Jock Finlayson is executive vice president and chief policy officer of the Business Council of BC. (Submitted)

COLUMN: B.C.’s biggest economic and business stories of 2019

Jock Finlayson is executive vice president and chief policy officer of the Business Council of BC

As the new year beckons, it’s a good time to reflect on the major economic and business stories of the year that’s about to end. To keep the task manageable, the focus here is limited to Canada and B.C.

One surprising development in 2019 was the return to a period of falling interest rates.

When the year began, most economic forecasters were expecting both the Bank of Canada’s policy rate and market-based interest rates to continue creeping higher, on the heels of earlier rate increases in 2018.

Instead, the interest rates facing savers and borrowers dropped over the last half of 2019 – not just in Canada, but in the U.S. too.

As of late November, the market yield on 10-year bonds issued by the federal government stood at a paltry 1.6 per cent.

With inflation running around two per cent, this means buyers of 10-year government bonds are locking in a negative return after inflation. That would appear to be an unappetizing investment. Yet there is no shortage of demand for government bonds yielding microscopic returns.

READ MORE: Bank of Canada holds interest rate, warns economy’s resilience to be ‘tested’

Another notable story in 2019 was the continued troubles afflicting the Western Canadian energy sector, above all the oil and gas industry that accounts for up to one-fifth of Canada’s exports in a typical year.

While the Canadian industry has been innovating and cutting costs in an environment of lower prices, escalating government-imposed regulatory burdens, stalled pipeline development, and rising oil and gas production in the United States mean the overall energy landscape has shifted in ways that disadvantage Canada.

The result is tens of billions of dollars of foregone economic value because of persistent price discounts on Western Canadian oil vis-à-vis oil produced in the U.S., significant job losses in the Alberta energy patch, investment outflows to the U.S., and the departure from Canada of at least one major energy company head office – Encana – with more likely to follow.

All in all, energy policy and recent energy investment patterns show Canada in an unflattering light.

KEEP READING: Encana moves headquarters from Calgary to U.S., changes name to Ovintiv

For B.C., the crisis gripping the forest industry is clearly top of mind.

More than a dozen lumber manufacturing plants in the interior and north have stopped operating – some permanently. Thousands of well-paying jobs have disappeared, and more are at risk. Lumber production and export shipments are down significantly compared to 2018 levels, helping to drive a decline in B.C.’s total exports.

The NDP government has responded by providing some assistance to some laid-off forest workers and forestry-dependent communities. But it seems curiously indifferent to the long-term economic health of the province’s most important export industry.

Policy-makers are overlooking the fact that a viable B.C. forest industry depends on the presence of strong companies with the size and scale to withstand market cycles and invest in developing new markets and in keeping existing mills efficient.

It is troubling to watch the leading firms redeploying capital and shifting management attention to other provinces and the U.S.

READ MORE: Fewer trees, higher costs blamed for devastating downturn in B.C. forestry

Finally, there is housing. The past year brought a sharp decline followed by a jump in home sales, as the market adjusted to an onslaught of new and higher provincial taxes, the mortgage “stress test” introduced by the federal government, and other policy measures designed to cool demand and dampen speculation in the Lower Mainland, Greater Victoria, and the Kelowna area.

Housing prices have dropped markedly at the expensive end of the market, but much less so for the average property.

Homebuilding and housing starts in 2019 have been surprisingly resilient, considering the contemporaneous unwinding of froth in the market.

Some industry experts are forecasting a sizable decline in housing starts in 2020, as developers shelve or delay projects against the backdrop of recent policy measures. If starts do plunge, that will detract from economic growth in B.C. in 2020 and beyond.

But with rock-bottom interest rates and a rapidly growing population fueled by record levels of immigration, the demand for housing in “urban B.C.” is expected to remain elevated – a situation that should continue to support the development of new housing supply over the medium-term.

Jock Finlayson is executive vice president and chief policy officer of the Business Council of British Columbia

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

BC Liberal candidates Michael de Jong (left) and Bruce Banman are projected to win in Abbotsford West and Abbotsford South, respectively. Tyler Olsen/Abbotsford News
Abbotsford BC Liberals de Jong and Banman heading to Victoria, say Highway 1 widening will be focus

In Abbotsford-Mission, BC Liberal Simon Gibson in close race against NDP’s Pam Alexis

Simon Gibson watching the vote count at the Best Western Hotel in Mission. With 98 polls reporting, Gibson leads NDP challenger Alexis by 188 votes. / Kevin Mills photo.
Abbotsford-Mission riding too close to call, mail-in ballots will decide

98 polls reporting: BC Liberal incumbent Simon Gibson leads NDP challenger Pam Alexis by 188 votes

B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau outlines her party's climate action platform at Nanaimo's Vancouver Island Conference Centre earlier this month. (News Bulletin file photo)
Green leader Furstenau declared victor in her home riding on Vancouver Island

Cowichan Valley voters elect freshly minted party leader for her second term

Simon Gibson watching the vote count come in at the Best Western Hotel in Mission. Kevin Mills photo.
Abbotsford-Mission riding one of the closest races in the province

BC Liberal incumbent Simon Gibson leading by under 100 votes

John Horgan has been re-elected the MLA for Langford-Juan de Fuca. (File-Black Press)
Horgan trounces challengers to be re-elected in his Vancouver Island riding

MLA has represented constituency of Langford-Juan de Fuca and its predecessors since 2005

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry gives a daily briefing on COVID-19 cases at an almost empty B.C. Legislature press theatre in Victoria, B.C., on March 25, 2020. (Don Craig/B.C. government)
B.C. sees 223 new COVID-19 cases, now 2,009 active

Two new care home outbreaks in Surrey, Burnaby

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference Friday October 23, 2020 in Ottawa. Canada’s top physician says she fears the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths may increase in the coming weeks as the second wave continues to drive the death toll toward 10,000. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns severe illness likely to rise, trailing spike in COVID-19 cases

Average daily deaths from virus reached 23 over the past seven days, up from six deaths six weeks ago

BC Hydro map showing where power has been knocked out is dotted with over a dozen outages. (BC Hydro map screenshot)
Thousands without power in Lower Mainland on election day

One outage in Langley and Surrey is affecting over 4,000 customers

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

100 Mile Conservation officer Joel Kline gingerly holds an injured but very much alive bald eagle after extracting him from a motorist’s minivan. (Photo submitted)
B.C. driver thought he retrieved a dead bald eagle – until it came to life in his backseat

The driver believed the bird to be dead and not unconscious as it turned out to be

Chastity Davis-Alphonse took the time to vote on Oct. 21. B.C’s general Election Day is Saturday, Oct. 24. (Chastity Davis-Alphonse Facebook photo)
B.C. reconciliation advocate encourages Indigenous women to vote in provincial election

Through the power of voice and education Chastity Davis-Alphonse is hopeful for change

Most Read