in lower following a recent drop in oil prices.

Jittery markets, uncertain U.S. outlook

In addition to the pullback in crude prices, experts point to jitters in the financial markets, predictions the American economy — a key contributor to Canadian growth — will start to cool off and the United Kingdom’s difficult divorce from the European Union, which could ripple across the global economy.

There’s also potential for an even bigger threat: an escalation of the trade war between Washington and Beijing.

On trade, Canada made it through a year filled with significant uncertainty, including the difficult negotiation and signing of an update to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Many of the trade unknowns, however, will carry over into the new year. The road to NAFTA 2.0’s ratification could bring more drama, punishing American steel and aluminum tariffs remain in place and the clash of superpowers between Canada’s two biggest trading partners continues to play out.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signed the Canada-U.S.-Mexico Agreement in November, but uncertainties surrounded the so-called new NAFTA. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

“There are always reflections around the cyclical downturns that happen and, as I’ve said, the impacts of a trade war between China and the United States could have significant impacts on the global economy — negative impacts on the global economy,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

“We have to make sure that we are prepared for rough waters if we encounter them.”

Rising rates, high household debt

In Canada, potential trouble spots include the combination of high household debt, rising interest rates and slowing wage growth that’s been “terrible” for about half a year following a good pickup early in 2018, said Matt Stewart, director of economics for the Conference Board of Canada.

Higher interest rates, Stewart added, have delivered a hit to household spending, which has been the primary driver of Canada’s good economic fortunes.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a recession,” Stewart said. “As of yet, I think most of the news is still positive, but there is a growing amount of risks.”

A new home being built in North Vancouver on June 12. There are questions whether the current ebullient economy can continue. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

With overburdened consumers expected to take a breather, business investment is seen as the next critical source of growth. But Stewart said the transition has yet to materialize because investment has underperformed, likely due to competitiveness concerns. Businesses aren’t sure whether Canada’s the best place to put their money.

In an effort to boost investment, Ottawa announced billions of dollars worth of corporate tax incentives in its fall statement. Taxpayers will have to wait and see if the federal changes will be enough to encourage more companies to invest in Canada.

Craig Alexander, chief economist of Deloitte, said the economy will continue to have healthy growth in 2019, but noted it’s due for some moderation.

Late stages of business cycle

“We are in the late stages of a business cycle,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that a recession is around the corner, but we need to recognize that we’re 10 years into an economic recovery, expansion. Business cycles are typically eight to 10 years long.”

Alexander said markets are probably overreacting to the possibility that another downturn could be almost upon us. He thinks the more likely case is that growth will continue to slow.

The economy’s evolution will have different impacts depending where one lives, he added.

For example, the energy sector faces big challenges.

Part of it comes from the recent plunge in oil prices, but there’s also been an extra discount on the price of western Canadian crude caused by transportation bottlenecks out of the Alberta oilpatch.

“This is sad news for Alberta,” Alexander said. “They’ve only barely recovered from the last recession.”

Shell’s Groundbirch project is producing gas in northeast B.C. Uncertainty over oil and gas prices is affecting the outlook for the economy. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

Ottawa offered assistance this month in the form of a $1.6-billion aid package to support oil and gas companies.

Alberta, however, wants federal help to move its oil to new markets.

Loss of GM plant

Ontario’s industrial sector will also face a big hurdle in 2019. General Motors has announced plans to shutter its plant in Oshawa later in the year, a move that would put 2,500 people out of work and inflict economic pain on the region.

Bank of Montreal chief economist Doug Porter said Canada already took a small step back in 2018 — and he expects growth to slow further.

“Just looking at financial markets, there’s obviously a lot of concern that we are getting to a late stage of the [economic] cycle,” Porter said. “We don’t believe that recession risks are especially high at this point, but we do think the North American economy will cool in 2019.”

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‘Too soon to celebrate’ Ottawa’s low case count, says Etches

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Ottawa Public Health (OPH) logged just 11 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, the lowest daily total since Sept. 1.

Because of the lag between testing and reporting, the low number could simply reflect low turnout at the city’s testing sites on weekends — all month, new case counts have been lower on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 

During a virtual news conference Tuesday, the city’s medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches said she doesn’t read too much into a single day’s report.

“I don’t think we can make too much of 11. Actually, it could be a lot higher tomorrow — I would expect that, on average,” she said. “It’s too soon to celebrate.”

Provincewide, public health officials reported 1, 249 new cases Tuesday.

OPH also declared 62 cases resolved Tuesday, lowering the number of known active cases in the city to 462. Two more people have died, both in care homes currently experiencing outbreaks, raising the city’s COVID-19 death toll to 361. 

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Santa Claus isn’t coming to Ottawa’s major malls this year

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Santa Claus may still be coming to town this Christmas, but he won’t be dropping by any of Ottawa’s major malls, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Friday, Cadillac Fairview said Santa won’t be making an appearance at any of its 19 malls across Canada, including Rideau Centre in downtown Ottawa. On Tuesday, Bayshore and St. Laurent shopping centres confirmed they, too, are scrapping the annual tradition.

“Due to the evolution of the situation in regards to COVID-19, we have made the difficult decision to cancel our Santa Program and Gift Wrap Program this year,” Bayshore spokesperson Sara Macdonald wrote in an email to CBC.

Macdonald said parent company Ivanhoé Cambridge cancelled all holiday activities “due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases across the country.”

Macdonald said families that had already booked an appointment to visit Santa will receive an email with more information.  

Virtual visits with Santa

Rideau Centre said based on customer research and discussions with public health officials, its North Pole is going online this year.

“Children will be able to have a private chat with Santa,” said Craig Flannagan, vice-president of marketing for Cadillac Fairview. “You’ll also be able to join a 15-minute storytime with Santa over Facebook Live.” 

At Place d’Orléans Shopping Centre, visitors are invited to take a “selfie with Santa” — actually, a life-size cutout of Santa Pierre, the man who’s been playing Santa at the east end mall for years.

“We understand that this is not ideal, but in lieu of this tradition we will be doing what we can to maintain and encourage holiday cheer,” according to a statement on the mall’s Facebook page.

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Ottawa Bylaw breaks up two large parties in Ottawa over the weekend

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OTTAWA — Ottawa Bylaw is investigating social gatherings of more than 10 people in private homes across Ottawa last weekend.

Mayor Jim Watson tells Newstalk 580 CFRA that Ottawa Bylaw broke-up two house parties over the weekend, with 20 to 25 people at each party.

“That’s the kind of stupidity that angers me, that’s where the bulk of the transmissions are taking place, if we exclude the tragedy of the long-term care homes; it’s these house parties with unrelated people,” said Watson on Newstalk 580 CFRA’s Ottawa at Work with Leslie Roberts.

“The message doesn’t seem to be getting through, particularly to some young people who think they’re invincible.”

In a statement to CTV News Ottawa, Bylaw and Regulatory Services Director Roger Chapman says, “There are still ongoing investigations from this past weekend that could result in charges.”

Chapman says recent investigations led to two charges being issued for social gatherings of more than 10 people in a private residence in contravention of the Reopening Ontario Act.

“In one case, up to 30 individuals were observed attending a house party in Ward 18 on Oct. 24,” said Chapman.

“The second charge was issued following a house party in Ward 16 on Oct. 31, where up to 16 individuals were observed to be in attendance.”

The fine is $880 for hosting an illegal gathering.

Alta Vista is Ward 18, while Ward 16 is River Ward.

Ottawa Bylaw has issued 24 charges for illegal gatherings since the start of the pandemic.

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