Startling Canadian GDP numbers could signal economic turning point: Don Pittis
Stats feel too good to be true, but such strong growth figures are an encouraging sign
In economics journalism the normal rule is that only gloomy news sells. Canada's latest economic growth figures are so startlingly good that they make a rare exception.
The first inclination for any self-respecting business journalist is to look for the dark lining within the silver cloud. A little more on that later.
But while the Canada economy faces many challenges yet, such strong GDP data are very hard to dismiss. They offer hope that rather than being a drag on the global economy, a newly optimistic Canada may be part of the solution.
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It is hard to exaggerate the significance of these January growth figures, described as "rip-roaring" by the usually careful BMO economist Doug Porter. For one thing they were unexpected, double what economists had predicted.
Staggering growth rate
While 0.6 per cent growth may not seem like much, we must remember this is a monthly number. If we had 12 months like that, the annual growth rate would be in the range of a staggering 7 per cent, unheard of in an advanced industrial economy.
The GDP figures also offer vindication for the economic strategy of the previous Conservative government, because it is difficult to see how the new Liberal government's policy could have taken effect in time to cause these growth statistics.
Perhaps the prospect of new government spending promised in the autumn election campaign enticed some businesses to loosen purse strings.
Whether or not that is true, the new data bodes well for the current government's fiscal spending strategy. As mentioned previously, government spending only boosts, but cannot replace, weak economic activity. On the other hand, when growth is already happening, even a small burst of spending can have a jump-start effect, helping to convince capital to get off the sidelines and back into the active economy.
A Canadian glimmer of light
A Financial Times editorial described Canada as a glimmer of light in a world of "sluggish economies" because of its willingness to use fiscal spending to help boost global growth. But these latest figures may indicate Canada is providing something even more valuable: leadership in actual growth, not just growth created by artificial stimulus.
If you accept the "animal spirits" analysis offered by Poloz at the end of last year, optimism is more than just a good feeling. It has real economic consequences, especially after an extended period of gloom.
While the past three months' growth numbers are strong enough to assure us that the January figures are not "fluky" according to Porter, we cannot expect such strong economic activity to continue month after month. No one is expecting 7 per cent growth this year.
At the same time, as mentioned, there are many real and potential challenges ahead for the Canadian economy, many of them raised just this week.
Despite a healthy contribution to January's GDP from the oil and gas industry, the Bank of Canada warned on Wednesday that the energy slowdown is far from over. Deputy governor Lynn Patterson reminded us that while oil output has remained strong, job losses in the sector will continue to have a negative multiplier effect on Canada's energy-producing economies over a period of years.
Also this week, a new warning about Canada's growing private debt pile. Well-known international economist Steve Keen placed Canada in a club of "seven countries most vulnerable to a debt crisis."
Big mortgage? Big worries
As Poloz has reminded us, economic growth often leads to higher interest rates, and Canadians with enormous mortgages may find themselves overextended once rates begin to rise.
And while the economy may be growing, unemployment remains much higher than in the U.S. despite a labour force being depleted by the decline of the baby boom bulge.
Threatening as they are, all those perils are far more manageable if the Canadian industrial economy is growing, not shrinking.
And while the OECD cut its global growth rate forecast from 3.3 to 3 per cent this week, it is very encouraging to imagine that this time, Canada is no longer part of the problem, but may actually be part of the solution.
And that's no April Fool.
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