Title: Economy appears to be bottoming

Sub-title: Canada’s housing market appears to be stabilizing too. How long this will last remains an open question.

 

Rarely has the economy been harder to gage. Mixed messages abound. After navigating fallout from last September and October’s global financial crisis, Canada was hit by plummeting activity and large job losses. In recent months, there have been numerous signs that the deterioration has slowed. Yet at the same time, things do not look so good elsewhere.

 

The trouble facing forecasters is that global economies are now so closely linked, that to assess how Canada will progress, they need to first to figure out whether positive developments here outweigh continued gloomy signs elsewhere, particularly in the United States, our largest trading partner.

 

Existing home sales, housing starts firming up

The good news is that economists at several Canadian banks have made decidedly upbeat statements recently. “After the worst downturn in more than 60 years, central banks and governments around the world have pulled out all the stops to get credit markets working again,” wrote Stefane Marion, chief economist at National Bank Financial in its summer economic forecast, released earlier this month. “The resulting relief fuelled revival of financial markets has resuscitated business and consumer confidence. Conditions are now in place for a return to global growth.” Marion’s view was echoed by similar positive comments from economists at CIBC, Laurentian Bank Securities, Desjardins and several others.

 

One of the most tangible signs of strength here in Canada has been the country’s housing sector, which has been beset by a slew of positive data. For example existing home sales rose for the third consecutive month in April and are now close to last year’s record levels. Prices have firmed up considerably as well. According to the Canadian Real Estate Association, the average price of homes sold during the month was $306,366, just 3.2 percent below the level at the same time last year. That’s a far cry from the valuation drops that have hit the real estate in the United States.

 

Strong prices in the resale home market caused builders to stick some more shovels in the ground. According to the Canada Mortgage Housing Corporation, housing starts increased to a seasonally adjusted pace of 128,400 units in May, compared to just 117,600 units in April.

 

From green shoots to harvest

That said, not all of the news is good. For example retail sales in Canada fell during April by 0.6 percent in volume terms and by 0.8% in nominal terms.  In addition, earlier this week the World Bank warned that the downturn in the global economy would be worse than it had previously predicted. The Washington-based international lender said that it expects that world GDP would shrink by 2.9 percent this year, which is far more pessimistic than its previous forecast of a 1.7 percent contraction. 

 

Part of the reason for the World Bank’s pessimism relates to the fact that many of the globe’s largest lenders continue to struggle to get their balance sheets in shape, a process that has forced many to cut back on their lending. That concern is shared by Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, who this in a speech this week warned that much work needs to be done before all of those “green shoots,” take hold. “It is a long, anxious time between the appearance of seedlings and the harvest,” Carney warned.

 

Carney identified liquidity levels at Canadian banks, the adequacy of their capital and the financial health of the country’s households as three risks to the stability of Canada’s financial system that could impact economic growth.

 

A double-dip recession

As Yannick Desnoyers, a senior economist with National Bank Financial points out, the other “elephant in the room,” question right now regarding the U.S. economy that no one wants to ask, is if in fact the economy there has bottomed out, whether it has done so permanently.

 

For example when Japan’s economy went into a tailspin following the implosion of its equity and real estate markets during the late 1980s, there were several occasions when activity bounced back for a couple of months, and even on occasion for a couple of quarters, before slipping back into recession. This process, of an economy climbing out of recession and then slipping back in is known as a “double dip.”

 

Forecasters are fully aware of the Japanese experience and thus couch much of their optimism in nuanced language. For example Carlos Leitao, chief economist at Laurentian Bank Securities titled his latest report “Recent U.S. Indicators Suggest the Great Recession Will End – Eventually!”

 

Peter Diekmeyer is Bankrate.ca’s economics columnist.

 

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