by David Descôteaux
From irrational markets to imbalanced budgets, some economic realities just never change.
After a decade or so of following current events and writing about the economy, I am convinced that some things will never change. Here are a few observations that may help provide insight into economic news.
The stock market
As the late economist John Maynard Keynes once said, “Markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.” Regardless of the state of employment, the massive debt levels of governments or the problems rocking Europe, China and the US, the stock market keeps climbing. This spring, the Dow Jones hit record highs and the TSX reached its previous peak, despite falling oil prices and concerns about the Canadian economy. As the old adage goes, despite the downturns, the stock market always rises over the long term. This is especially true since central banks started flooding the market with new money.
What consumers? When journalists or politicians talk of trade deals, such as the one being negotiated between India and Canada, who stands up for consumers? Observers wonder whether the agreement will benefit our dairy producers or our manufacturers, but what they don’t ask is whether it will improve ordinary Canadians’ standard of living. Every year, the federal government earns more than $3 billion in customs tariffs, and while it may champion free trade, there are still 8,192 tariff categories blocking foreign goods (such as auto parts, dairy products and hockey equipment) or making them less affordable. The tariffs are designed to protect specific industries and are often the result of pressure from the same groups. In truth, customs tariffs are hidden taxes that are passed on to Canadian consumers, who are not at the free trade negotiating table.
The so-called balanced budget
Budget after budget, fiscal balance at both the federal and the provincial levels always seems to hinge on rosy growth outlooks, as opposed to the fiscal performance of the government in power. Sometimes “balance” is achieved through accounting gimmicks, such as removing more and more agencies or government funds from an ever-narrowing budget framework, or dipping into the government’s contingency fund, as the Conservatives did in the last budget. Politicians are definitely overusing the word “balanced” these days.
Canadians are racking up more debt. Despite numerous warnings from the Bank of Canada and financial advisers, Canadian household debt continues to hit record levels. Living on credit appears to be the norm — and this is due to more than mere economics. A cultural shift has been at play for several years, prompted by the central banks’ low interest rate policies, which promote consumption and discourage saving. While debt-laden households will eventually hit the proverbial wall, the ride can go on longer than you might think.
The rising global standard of living
Despite negative or dramatic headlines, the economic situation is improving. For example, the world poverty rate, defined as the number of people who live on $1 a day or less, decreased by 80% between 1970 and 2006. In Canada, the gap between rich and poor has been narrowing for years. While the richest Canadians accounted for 12.1% of national income in 2006, that figure is now down to 10.6%. And today there are almost twice as many women in the top 1% as in 1982.
But you’ll likely never hear or read any of this good news, since bad news is what sells.
David Descôteaux is a Montreal-based business columnist.
This article was originally published in the August 2015 edition of CPA Magazine.