Podcast - February 28, 2024

Episode 97: Population Trap | Catch & Release

Latest Episode: Navigating Canada’s Population Boom – Discover the economic challenges and opportunities of Canada’s growing population in our newest Barenaked Money Podcast episode. We dissect the “population trap” phenomenon, where escalating numbers might not spell rising living standards without strategic capital investment in housing and infrastructure. From immigration’s double-edged sword on real estate to the alarming retreat of private sector investment, we explore the avenues for policy innovation that can harness Canada’s potential and elevate everyone’s quality of life. Listen in for an insightful journey through the economic landscape with our hosts. Don’t miss this deep dive into shaping a prosperous future for Canada.

Episode Transcript

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Announcer (00:00):

You are about to get lucky with the Barenaked Money Podcast, the show that gives you the naked truth about personal finance with your hosts, Josh Sheluk and Colin White, portfolio managers with Verecan Capital Management Inc.

Josh Sheluk (00:16):

Alright, Josh and Matt here from Verecan Capital, another episode of Barenaked Money coming at you. And today we’re talking about all things productivity, growth, GDP, immigration, capital stock, all kinds of exciting things today. Have you dug yourself out of this all fun stuff? Have you dug yourself out of the snow there, Matt? Out there in East Coast,

Matthew Kempton (00:39):

We have done a pretty good job, although this morning while trying to get breakfast for our son, we heard a school bus beep his horn for 20 minutes as he couldn’t get down the street because there were too many cars parked and the street had become so narrow that there was no getting by. So we can move, but it’s still with challenges.

Josh Sheluk (00:59):

So was he honking the horn so everybody would come out and walk up the hill into the bus or what was he trying to get at there?

Matthew Kempton (01:06):

I think he was hoping someone would come out of a house and move the car. I mean he eventually moved, so whatever he was looking for, it was accomplished eventually. It took a while.

Josh Sheluk (01:16):

Alright, good stuff. Mission accomplished. So moving on to today’s topic, we really came up with this because you circulated a report from National Bank Financial a few weeks ago that talked about very scary word population trap here in Canada. Why don’t you give a bit of an overview, a bit of a summary for that report and what you found coming out of it.

Matthew Kempton (01:40):

Great. Well this report and credit to National Bank Financial, this is a, well I’m a big nerd, but this is a fantastic report I thought, and they hit on a topic that honestly I had to go back to basically an economics textbook to really remind myself of what it even was of a population trap. And maybe I’ll define it for the audience here just so we all remind ourselves or here for the first time of what is this event because it’s pretty rare in a developed market, especially a population trap is a situation where no increase in living standards is possible because the population is growing so fast that all available savings are needed to maintain the existing capital labor ratio. And we’ll get more into what that maybe specifically means and what it means for Canada. But it’s not good in our first take on it would be, and it’s an insightful way to look at the scenario we’re in right here.


I think in Canada where we’ve had the benefit of well population growth that we’ve never seen before. And I’ll put some numbers behind that that are really mind blowing. In 2023, the population in Canada grew by 1.2 million people. That’s on the back of 2022. The population growing at 825,000 and well, I’m looking at the chart here and the growth is just, it’s purely off the chart of what we’ve seen recently versus any time historically going all the way back to the forties and in fact site that you had to go back to 1949 when Newfoundland joined the federation to see the country’s population increase by more than 600,000 in any other year. So we’ve had an objective of increasing the population here in Canada for some time and it seems like well mission accomplished. And so that is a good thing at first take because we have been very aware for some time of the challenge of demographics we have here in Canada and demographics are one of those things where you can be a little more accurate with your predictions because the trends tend to move fairly slow.


It takes nine months for a birth, you can get a pretty good sense of well the age of the current population, what the birth rates are and where that’s trending. And it was recognized some time ago here in Canada, like other developed nations in the west and the east that we were trending towards, well an older population, less workforce, less bursts happening, which is all hired on the economy and eventually going to be hired on our social services that. So there was almost a necessity for an increase in our population and we’ve done so with some good success. But with that have come some interesting challenges and one of them, well with such growth, one of those big challenges maybe that we’ve found ourselves in a population trap. So this report here really dives into what does that mean? What are the specific areas that we’re seeing these challenges in our capital stock and where do we go from here?


So that really just piqued my interest because we’d seen the population growth, we’d seen the economy sort of ticking along and maybe important just why it is so important to the economy because really GDP growth kind of comes down to two main factors, growth in the labor force and productivity growth. And so with an increase in population, we can maintain and grow our labor force potentially more, but we have been lacking on the other factor and that has led to, well our standard of living truly not increasing for in this report seeing now six years. So those key items coming out of this. So despite a growing economy at its core, our standard of living not improving and maybe not headed to an improvement there anytime soon without changes. So those really caught my eye to start on this report. I didn’t seen that highlighted anywhere else. And I think feel that did some really good work here and then brought it forward and I think Josh thought it was interesting as well. And so here we are to share some of the insights.

Josh Sheluk (05:57):

So that’s a great summary. Thanks for that Matt. So a couple things that I’ll just ask you to flesh out a little bit, and I love all the macroeconomic textbook talk, but if we are simplifying some of this language for some of our audience, so I’m not sure, you mentioned maybe you mentioned in there, but the big surge in population really over the past couple of years is almost purely immigration. Is that right?

Matthew Kempton (06:25):

Yes, yes.

Josh Sheluk (06:26):

Yeah, as you mentioned, we can see birth rates are fairly stable. So if you’re going to see a big influx in people, really it’s going to be immigration and that’s been great for us in a lot of ways, but maybe creating some challenges in the shorter term. So you also mentioned how do we actually grow the economy and it comes down to productivity growth, which is essentially technological improvements over time and labor force growth. But the other thing that you kind of mentioned in there is there’s something called capital stock as well. So maybe you can explain what capital stock is and how it kind of influences growth as well.

Matthew Kempton (07:04):

Okay, I’ll do my best here on this front. So this is not my absolute area of expertise, it’s an area of interest. So I’ll give a definition that an economist might step in and say, well I would tighten it this way,

Josh Sheluk (07:17):

Let’s put it in layman’s terms. We don’t need the economic definition here. Alright, perfect. Everyone will be okay with the layman’s terms.

Matthew Kempton (07:23):

The capital stock, it essentially represents the capital being actual dollars and infrastructure of a nation. This might be most evident right now I think and most discussed in the housing supply as part of our capital stock and the very evident lack of or gap supply deficit I suppose that we’ve seen with this increase in immigration’s become very obvious, well we don’t have enough houses, but it extends beyond that. It’s maybe not so apparent and maybe that’s the one area where the gap is the biggest, but the capital stock gap would exist elsewhere throughout the economy in terms of our manufacturing capital and beyond. So the challenges, it’s I think most discussed in most of the forefront on the housing supply and our lack of capital stock there, but it extends beyond and all of that challenges the economy in that we can’t quite, there isn’t the gap to grow into because we’ve bumped up against our current output gap and so further investment needed to really see us go further. But where does that come from? I’m not quite sure. So it’s almost as though we had a goal of growing the population that was step one accomplished, but step two and beyond maybe weren’t considered of, well if we get these people, where do they live? How do we ensure their product they’re productive, how do we make sure we have the services available and the infrastructure available and seems to be what we’re dwelling with right now.

Josh Sheluk (08:58):

Yeah, yeah. So capital stock includes, as you said, things like housing. It’s kind of like all the things that the workforce actually uses. So things like housing, things like the factory or the computer or the backhoe that they’re using, the highway that they’re driving on to get stuff from point A to point B. So what National Bank is really arguing in this report here is that with such an influx in people, we need to have a commensurate investment in the stuff that they can use to be productive. So just simple but silly explanation is just looking at computers, right? Let’s say that every person had one computer, now you’ve added a million people and we’re short a million computers, and those people are going to be a lot less productive if they’re using pen and paper than a computer to do their jobs on a daily basis. Obviously a little bit of a silly example there as I said, but that’s kind of the idea of what they’re getting at.

Matthew Kempton (10:03):

Well exactly, actually, and that’s much better than I was able to get to in mind. And so what we might see is overall output increases somewhat because okay, people are writing on the pen and pad and they’re doing something, but they’re nowhere near as productive as they would be if they had that computer. And so output is slowly increasing, but not to the extent it maybe should be if we had that increase in capital investment too.

Josh Sheluk (10:26):

Good stuff, good stuff. So we need to put more dollars to build more things and to construct more things and to buy more things that are going to make people productive now that we have the extra million people here. That’s interesting. Now I’m going to push back on this report a little bit. I gave you kind of a hint of what I was going to push back on before, but the capital stock per capital, so capital stock per person really started decreasing in and around the year 20 20 12. So I’m going to ask you the open-ended question. Matt, do you know what also kind of started happening around that point?

Matthew Kempton (11:03):

I started my career in wealth management, but

Josh Sheluk (11:07):


Matthew Kempton (11:08):

I’ll have to leave it to you outside of that.

Josh Sheluk (11:10):

Yeah, so sounds good. So around that time, that was kind of the peaking of the commodity cycle as well, maybe a little bit after the commodity cycle was kind of peaking. It was probably about 20 10, 20 11 when that commodity cycle was peaking. So I actually dug into some of the numbers and was wondering, okay, how much truth is there to this idea that there’s not enough investment in the capital, the things that we need to be productive in our country? And I parsed the numbers to see where is the investment, what industry are we lacking this? So-called capital from, and one of the arguments that National Bank Financial put forward in this research report was that capital stock has been flat over the last decade or so, and that is true in an aggregate sense, but if you actually dig into the numbers, the only reason it’s flat is because there’s been a massive decline in capital investment and capital stock in the mining oil and gas sectors.


So that is obviously, as we know, a huge part of the Canadian economy and the capital stock there declined by about half over the course of this decade. So if you take that industry out, those industries, you call it mining, oil and gas, if you take those industries out of the aggregate calculation, the capital stock would actually be up by about 16% over the decade, which isn’t amazing, but it’s a lot better than the picture that’s painted by this report. And I think that the natural conclusion for me, and there’s a whole bunch of other conclusions, but the natural conclusion for me is that yeah, these industries aren’t going to invest in buying more backhoes and more mining equipment when the cost of their product has basically gone down for the entire decade. Do you think there’s any validity to my pushback?

Matthew Kempton (13:10):

I mean I think there’s something there and I think that’s an important piece to break out to see that does represent such a big piece of our capital stock and investment has slowed there and for many reasons maybe, but it still represents an important part of our economy, certainly so to our growth. But then I guess it begs maybe a further question, if that was such an important part of our economy where we were investing or what have those dollars gone towards? It doesn’t seem like there’s been a replacement. We’ve said, well we’re not investing there and we now don’t have anywhere to put those dollars in or any area of growth. So certainly a good point, but maybe more concerning if that was our area of investment. Now what is it?

Josh Sheluk (13:53):

Yeah, I’m glad you got there. I kind of arrived at the same spot thinking maybe the issue was how we’ve actually structured and built our economy over the last several decades. We maybe need more diversification and need less resource reliant growth. And I don’t know where that comes from. I don’t know how you implement that policy wise, but it’s always been a bit of an issue and concern our concentration in certain industries. You can look at our stock market as well and you’ll see similar trends. And so maybe our focus should not be on just making sure capital stocks growing. Maybe it is just making sure that we have a diverse economy that can thrive in a variety of different environments.

Matthew Kempton (14:42):

Yeah, well I’d certainly agree with that, but it also begs the question, are things maybe worse than we thought in that if we were such an exporter of these resources we put so much capital into and demand for those are potentially declining and less capital is going into those, well, we still need energy. And so have we now become more of an importer of the energy, how it’s going to be generated in the future? Let’s say if we’re not putting capital into creating it here, does that affect the trade deficit? Does that affect budgets? And they didn’t go here on the report, but I think there’s some concern that could come there as well. If we were a generator of energy of the past and still needed today, maybe that capital investment we primed to put that capital into investing in energy of the future.

Josh Sheluk (15:33):

And maybe we’re seeing some of that with the battery technology. I know I read a report earlier this week that Canada is one of the most attractive spots to invest in for battery tech at the moment. So maybe we’re starting to see a bit of a turning the corner on this, but I guess time will tell and it’s probably bigger questions than we’re primed to answer here, I’d say.

Matthew Kempton (15:58):

Yeah, well I think you’re right, but no, you’re right. And I mean even just here locally in Halifax, Dalhousie, there’s some excellent research happens here on the battery front and there’s other investment into new hydrogen type investments and there’s certainly investments occurring in that area, but as you can see, it’s pretty evident on the chart that overall investment has slowed.

Josh Sheluk (16:20):

Yeah, yeah, for sure. Now I have another question for you kind of related. So immigration seems like it’s come under fire recently, just even over the last couple months there’s been a lot of articles and news reports about maybe the challenges that immigration is creating. Now we saw earlier this week that Canada has limited immigration from foreign students. So question for you. Do you think this is economically net positive, net neutral or net negative?

Matthew Kempton (16:58):

I’ll take the center line and say it’s going to be net neutral. I mean I think the real benefit I think from the foreign students that do come in is when they stay and they find jobs, create businesses, start families in the country, to spend four years here and spend tuition and some rent and contribute to the economy marginally for four years is good. But the real benefit comes when you have people stay and truly become part of the country. And we’ve seen more of that. The retention has, I think improved in people not just finishing their degree and moving on. So if you don’t start though, do you ever find those roots here and ever make their way? And so it almost feels like we’ll have to wait and see if we start to limit how many people stare here. Does that mean they never find their way to Canada if they get educated elsewhere? Or do we still once educated, do they still feel Canada as a good place for them to live?

Josh Sheluk (17:59):

Yeah, so that’s a good point. I hadn’t seen the numbers of how many students actually stay, but you’re saying that it’s actually increasing over time, which I think is a positive thing.

Matthew Kempton (18:10):

And I guess that data I have is more sort of regional specific. It’s certainly improved in Nova Scotia and I can’t say that it’s with the same certainty across the country, but I think directionally it probably has.

Josh Sheluk (18:24):

Yeah, yeah. Okay. Yeah. The other thing I find interesting about this report, and a lot of these reports on immigration, they all kind of focus on the housing angle. And I don’t know, can we say that that’s the biggest challenge economically that’s facing the country at this point? Maybe? What do you think?

Matthew Kempton (18:43):

I mean, housing and housing related entities, they’re something like 20% of our economy. So yes, to that extent. And it also just feels like it’s the one that’s right so much in your face and everyone is so aware of this and it touches everyone more to an extent than, well, what is our capacity to produce widgets? We want to produce more widgets. And that is maybe less evident to the average person than just the widget producers. So that one I think just has more of a touch to everyone. So we’re more aware and it’s just a position we’ve also never been in of such lack of supply of housing. I mean that’s shown here too in the report, just how big the gap is in terms of the deficit of housing available going back to 1975, we are four standard deviations from what the typical balance of housing would be. So there’s no question that that’s an extreme event.

Josh Sheluk (19:45):

And maybe that for me is maybe the more relevant thing here. It’s just hard to, if you have a million people coming in a year, it’s just hard to decide to build a million houses for them. It’s not possible. So there are certain, in some respects, I kind of push back on this report saying, well, it’s pretty easy to invest in capital if we need to, so that’ll come. But it’s also definitely creates some short-term discomforts if you want to call it that, because it’s not like you can just pop up a million houses and the blink of an eye to accommodate all these people. So it’s one of those things where some immigration is definitely positive and having a really strong immigration policy I think has all kinds of benefits for the country. But there is a limit to everything, I guess. Too much of a good thing there is such a thing as too much, right?

Matthew Kempton (20:42):

Yeah, exactly. I think we’re having some growing pains now, but I think a bit of concern for me at least comes from, I’m not sure if at say the policymaking level, if this is being recognized. I don’t know if they saw the report, maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. They’ve done a great job on this mission to increase the population mission accomplished there, but now what? And now how do we take advantage of that? And I’m just not so sure that that’s the stage they’ve kind of gotten to, well

Josh Sheluk (21:11):

Now they’re limiting immigration of foreign students, so they’re taking some steps there anyway. It seems like they’ve noticed, maybe not the specific report, but the general sentiment that’s out there in the populace about this lack of housing and immigration is taking away our houses, so to speak. And as Colin mentioned on our call yesterday, he said economically might be positive or negative, but for sure politically this is a positive for them. It’s going to get them some positive political vibes coming their way, which unfortunately is a lot of what goes into the decision making these days it seems.

Matthew Kempton (21:50):

Yeah, very true. And we know Canada is, it’s a great country. It’s where people, I think it’s very obvious people want to live here, they want to be here, and I hope we’ll be able to grow into this new growth in terms of housing and all the other areas where investment is needed and really thrive here and hopefully raise the standard of living that has been stagnant for a period now.

Josh Sheluk (22:16):

So neither of us are policy analysts when we talk about policy. Is there anything that you high level that you would like to see them kind of change their tract on that you think might make the immigration and housing issue a little bit easier?

Matthew Kempton (22:32):

There’s been some measures recently in terms of, I think it was federally in both provincially in terms of the HST on new builds, which really seemed to ramp up a lot of activity in this market, at least so many developers sort of sitting still. And then if there’s a 15% change in your cost, essentially, well, let’s get started on that project. So that was a good recognition. There’s only so much that can be done about well available land or the cost of materials, the available labor, the willing labor. So a lot of that is beyond policy. I think it’s just a factor of the economy at the moment, but a good step at least taken there. And that’s as far as my expertise goes, I suppose.

Josh Sheluk (23:12):

Yeah, we need immigration to build up our labor force. Is that what I heard you say?

Matthew Kempton (23:18):

Yeah. Why isn’t that in the report?

Josh Sheluk (23:19):

Yeah, no, but for me, the issues with a lot of the policy over the past, maybe up to more recently was all about here’s more money to help you get into your home. And I will give you a couple examples. One, there was this first home savings account that was created by liberal government a couple years ago, and essentially what it’s doing is it’s making more money available for the buyers in a way. And what that does is it drives up demand, it drives up demand, it makes people willing to pay a higher price to get into their property. And you could say the same thing about lower interest rates, which I know wasn’t directly a direct contribution of the political party, but it certainly helped do the same thing. If you have lower interest rates, lower mortgage expense, now you can afford a bigger house.


So there’s some of these policy things that maybe didn’t address the root cause, which is probably supply and just boosted demand. And if you boost demand, as we know going back to our economics textbooks, what it’s going to do is it’s going to drive up price. So the HST thing that you’re talking about, I think goes a long way of addressing the root cause in a better way is it’s trying to increase supply, which is I think going to do a better job at moderating prices than increasing demand. So there’s been some red tape that’s been lifted over the last little while. I think that’s a good thing. I have a buddy who’s in the property development business and he works really closely with the finances of this company, and he said it’s incredible. If you look at the amount of taxes that they pay as a property developer for all kinds of stuff before building’s even up before building’s even starting breaking ground, there’s all kinds of taxes, municipal

Matthew Kempton (25:22):

Development fees,

Josh Sheluk (25:22):

Provincial, yeah, there’s all kinds of taxes,

Matthew Kempton (25:24):

Fees, especially in your market. It’s unbelievable.

Josh Sheluk (25:27):

It really is. And if you start to scale back some of those costs and taxes that are maybe not so much an impediment to building, but driving up the cost of building, which is obviously and always going to drive up the cost of the end product, then you can start to address again the root cause a little bit better. So seems like we’re starting to make a couple inroads on that, but still few and far between.

Matthew Kempton (25:55):

Yeah, exactly. So I think they’ve made some good measures. And another maybe small item is the changes of rules of short-term rentals, Airbnbs, and in many cities there’s been some adjustment to the rules just to make that available for housing instead of rent short-term rentals, but we really just need more houses. And that doesn’t happen. It’s not as though that’s a thing that comes just tomorrow. It does take a thoughtful plan recognizing we’re looking at 12 months plus out to create a new unit. So hopefully we are on our way to doing that, but we know that there’s more needed.

Josh Sheluk (26:32):

Yep, yep. Good. So one of the other things that you brought to my attention was it just seems like the investment at the private sector level has been weak for decades. And so maybe it’s not as much a recent phenomenon, but this is something that’s been going on for a while. So what do you think is really driving this? Do you think it’s just our personality up here in Canada that we’re not keeping up with the investment in the states? Do you think this is a policy issue as well? Somewhere in between? A bit of both,

Matthew Kempton (27:07):

Maybe It’s a bit of both, but I have to go to, it’s more of a personality thing, maybe. I mean, just the Americans more pushing for growth, willing to invest more in the business. So I guess maybe for the audience, we we’re both looking at a chart that shows a trend since 1980 of investment into business and the gap was wide, and I’m sorry, I’m just getting it in front of me here. So rather 1970 and just the gap that just ever widening current manufacturing investment per worker. So this has been a trend and has only expanded here of recent, so policy changes over five decades. So it may be in certain points when it was more incentivized to invest here in your business in Canada, but for it to be such a persistent trend, I think you have to factor in culture maybe as one of the biggest items.

Josh Sheluk (28:08):

And this is specific to manufacturing. So it could just be again, that we’ve had less of a manufacturing centric focus in our country over the past several decades, which is probably a fair comment. It made me think of when you brought this up, it made me think of the last podcast we recorded and we were talking about the sort of incentive or determination to start and run small businesses here in Canada. And it seems like that has fallen off a little bit over the past 10 to 15 years. And I argued at the time that there’s probably some tax code changes and policy changes that are affecting that as well, but that’s another source of potential private sector investment that’s probably a little bit lacking at this point. And again, I don’t know, it probably is to some extent cultural because it does seem like our friends south of the border are very entrepreneurial and us maybe a little bit less so here in Canada, but there’s probably, again, some policy changes that could be enacted to make things a little bit more desirable to have that push in the private sector.

Matthew Kempton (29:15):

Yeah, I completely agree. I completely agree, and I don’t have the figures in front of me, but I think it even translates into foreign direct investment into this country, and it’s been a bit of a slowing trend and just a recognition that, well, we’re not investing as much into our own country, so why would someone outside think to invest here? And I think there’s something to

Josh Sheluk (29:42):

Where do you want to go next?

Matthew Kempton (29:46):

I think we covered this off pretty well. Is there anything in all of this that we did not touch that you wanted to dive into?

Josh Sheluk (29:56):

No, I think we’ve, as you said, I think we’ve covered it pretty well coming out of all this. We’ve been discussing this for 20, 30 minutes now. What would your key takeaways be? What do you think people should sort of understand and observe from all this, and what do you think is important to know?

Matthew Kempton (30:18):

I mean, I think it’s important to know that policy is hard, that growing an economy is hard, that there are so many moving pieces, but that at the underlying core, we have an attractive place to live. We have an educated, one of the most educated populations in the world. We are standing on good pillars and we have great opportunity here. I do think there just needs to be more of a focus on how do we use these tools and really take advantage, let’s say over the next decade and really become more of a place attracting talent and just raising the standard of living. I think it’s all there. We just have to put some sort of focus. Maybe it’s policy incentives or whatever it might look like, but we’re certainly not in a bad place. But I just think if without focus on this, I’m not sure where we head, because our standard of living to not improve over six years is that’s worrying and how do we get out of that sort of stagnation?

Josh Sheluk (31:20):

Yeah, it’s a very good point that we have the platform for success. We maybe just need a couple tweaks at the edges to really propel us forward. It seems like the talent is here, the intelligence, the experience, the expertise is here. We just need to continue to make the most of all that, I guess at this point.

Matthew Kempton (31:44):

I agree. Great. And we can just sit here and opine on that. And I guess,

Josh Sheluk (31:49):

Yeah, we’ll just sit here criticizing policy decisions and from our ivory tower, if you want to call it that. Thanks Matt.

Matthew Kempton (32:01):

Yeah, thank you, Josh.

Colin White (32:03):

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