Canada

Annual output is projected to shrink by 9.4% in 2020 in the event of a second virus outbreak and related shutdown, and by 8% if recovery is uninterrupted. The rebound will not be dynamic enough for output to attain pre-COVID-19 levels by the end of 2021 under either scenario. Similarly, the rate of unemployment will still be elevated. Fiscal balances will deteriorate sharply from additional spending commitments and tax-revenue losses and then recover somewhat thanks to declining outlays in support payments and recovering incomes. Weak demand will push down consumer price inflation.

The central bank, along with federal, provincial and territorial governments, have responded quickly to the COVID-19 crisis, and a substantial range of monetary, fiscal and structural support is in place. Contingency plans for future outbreaks of COVID-19 are now needed. Policy also needs to ensure that measures already taken are effective, in particular the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) given the importance accorded to them. Gaps in support need to be dealt with as they appear, especially among vulnerable groups, including aboriginal communities. The oil sector shock should be used as an opportunity to accelerate green transition.

Canada’s first cases of COVID-19 appeared in mid-January, with substantial acceleration in cases from early March. However, Canada appears to have averted the scale of impact seen in some countries. The spread of the virus in care homes has been a key issue – around 17% of Canada’s population is aged 65 years and over.

The containment measures came into force from mid to late March. Provinces and territories, as well as the federal government, played a key role. States of emergency and other measures brought school closure, regulation on distancing, operational restrictions on various types of businesses, and strong public health advice for people to remain at home. Saskatchewan was the first province to announce a reopening plan (implementation began on 4 May) and reopening is now underway throughout the country.

Similar to other commodity producers, the COVID-19 crisis is bringing two economic shocks, the direct impact from containment measures and an indirect impact via commodity markets. Low oil prices and weak demand have already prompted cuts in shale-oil production, and large declines in investment are likely. In currency and financial markets, the crisis initially prompted exchange rate depreciation of around 8% vis-à-vis the US dollar and the main stock market reference index, the S&P/TSX index, dropped by around one-third between late February and mid-March. Recovery from these initial market reactions has only been partial. The scale of the initial impact on output and employment is increasingly apparent. Real gross domestic product fell 7.2% between February and March, the survey-based rate of unemployment increased from 5.6% to 13.7% between February and May and household and business confidence indices have dipped sharply. However, there are indicators of economic recovery now that confinement measures have begun to ease. For example, Apple’s Mobility Trends Reports indicate that driving and walking activity are now close to pre-crisis levels.

Canada has taken many measures to head off macroeconomic destabilisation, bolster demand and support households and businesses. The Bank of Canada has lowered its policy rate by 150 basis points, to 0.25%. It has also supported liquidity through a reduction in the Domestic Stability Buffer Requirement and through more favourable conditions in the term repo market. Balance-sheet operations have been used to support the markets for government and mortgage bonds. The Bank has similarly supported markets that are important for the financing of provincial-government and small and medium-sized businesses.

Federal government measures are accounting for most of the fiscal support in terms of dollar value. Federal government spending and tax measures that have a direct budgetary impact are estimated at CAD 153 billion (equivalent to around 7% of GDP). The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) for workers losing income due to COVID-19 and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) for employers are expected to account for most of the fiscal outlay. CERB, operational since early April, provides a payment of CAD 500 per week for up to 16 weeks. CEWS, operational since mid-April, provides a wage-bill subsidy of up to 75% to employers for up to three months, and will be paid retroactively to mid-March. Other federal government support includes tax deferrals, increased support for families through tax credits and child benefits, as well as loan guarantees and co-lending programmes for business. Provincial governments have provided supplementary safety nets for households. For instance, Ontario’s measures include an emergency assistance benefit and Alberta introduced a one-off payment to those in isolation. There is also provincial assistance for employees. For instance, Quebec’s response includes a temporary aid programme for those not covered by other schemes. Business support includes payment deferral of provincially administered taxes (for instance, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia) and deferrals on utility bills (for instance, British Columbia).

For the projections, it is estimated that confinement measures, when they were fully operating, shut down around 20% of economic activity. Reduced activity in service sectors, such as wholesale and retail trade and the food and accommodation sector, accounted for most of the output reduction. Shutdown in the transport equipment sector of manufacturing also played a role, reflecting decisions by major automobile producers to halt production temporarily.

Increased transfers to households and businesses and reduced tax bills, along with monetary and liquidity support, will limit the depth of economic downturn. Nevertheless, the initial recession is deep; sharp falls in household consumption spending, business investment and external demand have taken place. The wage subsidy scheme will help limit employment losses, but unemployment will increase substantially. Consumer-price inflation is expected to be dented by the downturn. Recovery from the recession will be sluggish, especially if there are further outbreaks of the virus and related shutdowns. Neither output nor employment levels will have returned to pre-crisis levels by the end of the projection period, especially in the double-hit scenario. The fiscal balance will weaken substantially in 2020, especially in the case of a second shutdown. Around 40% of the deficit increase will be due to revenue losses. Balances will partially recover in 2021 due to rebound in tax revenues and the termination of temporary support measures.

Risks will remain elevated. As underscored by the double-hit scenario, there is a possibility of further COVID-19 outbreaks. For Canada, the future path of oil price and demand is also a key source of uncertainty and risk. And, as elsewhere, there is considerable uncertainty on how quickly some services sectors will revive. Canada’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis will also depend substantially on developments in the United States, including pandemic and economic risk factors, given the close economic ties between the two countries. In financial markets, while a liquidity crisis has been averted so far, risks remain. The crisis has heightened vulnerabilities in the corporate bond market and risks from high levels of household debt through mortgage borrowing.

Policymakers need to ensure contingency planning for renewed outbreaks of COVID-19. Given the substantial support underway, policy should also ensure that the measures already taken are working as intended. Given the rapid implementation of programmes such as CERB and CEWS, there are, for instance, risks of issues in application processing and undesirable side-effects. Policy should also focus on addressing any gaps in support that may emerge; social and economic problems among vulnerable groups, such as aboriginal communities, will be likely made greater by the increase in unemployment. For business policy, the oil sector shock potentially provides opportunity to accelerate green transition through measures that help the reallocation of resources in the regions and sectors most affected by the decline in oil-related activity. Meanwhile, business policy also needs to plan an appropriately timed unwinding of support measures as conditions improve. In particular, prolonged wage subsidy may hold back recovery if it delays the resumption of business operations.

Although the long-term structural economic impacts from COVID-19 are uncertain, preliminary policy work is warranted. As elsewhere, COVID-19’s legacy is likely to bring lasting shifts in the structure of economic activity, suggesting greater need for retraining programmes to help displaced workers, working patterns, and travel for business and leisure.

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