Easing Restrictions Ignite Canadian Job Market In February
This morning, Statistics Canada released the February 2021 Labour Force Survey showing much stronger-than-expected job growth. The early days of the latest easing in COVID restrictions reinvigorated the labour market. Economists were pleasantly surprised by the rapid rebound. To be sure, there remain risks to the outlook, a rise in virus cases because of the prevalence of the new variants, but the resilience of the Canadian economy is notable.Employment rose by 259,200 (1.4%) in February, after falling by 266,000 in the prior two months, nearly reversing the effects of the second pandemic wave. The jobless rate fell a whopping 1.2 percentage points to 8.2%, the lowest rate since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.
Employment gains in February were concentrated in Quebec and Ontario. Most of the gains in these provinces reflected a rebound in industries—particularly retail trade and accommodation and food services–that had been hardest hit by the lockdowns. Broadly, February’s employment increases were concentrated in lower-waged work. These high-contact service sectors remain among the hardest hit during the crisis (see chart below).
February marked one year of unprecedented pandemic-related changes in the Canadian labour market. Compared with 12 months earlier, there were 599,000 (-3.1%) fewer people employed in February, and 406,000 (+50.0%) more people working less than half of their usual hours. The number of workers affected by the COVID-19 economic shutdown peaked at 5.5 million in April 2020, including a drop in employment of 3.0 million and an increase in COVID-related absences from work of 2.5 million. Since the pandemic began one year ago, there remain over 1 million Canadians who have suffered a loss of employment income.
Pandemic-related changes to the labour market have disproportionately affected young women, particularly teenagers. Compared with February 2020, employment losses among women aged 15 to 24 (-181,000; -14.1%) accounted for nearly one-third (30.2%) of the decline in total employment.
Reflecting a rebound in employment following two months of declines, the number of people on temporary layoff fell by 103,000 (-28.6%) in February. The number of long-term unemployed—those who had been looking for work or been on temporary layoff for 27 weeks or more—fell by 49,000 (-9.7%) from a record high of 512,000 in January.
The number of people who wanted a job but were not actively looking for one and therefore did not meet the definition of unemployed decreased by 33,000 (-5.7%) in February. Had people in this group been included in the unemployment count, the adjusted unemployment rate in February would have been 10.7% (down 1.3 percentage points from January).
COVID-19 has widened income inequality in Canada, as well as in the rest of the world. By far, the lowest income workers have been hardest hit by the pandemic. We have seen net job gains over the past year for higher-income workers. The following chart sheds light on why the housing market is so strong.
The jobless rate plunged everywhere except Atlantic Canada.
While Friday’s jobs report surprised on the upside, there are still concerns around an uneven recovery with most of the job losses since last year concentrated in three industries — accommodation and food services, culture and recreation and ‘other services, including personal care. The March employment report may take on even greater importance for the Bank of Canada since it will be the last set of jobs data before the central bank’s April policy decision. Accelerating vaccinations after a slow start would keep the hiring momentum going.
Another strong jobs report combined with recent data showing surprisingly strong growth in Q4 and Q1 economic activity could set the BoC on the road to tapering its bond-buying.
French translation of this email will be available by 5pm ET March 16.
La traduction de ce courriel sera disponible d’ici 17 heures, le 16 mars.
Dr. Sherry Cooper Chief Economist, Dominion Lending Centres
Much has changed since the Bank of Canada’s last decision on January 20. While the second pandemic wave was raging, new lockdowns were implemented in late 2020, and there were fears that the economy, in consequence, was likely to grow at a 4.8% annual rate in Q4 and contract in Q1. Instead, the lockdowns were less disruptive than feared, as Q4 growth came in at a surprisingly strong 9.6% annual rate–double the pace expected by the Bank.
Rather than a contraction in Q1 this year, Statistics Canada’s flash estimate for January growth was 0.5% (not annualized). Strength in January came from housing, resources and government spending, and the mild weather likely helped. In today’s decision statement, the central bank acknowledged that “the economy is proving to be more resilient than anticipated to the second wave of the virus and the associated containment measures.” The BoC now expects the economy to grow in the first quarter. “Consumers and businesses are adapting to containment measures, and housing market activity has been much stronger than expected. Improving foreign demand and higher commodity prices have also brightened the prospects for exports and business investment.”
A massive $1.9 trillion stimulus plan in the US is also about to turbocharge Canada’s largest trading partner’s economy, which will be a huge boon to the global economy and explains why commodity prices and bond yields have risen substantially in recent months. The Canadian dollar has been relatively stable against the US dollar but has appreciated against most other currencies.
Economists now expect Canada to expand at a 5.5% pace this year versus a 4% projection by the Bank of Canada in January. Going into today’s meeting, no one expected the Bank to raise the overnight policy rate, but markets were pricing in more than a 50% chance of an increase by this time next year, up from about 25% odds in January.
On the other hand, the BoC continued to emphasize the risks to the outlook and the huge degree of slack in the economy. “The labour market is a long way from recovery, with employment still well below pre-COVID levels. Low-wage workers, young people and women have borne the brunt of the job losses. The spread of more transmissible variants of the virus poses the largest downside risk to activity, as localized outbreaks and restrictions could restrain growth and add choppiness to the recovery.”
The Bank also attributed the recent rise in inflation was due to temporary factors. One year ago, many prices fell with the onslaught of the pandemic, so that year-over-year comparisons will rise for a while because of these base-year effects combined with higher gasoline prices pushed up by the recent run-up in oil prices. The Governing Council expects CPI inflation to moderate as these effects dissipate and excess capacity continues to exert downward pressure.
According to the policy statement, “While economic prospects have improved, the Governing Council judges that the recovery continues to require extraordinary monetary policy support. We remain committed to holding the policy interest rate at the effective lower bound until economic slack is absorbed so that the 2% inflation target is sustainably achieved. In the Bank’s January projection, this does not happen until 2023.” The Bank will continue its QE program to reinforce this commitment and keep interest rates low across the yield curve until the recovery is well underway. As the Governing Council continues to gain confidence in the recovery’s strength, the pace of net purchases of Government of Canada bonds will be adjusted as required. The central bank will “continue to provide the appropriate monetary policy stimulus to support the recovery and achieve the inflation objective.”
The Bank gave no indication when it might start to taper its bond-buying. The next decision date is on April 21, when a full economic forecast will be released in the April Monetary Policy Report. Governor Macklem is more dovish than many had expected and will err on the side of caution. When the central bank starts tapering its asset purchases, it will be the equivalent of easing off the accelerator rather than applying the brakes. The Bank of Canada has been buying a minimum of $4 billion in federal government bonds each week to help keep borrowing costs low. That pace may no longer be warranted with an outlook that appears to show the economy absorbing all excess slack by next year, ahead of the Bank of Canada’s 2023 timeline for closing the so-called output gap.
French translation of this email will be available by 5pm ET March 12.
La traduction de ce courriel sera disponible d’ici 17 heures, le 12 mars.
Dr. Sherry Cooper Chief Economist, Dominion Lending Centres
This morning’s Stats Canada release showed that economic growth in the final quarter of last year was a surprisingly strong 9.6% (annualized). The surge in growth in January was even more interesting, estimated at a 0.5% (not annualized) pace. If these numbers pan out, it means that Canada did not suffer a contraction during the second wave and ensuing lockdown.
The January figure is noteworthy in that retail sales plunged as nonessential stores were closed in key parts of the country as we faced surging numbers of Covid cases. The strength came from resources, housing and government spending and the mild weather likely helped.
At its last meeting in January, the Bank of Canada (BoC) estimated that Q4 growth would come in at 4.8% (half the actual 9.6% pace) and that there would be a net contraction in Q1 of this year. The strength in Q4 emanated from very hot housing, some business investment in machinery, government outlays and a resurgence in inventory accumulation. Inventory build-up is often seen as a negative sign reflecting weak consumer spending. But maybe firms were preparing for a considerable rebound in demand.
Economists on Bay Street are upwardly revising their growth forecasts for this year, and no doubt the BoC will do so again when it meets next Wednesday. Clearly, the economy has been more resilient than expected. Will that change the Bank’s assessment of the continued need for monetary stimulus? Probably not. But it will likely temper their view that the next rate hike will not be until 2023, a sentiment the BoC has asserted regularly in the past.
Consumer spending was weak at the end of last year, not surprisingly given many stores were closed and a stay-at-home order was in place in several highly populated areas. Households have been hoarding cash. The savings rate declined to 12.7% in Q4 from as high as 27.8% earlier in the year, but that is still way above normal. Accumulated savings will provide a backstop for robust consumer spending once the economy opens up.
For all of 2020, the Canadian economy contracted by 5.4%–a substantially harder hit than in the US, which posted a 3.5% decline.
The stronger-than-expected economy raises the potential that there is enough stimulus in the economy. The Trudeau government appears to be determined to hike government spending meaningfully in the next federal budget (likely coming this Spring). We know it is the government’s predilection to juice the economy for another couple of years, but that could well deserve a rethink.
Dr. Sherry Cooper, Chief Economist, Dominion Lending Centres,