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Get used to slow economic growth, CIBC economist tells OTA delegates

TORONTO, Ont. -- Canadian consumers have been gorging on debt like it’s a Thanksgiving feast, and now it’s time for the after dinner nap.

TORONTO, Ont. — Canadian consumers have been gorging on debt like it’s a Thanksgiving feast, and now it’s time for the after dinner nap.

That was how Emanuella Enenajor, economist with CIBC World Markets characterized Canadian consumer activity when addressing the Ontario Trucking Association’s 86th annual convention.

She issued some alarms about the rising debt of Canadian households, but those warnings were tempered with some positive indicators as well, mostly out of the US.

While Canadian consumers have been feasting, Enenajor said Americans have been on a diet and are just now allowing themselves to “snack,” by opening their wallets.

The housing market is slowly recovering, the auto sector is regaining some of its pre-recession shine and consumer confidence is improving, Enenajor said of the US. Still, she said the forecast is for continued slow growth in both the US and Canada. She said the North American economy enjoyed seven “bountiful” years prior to the economic collapse and is now enduring a period of seven lean years.

“We’re not driving at the speed limit or anywhere near that,” she said of Canadian economic growth.

South of the border, Enenajor expressed concern that the current growth, weak as it is, is still largely supported by government. A hand-off to the public sector will eventually be necessary, but it’s not clear when that will happen with the so-called fiscal cliff looming in January. The fiscal cliff refers to staggering spending cuts and tax hikes that are slated to take effect when former president George Bush’s economy-bolstering initiatives are set to expire.

If nothing is done, the fiscal cliff could pull as much as 5% of US GDP out of the economy, potentially sending the US and even Canada back into recession. However, Enenajor said it’s a manageable situation and she is confident regulators in the US will at least partially defer some of the spending cuts and tax hikes.

“Politicians will ultimately make the decision on how big that fiscal cliff hit will be,” she said.

If the US takes action, the fiscal cliff could be whittled down to a “fiscal mole hill” Enenajor said.

“We think rationality and sanity will prevail and that fiscal cliff will get whittled down and allow for slow growth in the US,” she said.

In Canada, a cooling housing market and rising consumer debt don’t necessarily foreshadow a US-style housing collapse, Enenajor indicated, noting the sub-prime market that led to the US collapse simply isn’t present in Canada.

Enenajor also said the Canadian dollar will likely remain near par with the US greenback and that interest rates should remain low relative to historical patterns. The bottom line, according to Enenajor, is that slow growth will continue to be the pattern going forward in the US and economy and much of the world.

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