On the Canadian economy: the “real” problem

In Canada, the state of the economy has everyone worried. The fall in oil prices is causing the oil sector in the western provinces and in some of the Atlantic provinces to contract. As a result, everyone has the impression that Canada is sliding towards a recession and governments should act.

I disagree. My disagreement is fueled by two factors. The first is that we should never reason from a price change. The fall in the price of oil is mostly the result of increasing supply of oil. Such a price change is actually a good thing for the Canadian economy. The slowdown in economic activity is merely the result of frictions in the reallocation of resources. The second reason is that the slowdown is caused by “real factors” – policy decision affecting key regions of the Canadian economy. Any government action would worsen a situation caused by too much interference in the first place.

A fall in oil prices can indeed affect the Canadian economy. The oil produced in Canada is generally profitable when prices are relatively high (they require very capital-intensive methods of extraction and refining). An increase in the world oil supply (which is the case right now) would indeed affect the Canadian oil industry. However, Canadians win through lower oil prices – one important input has gotten cheaper. The problem is that once such a slowdown happens, resources are not reallocated without frictions. Business plans are positively affected by the lower oil prices and numerous firms are laying out new plans to expand production. Employment and output will fall in the oil industry before they will pick up in other industries. Eventually, there might even be greater output and employment because of the greater worldwide supply of oil. Right now, Canada is in-between those two situations.

My second reason for dissenting from the majority opinion is that certain regions of the Canadian economy are plagued by poor policy. To make my argument, consider a two-region (West and East) and two-industry economy (oil and manufacturing/services). In the West, the dominant industry is oil. In the East, the dominant industry is manufacturing/services.  The West economy has a more flexible market for inputs (limited regulation, freer labor market and low taxes on capital). The East economy suffers from greater rigidity in its market for inputs – high taxes, burdensome regulation and stringent labor laws.

In a way, this describes the Canadian economy. The provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British-Columbia have been pulling the rest of the Canadian economy for the last twenty years. That’s the West. In the East, the historically poorer province of Quebec has been constantly pulling everyone behind, but less so in recent years as the province of Ontario (the most populous of Canadian provinces) began to slow down. Ontario dramatically expanded the size of its public sector, implemented important regulations and raised taxes – straight in the middle of the recession. In fact, if you exclude Ontario from the rest of Canada, you find (as Philip Cross did) that Canada’s performance is actually quite decent. So in the East, you have Quebec whose policies have not changed and you have Ontario who has adopted increasingly anti-growth policies. The East also has consistently higher taxes. The West has lower taxes. Etc.

Given the accuracy of this stylized description, imagine the effect of a shock on the western economy through a shock on its oil industry. Normally, firms in the East could adapt to lower oil prices by expanding their output in the manufacturing/services sector (thanks to cheaper inputs) while firms in the West contract their output and liberate inputs. However, in the presence of government-imposed frictions, this reallocation of resources is much harder and output has a harder time expanding in the East.

No demand-side policy can solve this problem! You could have easy money and a massive stimulus program, but if firms are discouraged from increasing output, little will happen. In Canada, the current slowdown is explained by “real factors”. Improving provincial policies would be the best channel for improving the state of the Canadian economy.

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2 thoughts on “On the Canadian economy: the “real” problem

  1. As a resident of Toronto I’m most interested in your recommendations for changes in Ontario’s provincial policies. What are your top 3?

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