The Death Of The Canadian Oil Dream, A Firsthand Account
We’ve spent quite a bit of time over the past 12 months documenting the trainwreck that is Alberta’s economy.
Most recently, we brought you "This Is Canada's Depression: Surging Crime, Soaring Suicides, Overwhelmed Food Banks" and "For Canadian Repo Men, Business Has Never Been Better", but you can review the story in its entirety by revisiting the following posts:
- Canada Crude Contagion: Calgary home Prices Drop Most In 2 Years
- "Canada's Biggest Oil Casualty To Date: Calgary's Nexen Shutters Oil Trading Desk"
- "The Canadian Housing Bubble Has Begun To Burst"
- "Canada's Oil Patch Confidence Crashes"
- "Canada Mauled by Oil Bust, Job Losses Pile Up – Housing Bubble, Banks at Risk"
- "The Stage Is Set For A Massive Housing Market Correction in Canada's Oilpatch"
In short, Alberta is at the center of Canada’s oil patch and has suffered mightily in the wake of crude's seemingly inexorable decline.
Going into last year, Alberta expected its economy to grow at a nearly 3% clip. That forecast was reduced to 0.6% in March and further to -0.6% in the latest fiscal update. Oil and gas investment has fallen by a third while rig activity has been cut in half.
The fallout is dramatic. Food bank usage in Alberta is up sharply and so, unfortunately, is property crime in places like Calgary where vacancy rates in the downtown area are at their highest levels since 2010. Suicide rates are on the rise as well while the outlook for unemployment continues to darken with each passing month of “lower for longer” oil prices.
Below, find excerpts from an excellent account of the malaise penned by Jason Markusoff who writes about Alberta, lives in Calgary, and has spent 12 years reporting for the city's largest newspapers.
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From "The Death Of The Alberta Dream," by Jason Markusoff as originally published at Macleans
Late last year, Brandon MacKay listed his Kawasaki dirt bike for sale on Kijiji, the online classifieds site. It was the only treat the 25-year-old had given himself in three years living in Fort McMurray. The rest he’d spent on supporting and visiting his wife and kids in Pictou County, N.S. But in crafting the ad for the bike—$4,400 or best offer—MacKay did what any sales agent would advise against: he revealed his desperation to sell. “I lost my job and am in need of money for my wife and kids for Christmas.”
Energy companies are preparing for a grim 2016. Analysts predict budgets will get slashed further, and that more energy firms may have to cut staff, having already laid off thousands. Ongoing oil sands construction projects will continue to wind down with little to replace them, hitting both the residential and commercial real estate sectors hard. For instance, in nearly one-sixth of all the office space in downtown Calgary, the fluorescent lights now shine on empty cubicles, and it’s forecast to get worse. Reports of the symptoms pop up almost daily: more insolvencies, more business for moving trucks and repo crews, even a noticeable uptick in suicides. The Calgary Stampede itself has been forced to lay off staff, as its offseason event bookings dried up. In November, the Alberta unemployment rate came within one-tenth of a percentage point of the national average, the closest it’s been since 1989. Those trend lines are expected to cross over next year, making it more clear to Canadian job-seekers that the Alberta dream is in decline.
The rest of the country isn’t immune from those ominous grinding sounds coming from Canada’s longtime economic engine. Canadian GDP dipped into recession territory in the first half of 2015 on the oil shock, and though the country managed a rebound in the third quarter, Alberta’s troubles—as well as slumps in other oil-rich provinces like Saskatchewan and Newfoundland—have left a gaping wound. The energy sector had long driven Canada’s trade surplus, papering over weakness elsewhere while soaking up large numbers of unemployed and underemployed people from regions like the Maritimes and hard-hit southwestern Ontario.
But even average growth seems a ways off, as troubles keep filtering through the province. In Alberta’s southeast, Medicine Hat drew international acclaim in the spring of 2015 after it became the first city in Canada to eliminate homelessness, having pursued an ambitious five-year agenda to put people into subsidized housing within 10 days of them landing in emergency shelters. After so much progress, Medicine Hat’s Salvation Army shelter is back to averaging 17 clients a night, up about one-third since 2014—too many to promptly find them all affordable housing. Local demand for donated clothing and household items also rose by more than a quarter over the last year, says manager Murray Jaster. But donations slumped too, and he had to reduce staff.
To Jaster’s point, there is much his province used to have that now seems gone. Most noticeable is Alberta’s eroding status as the Promised Land for so many Canadians from other parts of the country. Over the last decade, net interprovincial migration by 18- to 44-year-olds, the key working demographic, swelled Alberta’s population by 200,000, according to a report by a rather envious Business Council of British Columbia. (That province netted fewer than 40,000 over that stretch, while all other provinces were net losers.) The momentum has shifted. While 1,200 more Canadians still moved to the province than left it during the third quarter of 2015, that was the smallest gain since 2010—when the province was recovering from the 2009 oil price collapse—and less than half the average of the last 50 years.
“Seeing that there’s no real light at the end of the tunnel right now, more [companies] are turning to job cuts,” says Wendy Giuffre, the president of Wendy Ellen, a human resources consultancy. “It seems that there’s another wave right now. I think people were kind of hopeful things were going to pick up sooner, but it’s not looking too promising.”
Statistics Canada’s payroll survey shows Alberta shed 63,500 jobs over the year leading up to October. That doesn’t account for lost potential—the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates 40,000 jobs that were expected to be created never materialized.
It’s no secret that Alberta’s economy is closely linked to the peaks and craters of oil prices—nominal GDP (not adjusted for inflation) swings in tandem with crude prices. It’s why Fort McMurray is like a wounded beast these days. MacKay’s neighbour got laid off this fall. “I watched the bank come and take his truck,” he recalls—it was that or not feed the kids. Home prices in November were 20 per cent below last year’s average, with even townhouses and duplexes losing $100,000 in value. According to reports, a number of people who used to regularly donate to the city’s food bank have become clients.
What happens in the oil fields directly affects one of Canada’s largest business cores. Elevator trips to Beaver’s small ninth-floor Calgary office have gotten lonelier. Nearly one-third of the office space in the 32-storey highrise is listed for lease or sublease. The asking rate to rent downtown Calgary’s “Class A” office space is down nearly 42 per cent from last year, the result of “a complete lack of demand,” according to a report by real estate advisers Jones Lang Lasalle.
The hollowing out of Calgary offices has decimated the corporate lunch crowd. Regulars who would come to Jalapeno’s Mexican Grill three times a week now visit once, or not at all, owner Doug Hernandez says. “We’re not making any money; we’re just floating right now,” he says. “The problem would be when I’m not wearing my lifejacket anymore. Then I’d drown.”
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