30 DECEMBER 2020
There’s been no lack of commentary on the weak state of Alberta’s economy. The double hit of low oil prices combined with the impact of the global pandemic has knocked the wind out of many businesses and sent unemployment soaring.
Even worse, there seems to be no quick rebound in sight. As 2020 draws to a close, the ongoing COVID pandemic is partially balanced by the optimism of the vaccine rollout. Still, the reality is that Alberta’s economy has been permanently altered and a snap back to normal is not on the horizon.
For so many years the energy sector was the growth engine of Alberta, pulling in foreign capital, creating good paying jobs and spurring construction and engineering spending. But now, the energy sector is taking on a new role: it’s no longer a growth engine, but a backbone. Our hydrocarbon production will remain significant for decades to come, but we can no longer rely on it alone to drive growth.
What sectors will take up the baton of “growth engine” in Alberta? There are some encouraging signs. Agriculture is having a great year — the warm, dry autumn helped boost yields and quality of wheat and canola. And a greater variety of crops including cannabis, pulses and beans, and vegetables are helping diversify the sector. Food and beverage processing is growing nicely. The tech sector is expanding smartly. And the transportation and logistics sector continues to gain momentum. Still, all of these combined are dwarfed by oil and gas.
With the challenges bearing down on us, adapting to new realities seems daunting. But what if adapting is easier than we think? Consider this story of adapting to change.
In the fall of 2019, my partner and I went to Australia for a vacation, traveling 2,500 kilometres along the northern coast along the Great Barrier Reef. Australia is a beautiful country, but full of danger: sharks, spiders, jellyfish, crocodiles and snakes seem to be lurking around every corner, ready to kill you.
Yet it wasn’t the spiders or sharks that scared me. I didn’t worry about crocs or snakes. I was terrified of one thing: driving on the left side of the road. I couldn’t wrap my head around how this was possible. I was sure I couldn’t do it.
In theory, I could have petitioned the Australian government to reverse lane direction to accommodate me during my vacation. Or I could have just driven on the right side of the road, dodging the oncoming traffic. Or I could have hoped my partner would do all the driving. Clearly none of these options was practical.
Finally, I had to take the wheel on the right hand side of the rented SUV. But when I did, something remarkable happened: it wasn’t nearly as difficult as I thought! That’s not to say it was easy — it required 100% of my concentration. It wasn’t as simple as driving at home, but it was not nearly as complicated as I had feared.
Adapting to change was made possible when I finally conceded that I was in a new system. I didn’t try to get Australians to drive like we do in Canada. I had to embrace the new environment. And once I did that, I adapted more quickly than I thought.
For Alberta, our economy has been jolted badly. The last few years have not been easy, especially for individuals and business owners who are at risk of losing everything. In the same way, adapting to a new economic reality will not be easy. But it may not be quite as difficult as we think, either.
Government actions to improve business competitiveness can be helpful. (The Business Council of Alberta has plenty of great recommendations.) But it can’t all be up to the government. Much of the heavy lifting around adapting comes down to our own attitudes and ideals.
First, we need to recognize that our energy sector needs diversifying. Fossil fuels will remain a backbone, but we need to add renewable energy, hydrogen production, minerals such as cobalt and lithium, carbon-capture technology, and geothermal technologies. It’s already happening, of course. But we must get past the belief that simply more oil pipelines and looser environmental regulations will get us back to the good ol’ days.
Second, Albertans need to embrace new realities of work. The traditional Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 jobs are gone. Workers in the knowledge and creative economy will be more flexible, working when and where it makes sense for them. COVID has accelerated this trend. The better employers can design flexible work systems, the faster our job market will recover.
Finally, we need to address the unacceptable gaps in income and opportunity. The old economic model of power and influence being held exclusively by a narrow demographic must be abandoned. Opportunities for women, racial minorities, youth and Indigenous peoples have to expand — and it has to go beyond lip service and sensitivity training. Misogyny and racism aren’t just loathsome personal qualities, they’re actually holding back our economy.
Let’s stop talking about getting our economy “back on track” — that’s just useless nostalgia. Instead, let’s embrace the new realities of the 21st century. Let’s forge new tracks and lead the world in energy, work and diversity.
Alberta’s economy has a bright future, but only if we act now.
Addressing the long-term issue of rising public debt in a post-COVID world
The COVID pandemic has unleashed an unprecedented amount of government spending on emergency income support and other relief programs. It’s pointless to sum up how much money has been spent, because the total amount will continue to grow as we move through the COVID-19 crisis.
Governments didn’t really have a choice. In an economic crisis of this magnitude, the biggest mistake governments could make is to withhold spending—or worse—reduce spending. It was, in fact, government austerity that helped push the economy of the 1930s into a decade-long depression.
It’s important to remember that the spending we are seeing now is emergency relief, and not expected to recur year after year. This makes it more manageable than a structural deficit, where government spending on basic programs and infrastructure is routinely higher than revenues.
Still, it raises the question: how are we going to pay for all this? There are a few options.
1. Raise taxes
This is how governments managed to pay down debt incurred during the First and Second World Wars. Sales taxes, personal income taxes, corporate taxes—they all went up to help pay off debt. In a year or two when the COVID crisis is solidly behind us, we could see taxes rise to pay off the debt we’re incurring today (or at least reduce the amount of new debt we’re adding to it.)
Of course, higher taxes are unpopular, particularly with wealthy people who tend to pay disproportionately more. Not surprisingly, tax increases are favoured by those who earn lower incomes and pay less in tax.
But high taxes hurt the economy, don’t they? Well, it’s not quite that simple. Economists are mixed on this, and depending on one’s political ideologies, it’s possible to find legitimate academic studies to support almost any argument for, or against, raising taxes.
Some of the world’s most stable and innovative economies—the Nordic countries—are among the most highly taxed in the world. On the other hand, reducing taxes can stimulate an economy in the short term (as per Donald Trump). But the trade-off for this is rising income inequality, which can result in social and political instability.
2. Cut spending
This is the favoured option of market libertarians who view most government spending as wasteful to begin with. But it’s despised by those who value or rely on government services, especially health care and education, which combined account for nearly two-thirds of provincial government spending.
Reduce spending is the easy answer some voters give when asked how governments should balance the books. But when those cuts hit close to home—such as cutting hospital services or allowing 40 elementary students in a classroom—voters get testy. People tend to like the concept of spending cuts, but not actual cuts that leave them without snow removal, their aging parents without adequate long-term care, or their children with crushing post-secondary tuition. The belief that there is tremendous waste and “fat to be trimmed” in the public sector is a bit of a unicorn. What is waste to some is an essential service to another.
Many point out that, in the short run, cutting spending is also bad for the economy. Reduced spending means fewer jobs in the public sector, adding to unemployment and increasing competition for jobs in the private sector. It also reduces the capacity of the future economy, especially cuts to education and infrastructure.
3. Allow inflation to rise
Another way to reduce the overall debt burden is to let inflation rise above the Bank of Canada’s current target of about two per cent. Higher inflation leads to higher prices and wages, which means more tax revenue. It also reduces the real value of any debt taken on before inflation—in other words, pay off today’s spending with devalued dollars in the future. The federal government would have to get the Bank of Canada to agree with this plan, but it could be done.
But for a generation of Canadians, the very word “inflation” is heresy. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, soaring consumer price inflation was Public Enemy #1 for economists and central banks. At the time, interest rates were pushed sky high as a way of slamming on the breaks of ever-spiralling prices. Anyone who held a home mortgage in the ‘80s remembers one-year interest rates of over 20 per cent. All the while, the economy had stalled in “stag-flation”—a toxic mix of a stagnant economy and high inflation.
Inflating our way out debt has benefits and drawbacks. Inflation favours borrowers—both governments and consumers—as it allows them to more easily reduce their debt. It punishes savers and investors, who watch helplessly as their wealth depreciates before their eyes.
At the moment, inflation in Canada is low and stable, which is the primary goal of the Bank of Canada. By allowing the inflation target to rise from around two per cent currently to perhaps a moderate four or five per cent, maybe we can reduce our debt burden gradually. And by doing so, we can still keep inflation from exploding out of control.
Inflating our way out of debt is an option, and it shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly. Yet it’s a bit like cheating. It’s like taking diet pills with harmful side effects rather than eating less (cutting spending) or exercising more (raising taxes).
Raising taxes, cutting spending, allowing inflation to rise—no option is appealing. But there is a fourth option.
4. Do nothing
Keeping with the weight loss metaphor, it’s possible to simply buy bigger clothes and ignore the weight gain. For a country’s economy, why not just accept that our governments have higher debt levels? Does it matter for the average Canadian that the federal debt-to-GDP level rises from 30 per cent to 40 per cent? Or higher? As long as we’re not close to defaulting on our debt obligations, why should we put ourselves through all the misery of higher taxes, reduced spending or rising inflation?
It’s a fair question, yet there is a price to pay for higher public debt. Interest must be paid on debt, and while interest rates are close to zero now, that may not be the case in the future. Every dollar paid towards servicing the debt is a dollar not available for hip replacements, road paving, school computers or other spending priorities.
It also reduces our options as a country in the future. Just like racking up a personal credit card reduces spending options for an individual, so too does higher public debt for governments. This was the problem that Canada and Alberta got into in the 1990s. Levels of public debt were so high relative to the size of our economy that it was reducing our options.
We’re seeing unprecedented levels of government spending in 2020 with more likely to come. For every emergency program that is announced, the response tends to be “we need much more than that.” Governments are dousing the flames of a burning building. While the hose is being sprayed, one doesn’t question the damage that the water is doing to the flooring or the furniture. Yet damage is being done, and that will need to be addressed.
Dealing with soaring debt won’t be easy for governments or citizens in the future. Raise taxes, cut spending, allow higher inflation—there are advantages to all of these, yet all will be met with howls of protest. Do nothing is the fourth option, one likely to face the least protest, yet one that comes with its own cost.
It’s hard to be an optimist these days. The health pandemic is taking lives and the economic crisis is closing businesses. Not much to cheer about here. In fact, it seems rude to be upbeat.
Yet in spite of these hardships, here are three reasons to be excited about a post-COVID world.
Make no mistake: the COVID crisis is tragic. The human and economic suffering will be the worst we’ve known in modern times. More losses are coming. There will be no V-shaped recovery.
Still, if we allow ourselves a moment’s luxury to think positively, good things are on the horizon. A nudge to embrace productivity-enhancing cyber technologies, a chance to ignite the power of community, and a crash course in creativity and innovation — these are the positives that will pave the path to the future.
There’s no way to sugar-coat it: the COVID-19 pandemic is certain to be the world’s single worst downturn in modern history. For Alberta, it will be doubly bad because A) it’s hitting the energy sector extremely hard, and B) we’re going into the downturn with an economy that’s already severely compromised.
The reality is that in terms of the contraction in the size of the economy, Alberta is likely to see the worst year since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The unemployment rate could hit 20% or higher. All of that draws to mind the images from the Depression of people going hungry, living in dusty shacks, and wearing dirty and tattered clothes.
As bad as the economy is about to tank, we don’t need to worry about those images becoming reality in 2020. There are three reasons why.
All of this may be cold comfort for Albertans who are facing joblessness and worrying prospects today. They wonder when — or if — their job will ever return. It will be painful, there is no doubt. And while comparisons to the 1930s may be correct with respect to the size of the economic contraction, we need not fear the levels of poverty and destitution that marked The Great Depression.
So Calgary voted “no” to the 2026 Winter Olympics. Time to move on. But in moving on, the city needs to ask itself, “If not the Olympics, then what?”
We live in a contentious era of polarized debates and heated arguments. It’s a world of outrage, one marked by divisions that threaten to destroy friendships and ruin family dinners. This isn’t unique to Calgary. It’s a phenomenon everywhere.
It’s the CAVE syndrome: citizens against virtually everything.
In Canada, you see it with opposition to oil pipelines, carbon levies and residential developments in many cities. You see it in Europe with the rise of anti-EU movements and the Brexit vote. You see it in the United States with growing opposition towards immigration and global trade. They are literally building walls!
You see it in Ontario with its government opposed to 21st century curriculum in schools. You see it in the new government in Quebec with its anti-immigration tendencies.
And on November 13, you saw it with Calgary voting no to hosting the world in 2026. Everyone gets a say, but the opponents are the loudest.
To be clear, there are plenty of good reasons to oppose things — much of it comes down to personal opinion and conviction. For example, I’m opposed to teachers tattling on kids who attend a gay-straight alliance at school. I’m opposed to liberalized gun ownership. And I’m opposed to flat taxes. These are all things over which reasonable people may disagree.
With Calgary's 2026 Winter Games plebiscite, the “no” voters had legitimate misgivings about the costs of the games, the exact sources of tax revenue that would be required, and a general mistrust of the IOC and government ability to deliver. These are all understandable and reasonable objections.
But ultimately citizens must ask themselves: “What do we favour?” What legacy do we want to leave our children? How do we want to build our cities, shape our societies and influence our economies?
If the only answer is low taxes, that’s a fairly discouraging vision of the future. I like low taxes too. But as the proverb tells us, "Where there is no vision, the people perish" (Proverbs 29:18).
What’s our vision for Calgary? So it’s not the 2026 Olympics and a legacy of sport and inspiring kids with their Olympic heros. Fair enough. But let’s also be clear: the “no” vote requires of us a new vision of where Calgary is going.
Let’s not focus on what we oppose. Let’s focus on what we favour, and build it together — whatever it may be.
Alberta’s job market is a powerhouse. We had the highest employment rate in the country last year with 66.7 per cent of our population age 15 and over working at a job. That’s five percentage points above the national average and 16 points higher than the lowest rate which is found in Newfoundland and Labrador. If we had the same employment rate as the national average, there would be 187,000 fewer Albertans with jobs.
And it’s not just a blip.
We’ve had the highest employment rate of any province every year since at least 1976. This is a remarkable record and points to the ability of the Alberta economy to supply not just Albertans–but Canadians and immigrants who migrate to the province–with much-needed jobs.
An economy that can generate jobs is, however, only half of the equation. You also need a labour force that meets the needs of employers in terms of education, skills and experience. For the most part, employers in Alberta find the people they need, but when the economy is booming–and even when it’s not–skilled labour shortages can be a problem.
At the same time, as the economy evolves in response to new technology, jobs are both destroyed and created. This can leave workers scrambling to obtain the right education, skills and experience to fill new jobs.
Take agricultural jobs in Alberta. Better equipment, techniques and agricultural science have seen the number of farm workers in Alberta go from 88,900 in 1997 to 50,800 in 2016–a drop of 43 per cent–while inflation-adjusted agricultural output increased by 63 per cent. As a result, people who would have otherwise worked as farmers have had to find jobs in other sectors.
Fortunately, increased use of more sophisticated computer systems helps explain the rise in the number of Albertans with “professional, scientific and technical service” jobs (which include computer system design and support). The number of jobs in this sector went from 85,400 in 1997 to 179,300 in 2016–an increase of 110 per cent.
New technology taketh away, but it also giveth. The challenge is to be as ready as possible for the next wave of change which, by most accounts, will be driven by rapid advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and the increased automation it will make possible.
As the use of AI increases, Alberta’s job market will be affected in three main ways. First, some jobs will disappear. Large numbers of truck drivers, for example, may be replaced by autonomous trucks.
Second, new jobs will be created. People will, for example, be needed to design, maintain, operate and train others to use the software and hardware that makes an autonomous truck system work.
Third, many existing jobs will involve the use of more AI applications. A human resources specialist, for example, may use AI to help screen job applicants.
AI promises to increase productivity, improve services and open doors to new ventures and jobs. But, as with all technological change, there will be winners and losers. For there to be more winners than losers, employers, educators, parents, students and workers need to prepare themselves as much as possible for what’s coming.
How do we do this? Education in all its forms is going to be the critical factor. Businesses, nonprofits and government departments need to offer AI training to their staff. Our schools need to be imparting the hard and soft skills workers will need to flourish alongside AI applications. Students and employees need to be proactive and learn about AI and the changes it’s bringing.
Our businesses and entrepreneurs also need to be looking for ways to take advantage of new technology and create jobs that will harness it.
And all of us need to keep up with the technology as best we can so we are not left behind. This doesn’t mean we have to buy every new gadget that comes out or accept all change as inevitable. Quite the opposite. We need to make sure that AI is improving our lives, not making them worse. But we must also avoid the future equivalent of having to call our grandkids to change the clock on our VCR.
If we do these things, our economy will be able to generate new jobs and our workers will have the skills needed to fill them. If we don’t, others will seize the opportunities, and our prosperity will erode accordingly.
This post is written by guest writer Rob Roach, ATB Financial's Director of Insight.
It's summer, and Albertans are enjoying the bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables. But those berries, beets and bananas come at a price.
Year over year, fresh fruit prices are up modestly (+1.4 per cent), but fresh vegetables are up a whopping 7.7 per cent!
Some of the reason why fresh produce prices are up is due to higher transportation costs. Most of our fresh vegetables come from Mexico or California. Fuel costs are higher, and they're being passed on to consumers. The softer Canadian dollar is also a factor.
What can shoppers do?
1. Where possible, buy local. It might not be pineapple or papaya, but our farmers can grow a wide variety of fruits and veggies—and they don't need to be shipped thousands of miles.
2. Grow your own. Many of us already keep gardens, but there's a lot that even high-density urban dwellers can do. It takes a bit of work, but fresh patio tomatoes and strawberries are delicious.
3. Re-discover canning and preserves. There's a reason Albertans have managed to live here for generations—they made it through the winter by canning, freezing and keeping vegetables in cold storage.
We live in a world where strawberries, grapes and lettuce can arrive from anywhere in the world, even in the middle of January. But being price conscious in the grocery store means we take a second look at all of the incredible fruits and vegetables that can be grown right in our backyards.
Todd talked about this recently as part of The Hoot, a regular radio segment on Calgary Today on Newstalk770 with Angela Kokott and on 630 CHED with J'lynNye and Andrew Grose.
"We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us." -Winston Churchill
Calgary has seen some substantial investment in new buildings lately, many of them public spaces (the National Music Centre, the new downtown library). But there's more to urban architecture than having fancy buildings. There's a strong economic imperative to it as well.
Urban aesthetics matter to the attractiveness of a city, and thus to attracting newcomers. Attracting and retaining people - especially the young, talented and educated people who can go anywhere-is crucial. (In the recent Amazon second headquarters contest, Amazon explicitly looked for cities that are interesting and appealing to young tech workers.)
The question usually boils down to finances—and in the case of public buildings/spaces, how many tax dollars should go to building amazing structures. It's a good debate to have, but the answer must never be "build the cheapest thing possible."
Buildings and public spaces are with us for a long time. Certainly adding millions to the price of a project is a choice we have to make prudently. But because they are permanent decisions, the public buildings we choose to build should be inspiring and interesting. They should bring people together in community. Ugly, utilitarian structures may be cheaper to slap up, but they come with a higher economic cost in the long run.
Todd talked about this recently as part of The Hoot, a regular radio segment on Calgary Today on Newstalk770 with Angela Kokott and on 630 CHED with J'lynNye and Andrew Grose.
Three key things stand out when taking a “30,000 foot” perspective on Alberta’s labour force:
First is the importance of Alberta as an engine of job creation. The number of jobs in Alberta has–on average–grown by 2.5 per cent per year since 1976. The average for the rest of Canada is 1.5 per cent. That might not seem like a huge difference, but if the number of jobs in Alberta had grown at the same rate as in the rest of Canada, there would be 736,000 fewer jobs in the province today. That’s a lot of additional jobs for Albertans and for the thousands of people from other parts of Canada and the world who have come here to make a better life.
Second, from agriculture and tourism to our universities and entrepreneurs, there are lots of reasons why Alberta’s economy has grown (and will keep growing). But the reason we have been able to outperform the rest of the country on job growth is our oil and gas sector and the economic activity it supports. The walloping our labour market has taken because of the 2015-16 recession drives this point home. Oil prices plummeted and the number of jobs in the sectors that depend on the oil industry shrank.
Third, the recession was painful and we are still feeling it. At 6.6 per cent in March, we had the highest unemployment rate in the country outside of Atlantic Canada. That’s a lot better than the 9.0 per cent we reached in November 2016, but it’s still high by Alberta standards. Alberta also had the longest average length of unemployment in the country in 2017 at 23.1 weeks (up from 14.5 weeks in 2014) compared to 19.6 weeks nationally. What’s more, we are still 28,000 jobs short of where we were in June 2015 (the peak) and this doesn’t account for the fact that our working age population has grown by 3.0 per cent since then.
Why does this matter? As Albertans, we should be proud of the contribution we've made to Canada’s job growth over the last four decades. It is also worth reminding ourselves and our neighbours that when the oil and gas sector falters, our ability to create jobs also falters. Finally, while the recession is over (Alberta’s GDP grew by 4.9 per cent last year), it does not feel that way to everyone and we are not “back to normal” on the job front.
You can find more analysis of Alberta’s labour force in the latest edition of Perch and the accompanying extended report on atb.com/economics
This post is written by guest writer Rob Roach, ATB Financial's Director of Insight.
We know the recession cut deeply into vehicle sales in Alberta. After all, with nearly one in 10 people out of work, motorists were forced to curb spending. But that didn’t stop us from buying cars and trucks altogether--we just altered what KIND of vehicle we bought.
Sales of new vehicles plunged 18 per cent between 2014 and 2016. At the same time, sales of used vehicles rose by 10 per cent. And because the volume of used vehicle sales is almost double that of new, the effect was that TOTAL sales (i.e., new and used combined) barely fell at all.
This switch from new to used vehicles also happened in the recession of 2008-09. In fact, new vehicle purchases were hit even harder. After hitting a record high in 2007, new vehicle sales dropped 27 per cent by 2009, while used vehicles continued to rise. Sales of new vehicles didn’t fully recover for four more years.
The substitution from new to used cars and trucks is not surprising during an economic downturn (that fresh new car smell comes at a price). But as Alberta’s economy gradually claws its way back, new vehicle sales are rising once again, reaching 11 per cent in 2017.