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Canadian economy was resilient in 2018, but troubling signs ahead

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The Canadian economy entered 2018 on an unexpectedly impressive run, and will begin 2019 on a healthy note. But signs of weakness have raised a key question: How long before the good times end?

Through much of 2018, Canada’s unemployment rate hovered near a 40-year low and job creation remained strong as the evidence pointed to an economy going at close to full tilt.

The handoff was a good one, too — the country had posted three per cent growth for all of 2017, largely thanks to strong household spending. We’ll have to wait a little for the final numbers, but forecasters say 2018 has likely delivered still-sturdy growth of about two per cent.

But as 2019 approaches, there are worries the solid economic expansion is starting to show its age.

Last month, the federal government’s fall economic statement projected two per cent growth again for 2019, but many predict the number will likely come in lower following a recent drop in oil prices.

Jittery markets, uncertain U.S. outlook

In addition to the pullback in crude prices, experts point to jitters in the financial markets, predictions the American economy — a key contributor to Canadian growth — will start to cool off and the United Kingdom’s difficult divorce from the European Union, which could ripple across the global economy.

There’s also potential for an even bigger threat: an escalation of the trade war between Washington and Beijing.

On trade, Canada made it through a year filled with significant uncertainty, including the difficult negotiation and signing of an update to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Many of the trade unknowns, however, will carry over into the new year. The road to NAFTA 2.0’s ratification could bring more drama, punishing American steel and aluminum tariffs remain in place and the clash of superpowers between Canada’s two biggest trading partners continues to play out.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signed the Canada-U.S.-Mexico Agreement in November, but uncertainties surrounded the so-called new NAFTA. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

« There are always reflections around the cyclical downturns that happen and, as I’ve said, the impacts of a trade war between China and the United States could have significant impacts on the global economy — negative impacts on the global economy, » Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.

« We have to make sure that we are prepared for rough waters if we encounter them. »

Rising rates, high household debt

In Canada, potential trouble spots include the combination of high household debt, rising interest rates and slowing wage growth that’s been « terrible » for about half a year following a good pickup early in 2018, said Matt Stewart, director of economics for the Conference Board of Canada.

Higher interest rates, Stewart added, have delivered a hit to household spending, which has been the primary driver of Canada’s good economic fortunes.

« It’s been a long time since we’ve had a recession, » Stewart said. « As of yet, I think most of the news is still positive, but there is a growing amount of risks. »

A new home being built in North Vancouver on June 12. There are questions whether the current ebullient economy can continue. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

With overburdened consumers expected to take a breather, business investment is seen as the next critical source of growth. But Stewart said the transition has yet to materialize because investment has underperformed, likely due to competitiveness concerns. Businesses aren’t sure whether Canada’s the best place to put their money.

In an effort to boost investment, Ottawa announced billions of dollars worth of corporate tax incentives in its fall statement. Taxpayers will have to wait and see if the federal changes will be enough to encourage more companies to invest in Canada.

Craig Alexander, chief economist of Deloitte, said the economy will continue to have healthy growth in 2019, but noted it’s due for some moderation.

Late stages of business cycle

« We are in the late stages of a business cycle, » he said. « That doesn’t mean that a recession is around the corner, but we need to recognize that we’re 10 years into an economic recovery, expansion. Business cycles are typically eight to 10 years long. »

Alexander said markets are probably overreacting to the possibility that another downturn could be almost upon us. He thinks the more likely case is that growth will continue to slow.

The economy’s evolution will have different impacts depending where one lives, he added.

For example, the energy sector faces big challenges.

Part of it comes from the recent plunge in oil prices, but there’s also been an extra discount on the price of western Canadian crude caused by transportation bottlenecks out of the Alberta oilpatch.

« This is sad news for Alberta, » Alexander said. « They’ve only barely recovered from the last recession. »

Shell’s Groundbirch project is producing gas in northeast B.C. Uncertainty over oil and gas prices is affecting the outlook for the economy. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

Ottawa offered assistance this month in the form of a $1.6-billion aid package to support oil and gas companies.

Alberta, however, wants federal help to move its oil to new markets.

Loss of GM plant

Ontario’s industrial sector will also face a big hurdle in 2019. General Motors has announced plans to shutter its plant in Oshawa later in the year, a move that would put 2,500 people out of work and inflict economic pain on the region.

Bank of Montreal chief economist Doug Porter said Canada already took a small step back in 2018 — and he expects growth to slow further.

« Just looking at financial markets, there’s obviously a lot of concern that we are getting to a late stage of the [economic] cycle, » Porter said. « We don’t believe that recession risks are especially high at this point, but we do think the North American economy will cool in 2019. »

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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