Key Points

  • Despite vaccine optimism, the coming months will be difficult for many businesses
  • Later in 2021, businesses that can survive will benefit from high savings rates and pent-up consumer demand
  • Long-term scarring remains a possibility as consumers see shifts in demand and spending patterns

Vaccine hopes won’t diminish the pain of the coming months

Vaccine approvals have raised hopes for a return to a more normal life sooner rather than later. For many Canadian businesses, the near-term outlook is still grim. Recent virus-containment measures, though more targeted by industry and region than in the spring, continue to significantly disrupt activity for businesses like restaurants, gyms, and banquet halls, and non-essential retailers.

Exceptional levels of government support helped avoid an early wave of business bankruptcies. Most government support programs were dwarfed by the massive $80 billion CERB transfers to households. But the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy has also paid out over $53 billion to businesses to date, and from mid-March to end of August has accounted for roughly 15% of all wages and salaries received. The take-up of this program was higher in the hospitality sector, with CEWS covering 46% of wages and salaries in accommodation and food services, and 32% for arts, entertainment and recreation over that period. And in the second quarter, when the labour market was under the most pressure, CEWS on average supported roughly 70% of all employees in accommodation and food services, and 60% in arts, entertainment and recreation.

Those supports won’t be enough to save all businesses. The number of bankruptcies in the arts, entertainment, and recreation sectors crept higher into the fall. More will almost certainly follow the second wave. Still, the federal government’s support programs—including the extension of the CEWS program, commercial rent subsidies, and access to subsidized loans for businesses still able to take on more credit—will help.

The speed of the economic recovery will depend in part on how many businesses survive until containment measures ease.

Businesses can expect far more favourable conditions later in 2021

For businesses able to hang on, the second half of 2021 could look dramatically better. Household disposable incomes in Canada actually rose sharply over the spring and summer, as unprecedented government income-support programs offset wage losses, particularly at the lower end of the wage spectrum where job losses have been heavily concentrated.

Even as incomes rose, opportunities to spend shrank. With tourism, dining and entertainment unavailable for purchase, savings rates rose significantly in 2020.

By our count, households will have accumulated in the neighbourhood of $200 billion in unplanned savings by the end of 2020. That’s enough to cover the overall consumer spending on restaurants and hotels in Canada for more than 2 years. Some of those savings may have gone to pay down debt or to buy housing—demand for which has surged. But households still have plenty left. As of September, personal deposits at chartered banks were up ~$130 billion from a year ago – ~$60 billion in excess of pre-COVID trends.

Businesses can expect at least some of those savings to support a resurgence of spending, particularly on hospitality and travel services, once virus-containment measures ease sustainably.

Long-term scarring will vary across sectors

The pandemic this year will be leaving different economic footprint for different industries. For the hospitality/travel sector, an effective vaccine rollout could help to limit long-run structural changes. To be sure, there will be permanent business closures. But new businesses will eventually emerge, and the hospitality industry could, at the end of 2021, look a lot like it did at the end of 2019. The industry itself is no stranger to business turnover, so it’s hardly a stretch to expect a rapid pace of business formation later in 2021. That would be good news for the 350,000 workers in the accommodation & food services and recreation sectors still off work from pre-shock levels.

The same cannot be said for retail, where the new normal will look distinctively different from the old one. The pandemic has significantly accelerated the shift to online spending in the retail sector. From a labour-market perspective, that means a boost to productivity alongside a drop in demand for workers in retail stores. Indeed, retail employment continues to be much lower than pre-COVID even though retail sales have fully rebounded since June. There could be a silver lining in rising demand for employment opportunities in warehouses, fulfilment centres and couriers, but their transition may not be easy or immediate.

For the months immediately ahead, the most crucial factors to watch remain COVID containment measures and the timeline for vaccine distribution. Beyond that, the future for businesses able to tap into accumulated savings and pent-up demand could be very bright.

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