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Growth On Horizon As Canada Enters Era Of Deficit Spending

11/04/2015 11:00 EST | Updated 11/04/2016 05:12 EDT
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Canada Parliament Building in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

What the recent elections clearly signified is that after 10 years under Conservative leadership, Canadians wanted not just change, but economic change -- a little less belt-tightening, a little more of a break for the middle class and a little more love and attention on what has become the not-have provinces, particularly Ontario and Quebec.

For the business community, especially investors, it means a lot more: a rather decisive shift in the way this country has approached taxes, spending and balancing its books, as well as what kinds of sectors and industries are invested in, and what that bodes for the future.

Most obvious is that, based in large part on what Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau campaigned on -- namely, that the government would run a deficit over several years and spend money on infrastructure as a way to offset the impact from oil and resource pricing having collapsed -- that Canada will be taking a unique step forward to focus on stimulating growth.

Indeed, what brings the country from the back of the line to the front is that we will become among the first developed countries to use so-called fiscal policy -- running a budget deficit -- at a time when interest rates are already close to record lows and expected to remain there for some time.

Following the 2008-2009 financial crisis, most countries including the United States lowered interest rates and in some cases introduced stimulus programs as a way to get both consumers and businesses borrowing and spending again. The premise: by making it super-cheap to borrow money and at the same time unattractive to keep cash in the bank, that people and companies will spend money, making the economy grow.

In large part it worked in certain parts of the world, namely the U.S., which after three so-called quantitative easing programs -- where it bought its own bonds as a way to generate demand, reduce supply and keep interest rates low -- has finally seen signs of economic recovery.

But in a lot of places it hasn't. More recently, China has begun cutting rates and introducing new spending programs to kick-start its economy, as has the European Union, where European Central Bank President Mario Draghi is expected to introduce more stimulus to bolster growth.

In the wake of the financial crisis, Canada never introduced any kind of extra stimulus, mainly because it didn't have to. Indeed, when oil and commodities prices surged to record highs in 2011, the Bank of Canada actually raised interest rates on concern the windfall from $100-plus oil prices would make the economy grow too fast, spurring inflation.

But then the economy went full circle as oil and commodities prices collapsed, hitting the economy hard. Coupled with concerns about China's demand for commodities and other issues like Greece defaulting on its debt, suddenly the BoC was cutting rates -- along with other countries that had embarked on what is referred to in the investing world as "fiscal austerity," or tightening up spending.

The idea behind the Liberals' plan is the exact opposite: borrow more money and spend it on funding infrastructure projects, creating jobs and boosting economic growth in the process.

Spending one's way to growth is nothing new. What is new, and what is a first for almost any developed country in the world save for Japan, is that Canada will be using both monetary and fiscal policy as a way to get the economy growing again at the expense of a balanced budget.

For the economy as a whole, it is unequivocally good news. A new focus on infrastructure may mean much-needed funding for Toronto's third-world subway system, something not only positive for the future of Toronto's infrastructure, but also for the economy as it will create an influx of jobs in construction and related sectors.

From an investing standpoint, it should also prove positive over the long term for similar reasons: deficit spending will be a catalyst for construction companies, as well as those focused on infrastructure and energy.

To be sure, past government debt will drag on the Canadian dollar and will make interest payments an increasingly large portion of the government budget, which will decrease policy flexibility in future years. And history has shown that deficits, if they remain deficits, can have negative consequences, including higher interest payments and, depending on the scale and duration, the risk of substantial and untamed inflation.

That said, if put to work in the right way, the rebound in economic growth should more than offset the extra expense, putting us ahead over the long term. Either way, given that monetary policy after nearly seven years hasn't lifted developed economies worldwide out of their growth rut, perhaps fiscal policy is the last remaining tool to stimulate sustainable growth.

Time, and Canada's experience under the Liberals, will eventually tell.

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