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Federal support package: the pros, the cons, and the next shoe to drop

March 19, 2020

5-minute read

Here are some quick thoughts on the extensive package of emergency measures announced today by Prime Minister Trudeau, Finance Minister Morneau, and Bank of Canada Governor Poloz:

The Pros:

The government has worked quickly and creatively to find ways to deliver support to Canadians, and fast – using the infrastructure of existing benefits, and developing new channels where needed.

The government has recognized the gaping holes in the existing social safety net: in particular, the fact that so many workers (part-time, seasonal, self-employed, and gig) don’t qualify for normal EI benefits. So their two new income supports (the Emergency Care Benefit and the Emergency Support Benefit) will cover all categories of affected workers. That’s an important change, and should be maintained when this crisis is over.

In their commentary, the leaders all indicated clearly that these measures are an initial response – and that there is more to come, as the crisis continues to unfold. Morneau said the government will do “whatever it takes.” Poloz and Trudeau similarly committed there was no limit on their willingness and capacity to intervene. This determination is important and reassuring.

The decision to close the Canada-U.S. border to non-essential traffic seems like a pragmatic compromise. The maintenance of cross-border supply chains will be important to continued work in the retail, manufacturing, and other key sectors. And that should boost confidence among Canadians that we can continue to get food and other essentials, even if the lock-down lasts for several weeks.

The Cons:

While the program is creative and ambitious, it is still inadequate in its scale and its reach.

Describing the package as being worth 3% of GDP (or $82 billion in total) is very misleading. Two-thirds of that total is the tax deferrals (for up to 4 months) for $55 billion worth of personal and business income tax obligations. Those obligations will still be there; the taxes are not being “forgiven” (nor should they). It is worth something, for sure, to defer tax payments – especially for desperate households and businesses who need every dollar of cash flow to survive the coming months. But it shouldn’t be treated like a dollar-for-dollar equivalent to true injections of income support and spending power (such as the employment benefits above).

At a 3% interest rate (more than what the government actually pays right now), deferring a debt for 4 months is “worth” about 1% of the principal (in this case, $550 million). Of course, some fragile businesses and households wouldn’t be able to borrow at any price – so that calculation understates the value of this measure to many affected people. But it’s not remotely equivalent to the $27 billion value of the genuine income supports and other injections (equivalent to around 1.2% of GDP). So those two numbers should not be added together (like adding apples and oranges).

This is relevant for purposes of comparing the size of this package to similar packages being unveiled in other countries. Examples: New Zealand (4% of GDP), Sweden (6%), even America (likely 4-5%, based on discussions so far). This is not a large package, relative either to the need or to what other countries are doing. My concern regarding the inadequate size of the package is eased somewhat by the clearly stated willingness of the government to do more in the future.

Where could the package have been expanded in scale, to more forcefully address the imploding economy and labour market?

  • The temporary increases in GST and CCB payments (well-designed to flow quickly and to the most needy) could have been much larger.
  • The waiting period for EI (and the new EI-like benefits) could have been eliminated.
  • The benefit level for EI and the new EI-like benefits could have been increased, especially for lower-income workers: for example, by specifying a floor level of benefits (eg. covering 100% of pre-layoff earnings up to $350 per week), and then linking it to income.
  • The wage subsidies to small employers (10% of wages for 90 days, up to $1375 per worker or $25,000 per firm) should be larger, and contingent on supported firms not laying off any workers. (I don’t think a 10% subsidy will make much difference to layoffs in small firms in retail, hospitality, transportation, and other sectors whose revenue has evaporated. Denmark and Germany, among others, are offering 60-75% wage subsidies to prevent layoffs.)
I think the federal and provincial governments will also need to make stronger assurances that businesses and households will not be left destitute by this crisis – once we are finally allowed to start going back to our jobs. Major emphasis has been placed on strengthening private credit channels: looser credit rules to allow expanded bank lending, subsidized loans through EDC and BDC, Bank of Canada purchases of mortgage bonds to limit the growth of interest rate spreads, and others. This is fine, but whether that supported credit actually trickles down to the individual firms and households who will need it is not clear: it still depends on the willingness of private lenders to lend, and the willingness and capacity of private borrowers to borrow. And the arm-twisting of bank CEOs by Mr. Morneau to give borrowers some relief (to be determined on a “case by case” basis … forgive me for being skeptical) won’t be sufficient, either.

I would like to see a stronger, blanket pledge to prohibit business and personal bankruptcies period – backed by freezes on any foreclosures and evictions, federal loan guarantees for loans, and direct emergency support. In essence the government itself would become a lender of last resort, to bridge businesses and households through the immediate crisis, until such time as normal lending practices are restored – an idea being advanced by Gabriel Zucman, among others. (Mr. Morneau gave an intriguing hint today of his willingness to move in this direction, by noting the government could support businesses through direct funds from the Canada Account.)

The Next Shoe to Drop

Clearly this terrible situation is going to get worse before it gets better. Expect the April labour force data (to be published in early May … assuming Statistics Canada staff are able to work!) to show a sudden decline in employment of 300,000 or more – by far the biggest one-month drop in Canadian history. That would push the unemployment rate quickly up toward 7%, with more to come. (The March data, based on a phone survey conducted last week, before school closures and other emergency measures were implemented, will capture only the beginning of the downturn.) Knock-on effects from the initial lay-offs (experienced through shocked consumer spending, disrupted supply chains, bankruptcies or closures) will cause those losses to cascade in subsequent months. Assuming the lock-down is extended for some weeks, expect a hit to annualized second quarter GDP in the order of 10% or potentially more, and unemployment to rise to 12-15%.

There is no doubt, then, that more immediate support will be required in many areas, as this crisis continues to unfold. All three leaders today indicated their understanding of this, and their willingness to act, which is encouraging. And apart from a few gratuitous boasts by Mr. Morneau about how Canada’s “strong fiscal position” allows his government to act powerfully, there is almost no discussion of “how will we pay for it.” Of course, no matter how big Canada’s public debt was today, there is still no limit on the federal government’s ability to create purchasing power and mobilize resources. This idea, once heretical, has now been widely accepted, even in polite mainstream company. Even Governor Poloz agreed today that quantitative easing is now a “standard part of the central bank toolkit.” Progressives can push hard to make sure the full capacity of government and the central bank is used ambitiously and fairly – and that it isn’t replaced by knee-jerk austerity once the immediate crisis is over.

And after that immediate health emergency ends, of course (as I argued in my previous post), this crisis will need government to step up with an ambitious, longer-term reconstruction program, centred on public investment and the lasting expansion of public services, to help us repair the damage from this crisis, and address the next ones (including climate change). Preparing for that rebuilding and reorientation of the economy will be the next big challenge.

Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work and sits on the Member’s Council of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He tweets @JimboStanford. This post appeared on the Progressive Economics Forum on March 19 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.

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