A weakening global economy will result in a dramatic increase in Canada's deficit this year, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said Tuesday in his fall economic statement. That weakness will be persistent enough to push his goal of eliminating the deficit another year down the road.
In a speech to the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce, Flaherty said the deficit will jump to $26.2 billion — up $5.1 billion from the $21.1-billion estimate in his March budget. The fiscal books are not projected to be in a surplus position until 2016-17, a year later than he had predicted.
While Canada has the best debt-to-GDP ratio among the G7 countries, Flaherty emphasized that Canada is not immune to a shaky global economy and is especially vulnerable to low commodity prices, including the oil from which Canada generates royalties.
For these reasons, Flaherty projects that nominal GDP, the broadest measure of the government’s tax base, for 2012 to 2016 will be on average $25 billion, or 1.3 per cent, lower than he had estimated in last March’s budget, a substantial drop.
However, he said the average outlook for economic growth of 2.3 per cent over five years is unchanged since the 2012 budget was revealed.
Flaherty said program expenses as a share of GDP will steadily decline, and will return to pre-recession levels by 2017, largely because of the $5.2-billion cut to government spending that was the headline of his spring budget, essentially a six-year spending freeze across the federal government.
But because of declining commodity prices — especially oil, which drives much of Canada’s economy — the government is estimating it will collect $36 billion less in royalties and tax revenues, about $7.2 billion for each of the next five years, than it had forecast in the last budget.
Flaherty predicted that the federal debt will resume its downward track and continue to remain the lowest in the G7.
Flaherty mentioned the European debt crisis and the looming possibility of the so-called "fiscal cliff," the combination of tax increases and reduced spending due to come into effect in the U.S. by 2013, as the chief reasons why the economic global outlook is so uncertain.
The potential for a fiscal cliff crisis is only six weeks away. Avery Shenfeld, chief economist of CIBC, noted Monday that it might have been better for Flaherty to wait four more weeks for his update, when events in the U.S. are likely to be much clearer.
Some think that even if the U.S. careens over the fiscal cliff, it will recover relatively quickly.
In a news conference following his speech, Flaherty played down the inability to balance the budget within his government's present mandate, which ends in 2015 when the next federal election is due to take place.
Flaherty said that the $1.8-billion deficit that his department projects for the years 2015 to 2016 is a little bit less than half a per cent of the federal budget, implying it was a fairly small number. "The good news is that we're on track."
Asked about whether his government has any contingency plans in the event of a U.S. fiscal crisis, Flaherty answered that he has a contingency plan, but won't discuss it. He added that there is also a contingency plan ready if the European debt crisis were "to unravel in a disorderly way".
NDP finance critic Peggy Nash said that once again Flaherty and his government are avoiding accountability by delivering the economic update at a location far from Parliament, recalling that in October Flaherty announced his budget implementation bill in a bicycle shop.
Nash said the government was taking what she called a “steady as she goes” approach, while Canadians are seeing their incomes stagnate. She recalled that in 2008, just before the financial crisis that spawned a global recession, the government was assuring people that everything was fine.
The NDP has issued what it calls a “reality check,” pointing out that in the past six years the Conservative government has collected more and more personal income tax from Canadians: “Revenue from personal income tax is now 3.7 times higher than from corporations."
Scott Brison, the Liberal finance critic, said that Flaherty is offering nothing about job creation for young Canadians, adding that “Mr. Flaherty has pushed the balanced budget date off for one more year. He’s been wrong on every deficit projection he’s ever made and there’s no reason to believe he’ll be right this time.”
According to Craig Alexander, deputy chief economist at TD Financial Group, it’s still possible, if unlikely, for the government to hit its deficit target. “They actually shave down their projections by about $3 billion just in case something untowards happens. It’s called a contingency reserve … so they could still balance the books in 2015, but they’re not counting on it anymore."
For middle class Canadians, the budget-balancing delay means they’ll have to wait longer for the following financial goodies promised by Flaherty as soon as government finances are in the black: