Liberals consider ending costly Canada Savings Bond program

Finance Minister Bill Morneau is seriously considering an end to the Canada Savings Bond program in his next federal budget, according to sources who spoke to Radio-Canada.

'It's a program that was developed for another time, another world,' economist says

Finance Minister Bill Morneau is seriously considering an end to the Canada Savings Bond program in his next federal budget, Radio-Canada has learned.

The program, introduced after the Second World War to help Ottawa raise money from individual Canadians, is about to launch its 70th year of sales, but senior government sources who spoke to CBC's French-language service say it could be the last.

Sales of the federal government bonds have been in a free fall since the late 1980s, when the program was a lucrative savings tool for consumers looking to cash in on then sky-high interest rates.

The bonds have been seen as one of the safest investment vehicles, because they are fully backed by the federal government and can be cashed in at any time. Interest earned is also compounded, and at times returns could be lofty.

But now banks and other financial institutions offer readily available products like GICs, self-directed trading accounts, mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs), which often offer better rates of return.

Fewer people are buying Canada Savings Bonds each year — because of paltry payouts in an era of sub-one per cent bank rates — and the government is questioning the $60-million price tag it costs to run the program each year.

Morneau has in his hands a report from accounting firm KPMG, commissioned by the previous Harper government, which recommends Ottawa pull the plug. "There are currently no valid economic reasons to justify this program," the report reads.

Its main recommendation: "An orderly phasing out of the program."

The auditor general has in the past raised questions about the program's profitability. Administered by the Bank of Canada, it is costly to run because thousands of Canadians still hold bonds (even if they are buying fewer each year) and their main point of contact is the central bank itself.

The national advertising campaign, which coincides with the two-month sales period each year, also costs millions.

A spokesperson for Morneau was unable to comment Monday. 

Canada Savings Bonds were first offered in 1946 in an effort to replicate the success of Victory Bonds campaign, launched during the First World War, which solicited funds from individual Canadians to help fund the war effort.

It was then much more difficult for a country to finance its sovereign debt, Serge Coulombe, an economist at the University of Ottawa, said in an interview, as international bond markets were not nearly as well-developed as they are now.

"This is probably the most expensive loan tool for the government, and it can borrow on world capital markets with much lower costs," he said. "It's a program that was developed for another time, another world."

Canada would follow Germany, which also eliminated its savings bond program in 2012.

With files from Radio-Canada's Marc Godbout