Canada's economy 'dead in the water,' headed toward recession

Canada’s economy shrank in the first quarter by a whopping 0.6 per cent. So far, everybody is afraid of asking the most obvious question: is this the beginning of a new recession?
Louis-Philippe Rochon says all signs point to another recession in Canada's not-so-distant future.

Canada's economy shrank in the first quarter by a whopping 0.6 per cent. So far, everybody is afraid of asking the most obvious question: is this the beginning of a new recession?

Recessions are defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth. Recently, we learned from Statistics Canada that Canada's economy shrank between January and March, the biggest decline in GDP since 2009, and the first contraction in the last four years.

In fact, the economy contracted in all three months. It is even more dramatic when you think that the fourth quarter (Q4) of 2014 registered a growth of 2.4 per cent! In fact, it is the first time growth in GDP fell below zero since the Q4 of 2011, and the single biggest slide into negative territory since the second quarter of 2009.

Yet another recession

Of course, we don't know yet if this trend continued into April and May, but if it has, as we should find out soon enough, it raises the prospect that we are heading for a yet another recession, and that Canada's economy is not immune to the turmoil facing many countries.

Given the problems the rest of the world is having, who knows what this potential recession will look like. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has downgraded Canada's growth prospects, and is giving the world economy barely a passing grade. Translation: we are heading towards troubled waters.

Taking a closer look at the statistics, we see that private sector investment declined dramatically as a result of the oil crisis, and that is certainly having repercussions in other sectors. Consumers are slowing their spending dramatically (slowest level since 2009) and governments are cutting spending as well. 

Do you see where I am going with this? Where is the growth going to come from in the coming months? No one is currently spending, and that leaves only exports as a possible way out.

Well, we also recently learned that the U.S. economy has also shrunk in the first quarter, by 0.7  per cent. This was revised downward from a previously-reported gain of 0.2 per cent. With the economy south of the border contracting as well, our exports should also fall.

Economy dead in the water

There are no two ways about it: our economy is dead in the water.

The recent Stats Canada news is even more startling for two reasons.

First, recall that just last week, the Bank of Canada told us that Canada's economy had stalled and registered zero growth. Now we learn that the reality is actually worse. This is closer in tone to Governor Poloz' recent comment about Canada's economy being "atrocious."

The Bank told us as well that Canada's economy would rebound in the second quarter to 1.8 per cent, then to 2.8 per cent in the third quarter and 2½ per cent in the fourth quarter. These numbers are increasingly looking like pie in the economic sky. These new numbers will probably lead to a decline in interest rates in July.

Second, most economists were expecting bad news, but not this bad. In fact, in a survey done by Bloomberg, the consensus among economists was for a small but positive growth of about 0.3 per cent. The latest figures, however, are sure to force many economists to rethink the path of Canada's economy in the near and not-so-distant future.

No one knows what's going on

If anything, what this shows is that neither the Bank of Canada nor economists really know what's going on, and that should scare us. Of course, it could be that the bad economic news in both Canada and the U.S. is the result of bad weather and other minor problems, as many pundits have rushed to the airways to say.

But what these pundits have failed to do is to take a step back and look at the whole picture. The truth is we have not been doing well since the 2007 crisis. Rather than rethink economics, governments have continued with the same bad policies as before, and now the austerity chickens are coming home to roost.

Where do we go from here? Well, these numbers are certainly troubling, but they should convince governments that now is not the time to tighten the belt. In fact, austerity is a contributing factor in this mess.

When everyone is not spending, as is the case now, the government has a moral responsibility to step in and spend, and to support Canada's flagging economy.

As I have said many times, now is not the time to balance the budget. When your house is on fire, it is not the time to think about new wallpaper for the dining room: you need to put out the fire first before it spreads and does even more harm.

Finally, there is this little thing called an election coming in October. If second quarter numbers are also negative, as I am prepared to bet, then this spells sure trouble for the Harper government. It means that we will have an election on the heels of bad news. It could possibly be a game changer.

Louis-Philippe Rochon is an associate professor at Laurentian University and co-editor of the Review of Keynesian Economics.