The Loonie’s Turbulent Flight

The Canadian dollar–nicknamed the “loonie,” for the waterfowl that adorns one side of the coin–has flapped to its lowest level since the 2009 recession.

As of this writing, the Canadian dollar trades at USD0.7708, near the low end of a ride that saw the currency march from roughly that mark in March 2009 up to more than USD1.06 in April 2011.

But that was before the oil-price plunge, which knocked the loonie off of its USD0.94 perch last June.

‘Modest Contraction’ May Already Be Over

Two moves by the Bank of Canada (BoC) have put further downward pressure on the currency so far this year: The first was the bank’s surprise quarter-point cut to its overnight lending rate in January.

The move was meant to provide “insurance,” as the BoC put it, as oil’s plunge reverberated across the country’s economy. The energy sector accounts for about 10% of Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP) and was responsible for about one-third of all business investment last year.

And if you read last week’s Maple Leaf Memo, you know BoC Governor Stephen Poloz turned in a repeat performance last Wednesday. Noting that real GDP “contracted modestly” in the first half of the year, the bank took its key lending rate down another quarter point, to 0.50%. The loonie shed more than one U.S. cent on the news.

There’s an ongoing debate as to whether Canada was in recession–technically defined as two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth–over the past six months. The country’s economy has now contracted for four straight months, but we won’t have the final verdict until late August, when Statistics Canada (StatCan) releases second-quarter GDP figures.

But whether you prefer the term “recession” or the BoC’s “modest contraction,” the event may, in fact, already be over: The bank expects growth to resume in the second half, with a forecast that the economy will expand by 1.1% for the full year, down from its April estimate of 1.9% growth.

However, the BoC does see GDP growth accelerating to 2.6% in both 2016 and 2017, compared to its April projection of 2.5% and 2.0%, respectively.

According to the bank’s latest monetary policy report, a partial recovery in exports will help put the economy back on a growth track in the third quarter–something that has taken longer than the BoC expected, despite the favorable exchange rate–as well as “federal fiscal stimulus.”

That’s a reference to retroactive increases in Ottawa’s Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB), under which families with children receive a monthly payment. As a result of the change, parents are getting lump-sum payouts of between CAD420 and CAD520 per child this week.

Economists expect half of that money to be spent, something Poloz says will result in “a noticeable bump in consumption spending in the third quarter.”

Move Below USD0.75 Possible: Economists

The key question now is how much further the loonie has to fall.

According to Andrew Pyle, senior wealth advisor and portfolio manager at ScotiaMcLeod, we likely haven’t seen the slide’s end.

“I think we have the potential to move below USD0.75, and there’s not a lot of support room between USD0.75 and USD0.70,” he told on Friday.

Pyle’s downside risks for the currency include the possibility of lower oil prices if the U.S. Congress ratifies the Iranian nuclear deal and uncertainty among global investors about the upcoming Canadian federal election in October.

That contest remains a horserace: According to the latest poll, released Monday, the left-leaning New Democratic Party and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are tied at 32% each, while the centrist Liberals sit in third at 25%.

CIBC Chief Economist Avery Shenfeld, for his part, sounded a more sanguine note, calling for a USD0.75 loonie by the end of the fourth quarter.

Tourism, U.S.-Focused Firms Benefit

That would be good news for the Canadian firms that directly benefit when the loonie swoops lower, including some of our Canadian Edge holdings.

Case in point, tourism operators, on whom the low loonie bestows a two-pronged benefit: more foreign visitors–particularly Americans–crossing the border to take advantage of their increased buying power, and more Canadians staying home to avoid being pinched by the unfavorable exchange rate.

The effect is already being felt: Canadian spending on domestic tourism rose 1.0% in the first quarter compared to the previous quarter, according to StatCan, marking its biggest increase in a year. International visitors spent 0.3% more in the country during the period.

Beyond tourism, Canadian firms that do significant business south of the border also benefit from a weak loonie, including those that operate in areas such as transportation and finance.