Provincial Outlook - March 2022
Provincial economies are on the path to exit a period of highly abnormal conditions. Restrictions will soon be out of the picture—if they’re not already—and barring any new threatening coronavirus variants, the economic recovery will become more complete from coast to coast, spreading to hard-hit close-contact service industries. But the period ahead will be far from the ‘old normal’. Patterns of consumption, savings and investment have changed in fundamental ways, as have Canadians’ job expectations. Inflation (at a three-decade high) poses new challenges.
And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine just added a new layer of uncertainty on the global outlook amid soaring commodity prices. We nonetheless expect all provincial economies to continue to grow in 2022, albeit at a slower pace than in 2021 for the most part—with only Alberta and Saskatchewan accelerating thanks to an upswing in the energy sector and rebound in agriculture.
We have Alberta (+5.8%) and Saskatchewan (+5.7%) topping our growth rankings for 2022, followed by British Columbia (+4.3%) and Ontario (+4.2%). The Atlantic region rank at the lower end, in part reflecting the greater maturity of their expansions.
Commodity price surge to benefit Western Canada
Since the December Provincial Outlook, we have revised our crude oil price assumption for 2022 materially higher, up 39% to US$103 a barrel (WTI). Recent geopolitical events point to upside risks to that assumption. We believe Alberta’s economy—heavily weighted in the energy sector—stands to benefit from higher energy prices and have boosted our real GDP growth forecast accordingly by 1.1 percentage points.
We see Saskatchewan’s economy also receiving a boost from soaring energy prices as well as grain prices (provided crop output and conditions fare better than last year). We expect the impact to be negative for oil-consuming provinces, however.
Stronger capital spending across the country
A survey of capital investment intentions indicated that businesses and public administrations plan to substantially ramp up capital spending across the country—with only Newfoundland and Labrador expected to see a small decline. The stronger increases are slated to be in Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Quebec, providing these provinces with a solid base to sustain economic growth.
Homebuilding boom in Atlantic Canada
We expect historically high housing demand and rock-bottom inventories will keep home builders extremely busy across most of the country in the year ahead. Rising immigration—Canada has increased its immigration target by 10,000 to 411,000 in 2022—will add further pressure to expand housing stocks. This will be amplified by strong interprovincial migration in coastal regions, especially Atlantic Canada, where housing is relatively more affordable. We project housing starts to pick up the most in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. We believe rising interest rates will gradually cool homebuyer demand later this year and into 2023.
Labour market tightness a widespread issue as the Omicron wave fades
The Omicron variant has had a more muted impact on provincial economies than previous waves of the pandemic. Unemployment rates have remained below pre-pandemic levels in Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba, and only slightly more elevated in New Brunswick, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador. In other words, tight labour markets have persisted throughout the Omicron wave. Also consumer spending barely missed a beat. RBC’s cardholder spending data showed trends well above pre-pandemic levels, with residents in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Ontario reporting the fastest spending growth so far this year.
Inflation: a top concern in every province in 2022
Soaring commodity and housing prices, supply chain snarls, and solid demand for goods and services have driven up inflation to the highest levels in decades. We expect elevated inflation to be a top concern this year from coast to coast. Our forecast has inflation far exceeding the Bank of Canada’s 2% target in all provinces with the Maritimes ranking at the higher end of the spectrum and Western provinces at the lower end. We project inflation to moderate closer to target in 2023.
Western Canada leads the way
Higher commodity prices, on the whole, will be a boon to the Western provincial economies in 2022. We expect Alberta to lead the nation in growth, with its strongest rate of expansion since 2011. Both Alberta and Saskatchewan’s solid projected growth numbers in part reflect the more significant ground to recover from the initial pandemic/oil price collapse double whammy. An assumed return to more normal weather and crop conditions this year, is also expected to help agricultural production recover from last year’s devastating drought—especially in Saskatchewan. We expect British Columbia’s economy to grow rapidly, coming in third spot in our rankings. B.C. leads the nation in employment and consumer spending growth. Record levels of planned capital investment (7% above 2021 levels) will continue to provide substantial thrust. We expect Manitoba to benefit from soaring canola and wheat prices (hitting a 14-year high), as well as potential severe disruptions to European crop production that will boost demand for these products. We project Manitoba’s economy to grow 4.1% this year, down only slightly from a 4.5% advance in 2021.
Central Canada to recover pandemic losses in 2022
Despite the Omicron wave prompting new restrictions in Ontario and Quebec at the start of this year, RBC cardholder data indicates spending held up well above pre-pandemic levels in both provinces. We expect the lifting of restrictions to see activity in high-contact service industries recover. The recent resumption of production at General Motor’s Oshawa plant is a shot in the arm of Ontario’s manufacturing sector though global supply chain disruptions continue to be a challenge. We project Ontario’s economy to grow by 4.2% in 2022, unchanged from 2021 and just slightly below the national average (4.3%). We forecast Quebec’s economy to clock in at 3.6% following nation-leading 5.8% growth in 2021. Capital investment intentions for 2022 are strong in both provinces, slated to increase faster than the national average.
Atlantic Canada at a more mature stage of the recovery
Atlantic Canada is riding a wave of in-migration that will sustain solid population growth in the year ahead. Relatively affordable housing is a big draw in the region. But soaring demand for a limited supply of residential real estate makes it challenging for local homebuyers. We see strong housing construction, notably in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, as part of the solution to ease the supply tightness in the region. Economic slack created during the pandemic appears to have been fully absorbed in the Maritimes last year. Employment returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2021 and consumer spending rebounded strongly. Labour market tightness prevails (though vacancy rates are still lower than in other provinces) and inflation levels in both PEI and New Brunswick are above the national average. Going forward, we expect the lifting of restrictions will spur tourism activity and keep the expansion going. Since the Maritime Provinces are further along in their recovery, though, their growth numbers will look less impressive this year. We place PEI (2.7%), New Brunswick (2.6%) and Nova Scotia (2.5%) toward the lower end of our growth rankings for 2022 though this shouldn’t be seen as a sign of weakness.
Newfoundland and Labrador is on a longer journey toward pre-pandemic levels of activity. We expect full recovery from the recession to occur in 2023, later than all other provinces. One of the main impediments the province faces is declining capital investment as major projects wind down. We project below-average growth in employment as a result. The demographic outlook is also softer than in other parts of the country, restraining growth in the demand for goods and services. We forecast the provincial economy to grow 2.5% this year, down slightly from 3.0% in 2021.
Robert Hogue is a member of the Macroeconomic and Regional Analysis Group, with RBC Economics. He is responsible for providing analysis and forecasts for the Canadian housing market and for the provincial economies. His publications include Housing Trends and Affordability, Provincial Outlook and provincial budget commentaries.
Carrie Freestone is an economist at RBC. She provides labour market analysis, and is a member of the regional analysis group, contributing to the provincial macro outlook.
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