Canada’s business leaders are a pessimistic bunch. That’s the assessment of two recent surveys that take the pulse of business sentiment across the country.
A survey of professional accountants in leadership positions conducted by the Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada (CPA Canada) found that 40% of the business leaders surveyed are pessimistic about how Canada’s economy will perform over the next 12 months. That result represents a doubling of pessimism from a report released just three months earlier.
CPA Canada states that accountants haven’t been so down about the country’s economic prospects since 2009. Optimists were in short supply in the most recent survey, falling to 17% this autumn compared with 29% in the previous quarterly report. Slightly more than 40% of professional accountants surveyed for the most recent report said they were neutral about the prospects for Canada’s economy.
A statement from CPA Canada quotes Kevin Dancey, the association’s president and CEO, as saying: “What a difference a year makes.” The release notes that a year ago, the ranks of optimists were more than double, but adds that the negativity may be easing: “So far this year, pessimism levels have been higher than usual. However, more recently, there have been mixed indicators about where the Canadian economy is heading, including signals of growth, so it will be interesting to see what the next quarterly results reveal.”
Participants in the most recent quarterly survey said that oil prices remain Challenge No. 1 for Canada’s economy (with 38% of participants agreeing to that statement), followed by uncertainty about Canada’s economy (15%). On the plus side, 71% of survey participants said that they believe the U.S. economy is growing.
The Bank of Canada (BoC) also recently reported that Canadian companies cannot agree on whether the economic glass is half-full or half-empty. The BoC’s autumn Business Outlook Survey found that firms’ expectations continue to diverge as companies gradually adjust to an environment of weaker commodity prices and a lower Canadian dollar. Although the overall sales and investment outlook improved, buoyed in part by continued support from U.S. demand, optimism is scarce among businesses directly and indirectly tied to the resources sector.
Canada’s central bank has tried to jolt the oil-depressed economy into a more lively condition, cutting the key interest rate on two occasions in 2015 to try to boost exports and weaken the dollar. The BoC has been very effective in pushing down the currency, although an actual increase in exports has been slower to surface.
Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist with CIBC World Markets Inc., is not surprised by the negative business tone, but adds that writing off hopes for a near-term economic turnaround are coming too early.
“At this point, we were supposed to see a surge in non-energy because of the weaker Canadian dollar. We haven’t seen it yet, and I think that is a reflection of the uncertainty. We see more people reluctant to invest and increase capacity, and that is why we are not able to take full advantage of the tailwinds that we are getting from the U.S.”
Tal is optimistic about Canada’s economic prospects for 2016, particularly for Ontario and Quebec: “It is starting to come. You will see the benefits in 2016.”
Tal recommends advisors carefully consider where the economy is headed: holding cash and sitting on the sidelines is a losing proposition, while the bond market is expensive because it has already priced in the bad economic news. “Therefore,” he says, “one way of participating in this environment and still keeping a low profile is to focus on high-quality, dividend-paying stocks.”
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