Canadians heading into 2014 with rosier outlook on the economy

By Gordon Isfeld, Financial Post December 30, 2013 - OTTAWA - Despite gnawing concerns over heavily indebted households, Canadians still appear ready to keep on spending. They seem more confident now than earlier this year that economic growth is picking up and their jobs are more secure, according to surveys released Monday.

Consumers also feel more secure about their personal finances going into 2014 and that the still-hot real estate market will avoid a crash, the new data show.

Less obvious is whether Canadian businesses will finally get behind the wheel of the economy and increase their spending and expand markets, as has long been anticipated since the recession.

For now, though, households look set to continue in their role as the main provider of that growth.

And they seem more confident now than in nearly three years that growth is strengthening, according to The Investors Group-Harris Decima Index.

“Consumer confidence rose throughout 2013 in every region of the country,” said Allan Gregg, chairman of Harris Decima.

“Perhaps as importantly, regional differences in outlook also became less pronounced, suggesting that all parts of the country — although somewhat less so in Quebec — are sensing that the economy is on the rise and that better times are ahead.”

The consumer index showed confidence in the final three months of 2013 was at a high not seen since the first quarter of 2011, with residents in Western Canada being the most upbeat.

Overall, the positive sentiment of Canadians across the country improved steadily during the year, the survey found, pushing to index up to 84.4. The reading has improved since the beginning of 2013, starting at 77.6 in the first quarter, and rising to 79.7 in the second three-month period and then to 81.2 in the third quarter.

Compare those results to 2012, when confidence readings were static for the final three quarters of the year.

“The gradual improvement of consumer confidence in Canada appears to reflect the slow-but-steady growth in the Canadian economy,” said Gaetan Ruest, vice-president, responsible for product and corporate research at Investors Group.

“This is an encouraging way to wind up 2013 and look forward to a new year.”

The survey — based on 2,018 consumer responses between Nov. 21 and Dec. 1 — puts Alberta ahead of all other areas in Canada, registering a reading of 95.0 in the fourth quarter.

Also strong were Manitoba and Saskatchewan, with a combined end-of-year result of 90.7. British Columbia, meanwhile, rose at a slower pace to 79.7 after beginning the year at 70.5.

Ontario was in line with the national average, topping out at 85.0 in the fourth quarter — up from 78.1 at the start of the year.

Consumers in Atlantic Canada also warmed to signs of an improving economy, ending 2013 with a reading of 81.5, a big jump from 68.6 in the first quarter.

Quebec ended the year at 80.3, following a weak first-quarter reading of 77.8.

Meanwhile, a separate survey released Monday found Canadians are increasingly optimist about job prospects and the health of the real estate market.

The Bloomberg Nanos Canadian Confidence Index rose to 58.4 for the week ended Dec. 27, up from 57.8 a week earlier. That also surpasses the average reading for 2013 of 57.3, and the 52.9 level at the end of 2012.

Nanos said those consumers who expect the economy to improve over the next six months rose to 20.5% last week from 20.3%. At the same time, respondents who feel secure — or somewhat secure —about their employment status remained steady at a reading of 66.4%.

The weekly survey of 1,000 people showed fewer Canadians — 24.4% — feel worse off financially now than they did at the end of last year, when the reading was 36.8%.

As for the real estate market, 34.6% of respondents believe the value of homes in their neighbourhood will increase over the next six months. That’s steady but down slightly from 34.8% in the previous survey.

Consumer spending has been relied on to lift the Canadian economy after the 2007-08 downturn, assisted by rock-bottom interest rates that elevated household debt to record levels and fired the housing market to bubble-bursting highs. Home sales and prices have continued to defy predictions of a cooling, while growth in consumer debt has slowed. Both factors remain the biggest risks to the economy, according to the Bank of Canada.

The central bank and the federal government maintain that as the global economy improves — especially in the United States — companies will start leading growth in this country through increased spending and expansion in markets outside of Canada.

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