Hicks on Biz: Alberta and Canada debt problems? Depends on who you ask BY GRAHAM HICKS FIRST POSTED EDMONTON SUN: FRIDAY, MARCH 24, 2017
A hurricane of numbers has descended upon us, as both the Alberta and federal governments announced their 2017/18 budgets in the past two weeks — i.e. their anticipated (i.e. hopeful, optimistic, ideal) spending and expected revenues for the next 12 months.
I often think the parties in power simply throw out as many numbers as possible, so we will give up on trying to make sense of anything.
But two numbers — two measurements — can tell us how we are doing economically as a province and as a nation.
One is the gloom and doom, fiscal-conservative number — the debt-per-capita.
The other is the why-worry measurement used by free-spending governments to justify their spending — the debt-to-GDP (Gross Domestic Product) ratio.
Right now, the Alberta New Democrats and the federal Liberals are tossing the province and the country into big-time debt.
On a debt-per-capita basis, the numbers are terrifying.
Formerly debt free (thanks to oil and gas revenues), Alberta’s net debt-per-capita is skyrocketing: From a negligible $900 in 2015/16, to $2,253 in 2016/17, to a projected $5,384 in 2017/18, to $8,081 in 2018/19, to $10,189 in 2019/20. (These numbers are drawn from the Royal Bank of Canada’s latest Canadian Federal and Provincial Fiscal Tables.)
The Trudeau government’s debt-per-capita isn’t so shocking, if only because, like Ontario and Quebec, shock has turned to numbness.
Ottawa has carried huge debt for years. The Harper government managed to reduce the debt-per-capita from $19,000 to $14,000, but now it has ballooned back to $17,500 this past year, and will grow, according to Liberal projections to $19,200 per Canadian by 2019/20.
But on the debt-to-GDP side, hey, things don’t look so bad. In fact, they look positively rosy!
Real GDP — Gross Domestic Product (adjusted for accurate year-to-year comparisons) — is a measurement of the total annual production of goods and services within a province or a country. How it’s arrived at, I haven’t a clue, but economists say it’s a good way to measure economic progress.
A growing GDP is a good thing. A shrinking GDP is a horrible thing.
Debt-to-GDP fans don’t look at debt-per-capita, but rather at government debt as a percentage of the overall economy. As long as the country or provincial economy (as measured by the GDP) is growing every year, it’s perfectly OK for government to borrow more money and run higher deficits.
During the 2015 federal election, Prime Minister Justine Trudeau justified his future borrowing/spending hikes on debt-to-GDP grounds. As long as the federal debt stayed around 30 per cent of the overall GDP, Canadians need not worry, the debt can easily be serviced, it’s easy to borrow money if the economy is growing. Lenders are comfortable with the country’s current debt-to-GDP ratio.
Because Alberta was debt-free until recently, its debt-to-GDP ratio is a piffle. Even with the New Democrat government’s refusal to rein in spending, the provincial debt-to-GDP will be a sterling 11.4 per cent by 2019/20, up from 7.1 per cent in last week’s budget.
While Alberta is piling up debt, our debt-to-GDP is infinitely better than any other Canadian province. The others have run deficits for decades. Alberta’s current 7.1 per cent debt-to-GDP ratio compares to Saskatchewan’s 15.1 per cent, B.C.’s 15.5 per cent, Quebec’s 46.9 per cent and Ontario’s 38.6 per cent.
Until debt hits crisis levels — as in 1994, when Canada’s debt-to-GDP ratio hit 67.1 per cent and 30 cents of every tax dollar went to debt servicing — free-spending governments just don’t seem to worry about borrowing money until the wolf is at the door.
Shove aside the numbers. They cause headaches.
Perceptions, emotions and confidence are what matter.
Saskatchewan has way more debt-per-capita and higher debt-to-GDP ratios than Alberta. But its current government is viewed as more fiscally responsible than Alberta’s. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall can talk about a sales-tax hike because Saskatchewan residents trust him.
Albertans are not used to provincial debt. Fiscal conservatives are appalled by the Notley government’s spending and its enormous borrowing, even though on a debt-to-GDP basis, Alberta could borrow another $50 billion and still have one of the lowest debt-to-GDP ratios in the country.
It is a topsy-turvy world. Household and personal debt in Canada is higher than ever, government debt is at record levels. Yet the country carries on. Those of us who believe governments should live within their means keep crying that the sky is about to fall. And it never does.