Weak loonie will sway snowbirds, cross-border shopping

Projections that the loonie will plunge below 80 cents US by spring will clip the wings of vacationing snowbirds, take the air out of cross-border shopping and generally cast a pall over the consumer psyche, economists say.

Snowbirds won't be happy, but lower dollar could be good for the economy

It's not a new low — far from it.

But projections that the loonie will plunge below 80 cents US by spring will clip the wings of vacationing snowbirds, take the air out of cross-border shopping and generally cast a pall over the consumer psyche, economists say.

"There's a severity here. When we see really extreme moves in the Canadian dollar like this, it has a real impact just in terms of a shock effect," said Craig Fehr, an investment strategist with Edward Jones.

The last time the Canadian dollar traded at 80 cents was on April 21, 2009.

Citing low oil prices, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. this week forecast the loonie would tumble even further in the next three months to 78 cents US and then even as low as 71 cents by 2017, a drop that Fehr says will dissuade shoppers from spending as much in the U.S.

"We're going to see Canadian consumers increasingly becoming, well, Canadian consumers," he said.

A falling loonie can have an inflationary effect as retailers hike prices to offset the cost of importing goods from the U.S. Accordingly, purchases made in the U.S. — even those online ones — could lose their allure.

While Fehr believes that a sharp free fall of the loonie into the 70-cents US range would rattle Canadian shoppers sensitive about their purchasing power, there's also some cognitive dissonance for Americans who work in Canada, like David Gray.

As a dual citizen, Gray said that when the loonie tanks this much, it's hard to shake feelings of being "the family pauper."

Intellectually, the University of Ottawa economics professor knows better. A weak loonie should be good for exports and for Canada's trade balance.

The impact of the tumbling loonie's affect on domestic spending will likely be more about where consumers spend rather than how much, according to economists. (REUTERS/Mark Blinch )

"I have loads of relatives in the U.S.," Gray says, "and when we were beyond parity, I no longer felt like the poor cousin, whereas when we had the 61-cent loonie, I certainly did."

Gray takes the falling currency in stride. But for universities and top companies looking for international talent, having a much weaker currency than your chief competitor south of the border will be an extra burden when it comes to recruiting.

It could also put suddenly cheaper Canadian companies on the block.

A longer view

Although there are pluses and minuses to having the dollar trade lower, Fehr conceded there is a psychological component to a devalued dollar, "where it's almost unpatriotic" to be rooting for a weaker loonie.

What feels a bit painful in the short term is actually very good for the entire federal economy- Camilla Sutton, Scotiabank's chief foreign exchange strategist

But Scotiabank's chief foreign exchange strategist, Camilla Sutton, prefers to take the longer view.

It might be more costly in the near future to buy Florida oranges in the middle of a Canadian winter, "but what feels a bit painful in the short term is actually very good for the entire federal economy," she said.

And even if some purchasing power is reduced, she said, cheaper gasoline prices and lower interest rates have the potential to make more disposable income available to consumers.

The Canadian dollar has been through these tribulations before, trading at 62 cents US at the beginning of 2002. Though just last June it was up to near parity, at 93.8 cents US.

What's so striking this time around is how jarring the fluctuations have been, said Ted Mallett, vice-president and chief economist with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

"It's not untested territory, but we never like to see big changes so quickly because they destabilize the business environment," he said.

Canadian retailers, who have been losing business to internet and cross-border shoppers, may do better if the lower loonie means consumers spend their money closer to home. (Mark Stockwell/The Sun Chronicle/AP)

The prospect of a loonie trading at less than 80 cents US is potentially discomfiting, but there's nothing magic about round numbers.

"If it means that you're not going to be making that trip to the U.S. in the spring, or you're turning a week-long trip into a weekend, that's affecting your decisions," Mallett said.

When it comes to gauging sentiment among Canadian businesses about the movements of the dollar, the federation's surveys have traditionally shown an even split between those who felt the weaker loonie gave them a boost, and those who felt it was a disadvantage.

"We stopped asking the question because the answer never changed," Mallett said. "A quarter were helped, a quarter were hurt, and the remaining half didn't pay a whole lot of attention."

For Canadian-based investors with holdings in the States, there is the potential of an added gain from the falling dollar.

Not only might these investors profit from their U.S. investments, with the American economy doing so well, but there is also profit that can be made on the currency return should they take advantage of that, Sutton says.

As for the snowbirds, they may just need to get creative with travel destinations.

Sutton noted that the Canadian dollar stacks up well against the euro in relative terms, and has actually gained seven per cent against the euro. That would make a sun-drenched European holiday cheaper.

"So you might have to trade New York for Paris," she suggests.


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