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Pandemic debt: Countries are spending trillions to save the economy from the coronavirus crisis. Can the world afford it? – The Globe and Mail



The nightmare scenario is one where the virus continues to suffocate the global economy for a year or more.


Over the past three weeks, governments around the world have embarked on one of the greatest peacetime borrowing binges in history.

In many countries – including Canada, the United States, Germany and Britain – policy makers have launched massive stimulus programs to help sustain economies under attack from the novel coronavirus. To fund more than US$5-trillion in relief packages, governments are issuing epic amounts of debt.

Most big economies will see government borrowing leap higher as a result of the virus, says Gavyn Davies, chairman of Fulcrum Asset Management in London. He expects ratios of public debt to gross domestic product to jump by 10 to 20 percentage points. In Canada, a move of that magnitude would propel general government debt, including both federal and provincial borrowing, to around 100 per cent of GDP, while in the United States it would boost the ratio above 120 per cent.

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Can the world afford this avalanche of new borrowing? For now, the answer is yes. So long as interest rates remain low and economies return to something approaching normality within a few months, developed countries should find the additional burden to be tolerable. Most will remain considerably less indebted than Japan, which for years has sustained stratospheric levels of public borrowing, with government debt well in excess of 200 per cent of GDP.

One big uncertainty hovers over these calculations, however: What happens if the world does not return to normalcy within, say, six months? If so, governments will find themselves writing enormous cheques every month to sustain comatose economies. If that happens, all bets are off.

For now, though, worrying about such possibilities misses the point. Confronted by an overwhelming emergency, governments have little choice but to engage in deficit spending on a giant scale.

In fact, the urgent question isn’t whether these countries can afford to take on more debt. It’s whether they’re taking on enough debt to fund the stimulus programs necessary to avert an even deeper downturn.

Analysts at Bank of America describe the massive US$2-trillion stimulus package passed by U.S. Congress in March as the “bare minimum.” Scott Minerd, chief investment officer at Guggenheim Partners, told Reuters he expects more support will be needed for the U.S. economy. If so, Canada is likely to be caught short as well.

Lockdowns and quarantines needed to fight the virus have already sent unemployment soaring. In Canada, more than two million Canadians filed for unemployment benefits in the last half of March. Meanwhile, in the United States, almost 10 million people have filed for benefits over the past two weeks.

The pain is not going to let up. If private-sector forecasters are right, economic output in the second quarter will shrivel at a 15-per-cent to 35-per-cent annualized rate in Canada and the United States. This would be a far deeper downturn than anything that occurred during the financial crisis.

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General government debt to GDP ratio   

In select OECD countries


General government debt to GDP ratio   

In select OECD countries


General government debt to GDP ratio   

In select OECD countries


Capital Economics is warning clients that the global slowdown is shaping up as the sharpest and deepest global slowdown since the Second World War. Harvard University economist Kenneth Rogoff goes even further: He told Barron’s that the depth of the global downturn could be as bad as anything in the past century and a half.

Without relief, many households will go bust. Their incomes will shrink or vanish, and they will default on mortgages, rent payments and car bills. Meanwhile, many restaurants, retail stores, travel operators, malls, hotels and airlines will tumble into bankruptcy. With all those employers gone, many workers will not have jobs to go back to when the virus does come under control. The slump could stretch on for years and turn into a full-on depression.

Generous government support can help prevent this ugly scenario by ensuring we still have a functioning economy whenever life does return to normal. For most economists, the logic is inarguable: No matter how expensive an outpouring of government aid may seem right now, it is cheaper than dealing with a depression down the road.

Still, the size of the necessary relief programs is staggering. In the United States, for instance, the federal deficit will hit 13 per cent of GDP this year, according to credit rater Fitch. That would blow away the previous record of 9.8 per cent, which occurred during the darkest days of the financial crisis, in 2009.

In Canada, the fiscal programs already unveiled by federal and provincial governments amount to 13 per cent of GDP, Capital Economics calculates. But even that enormous flood of government cash may not be enough to save everyone.

Stephen Brown, senior Canada economist at Capital Economics, points out that 10 per cent of the 13,330 Canadian restaurants that replied to a recent survey indicated they were closing their doors permanently in March. A further 18 per cent said they were likely to go out of business this month. If the imploding restaurant business is any gauge, Canada’s economy may be in need of even more support, and all the government debt that implies.

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Should we worry about the long-term effects of this new borrowing? Without question, the new debt will leave taxpayers with a significantly larger burden to carry in years to come.

But so long as financial conditions remain similar to today’s, the burden should not be overwhelming. “The Canadian government has the space to deliver stimulus on this scale,” DBRS researchers assured investors in a report this week. “The federal government is entering the crisis with a modest fiscal deficit, relatively low levels of debt, and funding costs that are negative in real terms.”

The biggest ally of deficit spenders everywhere is today’s shockingly low interest rates. When Canada and other major industrialized economies can borrow money for 10 years at considerably less than 1 per cent a year, the real burden of carrying additional debt becomes exceedingly small – or even negative, as DBRS notes. At these rates, lenders are essentially begging Canada and other advanced countries to borrow more.

The low rates set up some favourable math. Once the world gets past the worst of the pandemic, and growth returns to more normal levels, the economies in most industrialized countries should expand substantially faster than the interest rate on their debt. This means the size of their government debt should shrink steadily as a portion of GDP. In Canada, for instance, it makes perfect sense to borrow at 0.7 per cent (the current yield on 10-year Canada bonds) to support an economy capable of growing at 3 per cent or more.

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Remember, too, that today’s emergency measures are temporary. Unlike proposals for spending on new social programs, the need for most of the new stimulus programs will melt away as soon as the threat from the virus eases.

To be sure, there are risks, particularly in poorer parts of the world. In some emerging economies, a rapid run-up in debt could result in a crisis if investors begin to worry about possible defaults, or if bondholders start to fear that hard-pressed governments will inflate their way out of the problem.

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In more advanced economies, though, one has to squint hard to see any immediate problem. Judging from today’s ultralow yields on Canadian, U.S., German and British government bonds, investors are desperate for safe assets. They are clamouring to buy government bonds from big industrialized economies and that demand is not likely to dry up any time soon.

All this argues strongly that the current borrowing binge should turn out well – so long as things get back to normal in relatively short order.

The nightmare scenario is one where the virus continues to suffocate the global economy for a year or more.

“What would be the effect of the Treasury continuing to add trillions of dollars each quarter to the deficit (which was already running at $1-trillion even before the virus hit) and of the Fed continuing to pump trillions more into the monetary system?” asked Howard Marks, the widely followed co-chairman of Oaktree Capital Management, in a commentary this week.

Mr. Marks puts forward a couple of tentative possibilities: Maybe a burst of inflation because of all that money printing. Maybe a shift away from the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency because of worries over the U.S. economy’s rapidly expanding debt load.

At the very least, he suggests, the next few months will stoke debate around Modern Monetary Theory, the heterodox school of economics that argues government debt and deficits don’t matter. While highly contentious, MMT has helped to focus attention on central banks’ increasingly aggressive interventions in debt markets.

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The largest example of those interventions are the massive bond-buying operations launched by the European Central Bank and the U.S. Federal Reserve since the financial crisis. By hoovering up domestic bonds, these central banks are creating artificial demand for bonds and thereby driving down interest rates (which move in the opposite direction to bond prices).

bond yields

10-year government bond yields,

as of noon Eastern, Friday


SOURCE: marketwatch

bond yields

10-year government bond yields, as of noon Eastern, Friday


bond yields

10-year government bond yields, as of noon Eastern, Friday


To some eyes, bond buying by central banks – or quantitative easing, as it’s known in the jargon – commits the unpardonable sin of blurring the distinction between fiscal and monetary policy. After all, it consists of one arm of government creating money in order to buy debt issued by another arm of government. That looks perilously close to a shell game in which central banks monetize government debt and distort markets.

Defenders of central bankers argue that is not entirely accurate. They say the bank interventions stop short of rigging the game. Rather than holding all the cards, central banks still own only a fraction of government bonds. (In March, for instance, the Fed held about 12 per cent of all U.S. Treasury securities, considerably less than foreign investors and also less than the U.S. Social Security system.) In addition, central banks typically vow the interventions are temporary. They promise to eventually reverse most, if not all, of their bond buying.

Maybe so. But those reversals show no signs of happening in the foreseeable future. Central banks’ balance sheets are expanding furiously as they gobble up government bonds and other forms of debt. The Federal Reserve’s balance sheet has already swelled to US$5.7-trillion from just less than US$4-trillion before the pandemic hit. It could swell to as much as US$10-trillion – roughly half the size of the U.S. economy – over the next few months, according to Capital Economics.

Some commentators believe debt-challenged governments may eventually be forced to go even further and turn to “helicopter money,” a manoeuvre in which central banks would simply create money, without issuing any corresponding debt, and government would funnel the new cash to people and businesses. It is an attractive idea in theory. However, doing so would mark a new level of desperation. It would be a sign that governments are out of alternatives.

Fortunately, we’re not at that point yet. Governments still have the capacity to borrow and will make full use of that power in the weeks and months ahead. But until we win the battle against COVID-19, and revive our battered economies, we are in uncharted territory. Best to not rule anything out.

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Ford considering 'regional approach' to reopening economy; Ontario hits testing target for second straight day – Toronto Star



The latest novel coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Friday (this file will be updated throughout the day). Web links to longer stories if available.

2 p.m.: A new testing strategy for COVID-19 will see “targeted campaigns” to check workers in Ontario communities with hot spots and key sectors where the virus spreads easily, including auto manufacturing, food suppliers and major retailers.

Officials unveiled the new blueprint Friday, with elements echoing what Premier Doug Ford has been saying for more than a week — and what epidemiologists have been pushing for much longer — to get a better picture of the illness as the economy reopens.

Read the full story from the Star’s Rob Ferguson.

1:48 p.m.: The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., is extending its cancellation of performances and public events until Aug. 1.

In a statement, the theatre festival said it was following a municipal order limiting organized mass gatherings in town due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We can’t have a human, connected theatre without healthy humans, so we will do whatever it takes to keep everyone safe, whether they work here or are itching to come and watch us play,” artistic director Tim Carroll said in the statement.

The Shaw is taking a more incremental approach to cancellations than Ontario’s other major theatre festival. The Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ont., announced in April that it was putting its entire 2020 season on hold indefinitely, saying it would not be able to put on plays even if physical distancing rules were eased this summer.

1:24 p.m. (updated): Ontario is implementing an expanded COVID-19 testing strategy, including targeting specific sectors and using mobile teams, and the increased data that will follow is prompting the premier to consider a regional approach to reopening.

Premier Doug Ford had been asked on multiple occasions about the idea and said it wasn’t on the table, but now he is asking health officials to show him what a regional model would look like.

“The reality on the ground is different in every part of the province,” Ford said Friday.

“With more testing, that testing becomes more and more clear and knowing that information will help us be more precise. It will help us be more targeted.”

Two-thirds of the province’s cases are in the Greater Toronto Area, while some public health units are reporting few, if any, active COVID-19 cases. Sudbury, for example, currently has none.

Ontario has at times struggled to meet its daily testing goals, and is now expanding the list of those who can get tested. The new testing strategy includes targeting specific workers and sometimes bringing mobile testing units to them.

12:45 p.m.: Quebec’s education department says a total of 41 students and teachers have tested positive for COVID-19 since elementary schools outside the Montreal area opened on May 11.

A survey of school boards conducted May 25 found that 19 students and 22 staff members were found to be infected in the first two weeks following the reopening.

The highest numbers of cases were in school boards in the Laurentians and Monteregie regions north and southeast of Montreal, with 10 cases each.

The survey is lacking numbers from 12 of the province’s 72 school boards, which did not provide data to the province.

12 p.m.: With Ontario reopening, the conversation surrounding social distancing is heating up.

Professor Chris Bauch, a professor and university research chair in the department of applied mathematics at the University of Waterloo, will answer your questions about physical distancing, social bubbling and the risks of community spread during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Join the Star’s conversation starting now.

11:45 a.m.: Nova Scotia is reporting no new cases of COVID-19 as the recent trend of a dwindling number of new infections continues.

The total number of confirmed cases remains at 1,055 with 978 people having recovered from the virus, while eight people are currently in hospital and three of them are in intensive care.

11:03 a.m.: The chief executive of the Vitalite health network in northern New Brunswick says the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak is a worst-case scenario in a region with underlying health issues and an older population.

Gilles Lanteigne says a male professional health-care provider has been suspended from work after coming into contact with more than 100 people. The province has said the man recently travelled to Quebec and returned to work without self-isolating.

Lanteigne declined to confirm the man’s professional title, citing privacy concerns in the small community.

The health authority has ramped up testing for people who came into contact with the worker and is providing tests to any community members who ask.

More than 200 people were tested Thursday evening and Lanteigne says elective surgeries have been suspended.

The cluster that grew to six confirmed cases Thursday has led to the adjournment of the provincial legislature and the rollback of reopening measures in the northern region known as Zone 5.

11 a.m.: For the second day in a row, Ontario says its testing labs have hit the provincial target of completing more than 16,000 tests a day.

According to the province’s morning update, the labs completed 18,525 tests Thursday. Before Wednesday, Ontario had missed its target on 10 consecutive days.

Meanwhile, as of 11 a.m. Friday, Ontario’s regional health units are reported a total of 28,544 confirmed and probable cases, including 2,272 deaths.

The total of 391 new confirmed and probable cases reported since the same time Thursday morning was up from the previous day, but still below a rising trend that saw the health unit totals above 400 per day most of last week.

The growth in new infections across Ontario has not been felt equally in the province. The daily count of new cases has been falling outside of the GTA over the last two weeks. Meanwhile, numbers inside the city have rebounded after falling some from the peak rates seen last month.

The Thursday morning tally includes the 201 new cases Toronto and 92 more in Peel Region reported Thursday afternoon; together, the two health units accounted for more nearly three-quarters of the province’s new infections.

The 24 fatal cases reported in the province since Wednesday evening were in line with a recent flat trend. Still, the rate of deaths is down considerably since peaking at more than 90 deaths in a day earlier this month, about two weeks after the daily case totals hit a first peak in mid-April.

Because many health units publish tallies to their websites before reporting to Public Health Ontario, the Star’s count is more current than the data the province puts out each morning.

Earlier Friday, the province reported 826 patients are now hospitalized with COVID-19, including 129 in intensive care, of whom 100 are on a ventilator — numbers that have fallen about 20-30 per cent this month. The province also says nearly 21,000 patients who have tested positive for the coronavirus have now recovered from the disease — more than three-quarters of the total infected.

The province says its data is accurate to 4 p.m. the previous day. The province also cautions its latest count of total deaths — 2,189 — may be incomplete or out of date due to delays in the reporting system, saying that in the event of a discrepancy, “data reported by (the health units) should be considered the most up to date.”

The Star’s count includes some patients reported as “probable” COVID-19 cases, meaning they have symptoms and contacts or travel history that indicate they very likely have the disease, but have not yet received a positive lab test.

The provincial data also revealed another day with high demand for testing at the province’s assessment centres. About 20,000 newly collected samples were added to provincial testing queues, the second day in a row well above the target. The rate of test completion in the labs has tended to lag a day or two behind demand at the centres.

The province says it has the capacity to complete about 20,000 tests each day.

Read the full story from the Star’s Rob Ferguson.

10:15 a.m.: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to address reporters at 10:30 a.m. in his daily briefing. A livestream of his news conference is available at

10:10 a.m.: Ontario will reveal a new phase in its COVID-19 testing strategy today, as it tries to perform more tests to gauge the province’s phased reopening.

Officials including the president and CEO of Ontario Health, the head of Ontario’s testing approach, and the chief of medical microbiology at the Public Health Ontario lab are set to hold a briefing on the new strategy.

Ontario has struggled on several occasions to meet its daily testing goals.

Most recently, the province had said it would do 16,000 tests per day in May, but has met that goal less than half of the time.

Levels dropped sharply once a blitz of nearly all long-term care residents and staff was completed over the long weekend, but they have picked up again in recent days after Ontario relaxed criteria for members of the public to be tested.

Anyone concerned they may have been exposed to COVID-19 can now get tested, whether or not they have symptoms.

Premier Doug Ford has spoken about testing asymptomatic front-line health-care workers, large workplaces such as food manufacturing facilities, groups such as truck or taxi drivers, and doing a second round of testing in long-term care.

He said mass testing is the province’s best defence against the virus.

Ontario reported completing 17,615 tests Thursday. The province currently has a daily capacity of nearly 20,000.

9:39 a.m.: Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says the federal government will spend another $650 million to help Indigenous communities cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s in addition to $305 million previously promised to help First Nations reserves, and Inuit and Metis communities with supplies, medical care and facilities that allow for physical distancing.

Miller says that although the first wave of COVID-19 appears to be receding, the threat of a second wave is very real and Indigenous communities will be just as vulnerable to it as they were to the first.

9:20 a.m.: Going to Trinity Bellwoods this weekend? To avoid unsafe crowding at the park as the weather heats up, the city has spray painted circles on the east field to ensure physical distancing following the model of parks in other major cities like New York City and San Francisco.

Here’s what you need to know about the park circles.

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8:45 a.m. Statistics Canada says the economy in the first quarter had its worst showing since 2009 as steps taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 forced businesses across the country to close their doors and lay off workers.

Statistics Canada says gross domestic product fell at an annualized rate of 8.2 per cent in the first three months of 2020.

The collapse came as gross domestic product for March fell 7.2 per cent as restrictions by public health officials and school closures began rolling out during the month.

The average economist estimate is for a nine per cent drop in gross domestic product for March, while the average estimate for the first quarter as a whole is for a GDP pullback at a annualized pace of 10 per cent, according to financial markets data firm Refinitiv.

7:45 a.m.: Worshippers in Turkey have held their first communal Friday prayers in 74 days after the government reopened some mosques as part of its plans to relax measures in place to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

Prayers were held in the courtyards of selected mosques, to minimize the risk of infection.

Authorities distributed masks at the entrance to the mosques, sprayed hand sanitizers, and checked temperatures.

Worshippers were asked to bring their own prayer rugs, but some mosques offered disposable paper rugs which were placed 1.5 metres apart.

The partial opening of the mosques follows a slowdown in the confirmed COVID-19 infections and deaths in the country.

7:29 a.m.: The Swiss soccer league will restart on June 20 in empty stadiums.

The league says the 20 clubs in the top two divisions have voted 17-2 in favour of resuming. There was one abstention.

The league has been shut down since February because of the coronavirus pandemic. There are 13 rounds left in the top division and the league wants to complete the season on Aug. 2.

St. Gallen leads defending champion Young Boys on goal difference. Third-place Basel trails by five points.

Basel is also still in the Europa League. UEFA hopes to complete that competition in August after domestic seasons end.

The league says a separate vote to increase the top division from 10 teams to 12 failed to pass.

5:55 a.m.: The federal government is pumping millions more into helping remote and rural Indigenous communities cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to announce today significant new funding for First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, part of which is intended to help them bolster their public health response to the pandemic.

That could include measures such as hiring more health care workers, building isolation facilities or purchasing medical supplies and equipment.

Another part of the funding is to go to financial support for residents living in these remote communities to help cover the pandemic-induced increase in their cost of living.

And a third part is to be dedicated to helping the communities build women’s shelters, amid reports that domestic violence has spiked as families have been forced to isolate themselves to curb the spread of the deadly virus that causes COVID-19.

The new funding is on top of the $305-million Indigenous Community Support Fund, which the federal government created in March to help First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities prepare for and cope with the pandemic.

5:40 a.m.: Canada’s top health official says proposals are being reviewed from sports leagues looking to resume play — including the NHL.

But Dr. Theresa Tam says the mandatory 14-day quarantine for people entering the country remains in place for now.

Tam says that protecting Canadians remains the key objective when considering a resumption of activities that were suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including professional sports.

Tam’s comments came two days after the NHL announced its plans to resume its 2019-20 season, which calls for games to be played out of two hub cities.

Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto are among the 10 cities shortlisted by the NHL as potential locations.

But deputy commissioner Bill Daly has said those markets would be out of the running if the mandatory quarantine at Canada’s international border remains in place.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for assistance in coming up with a solution.

5:35 a.m.: If trade deals were football players, Canada’s agreement with the United States and Mexico would have been considered a second-stringer a year ago compared to President Donald Trump’s original Hail Mary effort to secure a new pact with China.

But now that COVID-19 has rendered China an international pariah and touched off a global movement to “reshore” manufacturing capacity, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement suddenly finds itself in the spotlight — and under pressure to bring home a win.

“Serendipitous is the right word,” said Pedro Antunes, chief economist of the Conference Board of Canada, of the political and economic conditions that will greet the USMCA when it comes into force July 1.

“There’s a lot of talk of shortening supply chains, bringing supply chains domestically, and I see that as playing out in favour of Canada’s relationship with the U.S. — perhaps strengthening that relationship and those trade ties within North America, within Canada and with the U.S. economy.”

The agreement — known in official Canadian circles as CUSMA or ACEUM, T-MEC in Mexico and “the new NAFTA” pretty much everywhere else — was forged during an arduous 13 months in 2017 and 2018, long before “pandemic” would become a household word across North America. This summer, it will make its debut in a world dramatically different than that of its predecessor.

In the U.S., where Trump is shrugging off a COVID-19 death toll that surpassed 100,000 on Wednesday and aggressively cheerleading a rapid return to business as usual, the White House is now clearly counting on the USMCA, as well as its signatories, to help lead the North American recovery.

4 a.m.: Statistics Canada is expected to report today that economic growth swung negative in March and the first quarter as a whole due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The average economist estimate is for a nine-per-cent drop in gross domestic product for March, while the average estimate for the first quarter as a whole is for a GDP pullback at an annualized pace of 10 per cent, according to financial markets data firm Refinitiv.

The agency said real gross domestic product was essentially unchanged in February as it was hit by teacher strikes in Ontario and rail blockades across many parts of the country.

Declines in educational services and disruptions in the transportation and warehousing sector offset growth in other areas.

In a preliminary estimate for March released last month, Statistics Canada said the economy posted a nine per cent decline as business came to a standstill due to measures taken to slow the spread of the pandemic.

Thursday 7:21 p.m.: India is the latest country whose coronavirus death toll has topped the number of lives lost in China, where the pandemic started, as hot spots shift to developing countries ill-equipped to contain its spread.

The South Asian nation’s death toll hit 4,695 on Thursday, climbing past the 4,638 fatalities from COVID-19 in China. The nation of 1.3 billion people now has the highest number of fatalities in Asia, excluding Iran, despite the largest lockdown in the world.

The country’s death toll quadrupled in less than a month, accelerating by more than 1,000 over the past week, while infections have been soaring at a similar pace. Government experts have begun to acknowledge the outbreak won’t peak until June or July.

Thursday 5 p.m. Ontario’s regional health units are reporting another 382 new COVID-19 infections, according to the Star’s latest count.

As of 5 p.m. Thursday, Ontario’s regional health units are reported a total of 28,512 confirmed and probable cases, including 2,275 deaths.

The total of 382 new confirmed and probable cases reported since the same time Wednesday evening was up about 60 from the previous day, but still below a string of days last week that saw more than 400 new cases reported.

The recent case growth not been felt equally in the province; the daily count of new cases has been falling outside of the GTA over the last two weeks. Meanwhile, numbers inside the region have rebounded after falling some from the peak rates seen last month.

Thursday’s tally includes 201 new cases in Toronto and 92 more in Peel Region; together, the two health units accounted for more than three-quarters of the province’s new infections.

Meanwhile, the 29 fatal cases reported in the province since Wednesday evening were in line with a recent flat trend. Still, the rate of deaths is down considerably since peaking at more than 90 deaths in a day earlier this month, about two weeks after the daily case totals hit a first peak in mid-April.

Read more of Thursday’s coverage here.

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Canada's economy saw record decline in March; worse numbers forecast for April – The Globe and Mail



A woman wearing a face mask walks past a closed Lululemon store in Vancouver on May 17, 2020.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The Canadian economy took a record-setting dive in March as provinces imposed lockdown measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, a preview of worse numbers to come for April.

Real gross domestic product fell 7.2 per cent in March from February, the largest monthly decline since the series began in 1961, Statistics Canada said Friday. For the first quarter, real GDP dropped at an 8.2-per-cent annualized rate, the worst since the financial crisis.

Worse numbers are on the way. The statistical agency estimated an 11-per-cent decline in real GDP in April, the first full month with lockdown restrictions in place.

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Contractions were nearly unavoidable. Nineteen of 20 industrial sectors were down in March, highlighted by steep declines in accommodation and food services, arts and recreation, and transportation and warehousing.

Household spending fell 2.3 per cent in the first quarter, the largest quarterly decline on record.

“Spending reductions were influenced by substantial job losses, income uncertainty and limited opportunities to spend because of the mandatory closure of non-essential retail stores, restaurants and services, and restrictions on travel and tourism activities,” Statscan said.

Both export and import volumes fell in the quarter for a multitude of reasons: weaker demand, the halt in cross-border tourism, the shutdown of manufacturing plants and the rail blockades in February. A weaker Canadian dollar also weighed on imports.

As expected during a recession, people are saving more cash, when it’s possible. The household savings rate climbed to 6.1 per cent in the first quarter from 3.6 per cent in the fourth quarter. This is an aggregate rate, with Statscan noting that “in general, savings rates are higher for higher income brackets.”

The second quarter is shaping up as a decimation. Bank of Montreal has forecast that real GDP will collapse at a 44-per-cent annualized rate before rebounding in the third quarter. Much of the damage will be restricted to April, given that provinces embarked on reopening plans in May.

As such, it’s possible that April will represent the bottom of the economic downturn. In May, several indicators – new job postings, cross-border truck crossings and business confidence – have shown improvement, although remain well below precrisis levels.

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Earlier this week, the Conference Board of Canada said national real GDP would decline by 4.3 per cent in 2020, with Prairie provinces faring the worst.

“Just three months ago, we were projecting 2020 to be the first year of a long awaited economic recovery in Alberta,” the think tank said. “Now, the province is eyeing its worst recession on record.”

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Canada's economy shrank at 8% pace in the first three months of 2020, worst since 2009 –



Canada’s economy shrank at an 8.2 per cent annual pace in the first three months of 2020, as an already weak economy in January and February was walloped by COVID-19 in March.

Statistics Canada reported Friday that the slowdown was the sharpest quarterly drop since the financial crisis of 2009, as measures to contain the pandemic such as school and business closures, border shutdowns and travel restrictions brought economic activity grinding to a halt. 

While bleak, the eight per cent decline was better than the ten per cent contraction that economists had been expecting for the period. For comparison purposes, the U.S. economy shrank by five per cent over the same time frame.

While the vast majority of the contraction came in March when the pandemic hit, January and February’s numbers weren’t overly strong to begin with due to pre-existing drags such as rail blockades across the country, and a teacher strike in Ontario in February. 

In absolute terms, Canada’s gross domestic product was 2.1 per cent smaller over the three months than it was at the end of 2019. But much of that came in March alone, as GDP declined by 7.2 per cent during the month. That makes March 2020 the worst month for Canada’s economy since record-keeping began in 1961.

Just about everything got walloped, as 19 out of the 20 sectors the data agency monitors got smaller. The one exception was utilities, which eked out a gain of 0.4 per cent.

While March shattered the previous monthly record for slowdowns, early data suggests April’s numbers will be even worse, showing an 11 per cent contraction from March’s already depressed level.

By sector, the slowdown in March was striking, including:

  • Accommodation and food services, down 39.5 per cent.
  • Transportation and warehousing, down 12.2 per cent.
  • Air transportation, down 40.9 per cent.
  • Manufacturing, down 6.5 per cent.
  • Retail trade, down 9.6 per cent.
  • Educational services, down 13.5 per cent.
  • Arts, entertainment and recreation, down 41.3 per cent.
  • Construction, down 4.4 per cent.
  • Mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction, down five per cent.

Economist Doug Porter at Bank of Montreal found some reasons for optimism amid the gloomy numbers, noting that many parts of the economy did better than initially feared.

“The new news here is that the figures were a little less dire than feared,” he said. “Consumer spending fell only nine per cent in the quarter, while business investment was down a mild 2.7 per cent (less bad than Q4 in fact), and housing dipped just 0.4 per cent.”

Overall, Porter said the 8.2 per cent pace of contraction puts Canada right in the middle of its G7 peers. Canada’s economy did worse than Japan’s, which shrank at a 3.4 per cent pace, over the period. But Canada is faring much better than Italy and France, which saw their economies shrink at paces of 17.7  and  21.4 per cent in the same period.

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