|Chart 1 Real GDP growth, quarterly % change|
Many reasons have been given to explain the economy's weak performance, including the slowdown in China, the fiscal and financial situation in Europe, as well as tepid growth in the US during the summer months.
Of course, as usual, no one is pointing to the fact that Canada is currently undergoing its second most important (i.e., longest and sharpest) bout of public sector austerity in half a century. One would think that commentators would highlight this reality in their analyses.
As you can see from the chart below, real (consolidated) government expenditure (excluding transfers) has been in decline since the fourth quarter of 2010. Historically, such a decline in real government spending has only occurred once: during the period of fiscal restraint of the mid-1990s.
|Chart 2: Real government expenditures, Source: Statistics Canada and author's calculations|
Visually, this is how most commentators interpret Canada's experience with austerity in the 1990s (note: I'm not seeking to show a correlation between the two series. I'm simply overlapping both sets of data on a common timeline):
|Chart 3: The vanishing deficit and the road to surpluses, Source: Statistics Canada|
The problem with this interpretation is that it completely disregards the fact that the Canadian economy during the mid-1990s was impacted by a massive increase in demand stemming from the domestic household and external sectors. Consider the following charts showing that, as fiscal austerity was undertaken, net borrowing by both the household and external sector exploded in Canada during that period:
|Chart 3: Household sector falls into net financial deficit, Source: Statistics Canada and author's calculations|
|Chart 4: Increased foreign demand to the rescue, Source: Statistics Canada and author's calculations|
Net borrowing is the difference between a sector's total spending and income. It is a key indicator of the demand generated by any sector of the economy.
Supported by a much easier monetary policy and falling exchanging rate (a consequence of US President Clinton's desire to "have a strong dollar"), the increased net borrowing generated by these two sectors was effective in offsetting the decline in net borrowing of the government sector caused by fiscal austerity.
The increase in net borrowing by the household sector between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s was unprecedented. Between 1995 and 2007, net borrowing by the household sector increased by close to 10 percent of GDP (see arrow going down). As for net borrowing of the foreign sector, it increased by approximately five percent of GDP. Combined, this additional demand was more than sufficient to offset the decline in demand caused by fiscal austerity.
Today, unlike in the 1990s, the household sector is seeking to reduce its level of borrowing. And the foreign sector, due to the strength of the Canadian dollar and the weakness of the world economy as a result of global austerity, cannot be a significant source of demand at this time.*
As a result, any attempt by Canada's policymakers to balance the budget in such a context is self-defeating and actually exacerbating the problem given that it is taking away purchasing power from households and firms. And, as we are witnessing now, it is taking its toll and slowing GDP growth as a consequence.
Economist James Tobin said it best several years ago:
Deficit reduction is not an end in itself. It's rationale is to improve productivity, real wages and living standards of our children and their children. If the measures to cut deficits actually diminish GDP raise unemployment, and reduce future-oriented activities of government, business and households, they do not achieve the goals that are their raison-d'être; rather, they retard them. This perverse result is likely if deficit reduction measures are introduced while the economy is as weak and as constrained by effective demand as it is now.It's time to think more clearly about these issues. What "worked" in the past need not be the appropriate course of action today. The Canadian economy now is not like the one that existed back then. It's time to move forward. Trying to relive the "success" of the 1990s will only make matters worse.
Chart 2 should be entitled "Real consolidated government expenditures (all levels of government) (millions of chained 2002 dollars)". The title and headings in charts 3, 4 and 5 are accurate. All data comprises expenditures on goods and services, as well as on capital formation. They exclude transfers.
* The critical point to remember is that, as I've explained before, the government deficit cannot be reduced in isolation from the other sectors of the economy. Public sector deficits are from an accounting standpoint the equivalent of surpluses in the private sector, plus additional net imports. The reason for this is that government deficit spending adds to the net accumulation of private holdings of households and businesses (and/or the foreign sector, where applicable).
In other words, any reduction in government spending or tax increase has a direct impact on the financial position of the private sector. To believe otherwise is wishful thinking. If external demand and/or increased demand from another domestic sector (households or businesses) are not high enough to offset the demand shortfall created by reduced government expenditures, continued attempts at fiscal austerity will impose additional deflationary pressure on the economy.
Tobin, J., "Thinking straight about fiscal stimulus and deficit reduction", Challenge, March 1, 1993