Spending sprees by governments across Canada help fuel inflation and high interest rates

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Appeared in the Ottawa Sun, December 6, 2023
Spending sprees by governments across Canada help fuel inflation and high interest rates

Earlier this year, premiers in Ontario, British Columbia, and Newfoundland and Labrador wrote letters to Tiff Macklem, Governor of the Bank of Canada, cautioning against further interest rate hikes, citing the potential negative effects on residents including homeowners with mortgages. But instead of blaming the central bank, Canadian premiers—and the prime minister—should stop their spending sprees, which help fuel inflation and increase interest rates.

Indeed, when governments increase spending, particularly when financed by debt, they add more money to the economy and can help fuel inflation. And high rates of government spending put pressure on the Bank of Canada to maintain interest rates at current levels, or even hike the rate further, to counteract inflation. According to a recent report from Scotiabank, government spending has contributed significantly to higher interest rates in Canada, accounting for an estimated 42 per cent of the increase in the Bank of Canada’s rate since the first quarter of 2022.

Yet the spending sprees continue.

While the prime minister and many premiers justified their high spending levels during the pandemic as merely a temporary development, the federal government and seven provincial governments still plan to run budget deficits this year. Government spending across the country remains at elevated levels or, in some cases, even increased beyond pandemic levels.

Ontario is a prime example. Provincial program spending (total spending minus interest costs) will reach an estimated $193.0 billion in 2023/24—$24.0 billion more than at the peak of COVID. Debt interest costs have also grown due to debt accumulation and rising interest rates.

Despite a considerable increase in revenue over recent years, the Ford government had planned for a $1.3 billion deficit in its spring budget. By November, the government increased spending again and quadrupled the projected deficit to $5.6 billion.

Similarly, British Columbia outlined plans in February to increase program spending and run a $4.2 billion deficit while adding $13.1 billion in debt to the books this year. Just over a half-year later, the B.C. government increased spending again and the deficit was revised to $5.6 billion with debt rising by $14.0 billion instead of $13.1 billion.

Prime Minister Trudeau and his government followed a similar path. According to the recent federal fiscal update, between 2024/25 and 2027/28, the government has increased projected spending by $30.7 billion more than previously forecasted.

According to projections, only two provinces (Alberta and New Brunswick) will run budget surpluses this year, but in Alberta this is largely due to elevated resource revenues stemming from high commodity prices rather than any significant spending restraint. If resource revenues declined to historical average levels, the Smith government in Alberta would likely run deficits similar to other provinces.

Simply put, the excessive spending habits of many premiers and the prime minister are a big reason why interest rates have climbed and inflation remains sticky.

If Canadian politicians want to help tame inflation and bring down interest rates, they should look in the mirror for solutions and show leadership. Complaining about elevated interest rates helps no one, but ensuring fiscal policy is rowing in the same direction as monetary policy would be a good start.

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