'A divisive picture': Liberals' minority win reveals regional split
2019 was, to put it mildly, an eventful year.
The SNC-Lavalin Inc. firestorm, the diplomatic dispute over Huawei Technologies Co. CFO Meng Wanzhou’s arrest, the rise of Western alienation, the bumpy first year of legal recreational cannabis, growing anxiety over the economy, and the federal election were just a few of the themes that dominated headlines throughout the year.
So as we reflect on the major news events over the last 12 months and how they shaped business in Canada, here’s a look at the most-read stories on BNNBloomberg.ca of 2019.
BNN Bloomberg’s election platform tracker, which provided Canadians with up-to-date information on each of the major parties’ campaign promises, was the most popular story on our website in 2019. While the policy pledges didn’t tell the whole story of a campaign that was ridden with headline-grabbing scandals, the tracker became a useful resource for Canadians looking to make an informed decision on Oct. 21. This was during one of the tightest federal elections in Canada in recent memory, which ultimately led to Justin Trudeau Liberals losing their majority in Parliament.
It’s probably not surprising that two of the most-read stories this year were about Canadians’ debt anxieties. At the beginning of 2019, nearly half of Canadians said they were less than $200 away from insolvency, according to a survey by MNP Ltd. Three quarters later, things didn’t look so different. It’s a story that’s not only loomed large this past year, but over the last decade as well, as monetary policy meant to help consumers recover from the financial crisis resulted in massive amounts of household spending and, ultimately, a “decade of indebtedness.” And as the 2010s come to an end and the cost of borrowing remains extremely low, Canadians on the financial brink are still left waiting for comeuppance.
China’s richest man faced some criticism in early 2019 when he endorsed the overtime hours that are notoriously commonplace in that country’s technology sector. Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. founder Jack Ma, who retired from the company in September, called a 12-hour-day, six-day-week work schedule a “blessing” that’s necessary for success. The comments drew fierce backlash, with experts arguing such hours lead to burnout and health issues. Ma later said artificial intelligence could make a 12-hour workweek the norm. Work hours were back in the spotlight in November, when Microsoft Corp. announced an experiment with a four-day workweek in Japan, which the company said led to a 40-per-cent boost in productivity.
Further evidence to the pervasive role debt played in Canadian households in 2019 came in the form of a boom in reverse mortgages, a niche loan granting seniors access to up to 55 per cent of their home’s value without having to make payments or selling their house. Reverse mortgage debt reached an all-time high in 2019, with a whopping 22-per-cent growth rate year-over-year versus 4.8 per cent for the overall mortgage market.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for legal cannabis in Ontario, with the province making some late-year moves to fix the problems plaguing its recreational pot rollout. Last month, the province announced it would let private companies handle some wholesale distribution in an effort to lower prices. More recently, it scrapped a much-maligned lottery-based licensing system to address a dearth in stores. But the changes may have come too late for the province to cut all losses, with cannabis research firm The Cannalysts Inc. estimating the province missed out on $325 million in economic activity by not following a similar model to more-successful Alberta.
Yes, airlines are going to take away your legroom – at least that’s according to this Bloomberg piece looking into how airlines are lowering costs by messing with passenger seating. Advocacy group Flyers Rights says that economy rows that used to be 34 to 35 inches apart in the early 2000s, are now more typically about 30 to 31 inches apart. And, as one industry expert points out, it will only get worse over the next decade.
With a net worth of over US$30 billion, media magnate David Thomson was the richest Canadian in 2019 and the world’s 27th wealthiest person, according to Forbes’ yearly billionaire ranking. Amazon.com Inc.’s Jeff Bezos took the top spot for the second year in a row with a US$131-billion net worth, though he was briefly dethroned by No. 2 Bill Gates late in the year. Forty-five Canadians made the cut on Forbes’ ranking, with Alibaba co-founder Joseph Tsai being the second-richest on the 2019 list at no. 147.
A supply crunch remained the biggest issue for Toronto’s rental market in 2019, so it isn’t surprising signs of some easing generated a lot of attention last July. According to Urbanation, apartment vacancy rates rose to 1.5 per cent in the second quarter, the highest level since the firm started tracking the data in 2015. The rise came after a removal of rent controls led to an increase in purpose-built rental applications. But supply woes remain, with RBC estimating the city was 9,100 units short in late 2018 from a three-per-cent vacancy rate.
CannTrust Holdings Inc.’s fall from grace after Health Canada found the Ontario-based company was producing cannabis in unlicensed rooms was one of the biggest Canadian corporate stories of 2019. Documents obtained by BNN Bloomberg in September revealed senior operating staff working at CannTrust’s Pelham, Ont. facility late last year brought cannabis seeds from the black market into production rooms, leading to some illicitly-grown pot flowing into the legal market. This was one in a series of headlines that eventually led to the suspension of the pot producer’s licence. Fallout quickly spread to the overall sector amid mounting concerns over regulatory risks.