Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s 2018 budget is a classic one for the third year of a four-year majority term. It’s a “hold the line” budget, leaving big initiatives for Budget 2019 as the next election campaign gets underway.
The question is whether this is appropriate. Paul Ferley, assistant chief economist with Toronto-based Royal Bank of Canada, is concerned about how little progress there’s been on the deficit and the debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio despite very strong economic growth. What, he asks, will happen when there’s a hiccup in the economy — a significant slowdown or recession — as will inevitably happen at some point?
Canadian economic growth has been very strong since the Liberals were elected, with the economy growing at 3% in 2017, well above the potential growth rate of less than 2%. Yet, the budget projects a still very big deficit of $18.1 billion for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2019, down only a little from $19.4 billion this year and above the $17.7 billion in fiscal 2017. The debt to GDP ratio has fallen only a little as well, to 30.1% in fiscal 2019 from 31% in fiscal 2017.
One can certainly argue, says Ferley, that this budget was an opportunity to more aggressively prepare for a hiccup — particularly given not only the slowing economic growth, but rising interest rates. The three-month treasury bill rate is expected to increase to an average of 2.5% by 2021 from 1.4% this year, with the 10-year Canada bond rate going to 3.3% from 2.3%.
Morneau argues that more investments are needed to get the country on a strong, sustainable growth path. This year’s budget focuses on gender parity, social and rental housing and indigenous people. These are important issues, for which getting it right could transform Canadian society in the longer term. They are not issues, however, that are front and centre in the minds of most Canadians.
What’s front and centre is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and U.S. tax reforms, which got little attention in the budget.
In fairness, there’s nothing Morneau can do currently about NAFTA as no one knows if it will survive and, if it does survive, what will remain the same and what will change.
The same can’t be said for U.S. tax reform, as we do know that will involve a loss of competitiveness for Canadian businesses. However, Morneau is taking a “wait and see” approach.
“We know businesses are concerned about the outcome of NAFTA talks and tax changes in the U.S.,” Morneau said in the budget speech. “We will be vigilant in making sure Canada remains the best place to invest, create jobs and do business — and we will do this in a responsible and careful way, letting evidence, and not emotion, guide our decisions.”
This also fits with the political timetable. The Liberals want to save their big guns for next year’s budget so they can point to a host of big measures that will encourage voters to give them another majority.