Trudeau’s COVID aid pays off with consumer-spending rebound

Consumer spending in Canada rebounded sharply in the first half of June, thanks in part to tens of billions in government benefits paid to sidelined workers.

Consumer purchase activity from the end of May and through the first half of June was down about 13 per cent from a year earlier, according to numbers crunched by Royal Bank of Canada and provided to Bloomberg. That’s a major improvement from April, when consumer spending was down about 30 per cent as the virus shuttered all but essential businesses across much of the country, Chief Executive Officer Dave McKay said in an interview.

As the country’s largest lender, Royal Bank has a window into real-time data that measures the economic recovery from COVID-19. “We’re positively surprised by the quickness of the first part of the V-shaped recovery,” McKay said. “We didn’t expect it to come back that fast.”

Key to the recovery was a monthly cash support for workers rolled out by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after the pandemic put the economy into an induced coma.

Royal Bank has been providing insights to federal and provincial governments through the pandemic to help guide recovery efforts. The Toronto-based bank has 25 per cent of the payments business market in Canada, giving it a broad view of how consumers are weathering the pandemic and where weak spots exist.

Emergency Stipend

The bank’s latest numbers — data covering a seven-week period that it hasn’t shared before — uncovered what’s behind part of the rebound: the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit program, or CERB.

It provides $2,000 over a four-week period to eligible workers who have stopped working or whose hours have been reduced due to COVID-19. The program has paid out more than US$52 billion to about 8 million workers and has been extended until the end of the August.

Royal Bank’s number-crunching shows Canadians who didn’t receive the benefit saw cash flow drop four per cent through the pandemic and reduced their spending by 10 per cent. This segment of the population has the biggest impact on the economy, and they’ve been slower to resume spending, McKay said.

Those Canadians who received CERB, meanwhile, faced “a real shock” with cash flow plunging 25 per cent in April from a year earlier before getting the benefit, he said. Once the benefit was paid out, those recipients saw a 16 per cent jump in cash flow, helping drive a five per cent increase in their spending.

“They are actually helping stimulate the economy with some of that extra cash flow and so, from that perspective, you’re seeing those CERB recipients continuing to spend and not just save the money,” the CEO said. “That is quite helpful.”

But the stipend’s success brings other issues — ones that have McKay calling for a transition toward the government’s wage subsidy program for companies.

“The message there is they’ve seen more cash flow because of CERB than they saw from their employment,” McKay said. “It’s empirical evidence across millions and millions of Canadians of the disincentive to go back to work.”

‘Unintended Consequences’

The banker points to “unintended…

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