April 21, 2024
Economy

Canadian economy returns to growth, with heavy assist from U.S.


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Crude oil, and other petroleum products, is transported in rail tanker cars near Medicine Hat, Alta,, on Sept. 6, 2018. Statscan said fourth-quarter GDP growth was driven by exports of crude oil and bitumen, among other products.Larry MacDougal/STRLMD

The Canadian economy is nearing a soft landing as growth turned positive to finish 2023, allowing the country to skirt a recession in what was otherwise a sluggish year of activity.

Real gross domestic product rose at an annualized pace of 1 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2023, rebounding from a decline of 0.5 per cent in the third quarter, Statistics Canada said on Thursday. In a preliminary estimate, the agency said real GDP jumped another 0.4 per cent in January, helped by the end of public-sector strikes in Quebec.

The economy has slowed markedly since the Bank of Canada implemented a rapid series of interest-rate hikes to curb demand and bring inflation under control. Outside of 2020, when the pandemic slammed the economy, 2023 was the slowest year for GDP growth since 2016.

Canada’s economic performance looks even weaker after accounting for the strongest population growth in decades, resulting in a decline in per-capita output.

But in aggregate, the economy is managing to eke out growth, boosting the odds that central bankers will pull off a rare soft landing – a situation in which inflation is brought to heel, but without a significant rise in unemployment.

The annual inflation rate has more than halved to 2.9 per cent, taking it ever closer to the Bank of Canada’s 2-per-cent target. Financial analysts expect the central bank to start lowering interest rates around the middle of the year.

“The Canadian economy showed some life in the final quarter of 2024,” James Orlando, senior economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank, wrote in a client note. Even so, “the narrative on the Canadian economy remains the same: High interest rates are weighing on economic growth.”

Canada seems to be getting a big boost from a strong U.S. economy. Exports of goods and services rose at an annualized pace of 5.6 per cent in the fourth quarter. Statscan said the increase was driven by exports of crude oil and bitumen, among other products.

Consumer spending rose by 1 per cent annualized, although Statscan noted that per-capita consumption fell for the third consecutive quarter. The increase in aggregate spending “was led by higher spending on new trucks, vans and utility vehicles as supply chain issues continued to ease and back orders were fulfilled,” the report said.

Elsewhere, there was plenty of weakness in Thursday’s report. Real business investment fell for the sixth time over the previous seven quarters, and businesses also slowed their investments in inventories, which created a drag on growth.

Final domestic demand – a metric that includes household and government consumption, along with capital investments – fell at an annualized rate of 0.7 per cent. On Thursday, several analysts said this result was an indication that economic conditions are frail in Canada, and that overall numbers are being propped up by a resilient U.S. economy.

“The domestic economy appears to be weakening as high interest rates weigh on consumers and businesses,” Royce Mendes, head of macro strategy at Desjardins Securities, said in a client note. “The growth that was seen in the fourth quarter didn’t come from within Canada’s borders and is particularly uninspiring given the population growth seen at the end of last year.”

Many private-sector economists reiterated on Thursday that they expect the Bank of Canada to begin lowering its benchmark interest rate in June, although some investors think there’s a chance of that happening in April. The bank’s policy rate of 5 per cent is the highest since 2001. The BoC is expected to hold rates steady at its decision next week.

The household savings rate – the percentage of disposable income left after spending – was 6.2 per cent in the fourth quarter, down slightly from 6.3 per cent in the third quarter. This is much higher than it was before the pandemic, and it suggests people are squirrelling away more money to service their debts, or in anticipation of doing so at a later date, Mr. Mendes said.



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