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Economy

No, immigration is not some magic pill for saving the economy

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New Canadians, including Zahra Aminmoghaddam, centre, from Iran, take the oath of citizenship during a special Canada Day ceremony in West Vancouver on July 1, 2017.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

David Green is a professor in the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia and an international fellow at the Institute for Fiscal Studies in London.

“When all you have is a hammer, all the world’s a nail.” This saying isn’t usually seen as a complimentary description of any policy approach but it appears to capture Canada’s immigration policy.

Immigration, undoubtedly, touches on nearly every aspect of our economy – from employment to output growth to health care to housing. And to hear the government speak, you would think it’s the right tool for the job in every one of them. The problem is, it’s at best an ineffective hammer for every one of them, and using it more will cause more problems than it will solve.

The size of the hammer is big and getting bigger. At the start of November, the federal immigration minister announced the new levels plan, taking Canada from receiving 405,000 permanent immigrants last year to 500,000 in 2025. Matching that is an expansion of the number of temporary foreign workers, to more than 770,000 in 2021 – almost double the high levels under the Harper government 10 years ago.

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I am in favour of immigration at the levels of the recent past. But now the main argument made to ramp up immigration is that it will spur economic growth, and this is a tantalizing promise that turns out not to be true. Study after study after study shows that sudden expansions in immigration increase the size of the economy (the GDP) but don’t change GDP per person or the average wage – how well off people are. The research shows that immigration tends to lower wages for people who compete directly with the new immigrants (often previously arrived immigrants and low-skilled workers) and improves incomes for the higher skilled and business owners who get labour at lower wages. That is, it can be an inequality-increasing policy.

But isn’t this time different? Don’t we have such a high number of unfilled jobs that the economic machine is threatening to break down? First, the employment rate is now much higher than in the past and GDP per capita growth is strong. There is no evidence the machine is breaking down from lack of workers.

Second, the economy is not a machine that breaks down when parts are missing. It is an organic being that flows, guided by prices. If we didn’t bring in immigrants to match the vacancies, that does not necessarily lead to catastrophe.

When that happens, wages would have to increase to attract domestic workers. Some firms would not be able to pay the higher wages and might shut down or not undertake some projects. But those would be the least productive projects – the ones that don’t warrant the market wage. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the way markets work.

Immigration thus keeps wages down in occupations in high demand, and that reduces incentives for firms and workers already here to invest in the skills needed to fill those positions, reducing opportunities, missing an opportunity to increase the skill level of the work force and getting in the way of training and education policies intended to help workers with those opportunities.

Using immigration to solve the labour crunch therefore has the potential to weaken productivity and lower wages.

Linked to the argument about labour shortages is the aging of our population. The retirement of the baby boom will lead to substantial increases in the ratio of non-workers to workers over the next decade. Surely, bringing in more immigrants is the right solution to this? The answer is that it will help a little bit but immigrants aren’t that much younger than the people already living here, and adding 100,000 more immigrants a year won’t move the age dial enough to seriously alter the dependency ratio.

And while it’s not solving these problems, a jump in immigration will put strains on other parts of our economy and society. Adding 100,000 more immigrants a year will mean a big increase in people looking for housing in our cities each year, where the housing markets are already at the breaking point.

The government’s response to this most obvious of problems is that immigrant trades workers will fill shortages in construction trades, increasing housing production. But the construction sector isn’t grinding to a halt because of lack of workers – employment in the sector is already above 2019 levels and there is plenty of activity. The problem in housing supply is rooted in municipal regulations around density and offshore buyers treating our housing as an investment. Immigration won’t hit those nails. It will make problems worse. And when it does, it will put a strain on Canadians’ much vaunted immigration-welcoming attitudes.

Further strains on the health care system are also concerning. A case might be made for bringing in the front-line health workers our system needs now. But the current system underutilizes foreign-trained immigrants, and the problem lies with rigid professional associations, not with the federal government. Bringing in more health workers without solving this problem is unfair to the people we are bringing in, adding them to the large number of frustrated foreign-trained health workers already here. Again, increasing the numbers is not the solution to the problem.

Immigration is both necessary and positive. Immigrants make our society more vibrant. And the evidence is they don’t lower standards of living. But neither do they raise them. Labour markets are finally poised to give workers the wage gains they have been waiting for. Housing markets are straining. Blocking the first and worsening the second in pursuit of pounding nails that immigration doesn’t even hit well isn’t wise policy. A sudden jump without better preparing housing markets and creating mechanisms to integrate the new immigrants is irresponsible.

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Economy

How Russia is pushing its central bank to give ‘upbeat’ economic updates

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The Russian government is not loving its central bank’s gloomy economic assessments. Instead, it is reportedly asking for more jolly outlooks.

The Russian economy has been under stress ever since the country invaded Ukraine in February 2022, triggering widespread sanctions from the West and its allies, which hit the energy giant’s oil and gas revenue.

Through it all, the Russian central bank has been candid about its assessment of the country’s economy, which at times stood at odds with more bullish statements from the Kremlin.

But that may soon change — Russian officials are putting pressure on the country’s central bank to give more “upbeat” assessments about the country’s economy, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday, citing people familiar with internal deliberations.

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In December, analysts at the Bank of Russia — headed by governor Elvira Nabiullina — said they anticipated “new economic shocks,” due to a $60 per barrel price cap on Russian oil and the European Union’s ban on the country’s crude. In October, research from the Bank of Russia showed the country’s economic activity stalled in September — in part, due to President Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization order that sent many fleeing the draft.

Senior government officials have criticized the central bank for mishandling market expectations and for giving forecasts that were too pessimistic and alarmist, Bloomberg reported.

The Bank of Russia, though, is open to improving these forecasts so as to send a signal that it’s on the path to monetary easing in the months ahead, per Bloomberg.

The Russian economy likely contracted by 2.5% in 2022 from a year ago, but was still beating expectations, President Vladimir Putin said in televised remarks on January 17, per Reuters.

It’s not just propaganda. Key to the central bank’s messaging is interest rates. Russia’s key interest rate is 7.5% now, but the government wants the central bank to express more optimism about the economy in a signal that it could start cutting rates, per Bloomberg. But the Bank of Russia is concerned about higher inflation should rates fall.

Russia covers its budget deficit by borrowing domestically, so interest rates are important for the government. A slump in energy revenues, coupled with an increase in defense spending has pushed Russia’s budget deficit to 1.76 trillion rubles in January, or $24.75 billion.

The deficit — which is only for the first month of 2023 — is already at 60% of Russia’s plan for a $2.93 trillion-ruble deficit, Insider previously reported.

The Bank of Russia did not respond to Insider’s request for comment sent outside regular business hours. It’s also in a communication blackout ahead of its first board meeting of 2023 on Friday, per Bloomberg.

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Economy

Biden highlights economy, spars with Republicans in State of the Union speech

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U.S. President Joe Biden sought to overcome pessimism about the country’s direction — and his own political prospects as he stares down a re-election bid next year — in his second State of the Union address to Congress and the nation Tuesday night.

But his optimistic vision faces stiff headwinds from Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, who the president called on to help him “finish the job” of rebuilding the economy from the COVID-19 pandemic and record inflation at home and abroad.

“The people sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere,” Biden said. “That’s always been my vision for the country: to restore the soul of the nation, to rebuild the backbone of America — the middle class — to unite the country.

“There is no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress.”

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House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, sitting behind the president for the first time since he took on the role, appeared unmoved by Biden’s pitch for bipartisanship and the listing of his administration’s accomplishments during two years of Democratic control of Congress.

McCarthy — who vowed to be “respectful” during the speech earlier Tuesday — is leading negotiations with Biden and Democratic leaders on raising the nation’s debt ceiling, which Republicans say must be tied to significant government spending cuts. Biden has pushed for a “clean” debt ceiling increase without cuts to future spending or existing programs like Social Security and Medicaid, longtime targets of fiscal conservatives.

Biden faced boos and shouts of “liar” during his speech when he mentioned some Republicans were eying changes to those programs. That led to what appeared to be an ad-libbed response from Biden, and led to a seemingly vocal pledge from members of both parties that the programs would remain untouched.

“I tell you, I enjoy consensus,” he said with a grin.

U.S. hitting debt ceiling could destabilize global economy

The president on Tuesday made the case that targeted government spending found in major bills he has signed like the US$1-trillion infrastructure act will achieve results in the coming months and years.

“Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back because of the choices we made in the last two years,” he said.

The speech showed Biden has shifted his focus from pushing for a flurry of major legislative victories to accepting more limited action with a divided Congress. House Republicans have vowed to undo many of those achievements while prioritizing investigations into allegations against Biden’s family and administration.

Biden promised he would veto any bill that would raise the cost of living for average Americans.

Click to play video: 'State of the Union: Biden talks shootdown of Chinese spy balloon, says it’s not good to ‘bet against America’'

More Buy American policies

Biden has walked a delicate tightrope over the past two years, balancing the need to work with Republicans on some matters while criticizing the party’s positions. He began his term two weeks after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the certification of his victory over Donald Trump, who remains a force within the Republican party.

Although he celebrated on Tuesday that democracy remained “unbowed and unbroken” two years after that Jan. 6, 2021, attack, Biden’s address showed his continued efforts to appeal to “America First” conservatives aligned with Trump’s policies while continuing to pursue Democratic priorities.

He announced new standards that will require all construction materials used in federal infrastructure projects to be made in the U.S., an expansion of his Buy American policy that has alarmed key trading partners like Canada.

“On my watch, American roads, bridges, and American highways are going to be made with American products as well,” he said.

A request for comment from Canadian Trade Minister Mary Ng’s office was not immediately returned Tuesday night.

Biden’s focus on the U.S. economy came after an unexpectedly strong jobs report last week that found unemployment fell to a 53-year low of 3.4 per cent, and over 517,000 jobs were added in January.

Click to play video: 'U.S. Inflation Reduction Act ‘changed playing field’ in terms of global competition: Freeland'

U.S. Inflation Reduction Act ‘changed playing field’ in terms of global competition: Freeland

The White House is using those numbers and other signs of economic improvement, including falling gas prices, to counter Republican attacks and recent polling that found a majority of Americans are unsatisfied with the country’s direction and don’t want Biden to run for re-election.

Biden has not officially announced his re-election bid for 2024, which could pit him against Trump once again.

Crime and policing

Among Biden’s guests for the State of the Union was the mother and stepfather of Tyre Nichols, a Black man who died last month after being beaten by five police officers who are now charged with second-degree murder and other crimes.

Biden called for more action on national policing standards in response — a slim prospect in the divided Congress, although both parties rose to their feet to applaud the president’s remarks and Nichols’ family.

Click to play video: '‘Do something’: Biden pushes for action from Congress on police reform'

‘Do something’: Biden pushes for action from Congress on police reform

He also urged lawmakers to pursue meaningful immigration reform that would tighten border security, offer a path to citizenship for migrants who cross into the U.S. legally, and crack down on fentanyl trafficking that has led to a surge in fatal opioid overdoses.

Another guest, former House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul Pelosi — who was brutally attacked inside the couple’s San Francisco home last year — was introduced by Biden as an example of the need to reign in domestic extremism and political violence.

“We must give hate and extremism in any form no safe harbour,” he said. “Democracy must not be a partisan issue. It’s an American issue.”

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who gained a national profile as Trump’s press secretary, delivered the Republican response to Biden’s speech, which he alleged was full of falsehoods.

She focused much of her remarks on social issues, including race in business and education, and alleged big-tech censorship of conservatives.

“While you reap the consequences of their failures, the Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day,” she said. “Most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.”

Sanders also criticized Biden’s foreign policy that she alleged has made America less safe from threats posed by China and other hostile actors.

—With files from the Associated Press

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Economy

Given high inflation, slowdown in Canada’s economy is ‘a good thing,’ Tiff Macklem says

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Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem says that although a slowing economy may not seem like a good thing, it is when the economy is overheated.

Speaking in Quebec City on Tuesday, Macklem said that higher interest rates are working to cool the economy as elevated borrowing costs are constraining spending on big-ticket items such as vehicles, furniture and appliances.

As demand for goods and services falls, Macklem says the economy will continue to slow.

“That doesn’t sound like a good thing, but when the economy is overheated, it is,” he said.

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In addition to global events, the overheated domestic economy pushed up prices rapidly, he said.

To slow the economy domestically, the Bank of Canada has embarked on one of the fastest monetary policy tightening cycles in its history. It has hiked its key interest rate eight consecutive times since March, bringing it from near-zero to 4.5 per cent.

However, last month, the Bank of Canada said it will take a “conditional” pause to assess the effects of higher interest rates on the economy.

“Typically, we don’t see the full effects of changes in our overnight rate for 18 to 24 months,” Macklem said on Tuesday.

“In other words, we shouldn’t keep raising rates until inflation is back to two per cent.”

However, the governor said the Bank of Canada will be ready to raise rates further if inflation proves to be more stubborn than expected.

Bank of Canada hikes interest rates again to 4.5%

The Bank of Canada is raising interest rates again, bumping it to 4.5 per cent. This marks the eighth increase in less than a year, leaving some homeowners scrambling to keep their mortgages.

As gas prices have fallen and supply chains have improved, inflation in Canada has slowed since peaking at 8.1 per cent in the summer. Macklem called this a “welcome development,” but stressed inflation is still too high.

“If new data are broadly in line with our forecast and inflation comes down as predicted, then we won’t need to raise rates further,” Macklem said.

For inflation to get back to two per cent, Macklem said wage growth will have to slow, along with other prices.

Wage gains lagging inflation

Wages have been growing rapidly for months but continue to lag the rate of inflation. In December, wages were up 5.1 per cent.

Though annual inflation is still at decades-high levels, economists have been encouraged by a more noticeable slowdown in price growth over recent months.

The Bank of Canada forecasts the annual inflation rate will fall to three per cent by mid-year and to two per cent in 2024.

Royce Mendes, an economist with Desjardins, said that Macklem is crossing his fingers that the rate hikes he has implemented so far will be enough to get it done.

“The head of the Bank of Canada seems quite comfortable sitting on the sidelines even as his U.S. counterpart will be discussing the need for further monetary tightening south of the border,” Mendes said.

 

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