“We took on debt so Canadians didn’t have to.” That was the message from PM Trudeau following the latest figures which show direct federal aid to individuals and businesses as a result of COVID-19 has now reached $212 billion. Of which, $55B has gone directly to the pockets of 8.25 million Canadians who have collected a CERB cheque.
Indeed the numbers are head turning, The federal government now expects to post a $343-billion deficit in 2021. And while these figures are pause for concern, the current economic outlook provides very few options. Private sector balance sheets in Canada are a mess, private sector debt to GDP sits at just over 260%, one of the highest in the G-20. Years of borrowing in the household and corporate sector have left the Canadian economy in a vulnerable scenario, one which now requires the public sector to fill the void.
Left unchecked, the demand destruction could sew the seeds of a private sector debt crisis. Economic studies are mounting regarding the perils of private sector debt. Ex banker Richard Vague, in his most recent book ‘A Brief History of Doom’ highlights this relationship. Every economic crisis over the last 150 years has manifested: the combination of private debt to GDP of 150% or more and an increase in the ratio over a 5 year period of 17% or more. Until the moment of reckoning, things may seem wonderful. Rapid private-debt growth fuelled what were viewed as triumphs in their day—the Roaring Twenties, the Japanese “economic miracle” of the ’80s, and the Asian boom of the ’90s—but these were debt-powered binges that brought these economies to the brink of economic ruin.
This places Canada squarely in the danger zone, having hit all of these milestones. Hence the rapid intervention from the Federal Government to spend into oblivion.
However, like everything in life, for every action there is a reaction. The recent downgrade of Canada’s credit rating may be the first of many according to David Rosenberg, one of Canada’s most respected economists. Adding, Canada’s 350 per cent total debt-to-GDP ratio compares to 330 per cent in the U.S. — the latter having the most powerful army in the world and the world’s reserve currency which means the Fed has the largest printing press of all and it gets its ink for free. Italy’s debt ratio is 360 per cent and its credit rating is BBB. Greece is 340 per cent and it is rated BB-. Spain’s debt ratio is 360 per cent and it has a BBB- ranking. And China is at 290 per cent and has an A+ rating by S&P. So Canada, even as it stands, deserves a AAA sovereign rating based exactly on what criteria?
Once again, there is no easy way out. Without fiscal spending the crushing debt loads in the private sector would surely cripple the economy. It’s a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Fiscal spending will blow-out to new heights, buckle up.