Federal government should tackle Canada’s productivity crisis in upcoming budget

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Appeared in the Edmonton Sun, April 10, 2024
Federal government should tackle Canada’s productivity crisis in upcoming budget

In a recent speech, the Bank of Canada’s senior deputy governor highlighted the risk posed by chronically sluggish productivity growth to the country’s living standards. She also noted that stalled productivity makes it harder to reduce inflation and keep it at (or close to) the Bank’s 2 per cent target.

Productivity is conventionally defined as the value of economic output per hour of work. Over time, it’s the most important determinant of overall economic growth. In a mainly market-based economy such as Canada’s, particular attention should be paid to the productivity performance of the business sector.

Unfortunately, here the news isn’t good.

Business sector productivity has flatlined in Canada, with the level of output per hour worked essentially unchanged from seven years ago. This pattern of productivity stagnation, in turn, is the principal reason why the value of economic output per person has stalled in Canada. In late-2014, per-person gross domestic product (GDP), a common indicator of living standards, stood at $58,162 (adjusted for inflation). By the end of 2023 it was actually slightly lower. This means Canadian living standards haven’t increased in a decade. That’s not a picture any Canadian citizen or policymaker should be happy about.

For many people, GDP is an abstract concept that doesn’t easily map to their lived experience. But the level and rate of growth of GDP clearly matter to the wellbeing of citizens. Academic studies confirm that worker wages are based in part on the productivity level of their employers. Put simply, the most productive businesses generally pay higher wages, salaries and benefits.

Moreover, over time individual and household incomes can only grow if the economy itself generates more output per hour of work and per person. When per-person GDP increases by 2 per cent a year (after inflation), average income doubles within 35 years. With 1 per cent annual growth in per-person GDP, it takes 70 years. At 0.5 per cent growth in per-person GDP, 139 years must pass before the average income will double. In Canada, per-person GDP has been declining outright, an alarming and unusual trend.

Addressing Canada’s productivity crisis should be job one for the federal government’s 2024 budget, which the Trudeau government will table on April 16. In the early 1980s, Canada was roughly 88 per cent as productive as the United States, measured by the value of output per hour of work across the economy. By 2022, that figure had dropped to 71 per cent, and it’s continued to decline since then.

What can be done? So far, the Trudeau government has relied on population growth fuelled by high levels of immigration to drive economic growth. That strategy has manifestly failed, as the government itself recently (if sheepishly) acknowledged by dialing back the numbers of non-permanent immigrants who will be admitted to the country.

A smarter approach is to boost investment in the things that make businesses and workers more productive—machinery, equipment, digital tools and technologies, intellectual property, up-to-date transportation and communications infrastructure, and research and development focused on bringing innovative products and ideas to market, rather than keeping them in the lab or in academic institutions. Canada’s record is poor in most of these areas, as evidenced by the fact we trail far behind the U.S. and many European countries in the level of business investment per employee.

That will need to change if we hope to up our game on productivity and lay the foundations for a more prosperous Canada.

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