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Flaherty: Ontario has fundamental budgeting problems

Canada’s banks assure Flaherty budget balancing is do-able by 2015.


March 6, 2012
by The Canadian Press

OTTAWA: Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s road to balancing the federal government’s budget in four years could be a little less bumpy.

At least according to economists who briefed the minister Monday in advance of his March 29 budget.

Economists from Canada’s leading financial institutions told the minister at a meeting that Ottawa will likely have a little more cash to spend than projected last fall.

And in another welcome development, the analysts said global risks had subsided somewhat from the last time they had briefed in the fall—when Flaherty increased the contingency fund for downward surprises.

“It’s fair to say that some of the risks we were worried about last year don’t seem quite as shocking as we go into the current year,” said CIBC chief economist Avery Shenfeld.

Flaherty said he remains worried about Europe, where several governments face severe debt levels, but he’s more optimistic about the US economy and encouraged by Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP).

A Statistics Canada (StatsCan) report released last week showed GDP growth returned in December. It also upgraded third quarter expansion to a strong 4.2%.

That puts the Canadian economy on a stronger footing and, if carried forward, would result in a $4-to $5 billion government revenue increase by 2015, said TD Bank economist Derek Burleton.

The 13 economists did not give Flaherty a new growth projection for this year, but several who spoke to reporters after the meeting said it would likely be slightly higher than the 2.1% consensus used for November’s fall update report. Flaherty will get the new consensus next week after the forecasters have had time to plug in the new GDP data.

“We’re going to follow up with the economists because the numbers last Friday were relatively encouraging,” said Flaherty. “We try to be as ‘au courant’ as possible when we do the budget in terms of the prognostications.”

In a new report Monday, the Conference Board’s help-wanted index showed a modest pick-up from previous months, suggesting Friday’s jobs report will show an 11,500 employment gain for the month of February.

That’s better than January’s 2,300 increase but below levels that would be regarded as healthy.

“This increase would continue the slow pace in employment growth recorded over the past six months as Canadian employers adopt a more prudent hiring pace in the face of global financial and economic uncertainties,” the board said in its report.

The prime minister and federal ministers have been warning for months the upcoming budget will take steps to tackle the deficit, both short-term and long-term. In the short-term, the government has announced plans to cut spending by between $4 billion and $8 billion, while long-term, it has said it will strive to restrain growth in elderly benefits such as the Old Age Security program.

Bank of Montreal economist Douglas Porter has cautioned Ottawa about overdoing austerity given the fragile nature of the economy, but on Monday Porter said a $4 billion trim in spending would not have a serious impact.

In response to a question, Flaherty continued to describe his measures as moderate.

“We don’t need to be draconian…we are not in the situation of Greece or Portugal,” he said.

He did not have the same advice for provinces, singling out Ontario —where he was once finance minister —as a government that has overspent and is now faced with a “fundamental budgeting problem.”

A recent report from economist Don Drummond has advised the Liberal McGuinty government to adopt a host of initiatives to reduce spending.

Asked about Ontario’s suggestion that it may seek to scrap tax writeoffs for firms that buy hockey tickets to entertain clients, Flaherty essentially told the province to get serious about its problems.

“I’m not into scapegoats,” he said. “Ontario has fundamental budgeting problems. They have major spending problems built up over the last few years.”

©The Canadian Press