How long can it go? Resilient economy enters 2019 with signs of weakness

Through much of 2018, Canada’s unemployment rate hovered near a 40-year low

The Canadian economy entered 2018 on an unexpectedly impressive run. The country begins 2019 on a healthy note but signs of weakness have raised a key question: how long until the good times come to an end?

Through much of 2018, Canada’s unemployment rate hovered near a 40-year low and job-creation remained strong as the evidence pointed to an economy going at close to full tilt.

The handoff was a good one, too — the country had posted three-per-cent growth for all of 2017, largely thanks to strong household spending. We’ll have to wait a little for the final numbers but forecasters say 2018 has likely delivered still-sturdy growth of about two per cent.

But as 2019 approaches, there are worries the solid economic expansion is starting to show its age.

Last month, the federal government’s fall economic statement projected two-per-cent growth again for 2019, but many predict the number will likely come in lower following a recent drop in oil prices.

In addition to the pullback in crude prices, experts point to jitters in the financial markets, predictions the American economy — a key contributor to Canadian growth — will start to cool off and the United Kingdom’s difficult divorce from the European Union, which could ripple across the global economy.

READ MORE: Fix low incomes among family-class immigrants to help Canada’s economy: study

There’s also potential for an even bigger threat: an escalation of the trade war between Washington and Beijing.

On trade, Canada made it through a year filled with significant uncertainty, including the difficult negotiation and signing of an update to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Many of the trade unknowns, however, will carry over into the new year. The road to NAFTA 2.0’s ratification could bring more drama, punishing American steel and aluminum tariffs remain in place and the clash of superpowers between Canada’s two biggest trading partners continues to play out.

“There are always reflections around the cyclical downturns that happen and, as I’ve said, the impacts of a trade war between China and the United States could have significant impacts on the global economy — negative impacts on the global economy,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

“We have to make sure that we are prepared for rough waters if we encounter them.

In Canada, potential trouble spots include the combination of high household debt, rising interest rates and slowing wage growth that’s been “terrible” for about half a year following a good pickup early in 2018, says Matt Stewart, director of economics for The Conference Board of Canada.

Higher interest rates, Stewart added, have delivered a hit to household spending, which has been the primary driver of Canada’s good economic fortunes.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a recession,” Stewart said. “As of yet, I think most of the news is still positive, but there is a growing amount of risks.”

With overburdened consumers expected to take a breather, business investment is seen as the next critical source of growth. But Stewart said the transition has yet to materialize because investment has underperformed, likely due to competitiveness concerns. Businesses aren’t sure whether Canada’s the best place to put their money.

In an effort to boost investment, Ottawa announced billions of dollars worth of corporate tax incentives in its fall statement. Taxpayers will have to wait and see if the federal changes will be enough to encourage more companies to invest in Canada.

Craig Alexander, chief economist of Deloitte, said the economy will continue to have healthy growth in 2019, but notes it’s due for some moderation.

“We are in the late stages of a business cycle,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that a recession is around the corner, but we need to recognize that we’re 10 years into an economic recovery, expansion. Business cycles are typically eight to 10 years long.”

Alexander added markets are probably overreacting to the possibility that another downturn could be almost upon us. He thinks the more likely case is that growth will continue to slow.

The economy’s evolution will have different impacts depending where one lives, he added.

For example, the energy sector faces big challenges.

Part of it comes from the recent plunge in oil prices, but there’s also been an extra discount on the price of western Canadian crude caused by transportation bottlenecks out of the Alberta oilpatch.

“This is sad news for Alberta,” Alexander said. “They’ve only barely recovered from the last recession.”

Ottawa offered assistance this month in the form of a $1.6-billion aid package to support oil and gas companies.

Alberta, however, wants federal help to move its oil to new markets.

Ontario’s industrial sector will also face a big hurdle in 2019. General Motors has announced plans to shutter its plant in Oshawa later in the year, which will put 2,500 people out of work and inflict economic pain on the region.

Bank of Montreal chief economist Doug Porter said Canada already took a small step back in 2018 — and he expects growth to slow further.

“Just looking at financial markets there’s obviously a lot of concern that we are getting to a late stage of the (economic) cycle,” Porter said. “We don’t believe that recession risks are especially high at this point, but we do think the North American economy will cool in 2019.”

Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Houston mill to re-open June 8

Ends lengthy shutdown which began in March

Fibre installation for South Hazelton begins

Citywest says it will install cable in the summer and home installations in the fall

Annual bird count thrills organizer

Count took place over 48 hours

B.C. government eyes antlerless moose harvest increase in bid to save caribou

Antlerless moose hunts reduce predation for threatened mountain caribou, says ministry

Major paving projects announced

Extends west of Smithers to east of Houston

March dental conference key to many of B.C.’s COVID-19 cases

Early infections from China, Iran were quickly contained

MAP: Dr. Henry reveals which B.C. regions have seen most COVID-19 cases

B.C. health officials release a first look at how the novel coronavirus has reached all corners of the province

Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation woman, 26, fatally shot by police in Edmundston, N.B.

Police were conducting a well-being check at the time of the incident

Seniors to receive up to $500 in promised COVID-19 emergency aid in early July

The Liberal government first promised the extra help in mid-May, but had to create a new system to deliver the aid

Introducing the West Coast Traveller: A voyage of the mind

Top armchair travel content for Alaska, Yukon, BC, Alberta, Washington, Oregon and California!

VIDEO: Revelstoke bear wanders into Animal House pet store

Staff got ready to chase it out with a broom

New study is first full list of species that only exist in Canada

Almost 40 per cent of them are critically imperilled or imperilled and eight are already extinct

Federal aid for care home systems needed ahead of second wave, advocates say

Ontario Long Term Care Association calling for more action

Most Read