A weekly scorecard on the state of the economy in North America and beyond

Even before Canada’s job market shifted back into high gear with Friday’s encouraging jobs report, it was clear something fundamental had changed. Never mind the recent prognostications by analysts about better days ahead. Sometimes all the cues you need can be found in the lives of the people behind the statistics.

Take the story of an employee we’ll call Janice who works at a small, struggling auto parts supplier outside Toronto. As the economy began to crumble last year, management put everyone on a four-day workweek and slashed pay, even as they rewarded themselves with bonuses. Workers weren’t happy, but what could they do? It was brutal out there.

Then a few days before the new employment data was released, the higher-ups tried to turn the screws again with more pay cuts. Only this time a couple of employees in the sales and accounting departments did something that even two months ago would have been unheard of—they told their boss to shove it. “Quitting felt so good,” Janice said, after giving her notice. And here’s the kicker: she didn’t even have another job lined up yet.

That, folks, is what economists describe as a rebound in confidence. But most people would just call it chutzpah. And it’s something we haven’t seen in the labour market for a very long time.

Make no mistake, the fact the economy added 79,000 new jobs in November doesn’t guarantee a prompt and speedy recovery. There are still vast numbers of Canadians out there fearful for their jobs. Younger workers in particular have felt the brunt of the recession, with an unemployment rate nearly twice the national average. Nor are investors convinced Canada’s economy is back on solid ground. It’s not gotten much attention yet, but Canada’s stock market has been sputtering sideways for months now, with the much-heralded rally actually ending back on Sept. 16, when the TSX closed at 11,555 points—almost exactly where it languishes today.

But put all that aside for a moment. During the recession Canadian employees were repeatedly asked to take one for the team. Yet prior to the downturn, Canada was in the throes of a labour shortage. As skilled workers begin to reassert themselves, the balance of power will shift back to its previous state. It may take some time, but you can bet many disgruntled employees are just plucking up the courage to follow in Janice’s footsteps.


Building boom
The Canadian real estate sector continues to drive the country’s economic recovery even as some warn of the possibility of a housing bubble. Statistics Canada said the value of building permits hit a 13-month high of $6.1 billion in October, an increase of 18 per cent. Economists had predicted a one per cent jump.

TARP tamed
The Obama administration is planning to cut its Troubled Asset Relief Program by some $200 billion as Wall Street appears to be on the mend. The U.S. government now plans to spend just $141 billion over the next decade on the financial sector.

’Tis the e-season
U.S. online retailers enjoyed a five per cent jump in sales on the first Monday following American Thanksgiving, now known as Cyber Monday, the day when Americans return from a holiday spent window shopping and place online orders. The US$887 million that was spent equalled the busiest e-commerce day on record.

You’re hired
Restaurants, grocery stores and other retailers are hiring more employees, as confidence in the economic turnaround grows. In November, nearly four per cent of all job applications resulted in hires, the highest level so far this year.


Cool on cars
Automakers may be seeing a faint light at the end of the tunnel as North American sales of cars, trucks and SUVs gradually pick up—but Canadians don’t seem to be doing much of the buying. Car sales in Canada were down 2.9 per cent in November after driving off a cliff in October. By contrast, vehicle sales in the U.S. market were essentially flat year-over-year, with observers blaming the U.S. government’s Cash for Clunkers program for recent volatility in U.S. sales numbers.

Factory blues
Manufacturing levels in the U.S. did not increase as much as economists had hoped in November. The Institute for Supply Management’s manufacturing index fell two points from the month before to 53.6. Nevertheless, the index still shows an increase in output year-over-year, suggesting the economy continues to expand.

The number of U.S. companies and people being pushed into bankruptcy continues to soar. Bankruptcy petitions were up 26 per cent in November compared to the same time last year, according to data compiled from court filings by Jupiter eSources. The good news is there were slightly fewer bankruptcy petitions in November than October. Still, the first 11 months of this year resulted in 1.3 million U.S. bankruptcy filings, about 21 per cent more than in all of 2008.

Graph of the week

A real recovery • The very modest GDP growth in the third quarter suggested a recovery in Canada won’t be easy. But there are more encouraging signs that the recession is truly over. Both consumer spending and business investment posted the biggest gains since 2007.

Signs of the times

  • Don’t stand between a banker and his bonus. The board of the Royal Bank of Scotland threatened to resign en masse after the British government suggested it might veto bonus payments for 20,000 investment bankers. Hundreds of the bankers have already reportedly quit in protest. The bank received a nearly $80-billion bailout last year, and has come under intense scrutiny for its bonus plans.
  • Fore! Close! The game of golf has been sent running for cover by the recession. This year, 114 courses have closed in the U.S. as players cut back on green fees. Several others have been forced into bankruptcy as values of some courses have fallen as much as 50 per cent in the real estate crash. The industry has been hit by its own credit crunch, too, as golf course lenders have turned off the taps.
  • Alligator farmers in Louisiana, the alligator farming capital of the world, have felt the bite of hard times. Last year, the farmers picked 500,000 wild alligator eggs. This year, they haven’t taken any as demand for luxury alligator skin products, from watch straps to hand bags, has disappeared. Their troubles have been made even worse by an oversupply of alligator skin in recent years.
  • Damn the recession, it’s full speed ahead for the cruise ship industry. Royal Caribbean just launched Oasis of the Seas, a US$1.4-billion ship that rises 20 stories above the sea. Norwegian Cruise Line has an equally big ship in the works—the US$1.2-billion Norwegian Epic. Despite the downturn, the companies say they’re taking the long view with ships that will be plying the seas for 30 years.

Latest intelligence

After months of shedding workers, Canadian companies are finally hiring again. Some 79,100 jobs were created in November, including many in the key private sector. That blew by economists’ forecasts and, when combined with similarly positive U.S. jobs data, raised hopes that the economy is recovering faster than expected.

“Job numbers tend to be quite volatile, but there may be something to this.” – Eric Lascelles, chief economics and rates strategist, TD Securities

“November’s net hiring was all the more encouraging in that it included a swing back toward paid employment at the expense of self-employed jobs.” – Avery Shenfeld, chief economist, CIBC World Markets

“The solid November report offsets the prior month’s disappointing drop.” – Benjamin Reitzes, economist, BMO Capital Markets

“Canada’s economy is transitioning from recession to recovery.” – Sal Guatieri, senior economist, BMO Capital Markets

“This was a surprisingly strong report with details matching
the ‘wow’ factor in the headline print.” – Ian Pollick, strategist, TD Securities

“We consider this pace of job growth to be unsustainable.” – Millan Mulraine, economist, TD Securities

“With the unemployment decreasing and the participation rate rising, there is no doubt that the Canadian labour market is improving.” – Yanick Desnoyers, assistant chief economist, National Bank Financial

The Week Ahead

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 11: The U.S. Census Bureau will release retail sales figures for November. Sales are expected to rise slightly.
MONDAY, DECEMBER 14: The capacity utilization rate of Canadian industries will be reported by Statistics Canada. The rate hit a record low of 67.4 per cent in the second quarter of this year.
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 16: Statistics Canada will report manufacturing sales for October. Sales were up 1.4 per cent in September.

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