By Ben Conigrave and Philip Hemmings, OECD Economics Department
Canada’s economy has proved resilient to testing global conditions in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Amid a strong post-pandemic recovery in output and revenues, the federal government stepped up action to improve housing affordability and expand access to low-cost childcare. While Canada’s recent social policy progress is impressive, a major reform challenge remains – to lift tepid growth in productivity and average incomes while also eliminating net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Projected economic growth of 1.3% in 2023 and 1.5% in 2024, while avoiding recession, would not close gaps in living standards to better-performing economies. The latest Economic Survey of Canada sets out recommendations aimed at boosting Canada’s growth potential and driving down carbon emissions.
Inflation has fallen from peak levels but is still above target. The main drivers of last year’s surge in consumer prices have abated. Energy price falls and easing tensions in world supply chains have helped reduce headline inflation. Higher borrowing costs have also started to cool domestic demand after a series of large interest rate rises by the Bank of Canada. Still, underlying price pressures remain elevated. Labour market conditions are tight, with the jobless rate near record lows and workers demanding larger-than-usual wage increases. Policymakers face the tricky task of returning inflation to target without creating an economic downturn.
Figure 1. Inflation has passed its peak but remains high
Headline consumer prices, annual increase, %
Living cost pressures have increased. High inflation has eroded real incomes and is weighing on consumer spending. Governments have stepped in to ease the cost of living. Some measures rightly target support to vulnerable households. For instance, the federal government has temporarily increased goods and services tax (GST) credit payments aimed at those on lower incomes. In contrast, provinces have in some cases introduced across-the-board subsidies to reduce utility bills or cut fuel taxes. Untargeted measures of this sort can be costly, fail to focus support on under-pressure households, and weaken incentives to save energy. A major federal-provincial initiative separately promises to improve access to cheap childcare. Properly implemented, the scheme should help lift employment, particularly among women, supporting higher living standards. At the same time, significant socio-economic gaps still separate Indigenous people and the rest of Canada’s population. Support for Indigenous self-determination needs to continue as part of efforts to close these gaps.
Budget repair has been faster than expected. Commodity export price rises contributed to revenue growth in a high-inflation environment just as pandemic support was ending. Deficits and debt burdens have shrunk despite the federal government extending living-cost relief and launching new programmes to improve the affordability of housing and childcare. But as multi-year spending commitments mount, and revenue tailwinds die down, governments will find it harder to sustain budget improvements. Better spending efficiency could reduce long-term fiscal challenges. Tax system reform will also be important, both for fiscal sustainability and unlocking higher potential output. Shifting the tax mix towards greater use of indirect taxes, and less use of distortive taxes on income, would reduce drags on Canada’s productive capacity. Windfall gains from high commodity prices in 2022 also serve as a fresh reminder of the need for provinces to make more use of stabilisation funds to mitigate boom and bust cycles in their budgets.
Figure 2. The public debt burden is decreasing
Public debt, % of GDP
More policy focus is needed on productivity-enhancing reform. Population increase, underpinned by high levels of immigration, will continue to be an important driver of growth in Canada’s economy in the years ahead. But long-term improvement in living standards will require higher productivity. Lacklustre productivity growth since 2015 saw gaps in per capita GDP widen between Canada and better-performing economies, including the United States. Reversing this trend, which coincided with weak business investment after the 2014 oil price collapse, demands reform efforts equal to those behind recent social policy advances. Removing barriers to trade between provinces would improve the business environment. Regulations and technical standards impede flows of goods and services across Canada’s internal borders as well as the performance of regional labour markets. Separately, stringent foreign ownership limits in network sectors – including telecommunications – directly restrict foreign direct investment. The rules should be reviewed.
Figure 3. Canada’s investment performance can be improved
Real private non-residential investment
Strong incentives are needed to decarbonise production. Canada’s resource-intensive economy uses more energy and generates more greenhouse gas emissions per person than most other OECD countries. An ambitious federal government plan aims to change this. Deploying regulations, market-based tools and support for green investment, the government has committed to eliminate Canada’s net emissions by 2050. As well as energy saving in businesses and homes, achieving this goal will require replacement of fossil fuels with clean energy across the economy. For policymakers, the task will be to minimise drags on activity from sometimes overlapping mitigation tools. Higher carbon prices levied uniformly on a larger share of emissions will help ensure an efficient green transition. Canada’s federal and provincial governments must work together to strengthen incentives for low-cost mitigation across key sectors – including electricity, oil and gas, transport and buildings – and prepare communities for fast-changing climates.
Figure 4. Canada’s emission reduction challenge is large
OECD (2023), OECD Economic Surveys: Canada 2023, OECD Publishing, Paris. https://doi.org/10.1787/7eb16f83-en