Release your economic 'animal spirits' in 2016: Don Pittis

Time to put a smile on your face and revive what economist John Maynard Keynes called "animal spirits," getting the Canadian export economy back on track.

Keynes's 'spontaneous urge to action' could create a comeback for Canadian exports

Time to stop monkeying around and get happy. Put a smile on your face and revive what economist John Maynard Keynes called 'animal spirits,' and get the Canadian export economy back on track. (Colin Braley/Reuters)

Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz wants you to let out your inner animal. 

"We have strengthened our financial architecture to protect against future crises," Poloz told us in a recent speech, "sustaining growth and avoiding stagnation until such time as Keynes's animal spirits, which have been crushed over the past seven years, revive."

Animal spirits? You mean dancing with a lampshade hat on New Year's Eve? Well, something like that.

Poloz isn't the only one who thinks this is what Canada needs. And following recent news about the state of Canadian growth, especially the crumbling of the Canadian resource economy, it is worthwhile imagining a formula for success.

Keynes's concept of animal spirits is in many ways completely contrary to some of the most hard-nosed concepts of modern economics.
Mood makes an economic difference. Grrrrr: It's time to let out your inner animal. (Reuters)

Grouped around what's called the efficient-markets hypothesis, this conventional analysis puts its faith in what you might call the clockwork economy. 

In the mood for risk

In this conventional view, the wisdom of the free market sees every opportunity and exploits it. There is never any free money sitting around, because someone immediately picks it up.

But, instructed by the irrational gloom of the Great Depression, Keynes saw other forces at work. He saw plenty of labour and plenty of need. But the clockwork economy failed to take advantage of those opportunities.

The Keynesian analysis actually prefigured the recent enthusiasm for behavioural economics, which studies how people's feelings or a national mood set the pace for a country's economic success.
Honda workers on the assembly line at the company's plant in Alliston, Ont. Transportation remains Canada's biggest non-resource manufacturing sector, closely followed by food. (Reuters)

According to Keynes, rational analysis could reveal only part of how the real economy works. He suggested another way of explaining changes in economic activity.

"Most of our decisions to do something positive can only be taken as the result of animal spirits — a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction," he wrote.

Breaking out of the gloom

Certainly the Canadian economy has been weighed down by gloom. Our last bout of optimism focused on oil and gas, especially in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador. That has not gone well lately. 

Other parts of the country have remained mired in the aftermath of the 2008 meltdown. Investors were bent on preserving their nest eggs, buying property, bonds and blue-chip stocks. Now Poloz says the time has come to bring out the animal and reboot Canada's maker economy.

Manufacturing has been declining for 15 years. Despite a plunging loonie, recovery still seems far away, says Paul Boothe of the Ivey School of Business at Ontario's Western University.

"Manufacturing sales are recovering, so we are improving, but it's important to note that we're still not where we were in the year 2000," he said in a recent Conference Board of Canada briefing. In fact, since the turn of the millennium, manufacturing has shrunk not only relative to the overall economy, but also in real terms. 
Canadian manufacturing remains below 2000 levels, and manufacturing export are down as well. The low loonie has not yet made a difference. (Canadian Press)

In the animal spirits analysis, that may be a good thing, because gloom has meant opportunities have been missed. They are waiting to be found. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. central bank has begun to raise interest rates, making speculating on safe assets less appealing. In Canada the federal government has taken one small step toward cooling the housing market that soaks up so much Canadian wealth. 

It's a bit of a balancing act, but so long as housing doesn't crash, but stabilizes at a what Poloz calls "a sustainable level," it will redirect investment out of housing and into a little more risk-taking.

"What happens instead is you have a rising share of non-resource exports in the economy and that becomes your primary headline source of new growth, new firm creation and investment," said Poloz. He says there are signs this is already happening.

Plenty of opportunities

With the Canadian dollar at new lows for the decade, there are plenty of manufacturing and export opportunities, large and small, says Peter Hall, chief economist at Export Development Canada.

Hall, who is something of a cheerleader for Canadian manufacturing and growth, has been watching a transformation of Canadian exports away from our traditional markets.

"Back in 2000 we exported about five per cent of what we do to emerging markets," said Hall in a long telephone chat earlier this year. "That's now 12 per cent. That's a pretty monumental shift in a short period of time."

According to Hall, you don't have to be huge or high-tech to get into that market. Canadian prepared foods, known around the world for their high quality, represent just one area with enormous growth potential.

To make a sense of animal spirits work, it has to spread to individuals willing to put some of their savings into new ideas. It must spread to banks willing to provide capital for riskier ventures.

"We're talking about supporting big companies, medium companies and small companies. They're all involved in this," says Hall. "That's what's exciting about it."

It's time to get excited.

In 2016, make something and sell it. Let out your inner animal.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

​More analysis by Don Pittis​


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.