Employment numbers on Friday showed a hiring frenzy — again — in August. Employers filled 81,000 new positions in just one month, and more than 300,000 so far this year, more than 470,000 in the past 12 months. The unemployment rate is at 5.7 per cent, a near-record low; participation in the workforce is up; even wages are increasing by almost 4 per cent a year, albeit at a somewhat slower pace than earlier this year.
And overall growth in the second quarter of the year has clocked in at a blistering 3.7 per cent annualized pace of expansion.
It doesn’t get much better than this.
But generally in the economic cycle, what goes up must come down, at least to some extent. The markets are awash in speculation about the next recession. A global slump caused by the U.S.-vs.-China trade war is taking its toll. Some indicators in the United States suggest weakness is on its way.
If Canada has peaked, are we ready? Are the country’s books in strong enough shape to confront a downturn, and in a way that doesn’t hurt the vulnerable or future generations? Probably, but we don’t know exactly. And a lot depends on what happens in the coming campaign.
In last March’s budget, the deficit for the 2019-2020 fiscal year was projected to be $19.8 billion, and almost the same the year after.
That might be too high for some fiscal conservatives, and it certainly isn’t in line with Trudeau’s promises in 2015 to get rid of the deficit by this year. But most economists say it’s not too big to deal with a slowdown. The federal government could still afford to stimulate the economy in a downturn by throwing large sums of money at parts of the population who are struggling.
But that’s if the budget numbers hold. And if the last two months of spending commitments from the Liberals are any indication, the budget is no longer a solid indicator of what’s in the federal purse.
Since the beginning of this fiscal year, which began April 1, program spending already rose 10.3 per cent in the first three months, according to the department of finance’s monthly Fiscal Monitor. The budget, however, allowed for a much slimmer 1.8 per cent increase for the entire year.
It’s conceivable that spending will pull way back in the remainder of the year or that revenues will greatly exceed expectations, allowing the deficit projections to get back on track. But on the spending side at least, we’re not heading in that direction.
We do have some public information about extra spending until the end of June. The Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) has been tracking all the extra spending that the government has not budgeted for, and between April 1 and June 21, the total is $2.05 billion. Most of that was for a Hibernia-related payout to Newfoundland and Labrador that essentially revamped the Atlantic Accord arrangements for that province. Smaller amounts of unbudgeted funding also went to canola farmers and the coast guard fleet.
Since the end of June, however, it’s anyone’s guess.
The Liberals, still in government during the summer months, made hundreds of spending announcements and commitments. Most of them were likely accounted for in one way or another in the fiscal framework. They were ribbon-cutting announcements, or new, local details for large but vague funds earmarked in the last budget.
But we can’t be sure of that because there is no way to check. The Conservative party was trying to keep tabs but couldn’t be sure what money was already booked. Likewise, journalist David Akin at Global News has a running tally, but it doesn’t necessarily distinguish between money contained somewhere in the fiscal framework and unbudgeted commitments for the future.
The PBO stopped keeping track on June 21 and assumes that any “new” funding announced or committed to over the summer is akin to a Liberal platform commitment. All the other parties, as they put together their election platforms, will be using the PBO’s June 21 tally as their own baseline. But the Liberals’ starting point is unclear — and the spending patterns of the last couple of months are raising alarm bells throughout the bureaucracy.
The finance department, the office of Finance Minister Bill Morneau and the Liberal party did not immediately respond to requests for their tallies of nonbudgeted spending or re-profiled spending since the end of June.
Get The Lead newsletter
Start getting your whip-smart guide to Canada’s 2019 federal election in your inbox.
Of course, the Conservatives face fiscal questions of their own. They have promised to balance the books within five years, while also cutting some taxes. Revenue holes will be plugged by eliminating corporate subsidies, but there are many questions about how that will all add up.
The eventual publication of party platforms, as well as the scrutiny of the PBO, will certainly add much-needed clarity and transparency as the campaign matures.