Ottawa’s homebuilding plans might discourage much-needed business investment

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in the Financial Post, May 1, 2024
Ottawa’s homebuilding plans might discourage much-needed business investment

In the minds of most Canadians, there’s little connection between housing affordability and productivity growth, a somewhat wonky term used mainly by economists. But in fact, the connection is very real.

To improve affordability, the Trudeau government recently announced various financing programs to encourage more investment in residential housing including $6 billion for the Canada Housing Infrastructure Fund and $15 billion for an apartment construction loan program.

Meanwhile, Carolyn Rogers, senior deputy governor of the Bank of Canada, recently said weak business investment is contributing to Canada’s weak growth in productivity (essentially the value of economic output per hour of work). Therefore, business investment to promote productivity growth and income growth for workers is also an economic priority.

But here’s the problem. There’s only so much financial capital at reasonable interest rates to go around.

Because Canada is a small open economy, it might seem that Canadian investors have unlimited access to offshore financial capital, but this is not true. Foreign lenders and investors incur foreign exchange risk when investing in Canadian-dollar denominated assets, and the risk that Canadian asset values will decline in real value. Suppliers of financial capital expect to receive higher yields on their investments for taking on more risk. Hence, investment in residential housing (which the Trudeau government wants to promote) and investment in business assets (which the Bank of Canada warns is weak) compete against each other for scarce financial capital supplied by both domestic and foreign savers.

For perspective, investment in residential housing as a share of total investment increased from 22.4 per cent in 2000 to 41.3 per cent in 2021. Over the same period, investment in two asset categories critical to improving productivity—information and communications equipment and intellectual property products including computer software—decreased from 30.3 per cent of total domestic investment in 2000 to 22.7 per cent in 2021.
What are the potential solutions?

Of course, more financial capital might be available at existing interest rates for domestic investment in residential housing and productivity-enhancing business assets if investment growth declines in other asset categories such as transportation, roads and hospitals. But these assets also contribute to improved productivity and living standards.

Regulatory and legal pressures on Canadian pension funds to invest more in Canada and less abroad would also free up domestic savings for increased investments in residential housing, machinery and equipment and intellectual property products. But this amounts to an implicit tax on Canadians with domestic pension fund holdings to subsidize other investors.

Alternatively, to increase domestic savings, governments in Canada could increase consumption taxes (e.g. sales taxes) while reducing or even eliminating capital gains taxes, which reduce the after-tax expected returns to investing in businesses, particularly riskier new and emerging domestic companies. (Although according to the recent federal budget, the Trudeau government plans to increase capital gains taxes.)

Or governments could reduce the regulatory burden on private-sector businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, so financial capital and other inputs used to comply with often duplicative or excessive regulation can be used to invest in productivity-enhancing assets. And governments could eliminate restrictions on foreign investment in large parts of the Canadian economy including telecommunications, banking and transportation. By increasing competition, governments can improve productivity.

Eliminating such restrictions would also arguably increase the supply of foreign financial capital flowing into Canada to the extent that large foreign investors would prefer to manage their Canadian assets rather than take portfolio investment positions in Canadian-owned companies.

Canadians would undoubtedly benefit from increases in housing construction (and subsequently, increased affordability) and improved productivity from increased business investment. However, government subsidies to home builders, including the billions recently announced by the Trudeau government, simply move available domestic savings from one set of investments to another. The policy goal should be to increase the availability of risk-taking financial capital so the costs of capital decrease for Canadian investors.

Subscribe to the Fraser Institute

Get the latest news from the Fraser Institute on the latest research studies, news and events.