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Business

The big quiet bail out – Euro/Japan central banks propping up stock markets, is the US next?

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You’d think that the golden age of markets, if there was one, would be something like the post WWII economic expansion era. That was pretty impressive, driven by baby boomers and the gigantic wave of consumption that enveloped them. Never before in history had parents worried so much about the outfits that New Baby would wear, and it only got crazier from there.

Fundamentally though, the late 1700s were far more earth-shaking. Not in the consumerist sense; those austere horse-travelers managed to survive somehow without the likes of either Apple or Lululemon, for example, but consider the free-market achievements of that period. The United States came into existence, a profound new experiment in governance and free(ish) markets. In academic circles, famed economist/philosopher Adam Smith coined the term “the invisible hand of the market” in his book The Wealth of Nations. It was a reference to the ability of a market economy to provide benefits far beyond those that accrue to the creator. That is, an inventor of something that becomes wildly successful enriches not only the inventor, but society as a whole. Plus, it is an indirect reference to the ability of markets to efficiently allocate capital.

We tend to forget that wonder of capital markets, particularly as the world drifts into one defined more and more by government intervention. Since the 2008 financial meltdown, governments have gone kind of berserk in attempting to keep the financial world afloat, causing markets to gyrate in increasing spirals through wild-eyed policy guidance as the dollars at stake become stupefyingly large. We no longer have economist/philosophers at the helm; we have economist/desperados who have convinced the world their alchemic ways will work, and they don’t know that it will, but they’re really really hoping.

The new breed of economist has introduced an all new Invisible Market Hand – not one that provides infinite benevolence, but one that is like a forklift driver feeling confident in his/her ability to pilot a fighter jet because the seats are similar.

The strategy of which I speak began in Japan over the past decade. After years of trying to kick start the Japanese economy in various ways, including dropping interest rates to zero, the central bank began buying up treasuries as a means of supporting debt markets. When that didn’t get things going, they took the next step and actually began buying up equities to prop up stock markets. Since then, Europe has started a similar program. And yes, you heard that right – in those jurisdictions, if stock prices fall too much, the market is prevented from self-correcting, and governments are, in effect, breaking the fingers of the original Invisible Hand.

They appear to be stepping in to keep critical sectors of the economy in good shape, and also to enhance the “wealth effect”. The wealth effect refers to how citizens tend to spend more drunkenly when they feel wealthy, and for many that means a healthy portfolio. If someone sees their retirement nest egg shrink from $100,000 to $50,000 in a severe market downturn, those people tend to lockdown spending – a wise reaction. But as we’re seeing, the world keeps turning because we are consumers, and like it or not, consumption makes our world go round. So by making those portfolios stay healthy one way or another, governments seek to put the population in a semi-drunken spending stupor in order to keep the party going. Anyone who’s witnesses a true boom economy will recognize the phenomenon – at the peak of the oil boom 6 or 8 years ago, there were direct flights from Fort McMurray to Las Vegas, and thousands of twenty-somethings were purchasing vacation properties. Suffice it to say that those days are gone.

Don’t expect the new Invisible Market Hand to bail you out if your brother-in-law convinces you to load up some hot stock tip he got from a friend who got it from a friend who got it from a friend, because the “friend” at the end of that chain will be some dubious stock promoter that may or may not end up in jail, and even panicked governments won’t save those souls.

With the new strategies for propping up markets however, we’re starting to see the lengths governments will go to in order to maintain financial stability. You’d think the mountains of debt will lead to a day of reckoning, but, emboldened by the global government response to the 2008 financial crisis, the high priests of finance are becoming more emboldened. That our fate depends so heavily on a squadron of tweedy economists is truly frightening, but we’re all in the same boat, so enjoy the ride…

 

For more stories, visit Todayville Calgary.

Terry Etam is a twenty-five-year veteran of Canada’s energy business. He has worked at a number of occupations spanning the finance, accounting, communications, and trading aspects of energy, and has written for several years on his own website Public Energy Number One and the widely-read industry site the BOE Report. In 2019, his first book, The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity, was published. Mr. Etam has been called an industry thought leader and the most influential voice in the oil patch. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.

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Federal government’s ‘fudget budget’ relies on fanciful assumptions of productivity growth

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From the Fraser Institute

By Niels Veldhuis and Jake Fuss

Labour productivity isn’t growing, it’s declining. And stretching the analysis over the Trudeau government’s time in office (2015 to 2023, omitting 2020 due to COVID), labour productivity has declined by an average of 0.8 per cent. How can the Trudeau government, then, base the entirety of its budget plan on strong labour productivity growth?

As the federal budget swells to a staggering half a trillion dollars in annual spending—yes, you read that correctly, a whopping $538 billion this year or roughly $13,233 per Canadian—and stretches over 430 pages, it’s become a formidable task for the media to dissect and evaluate. While it’s easy to spot individual initiatives (e.g. the economically damaging capital gains tax increase) and offer commentary, the sheer scale and complexity of the budget make it hard to properly evaluate. Not surprisingly, most post-budget analysts missed a critically important assumption that underlies every number in the budget—the Liberals’ assumption of productivity growth.

Indeed, Canada is suffering a productivity growth crisis. “Canada has seen no productivity growth in recent years,” said Carolyn Rogers, senior deputy governor at the Bank of Canada, in a recent speech. “You’ve seen those signs that say, ‘In emergency, break glass.’ Well, it’s time to break the glass.”

The media widely covered this stark warning, which should have served as a wake-up call, urging the Trudeau government to take immediate action. At the very least, this budget’s ability—or more accurately, inability—to increase productivity growth should have been a core focus of every budget analysis.

Of course, the word “productivity” puts most people, except die-hard economists, to sleep. Or worse, prompts the “You just want us to work harder?” questions. As Rogers noted though, “Increasing productivity means finding ways for people to create more value during the time they’re at work. This is a goal to aim for, not something to fear. When a company increases productivity, that means more revenue, which allows the company to pay higher wages to its workers.”

Clearly, labour productivity growth remains critical to our standard of living and, for governments, ultimately determines the economic growth levels on which they base their revenue assumptions. With $538 billion in spending planned for this year, the Trudeau government better hope it gets its forecasts right. Otherwise, the $39.8 billion deficit they expect this year could be significantly higher.

And here’s the rub. Buried deep in its 430-page budget is the Trudeau government’s assumption about labour productivity growth (page 385, to be exact). You see, the Liberals assume the economy will grow at an average of 1.8 per cent over the next five years (2024-2028) and predict that half that growth will come from the increase in the supply of labour (i.e. population growth) and half will come from labour productivity growth.

However, as the Bank of Canada has noted, labour productivity growth has been non-existent in Canada. The Bank uses data from Statistics Canada to highlight the country’s productivity, and as StatsCan puts it, “On average, over 2023, labour productivity of Canadian businesses fell 1.8 per cent, a third consecutive annual decline.”

In other words, labour productivity isn’t growing, it’s declining. And stretching the analysis over the Trudeau government’s time in office (2015 to 2023, omitting 2020 due to COVID), labour productivity has declined by an average of 0.8 per cent. How can the Trudeau government, then, base the entirety of its budget plan on strong labour productivity growth? It’s what we call a “fudget budget”—make up the numbers to make it work.

The Trudeau fudget budget notwithstanding, how can we increase productivity growth in Canada?

According to the Bank of Canada, “When you compare Canada’s recent productivity record with that of other countries, what really sticks out is how much we lag on investment in machinery, equipment and, importantly, intellectual property.”

Put simply, to increase productivity we need businesses to increase investment. From 2014 to 2022, Canada’s inflation-adjusted business investment per worker (excluding residential construction) declined 18.5 per cent from $20,264 to $16,515. This is a concerning trend considering the vital role investment plays in improving economic output and living standards for Canadians.

But the budget actually hurts—not helps—Canada’s investment climate. By increasing taxes on capital gains, the government will deter investment in the country and encourage a greater outflow of capital. Moreover, the budget forecasts deficits for at least five years, which increases the likelihood of future tax hikes and creates more uncertainty for entrepreneurs, investors and businesses. Such an unpredictable business environment will make it harder to attract investment to Canada.

This year’s federal budget rests on fanciful assumptions about productivity growth while actively deterring the very investment Canada needs to increase living standards for Canadians. That’s a far cry from what any reasonable person would call a successful strategy.

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Alberta

Alberta government should create flat 8% personal and business income tax rate in Alberta

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From the Fraser Institute

By Tegan Hill

If the Smith government reversed the 2015 personal income tax rate increases and instituted a flat 8 per cent tax rate, it would help restore Alberta’s position as one of the lowest tax jurisdictions in North America

Over the past decade, Alberta has gone from one of the most competitive tax jurisdictions in North America to one of the least competitive. And while the Smith government has promised to create a new 8 per cent tax bracket on personal income below $60,000, it simply isn’t enough to restore Alberta’s tax competitiveness. Instead, the government should institute a flat 8 per cent personal and business income tax rate.

Back in 2014, Alberta had a single 10 per cent personal and business income tax rate. As a result, it had the lowest top combined (federal and provincial/state) personal income tax rate and business income tax rate in North America. This was a powerful advantage that made Alberta an attractive place to start a business, work and invest.

In 2015, however, the provincial NDP government replaced the single personal income tax rate of 10 percent with a five-bracket system including a top rate of 15 per cent, so today Alberta has the 10th-highest personal income tax rate in North America. The government also increased Alberta’s 10 per cent business income tax rate to 12 per cent (although in 2019 the Kenney government began reducing the rate to today’s 8 per cent).

If the Smith government reversed the 2015 personal income tax rate increases and instituted a flat 8 per cent tax rate, it would help restore Alberta’s position as one of the lowest tax jurisdictions in North America, all while saving Alberta taxpayers $1,573 (on average) annually.

And a truly integrated flat tax system would not only apply a uniform tax 8 per cent rate to all sources of income (including personal and business), it would eliminate tax credits, deductions and exemptions, which reduce the cost of investments in certain areas, increasing the relative cost of investment in others. As a result, resources may go to areas where they are not most productive, leading to a less efficient allocation of resources than if these tax incentives did not exist.

Put differently, tax incentives can artificially change the relative attractiveness of goods and services leading to sub-optimal allocation. A flat tax system would not only improve tax efficiency by reducing these tax-based economic distortions, it would also reduce administration costs (expenses incurred by governments due to tax collection and enforcement regulations) and compliance costs (expenses incurred by individuals and businesses to comply with tax regulations).

Finally, a flat tax system would also help avoid negative incentives that come with a progressive marginal tax system. Currently, Albertans are taxed at higher rates as their income increases, which can discourage additional work, savings and investment. A flat tax system would maintain “progressivity” as the proportion of taxes paid would still increase with income, but minimize the disincentive to work more and earn more (increasing savings and investment) because Albertans would face the same tax rate regardless of how their income increases. In sum, flat tax systems encourage stronger economic growth, higher tax revenues and a more robust economy.

To stimulate strong economic growth and leave more money in the pockets of Albertans, the Smith government should go beyond its current commitment to create a new tax bracket on income under $60,000 and institute a flat 8 per cent personal and business income tax rate.

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