Northern Economist 2.0

Thursday, 23 May 2019

The Big Challenges Addressing Ontario’s Deficit & Debt Problem

The last couple of days have seen two reports – one by Statistics Canada and one by the Ontario Financial Accountability Office – which taken together provide the best picture yet as to why Ontario faces a big fiscal challenge in resolving its deficit and debt issues.  First, the Financial Accountability Office (FAO) in its Spring 2019 Economic and Budget Outlook under its baseline projection projects that Ontario’s budget deficit decreases from $11.7 billion in 2018-19 to $7.3 billion in 2020-21 and improves rapidly over the following three years, reaching balance in 2022-23 and a relatively large surplus of $6.4 billion by 2023-24.  

Yet, the FAO notes that the 2019 Ontario Budget projects smaller deficits over the next two years due to the government’s more optimistic outlook for revenue growth.  However, beginning in 2021-22, the 2019 budget incorporates provisions for unannounced revenue reductions and spending measures. This would lead to higher deficits and add to Ontario’s debt. The Province should still achieve a balanced budget by 2023-24, due to its plan to significantly restrain the growth in program spending.  The 2019 budget will see program spending grow at just 1 percent annually over the next five years bringing per capita government spending from $10,494 in 2018-19 to $9,391 – a decrease of 10.5 percent.  Per capita government spending in Ontario is already the lowest in the country and this additional decline would widen the gap even more.

So why is Ontario unable to provide provincial government program spending closer to the national average? The answer to that lies in another report by Statistics Canada titled Income Growth per Capita in the Provinces since 1950 which examines GDP per capita and real GDI per capita over a 66-year period to provide insight on which provinces experienced the most growth over the course of this period, and how this affected per capita income levels across provinces.  The news for Ontario is pretty grim in terms of economic growth rates.  Whereas in 1950, Ontario had the highest GDP per capita of the ten provinces – followed by British Columbia and Alberta – by 2016 it was down to 4thplace with Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador in the top three positions.  More startling is the growth rate of per capita income – which places Ontario at the bottom of all the provinces over this period (See figure).

So, Ontario in a sense over the last 50 years has spent beyond its means in an effort to keep up with the other provinces in terms of the provision of public services but that has still not been enough.  It now has the lowest per capita spending of the ten provinces, the largest provincial total public debt, the second highest per capita public debt, and is engaged in an effort to balance its budget which will widen the program spending gap further with the other provinces.  Now some may point to the factor here as a revenue problem driven by the unwillingness of Ontario to raise taxes.  Ontario indeed has the lowest total revenue per capita among the ten provinces but it has the third highest per capita tax revenue – after Quebec and Newfoundland.  Ontario’s relatively higher per capita tax revenue is offset by lower revenues from resource royalties, federal transfers as well as all other revenues when compared to other provinces.  No, it is not a tax revenue problem.

The problem is three-fold: First, Ontario has had a weaker economic growth rate relative to the other provinces and needs to boost its productivity and economy to grow faster thereby expanding its tax base.  Second, Ontario has not had has a resource sector boom that has enabled provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan to leap ahead in terms of income and ultimately government spending and nor is it likely to get one from northern Ontario resources anytime soon given the slow pace of development.  Third, as a result of its strong tax base - all things considered – Ontario is still a source of federal government revenue and ultimately transfers to other parts of the country which allow those regions to maintain a higher level of spending.  While balancing the budget by 2022-23 will resolve Ontario’s fiscal situation, it remains that the long-term pressures driving its fiscal imbalance are still there.  

Friday, 17 May 2019

Canada's World Role: Time to Grow Up

Canada is experiencing a particularly rough patch in terms of its international relations given the recent acrimonious trade negotiations with the United States over NAFTA, the deterioration in diplomatic and economic relations with China in the wake of the Meng Wanzhou affair and the recent spats with Saudi Arabia and now even the Phillipines.  Despite our efforts to reach out diplomatically to our allies and gain their support for our predicaments, no one is going to come to our aid.  While some of this can be traced to the deterioration of a rules-based world economic and political order and the rise of more populist regimes, the recent setbacks suffered by Canada have another direct contributor – the United States and especially President Trump. 

The United States has signaled to the world that its America First policies extend to its closest North American neighbours – Canada and Mexico – and that there are limits to any “special” relationship with Canada.  The lifting today of the tariffs on steel and aluminum does not change this.  The NAFTA negotiations not only saw tariffs imposed on Canada but a set of particularly personal attacks on the Prime Minister and the negotiating team.  Essentially, the Prime minister was “slapped around” in public by President Trump and the message this conveyed did not go unnoticed in the rest of the world.  The message was that Canada no longer enjoyed any special protection from its close affiliation with the Americans – it was just another American foreign relation.

This may all seem far-fetched to the members of Canada’s governing Laurentian elites whose views are still anchored in the Golden Age of Canadian diplomacy of Lester Pearson but then most of them probably did not attend a rough and tumble northern Ontario elementary school in the 1970s.  Unlike the zero tolerance environments of today’s elementary schools, violence in the playground was quite prevalent several decades ago.   If the biggest kid took a dislike to you during recess and slapped you around, it was a signal to his minions that they could slap you around too.  Taking a stand on principle and shouting out the importance of fairness and values would simply get you another pummeling.  The trick to survival in that environment was to lay low and not attract too much attention while still getting things done.

So, Canada is in a situation not of its own making but one in which it is going to have to work hard to forge the economic relationships we need to support our standard of living.  After all, about one third of our GDP is rooted in exports which means that we cannot just take our balls and go home to play. However, we do have to be more hard-nosed about reciprocity in our economic relationships with countries that are able to use Canadian rule of law to their advantage when it comes to investing in Canada but do not extend the same privileges to our citizens and companies.  Our overall diplomatic efforts to build alliances must continue but in the long run they need to be coupled with something else – we need to get bigger if we want to ensure we are not so readily pushed around on the world playground. 

Canada needs to continue to grow its population to expand its economic mass and needs to do so through migration incentives that place population in centers other than Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver to promote broader development.  Canada also needs to spend more on its own defense if it wants to be taken more seriously.  There are challenges coming to our Arctic sovereignty and unless we are planning to give the region away to Russia, the United States and China, we need to be able to effectively command access and transit through the region.  We cannot depend on the United States or other allies to promote our interests – we need to do it more astutely and assertively ourselves. 

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Thunder Bay's Municipal Tax-Ratio Challenge

One of the items at the Monday April 29th Thunder Bay City Council meeting was a discussion on tax policy and a move to bring it more in line with provincial requirements.  Namely, the province has property tax ratio thresholds and in order to meet them there needed to be a reduction in non-residential tax ratios as follows: Industrial ratio from 2.925444 to 2.63, Multi-residential from 2.422438 to 2.0, and Commercial from 2.137932 to 1.98.  This has been a process that has been underway since 1998 and partly as a result the share of the tax levy paid by residential ratepayers has been rising over time while that of non-residential has been declining. 

In Thunder Bay at present, nearly two-thirds of the tax levy is borne by residential ratepayers while the other third is non-residential or essentially business property taxation. In 1990, it was about a 50/50 split. It should be noted that the City of Thunder Bay’s financial statements now report taxation revenue without dividing it into residential and non-residential as used to be the case only a few years ago.  To get that information, one now has to go onto the government of Ontario website and access the Financial Information Returns provided by municipalities which can be quite a daunting task.  This lack of transparency on the part of the City of Thunder Bay in reporting these important numbers more directly is a disappointment.

Of course, municipal public finance can be a pretty arcane and complex issue– even for an economist - and the discussion the other evening was actually more spirited and informative than usual, all other things given.  Administration affirmed that the tax levy this year would remain the same and the changes to the residential burden would be phased in but in the end based on the short segment I observed they did not successfully allay the concerns of councilors that residential taxes could rise even if the tax levy stayed the same.  Indeed, the emphasis that the tax levy is going to remain the same this year did not deal with the concern that taxes for residential will rise more than they otherwise might in future.  How can this be?