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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Oh! Canada!

I recently went to the International CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) convention in Vancouver, BC. The conference itself was quite interesting (four Nobel laureates and a Fed Reserve Bank CEO for starters), but a great experience was to go to Western Canada and experience our Northern neighbors. While there, I had a chance to meet up with some friends (she’s a doc, he’s a fireman) and go fishing and crabbing. I was able to get the flavour (as they spell it) of the country. So here, in no particular order, are some observations of Canada and Vancouver:
  1. Canada is booming. We probably know it anyway, but to be in Western Canada is dramatic: Canada is booming. Container ships loaded with Chinese good go to LA or Seattle and then head up Vancouver, where they arrive empty and leave full of nickel, potash, sulfur, wheat, and wood (or oil, for that matter). The Canadian economy is booming and mainly from exports of natural resources. Right now, the appetite of Asia doesn’t seem to be subsiding, and the supply of resources in Canada is huge. Looks like a boom for a long time. Want to play on Asian growth? Bet on Canada.
  2. Canadians themselves are doing well with awful taxes. Another thing that’s obvious is that in Vancouver, the economy is booming and people are doing quite well. The housing is out of site (the average price of a house in Greater Vancouver is over $600,000). Cars are new and nice (lots of Beemers and Mercedes). Restaurants aren’t cheap. And all this with an income tax of 46% PLUS a Value-added tax of 16%. EGADs! Vancouver has the third highest quality of living in the world, after Z├╝rich and Geneva (it’s tied with Vienna)
  3. The Canadian dollar is strong, the US dollar is weak. The exports and the balanced budget (probably from the outrageous taxes), plus a strong-dollar policy of the Canadian government has the Loonie strong. The Loonie (named after the loon on the Canadian dollar coin), has stayed steady against the Euro over 5 years (almost exactly). In the same time frame the US dollar has fallen over 14% against the Euro, and then fallen 10% against the Loonie. End result is the Canadian dollar is worth more than the US dollar. To the Canadians, our real estate is not only down because of the current housing crunch, but is also 10% off from the conversion. Florida, eh?
  4. Canada is safe. My friends were alarmed by the ‘crime wave’ in Vancouver. In 2007, there were 19 murders (in the last 5 years there were 92 total murders) in Vancouver. Vancouver has about 600,000 residents (2.2 million in the metropolitan area). Detroit has 900,000 residents, but we had 394 homicides (which was way down from the 615 we had in 1991). So the murder rate in Vancouver is 3.1 per 100,000; Detroit’s is 47, 1490% higher. Finally, something we’re better at!
  5. Canadians are healthy, and with their health care system they better be. My sarcasm about our crime rate does allow me one observation: Canada’s national health care system is not a model. There are weird rules about how many patients a doctor can see, and the docs are dis-incented to take care of sick people, but are incented to have reasonably healthy patients. In addition, there a doctor shortage in Canada. In the last 5 years, the number of doctors in Canada over age 60 has increased 28%, while the number of doctors under age 40 has decreased 10%. Canada is facing an aging doctor supply that is not being replaced fast enough by young docs. In addition, the young docs, growing up in the national health care system, are much more prone to be concerned with their “work/life” balance, which translates into they don’t see as many patients. My doc friend told me I couldn’t get my hip replacement in Canada, or would have to wait about 5 years (ouch!).
There’s five points for now. Don’t pre-judge Canada by our limited experience with Windsor, or our outdated notion that Canada is a suburb of the US. It’s a vibrant, thriving country, with some good lessons for us. You can however, sometimes win a drink with a Canadian by telling them you’re from Detroit and betting them a drink they can’t name the countries due north of Detroit and south of Detroit on the same degree on longitude.

See you later, eh?

Leon LaBrecque