B.C.'s economy, up, down, and sideways.

Dermod Travis: B.C.'s economy, up, down, and sideways

 

'Tis the season of lists and stocking stuffers of economic forecasts.

But instead of soothsaying over what could happen in 2016, a look back at B.C.'s economic performance over the past few years might be more illuminating.

Deciphering economic forecasts is a murky task anyway, not that interpreting statistics is any less risky.

Consider the reaction of natural gas minister Rich Coleman to a recent report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives: "There's two things I don't believe any more, polls, and anything written by the centre."

So to avoid that my stat is better than your stat taunt, automatic default to some of the B.C. government's preferred statistical sources.

Coleman shouldn't take issue with Statistics Canada, RBC Economics or BC Stats served straight up. Particularly the latter, citizens' services minister Amrik Virk is in charge of that one.

Take a gander at the government's economic report cards and one thing becomes readily apparent: an almost virtual absence of inter-provincial comparisons.

Good reason for that, compared to Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec, B.C. doesn't always stack up so well when it comes to job creation, economic expansion, exports or investments.

When Christy Clark was sworn in as premier, the employment numbers she inherited from former premier Gordon Campbell would have been for February 2011.

On the jobs front, that's her baseline. The latest numbers from Statistics Canada are for November 2015, 58 months in all.

In that time, B.C. has created 82,900 new jobs. Alberta created 222,000, Ontario (245,600), and Quebec (131,900).

It works out to about 17,150 jobs on average per year, a little more than half the number (33,800) created annually between 2001 and 2010.

While 2.34 million people are working in the province, more than one in five (21.5 percent) are holding down part-time jobs, the highest rate among the four provinces.

In 2011, B.C.'s unemployment rate was 8.8 percent. Last month, it was 6.2 percent, the lowest of the four.

But that rate is camouflaging something worrisome: the size of the province's labour force is practically stagnant.

Between 2011 and 2015, it grew by 0.8 percent or 20,200 workers. In Alberta, it went up by 12.3 percent, Ontario (2.4), and Quebec (3.1).

And the participation rate—the pool of potential labour—has been steadily falling, counter to the government's forecast in 2009, when it predicted the rate would continue to rise from the 66.6 per cent set in 2008.

Last month, it was 64.1 percent, lower than it was 35 years ago. In Alberta, it was 72.9 percent, Ontario (65.1), and Quebec (64.5).

To take a look at broader economic indicators, it's all RBC Economics and B.C. Stats.

Between 2010 and 2014, the provincial economy (GDP) expanded by $34.1 billion. Quebec's economy grew by $50.8 billion, Ontario ($109.5 billion), and Alberta ($112.3 billion).

Since it's not an entirely fair comparison—as the four economies vary in size and composition—consider that B.C.'s share of Canada's GDP was 12.6 percent in 2010 and 12.0 percent in 2014.

The value of B.C. exports in 2010 was $28.64 billion and $35.77 billion in 2014.

Not bad, until you learn that it was $34.16 billion in 2005.

In 2010, B.C. was in ninth place among the provinces for international exports as a percentage of GDP with 24.9 percent.

By 2014, we moved up to eighth place, just ahead of P.E.I. and Nova Scotia. However, the value of B.C. exports fell to 22.4 percent of GDP.

In Alberta, the rate was 34.9 percent, Ontario (33.6), and Quebec (27.7).

The government's list of potential investments—valued at $350.1 billion—reads more like a Christmas wish list than an inventory of shovel ready projects.

Best to let the Business Council of B.C. handle this one: “Digging into the details and reviewing the factors behind some of the biggest proposed projects suggest that the inventory is inflated by a number of projects that ultimately may not proceed.”

The Olympics would be a dull affair if medals were only awarded for personal bests.

Same could be said for judging B.C.'s economic performance: provincial bests are fine, but the real test is how we perform against others.

 
Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.

 

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