Where will Canada’s coronavirus economy go next? Here are 3 possible scenarios

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The fiscal “snapshot” of the state of Canada’s finances amid the coronavirus pandemic makes it clear that a high level of economic uncertainty remains.

But officials still outlined several possible scenarios for what could come next for Canada’s economy — and they depend on whether there is a serious second wave of COVID-19 transmission.

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In a news conference with reporters, Finance Minister Bill Morneau said the snapshot included what the federal government knows now and “a sense” of what officials think will occur in the short term, noting that “the ability to forecast is extremely difficult” at this time.

Here are three possible scenarios outlined in the snapshot released on Wednesday:

The main economic outlook

The main economic outlook for Canada contained in the document is based on the results of a survey of private-sector economists conducted by the federal finance department in the third week of May.

Federal officials are using the average of those results as the basis for its fiscal projections for the year ahead.

The results of the survey are “most consistent with slow, steady and relatively low levels of ongoing community transmission of the virus,” according to the government’s snapshot.

The unemployment rate — which peaked in the second quarter of 2020 — may remain higher than pre-COVID-19 levels throughout the rest of 2020 and 2021, declining gradually to around seven per cent by the end of 2021, the projections showed.

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The average results of the survey also showed private-sector economists expect the country’s real GDP to drop 6.8 per cent in 2020 — a contraction expected to be “much worse than experienced during the 2008-2009 financial crisis.”

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But the average of the forecasts predicted “a faster rebound in real GDP than in the past three recessions,” positing that real GDP would rebound by 5.5 per cent in 2021.

“While private-sector views are relatively aligned on the magnitude of the second-quarter decline [in 2020], their third-quarter growth forecasts diverge widely, reflecting tremendous uncertainty around, for example, the pace of rehiring and investment, rebound in consumer activity, etc.,” the snapshot read.
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A “further resurgence” of the coronavirus in Canada and a second wave of measures to contain it “would severely hamper the economic recovery” — but that resurgence could still be “less economically damaging” than the first wave, the report cautioned.

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Citing the “high degree” of uncertainty over how the pandemic will continue to unfold from both public health and economic perspectives and Canadians’ level of caution during that time, the federal government also included two “alternative scenarios” to economists’ projections in its snapshot, which painted more grim outlooks.

The ‘uneven and gradual recovery’ scenario

The first alternative scenario outlined a more “uneven and gradual recovery” from the pandemic, assuming a “slower pace of return to normal” of economic activity and “repetitive peaks of viral transmission.”

Under that first scenario, households would continue to avoid most public spaces and activities, while businesses wouldn’t fully rebound amid “stringent containment measures” and would continue to operate below capacity.

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Those “prolonged shutdowns” would result in more permanent, rather than temporary, job losses, resulting in a “more uneven recovery” across the country and a drop in real GDP of 9.6 per cent in 2020.

“With the pace of business resumption still uncertain, it is unknown whether this scenario will come to pass or not, but it illustrates the potential downside risks that could still exist,” the snapshot noted.

The ‘virus resurgence scenario’

The second scenario considers a serious resurgence of COVID-19 with “uncontrolled transmission” and a sharp increase in new cases later in 2020, evolving into a series of smaller waves of transmission next year.

In that scenario, the resurgence would occur at the same time as the annual flu season and force another round of social and economic shutdowns as part of renewed containment measures.

Economic activity would tank again, and while it might be less severe than during the first wave, the economic damage would be “large,” the document said — resulting in re-closed businesses, fresh layoffs and less spending.

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“Overall, this translates into a deeper and longer-lasting negative impact on the economy, with a decline of 11.2 per cent in real GDP in 2020 and the level of real GDP remaining below that of even the most pessimistic private-sector forecast by the end of 2021,” the document said of the second alternative scenario.

Longer-term economic update coming in the fall: Morneau

Which scenario Canada is headed toward may become clearer later this year.

Morneau told reporters the government intends to release a meatier, longer-term economic update or budget and its plans for the “path forward” in the fall, when officials “have more information.”

“We are in a situation where the ability to forecast is extremely difficult,” the finance minister said.

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Canada is indeed “in unprecedented times,” Sahir Khan, executive vice-president of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa, told Global News.

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“Whatever number you put out, it’s going to be wrong no matter what,” Khan said.

“For better or for worse, I think we are looking at the federal government as the resource that can restart this economy because I think we don’t have anywhere else to turn.”

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In a statement following the release of the fiscal snapshot on Wednesday, the president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce criticized the government for not including a “longer-term fiscal plan” in its fiscal snapshot.

“Today should have been an opportunity to offer Canadians a clear picture of the challenges and a coherent strategy to address them,” Perrin Beatty wrote.

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