G20: Why we all want to be Canadian now

Canadian flag Canada managed to avoid the banking collapses suffered elsewhere

Even on a rainy weekday at Ottawa's By Ward market, Canadian shoppers are cheery.

As Americans and Europeans face deficits and drastic government cuts, Canada's economy is recovering from only a mild recession.

Sheltering near the maple syrup stall, local restaurant promoter Melissa Grecco says Canada escaped the fate of the US.

"We felt the effects on corporate bookings, companies not spending money on staff or booking on a limited budget. But we didn't feel it as much as the US. And within the last couple of months our business has exploded."

Painful reforms
Pierrre de Varennes

Start Quote

If you are financing more than 75% of the value [of your home], you have to get insurance. Not for you but for the bank”

End Quote Pierrre de Varennes Real estate broker, Ottawa

So Canada is now one of the top performing industrialised economies. How did they manage it?

For a start, painful reforms in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Canada's government, based in the stone neo-gothic Parliament building in Ottawa, along with individual provinces, were able to afford an economic stimulus package.

Whilst other nations borrowed, Canada had a budget surplus for over a decade.

According to James Flaherty, Canada's jaunty finance minister, it was also down to a more cautious approach.

"The Canadian character is relatively fiscally conservative. Canadians themselves are relatively prudent, I think, in terms of how much they are prepared to borrow and the risks they are prepared to take."

Safe as houses

Certainly, fewer risks are allowed in the housing market.

Julie Dickson

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The industry is of a size that it is easier for the regulator to get their arms around it”

End Quote Julie Dickson Banking superintendent

Canadian home values have held fairly steady according to Pierre de Varennes, a real estate broker in Ottawa, with 350 employees.

He says stricter standards for homebuyers meant no housing boom and bust in Canada:

"In Canada, you cannot over-mortgage your property. In fact if you are financing more than 75% of the value, you have to get insurance. Not for you but for the bank."

With that protection, Canadian banks have done well from mortgages. And with less exposure to toxic sub-prime mortgages in the US, Canada's six biggest financial institutions, headquartered on Bay Street in Toronto, survived the financial crisis disaster free.

'Big stick'

The Toronto skyline that Gordon Nixon, the President of Royal Bank of Canada, can see from his office on Bay Street not only looks very different to Manhattan. It is run differently, too.

"The structure of our marketplace in Canada is very different," he says.

"Most mortgages are held on the balance sheet of banks. The terms are more conservative and there is not as aggressive a marketplace.

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"Sub-prime lending is very limited in the Canadian marketplace. What was the weakest asset class in the US and spread to the balance sheets of many banks was one of the strongest in Canada."

But Canada has also been happy to wield a bigger stick when it comes to financial regulation.

Banking superintendent Julie Dickson credits Canadian firms with better risk management.

But banks must also adhere to more stringent standards. What's more, her office is within walking distance.

"We spent a lot of time looking at what they are doing on a day-to-day basis. We also had good rules when it comes to capital and leverage. And the industry is of a size that it is easier for the regulator to get their arms around it."

Canada's financial sector is smaller and perhaps more insulated than in the US.

Critics add that Canadian banks are less innovative, with higher costs for consumers. Talking to Canadians, they seem to shrug off those arguments, happy with the results of a more prudent and, some argue, less greedy economic philosophy.

Puzzle solved
John Criswick, Magmic John Criswick says being in Canada has helped his business

The G8 and G20 is a crucial opportunity for Canadian policy makers, eager to vaunt their successes to leaders gathered in Toronto.

And Canada need only point to growing businesses like Magmic. The Canadian IT firm makes games for the Blackberry, Apple's iPhone and iPad.

John Criswick, who founded in the firm in 2002, says the recession was painful but the odds have been tipped in his favour because he is in Canada.

"The recession definitely had an impact on us. We are half the size we used to be. But we are growing out of that and being in Canada has aided us in that recovery. It is pushing us beyond what our competition are doing in the US."

John's most profitable game? The iconic US brand the New York Times Crossword - currently the top selling gaming app on the iPhone.

The Canadians, it seems, have answers for even the toughest puzzles and they are keen to share their strategies with the rest of the world. Why in this economy, we all want to be Canadian.

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