US and Canadian dollar notes. Picture: REUTERS
US and Canadian dollar notes. Picture: REUTERS

This year the Canadian federal government will run a deficit guesstimated at $343bn. But interest rates are so low that, even though the national debt is increasing by nearly half to more than $1-trillion, Ottawa expects to spend $5bn less than last year on debt service.

Canada is borrowing more than ever and it is costing Canadians less than ever. In the worst recession since the Great Depression, that has been the silver lining.

Ottawa kept the economy afloat by substituting borrowed public dollars for the private spending that evaporated when companies closed and people were laid off. Absent that, millions of Canadians would have been destitute; instead, because of programmes such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, retail sales have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.

But is that sort of borrowing sustainable? Yes — assuming even modest economic growth in the decades to come, Ottawa can borrow these amounts and not have any trouble carrying the debt. That is not a leap of faith; it’s just arithmetic. Current interest rates are so low that if Ottawa locks them in with long-term bonds, debt-servicing costs will remain manageable for decades to come. Canada won’t “pay off” the debt; it will just watch as a growing economy gradually dwarfs it.

But Ottawa has not discovered a bottomless well of magic money from which to draw $343bn deficits, year after year forever. Huge amounts of emergency borrowing are possible, and necessary, to end this crisis, heal the patient and return the economy to full employment. But after that, it’s back to reality.

As long as deficits in good times don’t rise to more than roughly 1% of GDP, Canada’s debt-to-GDP ratio remains stable or falls slightly. Over four years before the pandemic the Trudeau government ran about $70bn worth of deficits, yet the federal books, which started in good shape, got a bit better. But beyond that 1% of wriggle room government outlays still have to line up with government revenues. Outside recessions, to get the things we want from the government we largely have to pay for them through taxes.

When the economy is back on its feet, taxes are something Canadians are going to have to talk about. Governments can’t spend what they don’t have. /Toronto, July 29

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