Do politicians in Canada monitor the stock market's performance?

  • National Newswatch

A Donald Trump style focus on and obsession with the stock market is extreme, but it seems that politicians in Canada are on the other extreme, which may be just as alarming.Finance ministers across the country are in the midst of finalizing their government's budget.For federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau, the upcoming budget will be the fifth one he will table in the House of Commons and the first since October's election.Parliamentary voting on budget-related matters are always matters of confidence and need particular attention in a minority government setting.However, given that the opposition Conservatives are beginning the process to select a new leader, the chances of a snap election triggered by the budget – or for any reason this year, for that matter – are quite low.This gives Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his finance minister a high degree of latitude in determining and proposing the priorities in the budget. Minister Morneau has already stated this year's document will focus on the economy and environment. Both issues are consistent with Liberal priorities and align with their preferred political narrative.Budget documents have increasingly become communication tools used by governments as a branding and marketing exercise rather than a focus on finances and prudent economic management. Most budget documents and the promises made in them are forgotten by the following year, if not before that.Nevertheless, a long term, cohesive, and coordinated approach is required to diversify the Canadian economy and improve productivity that will generate the revenues necessary to sustain the public programs that people depend upon.As we begin a new year, indeed a new decade, let us observe and contrast the stock market's performance together with the largest publicly traded companies in Canada and the United States to illustrate the comparative stagnation of the Canadian economy and the need for a strategic and coordinated approach on this issue.To begin, the broadest measure of the U.S. stock market, the S&P 500 index, experienced 10-year annualized returns of 13.6% as of December 31, 2019. In contrast, the Canadian-equivalent TSX Composite benchmark saw annualized returns over the same timeframe of only 6.9%. This is a very significant difference.Some may counter that the U.S. Federal Reserve has infused the American economy with so much money through its quantitative easing programs that this has artificially -- and dangerously -- inflated asset prices.While differences in central bank intervention between the two countries are real, the Canadian stock market as measured by the TSX also underperformed most other developed countries and key trading partners.This poor performance affects almost all Canadians. The value of pension funds and university endowments, as well as personal investment accounts, Tax Free Savings Account balances, retirement savings, are all impacted by the relative poor performance of publicly traded companies in Canada.One of the reasons why U.S. markets have outperformed those in Canada is because they are filled with companies in the information technology space with high growth rates that have been rewarded by investors with more money and larger stock market capitalizations.Just recently, three U.S. companies -- Apple, Microsoft, and Google -- each had a market capitalization in excess of one trillion U.S. dollars., not to be ignored, is not far behind and was once in that exclusive club before its share price retreated. In comparison, the entire value of all major publicly traded companies in Canada (243 as measured by the TMX Composite) is valued at roughly $2.6 trillion, or about $2 trillion USD.A look at the largest capitalization corporations in America over the last decade shows a trend away from industrials and manufacturing to information technology and communication companies. In contrast, the equivalent list in Canada continues relatively unchanged and dominated by two sectors: financial and energy, the latter being highly cyclical and prone to prolonged downturns.As of December 31, 2019, the financial and energy sectors represented half (49.1%) of the TSX; south of the border, these two sectors make up only 17.3% of the S&P 500. For context, the Information Technology sector comprises almost one-quarter (23.2%) of the American index, but only 5.7% of the Canadian equivalent. It's like the technology revolution happened and left Canada behind.To put an even finer point on it, according to the Top 1000 annual ranking of Canada's largest companies by Report on Business, there are only four technology companies – CGI, Celestica, Constellation Software, and Open Text – among the top one hundred companies ranked by revenue. Think about that.And it's not just in technology, but other innovative and emerging industries where there is a minimal Canadian presence at scale. Pilot projects and start-up companies are one thing, large high growth corporations with an international foothold another.The foundation for success, however, is present in Canada. Canadians, for example, rank first among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries in post-secondary education by population. The Toronto-Waterloo Innovation Corridor is a leading technology hub, although whether its full potential has been met remains open to debate.Governments need not pick the supposed emerging or winning sectors since entrepreneurs and private funders are more adaptive to change and nimble in their decision making. What governments can do, including through the budget documents tabled by finance ministers, is work together and coordinate efforts to cultivate the business environment where opportunities exist, risk is rewarded, and local ideas can become international success stories helping to create wealth for all Canadians.Evagelos Sotiropoulos writes about investing at You can follow him at @evan_sotirop