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Here’s how Canada stacks up against other countries when it comes to high inflation

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OTTAWA — Decades-high inflation has Canadians worried about the rising cost of living, but as gloomy as things may seem, Canada appears to be faring better than many other major economies.

Its national inflation rate is still lower than that of the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom — whose year-over-year inflation rose to an eye-popping 11.1 per cent in October.

Price pressures have begun to ease in Canada, with gas prices falling from record highs and annual inflation holding steady at 6.9 per cent in October despite a rebound at the pump.

Still, despite glimmers of hope that the worst is behind Canadians, many have seen their purchasing power eroded as wage growth trails inflation.

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Inflation in Canada reached the highest levels since 1981 in the summer, with rates creeping steadily higher since the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions. Prices were up 8.1 per cent in June compared to a year earlier.

And even as federal Liberals respond to the political challenge of inflation by announcing additional supports for Canadians, opposition politicians seized on the issue as an opportunity to argue that the government is failing on domestic cost-of-living issues.

But Canada has a lot of company in the fight against high inflation.

A slew of global challenges, from the Russian invasion of Ukraine to snarled supply chains, have rapidly pushed prices up around the world.

Pandemic support programs and low interest rates also made it easier for people to spend money as countries reopened, adding demand to economies that were already struggling to supply goods and services.

Now, as central banks act in unison to quash inflation, Canada’s extraordinarily high inflation rate is still lower than that of key allies.

BMO chief economist Douglas Porter says it’s tricky to draw comparisons between countries because of differences in how inflation is calculated.

However, it’s fair to say that Canada is in relatively better shape, he said in an interview.

“Even with that mild warning label, I still think the overriding story does hold that Canada does generally have lower inflation than most major economies,” Porter said.

The economist noted that Switzerland, Japan and China are the main outliers to that trend, holding inflation in the range of two to three per cent.

And as in Canada, inflation in the U.S. appears to be slowing. The latest inflation report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the inflation rate slowed to 7.7 per cent in October, a positive surprise for forecasters.

Porter attributes more-intense inflation pressures south of the border to the U.S. economy re-opening earlier in the pandemic and its federal government doling out more aggressive fiscal stimulus in response to COVID-19.

On the other side of the Atlantic, a dependence on Russian energy has led to even higher pressures.

The U.K., which is suffering its highest level of inflation in 41 years, is not alone in seeing double-digit rates. The European Union saw prices in October up 10.6 per cent from the year before.

After Europe slapped Russia with economic sanctions following its invasion of Ukraine, the country cut off its supply of natural gas to Europe, raising fears about the cost of living ahead of the winter months.

“That’s the primary reason why Europe’s inflation rate is so much higher than it is here in North America,” Porter said.

Central banks globally are moving to clamp down on high inflation with interest rate hikes designed to slow economic growth.

And although the Bank of Canada has been criticized for waiting too long to raise interest rates, Porter says it has moved faster and more aggressively than other central banks.

“I think the Bank of Canada got it earlier than other central banks did. And that’s one of the reasons why our inflation rate is a bit lower,” he said.

Since March, Canada’s central bank has raised its key interest rate six consecutive times, marking one of the fastest monetary policy tightening cycles in its history. Its key interest rate rose from 0.25 per cent to 3.75 per cent, and governor Tiff Macklem has warned that Canadians should expect interest rates to rise even further.

The U.S. Federal Reserve also began raising interest rates in March at a similar pace, with the top end of its range now at four per cent.

The Bank of England raised its key interest rate by three-quarters of a percentage point at its last decision meeting, but its key rate still lags at three per cent.

The European Central Bank has been the slowest, raising its key rate last month to 1.5 per cent.

Porter said swifter action on the part of the Bank of Canada and the U.S. Federal Reserve mean inflation might come down in North America faster than in other regions.

But he cautioned that the road ahead won’t be easy.

“I think we all have to brace ourselves for a bit more of a prolonged fight to get inflation under control.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2022.

 

Nojoud Al Mallees, The Canadian Press

Economy

China’s Economy Is In for a Bumpy Ride as Covid Zero Comes to an End

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(Bloomberg) — Three years after the first case of Covid-19 was reported in Wuhan, Chinese policymakers must now grapple with how to live with the virus while keeping the economy growing fast enough to stave off public anger.

With the Covid Zero policy being rapidly dismantled, the threat of economic disruption remains high. Infections are likely to surge, forcing workers to stay home, businesses may run out of supplies, restaurants could be emptied of customers and hospitals will fill up. Even though there’s optimism the economy will recover as China opens up to the rest of the world, the next six months could be particularly volatile.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. expects below-consensus economic growth in the first half of next year, saying the initial stages of reopening will be negative for the economy, as was the experience in other East Asian economies. Morgan Stanley predicts China’s economy to remain “subpar” through the first half of next year. Standard Chartered Plc said growth in urban consumer spending will still lag pre-pandemic rates next year given the hit to household incomes during the pandemic.

The economy was already in bad shape this year because of the Covid outbreaks and a property market crisis. While China’s zero tolerance approach to combating infections has kept infections and deaths relatively low for most of the pandemic, the rapid spread of the highly infectious omicron variant exposed the challenges of maintaining strict controls. From snap city-wide lockdowns to almost-daily Covid tests, the restrictions have taken a heavy toll on people’s lives and the economy.

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That discontent manifested in mass unrest at the end of last month. People in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere started to reject demands for quarantines or lockdowns of their housing estates, and between Nov. 25 and Dec. 5, at least 70 mass protests occurred across 30 cities, according to data compiled by think-tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Authorities have moved to quell public anger by relaxing some Covid requirements around testing and quarantine — although the sudden and confusing changes to the rules over the past few weeks have injected more uncertainty about the economy’s outlook.

Here’s a deeper look at the economy’s downturn and the challenges it faces as China exits Covid Zero.

People have been cooped up in their homesChina’s cities have been hit hard by Covid restrictions, with mobility across the country’s 15 largest cities plummeting in recent months, according to congestion data released by Baidu Inc.

Major hubs are showing strain, including the capital Beijing, as well as Chongqing and Guangzhou. Trips there have plunged in recent months below levels in previous years, according to subway data compiled by Bloomberg.

Few have borne the brunt of China’s Covid Zero policy more than the financial hub of Shanghai, a major epicenter for recent protests. After a two-month lockdown this year to tackle a major outbreak, China’s richest city is still struggling to get back up off its knees.

Malls have seen a surge in vacancies, consumer spending has plunged, and spending in areas like food and beverages has been depressed, mirroring the national trend.

Lack of spending has hit the economy hardCovid restrictions have battered the economy, with consumers pulling back on spending and business output plunging. Retail sales unexpectedly contracted 0.5% in October from a year earlier, with economists surveyed by Bloomberg predicting an even worse outcome of a decline of 3.9% in November.

The government is expected to miss its economic growth target of around 5.5% by a significant margin this year. The consensus among economists is for growth of just 3.2%, which would be the weakest pace since the 1970s barring the pandemic slump in 2020.

With onerous testing rules, flare ups in holiday spots, and official advice discouraging travel, holidaymakers have stayed home, adding a further drag on retail spending. Tourism revenue declined 26% to 287 billion yuan ($40.3 billion) over the week-long National Day holiday in October compared to the same period last year. Flight travel also dropped to its lowest levels since at least 2018.

Youth unemployment is near a record high

That’s all combined to drive growing economic malaise among the country’s youth, with the unemployment rate among 16-24 year-olds soaring to a record high of about 20% earlier this year. Joblessness among young people is more than triple the national rate, with many graduates struggling to find work in the downturn, especially in the technology and property-related industries.

Unemployment will likely get worse next year, when a new crop of 11.6 million university and college students are expected to graduate, adding to pressure in the labor market. Factories are still struggling to cope with Covid outbreaks

So far during the pandemic, the industrial sector has held up better than consumer spending since factories were protected from Covid outbreaks and global demand for Chinese-made goods was strong. That’s changing now.

Export demand is plummeting as consumers around the world grapple with soaring inflation and rising interest rates.

The disruption at a major assembly plant in Zhengzhou for Apple Inc.’s iPhones and violent protests there last month also show the damage that outbreaks can have on production.

The housing market crisis continues to simmer

China’s ongoing real estate slump has also been a source of unhappiness for homebuyers.  The property market, which has long been a major driver of the country’s economy, is in its worst downturn in modern history, with sales and prices plummeting. Cash-strapped property developers struggled to finish building homes, prompting mortgage boycotts by thousands of buyers in the summer.

Despite authorities introducing a spate of measures recently to help make borrowing easier and ease tight cash flows for developers, the economy’s downturn and lack of confidence mean the housing market continues to be depressed. The slump is not expected to end soon, with Bloomberg Economics expecting a 25% drop in property investment in the coming decade.Local governments are struggling to fund their spending

Government finances have come under severe pressure as the economy slumped. Land revenues have plummeted and local governments have had to boost spending on Covid control measures. The broad measure of the fiscal deficit in the first 10 months of the year is nearly triple the amount it was in the same period last year.

Relaxing testing and quarantine rules will help ease pressure on local government finances. However, it remains to be seen how far and fast authorities will go in dismantling Covid Zero if a surge in Covid cases puts strain on the healthcare system, a likely outcome given that a significant portion of the country’s elderly and vulnerable population are still unvaccinated or lacking booster shots.

–With assistance from Kevin Varley, Jin Wu, Danny Lee and Fran Wang.

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The US Fed’s Balance Sheet Shows What’s Happening To The Economy

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The mother of all charts is below. This is the Federal Reserve balance sheet history straight from their website:

This is where the world’s inflation comes from. Not all, of course, because central banks around the world have done the same. In goes new money and up goes the price of stuff. Now if there is less stuff, then up goes the price even more. However, without new money prices cannot rise across the board, inflation is always about money supply.

This is why the Fed is reining it in. Down goes money supply, down goes asset prices.

Now there is one modifying factor. If you pump new money into an economy and that money goes to drive up the prices of illiquid assets, then the inflationary impact will be in those illiquid assets and the new money will be locked up there and will only dribble into the “real economy.” Let’s say you pump in money and make it easy to be grabbed by people buying houses or stocks but make it hard to be grabbed by people buying groceries, well then up will go the price of houses and stocks but groceries will not be that much affected. The lucky (rich) folk with the stocks and house will get much richer and the people who need to buy groceries will get left behind somewhat but at least there won’t be runaway inflation outside of stocks and houses. Woe betide an economy that hands out money to people to buy groceries because boy is everyone in for a bout of inflation then.

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Ring any bells?

So to get prices under control you have to drain money from the system because when there is too much in the wrong places it starts rushing around bidding up the price of everything.

There is too much money in the system and that money is parked and it’s parked at the Federal Reserve where banks who can’t use a big chunk of this new money have kind of handed it back to the Federal Reserve to look after. That is the reverse repo which has gone out of whack with all the new money magicked up to bridge the pandemic.

Here is a chart of it:

Note how it matches the Fed balance sheet in character. This money is a bulwark for the banks if things get tricky as they can pull this cash out and back into play in the real economy, but in normality it would be down at 2014-2018 levels if there was just about the right level of money in the system. The Fed will feel there is plenty of room to tighten while these balances are high because if banks need liquidity, there it is.

This is where the big call lies. If banks were to say to the Fed, nope we aren’t going to lend to anyone but you and turn the real economy into a credit desert while damming up the cash with the Federal Reserve then there is no hope of a “soft landing.” If the money stays in the system as is then inflation should run its course and the new money supply would match new price levels, which wouldn’t be so bad, but the trouble is government fiscal deficits would then necessitate further money supply increases creating further inflation which could only be combatted with more interest rate rises, causing a vicious circle of high inflation and stagnation. That is what happen in the 1970s…

But that is all “what if.”

The real map is the progress of these two charts. If these balances fall without much drama then all is working out well, but if tightening starts to badly disrupt the economy without these levels falling materially then it will be a signal to take cover.

The institutions think inflation is about to fall sharply and that then new QE will restart. I say ‘good luck with that.’ However, these charts will provide the guidance necessary to judge the likely outcome ahead.

For me there needs to be a capitulation to define the new beginning we are entering and that hasn’t happened yet.

Once again these charts will give a solid indication of what’s up next.

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Quebec looking at $8-billion contingency fund ‘for economic risks’

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QUEBEC — Following up on those pre-Christmas cheques for millions of Quebecers, the Legault government now is coming to the aid of seniors struggling with the cost of living.

But the government is warning the days of Quebec’s record economic growth are coming to an end as the full effects of a worldwide slowdown take hold. To that end and “as a precaution,” Quebec has developed an alternative scenario in which the province’s economy would enter a recession.

The scenario, or Plan B, includes an $8-billion contingency fund — spread over five years — “for economic risks” and to offset the downturn.

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Tabling his fall economic update Thursday, Finance Minister Eric Girard confirmed previously announced plans to increase the maximum amount of the refundable senior assistance tax credit from $411 a year to $2,000, beginning this year.

The measure applies to those 70 and older who already receive this tax credit, and adds to the list of eligible recipients, Girard said. The news means an additional 398,500 seniors will have access to the credit, for a total of 1.1 million people.

The money was a key election promise of the Coalition Avenir Québec, and is the final phase of the party’s so-called anti-inflation shield. A total of 65 per cent of the assistance will go to seniors with an annual income of less than $25,000. The measure will cost Quebec $8 billion over five years.

If you add all the previous measures announced for 2022, the total relief for eligible seniors living alone will be $3,100. For a couple, the amount is $2,200.

Girard has also announced a plan to index the income tax system and social assistance programs to reflect increases in the prices of goods and services, to the level of 6.44 per cent. That indexation kicks in Jan. 1 and represents an additional $2.3 billion in relief.

As an example, a couple with two children and a total income of $100,000 stand to make a gain of $1,004, which includes $537 from the indexing of the tax system and $467 from an increase in family allowance.

But one day before the National Assembly recesses for Christmas, Girard’s update confirmed what he has been saying for weeks: Quebec’s economy is slowing down at an alarming rate, with little relief in sight in the short term.

“The economic outlook for Quebec and Canada has deteriorated quickly,” the update states. “A high degree of uncertainty hangs over the economic and financial forecast.”

The document spells things out bluntly: Quebec’s economic growth is expected to slow from 3.1 per cent in 2022 to 0.7 per cent in 2023. In his March budget, Girard had predicted two per cent growth for 2023.

Job creation will also slow down, resulting in what Girard says will be a temporary rise in unemployment, to an average of five per cent per year in 2023.

And while Girard says he believes inflation peaked at eight per cent in June, the full effects of the slowdown and increases in lending rates by the central bank have yet to be felt.

As a precaution, he included the alternative scenario featuring an $8-billion contingency fund over five years.

“We believe the recession is, more or less, within a 50 per cent probability,” Girard told reporters at a news conference. “It’s good policy to have provisions for contingencies, whether they are pandemic- or economic-related.”

Under the recession scenario, economic activity would decline by one per cent in 2023 before increasing by 1.2 per cent in 2024. The overall negative impact on Quebec’s finances would be a whopping $5 billion in 2023, which would lead to a $4.1-billion deficit in 2023-24.

Various options are on the table to counter a recession, including more direct aid for households and businesses or an increase for public investments in infrastructure.

“For individuals, we have suggested if the economy slows down, it is the appropriate time for a fiscal stimulus,” Girard noted. “The fiscal stimulus we have highlighted as possible would be an income tax reduction.”

In the last election, the CAQ pledged an income tax cut — a promise restated by Premier François Legault in his interview with the Montreal Gazette last month.

For now, Girard’s budgetary deficit projection for 2022-23 remains lower than he said it would be in the March budget. That’s because that same high inflation rate has driven up Quebec’s own source revenues by about $14 billion.

Of that money, $13.2 billion is being turned back over to citizens by Girard with his cost-of-living measures.

Girard is also able to lower a projected $6.5-billion deficit for 2022-23 to $5.2 billion, including a mandatory contribution to the debt-reducing Generations Fund. Quebec is still on track to balance its books by 2027-28, Girard said.

The update represents a followup to a series of other measures promised by the CAQ during the election campaign to help Quebecers deal with inflation.

Up first were cheques of $400 to $600 for citizens who earned less than $100,000 in 2021. A Revenue Quebec spokesperson told the Montreal Gazette Thursday that more than half of the payments — in the form of direct deposit or paper cheques — have already been sent.

Two promised cost-of-living bills have also been tabled by the CAQ and should be adopted before the legislature recesses Friday. Bill 1 slaps a three per cent ceiling on government fee increases, while Bill 2 imposes the same ceiling on hydro rates.

The opposition parties were not impressed, with Québec solidaire saying the update does not include enough specific relief measures for citizens. QS wanted Quebec to immediately increase the minimum wage from $14.25 to $18 an hour and freeze all government fees.

“It’s not generous enough, it’s not targeted enough,” added Liberal finance critic Frédéric Beauchemin. He noted seniors will have to wait until they do their income taxes in order to get the CAQ tax credit, when they need the money now.

pauthier@postmedia.com

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