The Canadian Economy Is Slowing–Job Markets Will Begin To Shift
The July employment report, released this morning by Statistics Canada, is a real head-scratcher. The job numbers fell for a second consecutive month, but so did the number of job seekers, so the unemployment rate remained unchanged at a historic low of 4.9%. I have been pondering the profusion of labour market data for longer than usual today to decide where I come out on this. My bottom line is the Canadian economy is slowing in response to the whopping rise in interest rates. Labour markets across the country are still very tight as massive job vacancies continue, but the market’s tenor (or mood) is shifting.
There are still labour shortages in businesses that need customer-facing employees–think restaurants, hotels, travel, retail, household services, as well as in construction and the trades. But we are also now hearing of layoffs and cutbacks in businesses that boomed during the lockdowns. Many of those over-expanded and are currently cutting back. A great Canadian example is Shopify, but the same can be said of major retailers like Walmart and Target, which now find themselves overstocked.
The housing markets in Canada are slowing sharply, especially in the highest-cost regions around the Greater Vancouver and Toronto areas.
Central banks worldwide took interest rates down to near-zero levels in the early days of the pandemic, triggering a massive boom in housing. Canada’s boom was second to none, reflecting the long-standing housing shortage. Since 2015, home construction for rent and purchase in Canada has paled compared to the rising demand generated by surging immigration targets. First-time buyers’ FOMO, combined with record-low mortgage rates, especially on variable rate loans, triggered a buying frenzy. Millennial parents helped by tapping their homeowner equity to make those down payments possible. Some of those parents could be left with the legacy of home equity loans whose monthly payments have sky-rocketed with the prime rate. Cabin fever during lockdown generated a host of other buyers who just wanted more space and were willing to move to the exurbs and beyond to afford it. Investors, long tantalized by the surge in condo prices and the growing demand for rental properties, piled on.
Central banks kept interest rates too low for too long. They should have started to raise them when inflation percolated. They thought inflation was transitory, and we all thought vaccines were the magic bullet to end the Covid pandemic. The Russian invasion of Ukraine created the perfect storm, exacerbated by China’s zero Covid policy. Supply chains crumbled further, and commodity prices surged.
Now that oil prices below $90 a barrel have returned to pre-war levels, and gasoline prices have fallen since early June, inflation might have peaked. But central banks must continue tightening to return policy interest rates to normal levels. This means an overnight rate in Canada of roughly 3.5% and nearly 5% in the US. That’s still a far cry from today’s level of 2.5%. And the central banks will not and cannot return rates to last year’s lows. Not soon, and possibly not ever. Unless you believe an equivalent global shutdown will be required sometime in the foreseeable future.
The economy lost 30,600 jobs last month, adding to a loss of 43,200 jobs in June. Canada’s job market is losing momentum as the broader economy is cooling. The job loss also reflects labour shortages and insufficiently trained new workers. Just look at the chaos at Pearson Airport. Labour market conditions are still very tight, and wage rates are rising, up 5.2% y/y last month.
In Direct Contrast, US Employment Surged in July
In other relevant news today, Bloomberg reports that “US employers added more than double the number of jobs forecast, illustrating rock-solid labour demand that tempers recession worries and suggests the Federal Reserve will press on with steep interest-rate hikes to thwart inflation.” So much for a Fed pivot. The idea that the bond market rallied on the premature news of a US recession made no sense at this point in the cycle.
Similarly, the Bank of Canada is still likely to hike the policy rate by 75 basis points when they meet again on September 7. That would take the prime rate up to 5.45%. Currently, the 5-year government of Canada bond yield is 2.87%, well below its peak of 3.6% in mid-June. Consequently, we may see variable mortgage rates rise above fixed rates before yearend.