Outlook for Alberta grows bleaker by the day

These are stories Report on Business is following Monday, Feb. 9, 2015.

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Alberta forecasts bleak
A new report today predicts uglier times for Alberta.

Recently Canada’s economic leader, the province is suffering from the collapse in oil prices. And the outlook for the home of the country’s oil patch appears to grow dimmer with each new forecast.

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Observers have raised the prospect of a recession as energy firms cut their budgets and begin to lay off workers, though some say the province will skirt that.

Today, Benjamin Tal of CIBC World markets, projected that Alberta’s jobless rate will surge this year to 6.8 per cent from 4.3 per cent.

“Also important here is the trajectory of net migration in the province which last year was close to 100,000,” Mr. Tal said.

“The correlation between net migration and oil prices in the province is very strong,” he added.

“When oil prices fall, the response is relatively quick, but when they rise, the response (that is, workers return) is more gradual.”

Mr. Tal also looked at household debt in the province, which many recent forecasts have ignored.

And his concerns are troubling because the key measure of debt to income in Alberta is the highest among the provinces, and its growth rate has far outpaced the national average.

“The main factor here is the fact that most of the newcomers to Alberta are young families – with a higher propensity to borrow,” Mr. Tal said.

“This also means that the damage due to the weakening economy will be felt disproportionately by debt holders.”

Having said that, the debt-service ratio in Alberta is just 6.4 per cent, which Mr. Tal said is “notably lower” than British Columbia’s 8.8 per cent and Ontario’s 7.5 per cent.

“While we expect disposable income in the province to fall by 0.5 per cent to 1 per cent in 2015, falling interest rates and a good starting point will limit the damage.”

The Conference Board of Canada also weighed in today, warning that Canadian producers are going to be hit to the tune of more than $40-billion in lost revenue from the oil slump, though crude exports are projected to rise to an average 3 million barrels a day from last year’s 2.8 million.

“The consequences of this sharp decline in revenue will be swift and severe,” the group said in its winter outlook.

“Many firms have already announced steep cuts to their capital budgets, and we expect substantial layoffs in the oil industry and among businesses involved in the oil industry’s supply chain,” it added.

“The pain will be severe particularly in Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador, and, to a lesser degree, in Saskatchewan.”

In its latest forecast, on Friday, Royal Bank of Canada projected that Alberta’s economy will expand this year by just 0.6 per cent, in a tie for Newfoundland and Labrador for the slowest pace in the country, and well below the Canadian forecast of 2.4 per cent.

“The risk of a recession in Alberta cannot be dismissed; however, we believe that it will be averted under our assumption of rising oil prices starting by the middle of this year, which would help rebuild  confidence in the province and prevent activity from entering a full-blown contractionary spiral,” said RBC senior economist Robert Hogue.

RBC projects a jobless rate of 5.7 per cent in Alberta this year, and 5.3 per cent in 2016.

It also forecasts a hefty drop in new residential construction, and a plunge in retail sales.

Sprott closes fund
Sprott Inc. has abruptly shuttered one of its hedge funds after it was hammered by the Swiss National Bank’s shocking mid-January decision to drop its currency peg to the euro.

OPEC trims forecast
OPEC says global oil supply growth is expected to slow in 2015 as producers reduce their output after the dramatic fall in prices.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries today trimmed its forecast for non-OPEC supply growth by about 400,000 barrels a day, The Globe and Mail’s Bertrand Marotte reports.

Canada’s oil output is estimated to average 4.35 million barrels of a day in 2015, an increase of 0.14 million b/d over the previous year but a downward revision of 20,000 b/d compared with the previous forecast.

“Canada’s oil production outlook for 2015 remains steady on expected conventional oil, but output from unconventional sources will gradually be affected by sustained low oil prices,” OPEC’s Vienna-based research unit said in its monthly market report.

Netflix opens up in Cuba
Here’s a sign of the times: Netflix says it’s available in Cuba beginning today.

“People in Cuba with Internet connections and access to international payment methods will be able to subscribe to Netflix and instantly watch a curated selection of popular movies and TV shows,” the company said.

This, of course, follows the historic cooling of relations between Cuba and the United States

“Cuba has great filmmakers and a robust arts culture and one day we hope to be able to bring their work to our global audience of over 57 million members,” said chief executive officer Reed Hastings.

Housing starts rise
Residential construction is chugging along in Canada.

Housing starts rose in January to an annual pace of 187,276 from December’s 179,637, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. said today.

That rise was led by an increase in multiple units, such as condos.

“The trend in total housing starts has been moderating since September 2014, reflecting lower trends in both multiple and single-detached starts,” said CMHC chief economist Bob Dugan.

“Over all, economic and demographic factors remain supportive of housing demand. The moderation in new home construction reflects inventory management by builders and is in line with CMHC’s expectations.”

Residential construction starts, said chief economist Avery Shenfeld of CIBC World Markets, have been “stuck in a sideways pattern” for two years now.

“The result is that while homebuilding is running at a healthy pace, it’s not really a material source of year-on-year growth,” Mr. Shenfeld said.

“That’s particularly true for the January reading, with all of the monthly and year-on-year growth coming from multiple unit housing (up 12 per cent month over month) that entails less GDP per unit than a single detached house,” he added.

“With mortgage rates having seen a further drop, we expect housing to maintain its pace through 2015, but look for a gradual retreat in homebuilding in 2016 as the current pace of construction sees ample deliveries of completed condo units weigh on new starts next year.”

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