Finance Minister Bill Morneau presented his fiscal snapshot this afternoon. Most economists were expecting a budget deficit of roughly $260 billion. Instead, the government announced a deficit for the fiscal year 2020-21 of $343.2 billion–close to 16% of GDP. That compares to the $34.4 billion deficit projected before the pandemic.
A big chunk of that additional deficit can be attributed to the $212 billion in direct support measures the federal government is providing to individuals and businesses. The deficit was initially estimated at C$256.2 billion by the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the country’s budget watchdog. The discrepancy reflects lower tax revenue, an eight-week extension of CERB and the wage subsidy increase.
Aside from the pandemic program spending, the economic slowdown is estimated to have added another $81.3 billion to the deficit in 2020-21, driving spending levels to their highest since 1945. The recession has also taken a toll on revenue, which will drop as a share of the economy to the lowest since 1929.
The prime minister argued the economy would be in much worse shape were it not for the government’s response, in part to thwart the need for households to take on more debt. “We made a very specific and deliberate choice throughout this pandemic to help Canadians, to recognize that overnight people had lost their jobs,” Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa. “We decided to take on that debt to prevent Canadians from having to do it.”
To be sure, the government can finance the debt at a much lower cost than households. Long-term interest rates for the government of Canada are at record lows–below the rate of inflation. The ten-year GOC yield is 0.56% and the 30-year bond yield is just a tad over 1.0%. In consequence, the interest cost to the government of the rising debt burden is very modest.
In addition, the vast majority of the temporary surge in Ottawa’s new debt is being absorbed by the Bank of Canada in its bond purchases. While the BoC’s holdings of federal government debt as a share of its total securities holdings has risen abruptly from less than 14% at the start of the year to around 27% now, that’s still below the share of domestic government debt held by central banks in Japan, Germany and Sweden, for example. Canada’s overall public sector net debt remains moderate among major economies, and especially when compared to the U.S., Britain, or the Euro Area.
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