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

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

Bhagwan Mayer. (Photo submitted)
Organizer of transporting the World’s Largest Hockey Stick to Cowichan remembered

Bhagwan Mayer a “hard-working fellow who cared about his community.”

Pnina Benyamini strikes a yoga pose. (Photo submitted)
Many facets to energetic woman’s legacy

Benyamini taught yoga, belly dancing and more to an adoring public

FILE – British Columbia provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry wears a face mask as she views the Murals of Gratitude exhibition in Vancouver, on Friday, July 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Masks now mandatory in all public indoor and retail spaces in B.C.

Many retailers and businesses had voiced their frustration with a lack of mask mandate before

Island Health’s acting medical health officer for the central Island says schools are very safe, even after COVID-19 exposure at five schools in Nanaimo-Ladysmith this month. (File photo)
Nanaimo-Ladysmith and Qualicum superintendents ask Island Health about COVID-19 safety at schools

Central Island medical health officer answers questions parents have been asking

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, Nov. 23, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C. daily COVID-19 cases hits record 941 on Tuesday

Further restrictions on indoor exercise take effect

(Pixabay.com)
Man, 28, warned by Kootenay police to stop asking people to marry him

A woman initially reported the incident to police before they discovered others had been popped the question

Winston Blackmore (left) and James Oler (right) were sentenced on separate charges of polygamy this week in Cranbrook Supreme Court.
No more charges expected in Bountiful investigation, special prosecutor says

Special prosecutor says mandate has ended following review of evidence from Bountiful investigations

(Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Refuse to follow B.C.’s mask mandate? Face a $230 fine

Masks are now required to be worn by all British Columbians, 12 years and older

Parksville’s French Creek Harbour experienced a diesel spill on Nov. 23 after a barge and fishing vessel collided. (Mandy Moraes photo)
Coast Guard cleans up diesel spill in Parksville’s French Creek Harbour

Barge carrying fuel truck collides with fishing vessel

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

BC Teachers' Federation President Teri Mooring is asking parents of school-aged children to encourage the wearing of masks when possible in schools. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito)
LETTER: Teachers union encourages culture of mask wearing in B.C. schools

BCTF President Teri Mooring asks parents to talk with children about wearing masks in school

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak to the media about the COVID-19 virus outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s inability to manufacture vaccines in-house will delay distribution: Trudeau

First doses of COVID-19 vaccine expected in first few months of 2021, prime minister says

Stock photo
Senior from Gibsons caught viewing child porn sentenced to 10 months

74-year-old pleaded guilty after police seized 1,500-2,500 images

Most Read