Diane Francis Author and Journalist
A LOOK AT CANADA INCORPORATED
Chairman: Harold Roberts President
Our guest today spoke to our members previously on October 2, 1986. At that meeting she spoke about the theme of her first book, Controlling Interest, Who Owns Canada. Diane Francis' concern at the time was the consolidation of too much power politically and economically into the hands of too few Canadians.
In the interim, since her address to The Empire Club of Canada, our economy has undergone tremendous upheaval. The disintegration of his financial empire and the fall from grace of Robert Campeau underscore some of the truths that Diane forecast. The Canadian Government in its ever vigilant quest for more money has also made adjustments that certainly have increased taxes, but have failed to make many of the creative changes suggested by Diane in her first book. (not to worry, Diane, you are not the only Canadian that our Government refuses to hear.)
In her second book, Contrepeneurs, published in 1988, Diane wrote about stock fraud and money laundering and the scandalous way business was conducted in the Vancouver and Alberta stock exchanges. This book did not win her too many 'brownie points' with certain segments of our Canadian business community.
However, Diane calls them as she sees them. And her books, newspaper and magazine columns and radio broadcasts are popular because she is perceived as forthright, honest and fair.
In her most recent book, Inside Guide To Canada's 50 Best Stocks, the reader will find a valuable subjective presentation on companies that Diane sees as good opportunities for investment. In her introduction she explains the difficulties involved in narrowing the field to these companies.
During these days of political uncertainty and economic doom and gloom, Diane brings a fresh breeze of optimism and enthusiasm. Each chapter has its caveat but each speaks of opportunity and exudes a confidence in the future.
We welcome Diane Francis and invite her to address us now.
I'm going to shamelessly plug my book, 50 Best Stocks, a little later in the speech. I'm going to work it into my remarks because I am very concerned that the political debate in Canada, at all levels of government by the way, is completely off the mark as it relates to free trade with the United States or just in general.
The debate on free trade is off the mark. And the Senate 1 follies going on over the GST are also completely off the mark.
GST is a necessary reform, an absolutely critical tax reform to an exporting nation such as Canada. It flows out of free trade. But the debate should not be whether we should have free trade or whether it's a good idea or not, but how we can adjust to the irreversible and immutable move toward a truly global economy. This is what has happened since 1944 when nations sat down, after having pulled together a united front to fight Hitler and decided "Hey, we can get along, we can cooperate and do some good here," and decided to open up their economies ever so slowly to one another. Thus the liberalization of global trade began.
But all too often here in Canada, our politicians, of both parties I must say, and all levels of politics, indulge in what I call "ostrich economics." This is a tendency by persons with a very low economic I.Q. to stick their heads underground. They just don't realize, nor does the average Canadian, which is why the debate's off the mark, that the world is in a global economic load, to use a computer term. And I think that this is a wonderful, positive, Christian--if I can use that word--trend, and let me explain why. I think that it has contributed in large measure to the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. The global economy was something they could neither live without nor exist inside without changing their systems, so I think it contributed quite a bit toward the demise of that system, which was an awful system. That, plus the fact that the Communist system just doesn't work. As I described to an audience once, it doesn't work for the simple reason that when everybody is paid exactly the same amount of wages, the only way an ambitious person in a Communist system can give themselves a raise, is to not work so hard. So nobody works hard until nobody's working at all, and the thing falls apart. And this was what, of course, was happening in these economies.
The other thing that the liberalization of trade worldwide since '44 has created is a specialization and a rationalization--rationalization being an economic term describing what's happened to manufacturing around the world. We don't have plant closures in Canada because the Americans are being bad to us under free trade. We have plant closures in Canada because the world is rationalizing--the world's manufacturing operations are going toward bigger, more efficient plants, following lower labour rates, wherever that is important. Or maybe it's more important to be closer to the market place. And this specialization, of course, also has resulted in rationalization of the world's resource business.
In agriculture, we find the same kind of specialization and rationalization. Consider that the major economic unit at the turn of the century in North America, and probably the world for that matter, was the 50-100 acre family farm. Well that's not on any longer. So we've made that transition as we've liberalized the agricultural trading patterns allowing trade and export. Refrigeration and distribution have allowed people who grow crops that can be stored to sell them in other countries, not at the market at hand--so that has resulted in rationalization specialization. I think it's a wonderful, wonderful welcome trend. The global economy, or the trend toward that, represents in historical terms in my opinion, the biggest redistribution of wealth in history. What better way to give foreign aid to a Brazilian than to allow him to sell his shoes in our market. It's far better than to hand him out grants or loans, or soft loans, or foreign aid, which all too often ends up in the Swiss bank account of his dictator leader and doesn't get to where it should be. I think liberalization has really been a very welcome way of lifting the dreadful circumstances of a lot of people around the world. It requires sharing, which is why we don't like it. We get protectionists and our unionists all scream for tariff barriers, but I don't think they've thought through the big picture.
Globalization of the economy and liberalization of trade is also going to result in less waste. What I mean by less waste is, when you have specialization and rationalization, you don't have a lot of little inefficient operations, whether they're making shoes or producing gold. So less waste I think, is a very big benefit to the global economy because we can make better use of our human and natural resources and waste fewer of them. The co-operative effort around economic matters, of course, is enshrined in the GATT Treaty, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, which is sort of like a world constitution. It's the world's rules and regulations on who's going to be allowed to sell what to whom, when and how much and where. And I think that what's interesting is, when we see the events in the Middle East right now with Iraq, it's a multi-national effort and it's diplomatic for sure, but it's really an economic situation. It would be an economic catastrophe if Mr. Hussein continued to grab control of most of the world's cheap oil supplies. So we see that one of the results of globalization in the economy is this multinational military effort to try and get Hussein back into his country, to prevent really what would be a collapse. If he did have free rein in the Middle East, we would see oil prices skyrocket even higher than they are and a complete collapse of the world's economy. So there is an economic reason for what's going on there. Militarily you may not agree with what's going on and you may think it's really an American initiative and so on, but I think it is a unique system, post-war, this kind of economic co-operation that, I think, is going to be continuing under this liberalization of trade worldwide. I think that it's most hopeful, inasmuch as it can allow the world to organize itself in economic terms to attack the two real problems on this planet, one is pollution and one is poverty. I know that multinational corporations are in the business of playing one country off against the other and they have to be held in check, but all that being said I welcome the liberalization of trade worldwide.
This all began in 1944. Before that, before the Second World War, we had mercantilism galore throughout the world. We had Britain treating its colonies as economic colonies. Canada was in this boat, which is why we didn't industrialize as quickly as the United States did, I suppose. We were tied trade-wise to Britain. Britain was allowing our raw materials in, but had huge tariff barriers erected against any manufactured goods. This did not help Canada, Australia and the other former colonies, to industrialize and get themselves developed.
More recently, of course, we have a bi-lateral Free Trade Agreement with the United States which I am four square in favour of. I don't think there's any alternative and any politician who says he's going to rip it up or start over again had better very carefully consider that. I think that's a dangerous business. It may not be the best deal in the world but it is not a bad deal. And we can't blame plant closures on free trade with the United States. We can probably blame our own high overheads, our own lack of work or productivity and the general lapse and lag in work ethic.
The multilateral GATT talks, of course, go on and on. The Americans want the agricultural subsidies to be dropped in the interests of freer trade and liberalization and the Europeans are dragging their feet. Why they're dragging their feet I don't know, except that I guess one only has to go to Europe and travel there to see the subsidies to their farmers which must be the reason. I remember being in a train in Switzerland and going through the mountains and seeing all these little towns named after cheeses and seeing the farmer who lives above the barn and saying to a Swiss companion, "Is that a farm?" "Oh, yes." "So how many cattle do they usually have in their herd--five, six hundred?" He said, "No, 30, 40." These people are very heavily subsidized by the Swiss government to produce cheese that the world couldn't afford to buy without subsidies. Our farmers can't afford to live off 50 acres with 40 cows. So you can see that it's a social policy and it's a very important political policy in many countries around the world, including Canada.
Now the United States is being very consistent, and I think very correct, on the question of agricultural subsidies. The Americans who are in favour of free trade philosophically are saying that, if you want to sell your stereo sets and your nice Toyota cars in our country, let us do what we do better than anybody else, and that, generally speaking, is agricultural. The Americans are probably one of the most efficient farming sectors in the world, and they could be the breadbasket. When you consider vast regions, much larger than many countries they're trading with, that are fertile and can have three crops a year for climatic reasons, you can see that the Americans who are mechanized and well-financed could really dominate the exporting agricultural business, the agra business, and they intend to get some concessions out of the Europeans. They are actually threatening to pull out of GATT, which would be a disaster for all of us, particularly a little place like Canada, where we could get whipped badly. I don't think that will happen. I think some compromise will be made by the Germans and the French in particular, who are being the difficult ones. Margaret Thatcher is trying to get them to lower their subsidies. Canada of course, is caught in the crossfire of this. We have a farm lobby that's equally divided.
You have the Western free trade farmer, and you have the Eastern Marketing Board protectionist farmer, so we don't have a clear-cut policy. We have a problem even within the lobby, so the voice is not clear politically in Canada. Again, I am in favour of rationalization and letting the most efficient producer of whatever it is do the production and the other people get into another line of work. So I'm not that sympathetic with the dairy farmers who are taking their case to the public.
Significantly the Soviets have said they want to join the GATT process and the Eastern Bloc countries are going to do the same because it is the right thing to do. Canada, of course, is very much involved in the global economy, probably because we're a commodity-based economy. We have always been in resources and agriculture. One in three jobs in this country is dependent upon export. The auto pact which turned into a multi-sectoral auto pact, which is the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, has worked very well I think for both countries and is a very good idea. Of course Canada owes $260 billion (individuals, corporations and governments) to foreigners, and we have gone out and borrowed this money from the rest of the world. We have to pay the going rate which is why we cannot have a "Made In Canada" interest rate policy. It's a problem. It, of course, exposes our currency to fluctuations up and down. I think it should make the politicians realize that we have a lot of folks holding the second mortgage, so to speak, on this place, who don't live here and are looking at the shenanigans, whether it's the Senate and the GST or the Oka situation. They're looking at it from the point of view of a lender and saying, 'This is Canada Incorporated. I'm taking their pieces of paper, their IOU's. They owe me money. I've agreed to wait for it. Do they really know what they're doing?" That's one of the concerns that I want to talk about a little later--how we have to get the political debate changed in this country so that our politicians can't go around making reckless statements that send shivers through capital markets around the world. We can say to ourselves, "I don't care what the financier in New York says and thinks," but we have to, because we owe the world $260 billion.
Oka is a very complicated issue. But I don't think there was anything in the opposition comments or criticisms about how that looked to the rest of the world. It looked like we had no leadership. It looked like things were out of control. I thought it was very poorly handled in my opinion.
The GST follies, the antics in the Senate are a joke. Forty-eight countries in the world have a GST type tax It is the fastest growing type of tax for an export nation in the world. You can't join the European economic community without having a GST value-added type tax. Canada already has too high income taxes and corporate and personal taxes in relation to our competing trading partners. Canada has horrible deficits. Other countries are saying, "You mean they may not be able to get this tax through? What is wrong with these Canadians?" It doesn't look good. I'm not saying we do things just for appearances, but is anybody in that liberal caucus thinking twice about how this is appearing to people and what upward pressure on our interest rates and downward pressure on our currency this causes?
Meech Lake. Another problem. Did Clyde Wells really realize that he was going to raise the spectrum worldwide? It got headlines all around the world. It was a non-event to many Canadians, but I have relatives living all over the United States and the headline was Quebec May Leave Now. It raises the risk that Quebec will go. And the question there in the minds of the folks who hold the IOUs for $260 billion is, "Who's going to pay that third of it, if they go? How is the debt going to be worked out? Can the country exist without a Quebec?"
In the NDP election you have 38 percent of the population, or the voters, voting in favour of Bob Rae. I have a lot of time for Bob Rae. I think he will not disappoint us. On the other hand, there were people who voted for Bob Rae, who were not socialists, and they just threw away their vote in protest.
That is to me a very reckless form of democracy, and it didn't look very good. Of course, the capital markets reacted. I interviewed Morty Shulman about a week after the NDP got elected and he, of course, had sat in the legislature as an NDP member briefly, after he was Coroner in Toronto. I think it was a kind of a party of convenience for him. He didn't get in Cabinet. He wasn't promised a Cabinet seat with the Tories so he ran NDP, and acted like an independent, and I think made the caucus a little angry at times, but anyway, I said to him, "What do you make of the NDP elections?" He said, "It's great. I'm the only businessman in Ontario who thought it was a super thing." I said, "Well that's because you were NDP." "No," he said, "in fact, the day before the election I called all my staff in and I said, "vote your own conscience in this provincial election and I'll give everybody a $500.00 bonus if there's an NDP majority." So they came in the next morning and he handed out the cheques for $500.00 each and one of the employees said, "Why did you give us a cheque for $500.00 each for an NDP majority?" He said, "Because I shorted the Canadian dollar on the overnight capital market so we made $100,000 last night."
What should Canada do in my humble opinion? I think that the model is probably Germany. Germany has a fabulous economy, with all the social safety net that Canada has. It has fewer natural resources than Canada does, which I think we should be exploiting as a cornerstone of industrial strategy. Let's just call it Canada Incorporated and make it a metaphor for a corporation. I'm going to borrow a lot from the German experience because I think they really have organized their economy brilliantly. The Board of Directors, of course, is the Cabinet. Chairman of the Board is Brian Mulroney. The divisions of the company are the provinces, the municipalities and the School Boards. This corporation that we populate is commodity-based so therefore, to use an economic term, Canada is a price-taker not a price-maker country. We must always remember that and unfortunately our politicians haven't. And I refer again to the biblical 'seven years of good for seven years of bad.' In the seven years of boom times this country has posted more and more deficits at all levels of government than ever before. That's when we should have been reducing deficits and paying down the debts for the bad times. Now when we need to run deficits to help and try and kick-start things, do some capital projects that may be not economic but will help us get through recession more easily, the cupboard is bare. So our strategists and our political policy makers didn't realize that Canada Incorporated is just like Alcan and Noranda.
Now what does Alcan and Noranda or Canada Incorporated do in a recession like this? We should cut overheads. I've written about it and Preston Manning, who spoke to you a few weeks ago, says it too. I think that we have to very seriously cut government spending. I think business grants, all levels and baby bonus should go completely. I think that one in ten civil servants would be a nice start, would be a signal. We've really got to get that deficit down dramatically because we could be coming to a point of no return on the deficit problem.
I think another really important reform is for Canada Incorporated, like Noranda and Alcan, to get a handle on the spending of its divisions. The provinces are running huge deficits. David Peterson increased spending ten and a half percent year after year. Tax hikes followed and probably threw him out of office. School Boards are out of control. I live in Mississauga. Our property taxes went up 17 percent last year. That's three times the inflation rate. People on fixed incomes find that hard to handle. I probed it and I found out that if the School Board in Peel hadn't debentured $30 million worth of their expenditures, our taxes would have gone up by 25 percent. So I called the Chairman and I said, "Well what's the enrollment?" "Oh we're a very fast growing School Board. We're one of the fastest growing School Boards." I said, "Well how much did the enrollment go up by?" "Three percent, elementary and it went down in secondary." And they're spending 25 percent or more? "Well," I said, "how could you possibly justify that?" She said, " Well, downloading." This is when the province makes rules and regulations for School Boards to abide by but doesn't follow it with the money to pay for it. And I said, "Well, who do you think my neighbour, who's a senior citizen on a fixed income, can download her tax bill to? And what about the exporter? What about my friend who was just thrown out of work? What about my buddy who has early retirement from Imperial Oil because they have to cut back? Who do they download to?"
There just seems to be no bottom-line mentality on the part of these people and no controls over them from above and the result is very profound. Ottawa, who's in charge of economic management takes the can back for the deficit and the inflation problem and is the one with the levers to try and do something about it and yet really it is not their fault. A great part of it is not their fault. So I think we have to do something in this country to restructure and I think a new Meech is in order.
Now the Germans have an interesting idea. Their lenders, which are their provinces, are not allowed to increase their budgets by more than the amount by which their regional gross national product grew and if their gross national product shrank and they still need to increase their budget for some reason, they have to get permission. This is in the Constitution. So the Federal Government really has control over managing the economy. Here they do, but they're actually attacking the branches very often and not the root of the problem. They have to clean up their act too. I'm not an apologist for Brian Mulroney and his government. I see this as an all-party problem.
Another problem is that we don't have coordination within the government, within the divisions. You have divisions fighting for the same markets. For instance, the head of the CD Howe Institute wrote an absolutely brilliant report for the Federal Government on energy rationalization. Canada is blessed with some of the best energy resources in the world, but not a lot of people realize that the best hydro-electric resource in the world is in Labrador. Newfoundland, who is tied in with a long-term contract for cheap hydro below cost with Quebec, is prohibited from raising the money to exploit it and, furthermore, probably wouldn't be given the permission by the other Maritime provinces to put their transmission wires through. So you have all these provinces working at odds with one other. It's a sort of beggar thy neighbour country and I think that something has to be done structurally to correct the flaws so that the divisions are forced to cooperate and not undercut and undermine one another. When I found out about that Labrador thing, I was very annoyed on behalf of the poor Newfoundlander. Now, what do we have? We have the second phase of James Bay which is going to be a holy battle in court and a questionable expenditure of $54 billion adding to the mortgage that we already have. It will all be financed in New York and in Europe at a charge against the Canadian currency and our interest rates.
Another thing that Canada Incorporated should do is that we should pay more attention to our tax system and our capital markets and this is where I'm going to shamelessly plug my book One of the constant themes that I've always had in my career, as I'm an unabashed capitalist, is with my first book I found the anti-competitive nature and the concentration of economic power a problem for a healthy capitalist system--minority shareholders not being treated properly and so on. I also found in my second book that the nonsense that goes on in the Western Markets gives capitalism a bad name. So the result is that capital formation is very poor in Canada and this third book is an attempt to say, "Hey, we've got some pretty good companies here. They do good things, let's bet on them."
Now, my timing is all wrong. There's no question about it. While I think that a recession is a good time to invest in good solid companies, Mr. Hussein's situation makes the markets very skittish. So I would stay on the sidelines for a while. But all that being said, the important thing is to create wealth and to back good horses and jockeys, and, unlike a horse race, the capitalist system is wonderful because the more people that bet on a horse the faster it runs, creates more jobs, does more research and does more exporting. That's the beauty of the capitalist system. So my 50 Best Stocks is, hopefully, a bid to get people to realize we should be investing in our country.
But, getting back to the tax system, you know Canada has a lot of real fundamental flaws. Take a company, a great wealth-creator that I have in my book like Dofasco. This is probably the world's most efficient steel company. It's a wonderful corporate culture, every worker is quite happy. They create good products. They were the only steel company to make money through the last recession. Dofasco has a fraction of the market value of First Canadian Place. Now there's nothing wrong with First Canadian Place, the building, being valuable, but it's out of sync. I think also there's something wrong with a city or a country where a parking spot in downtown Toronto earns twice the minimum wage on an hourly basis that a worker earns. There's something wrong with a country that is out of sync like that. These are tax driven which I think is very unfair.
Lastly I think what we can do is improve our education system. This is something the Germans have done. I'm not saying spend more money. I'm saying spend it wisely. One of the things I think we should consider doing is avoiding duplication. I think that Catholic education is a waste of money. It is a duplication completely. There is a lot of that effort and money that could be spent in beefing up one publicly supported, tax supported, school system. We all know the stories of Catholic schools with portables bursting at the seams and public schools kept open with only a hundred kids in them. It really bothered me when I had to say goodbye to my little five-year-olds and send them to one school, and their next door neighbour, their best friends, went to another school. We divide our society like that along religious grounds. It doesn't make sense to me. I'm not trying to be anti-Catholic or anything like that. The cupboard is bare. Let's cut costs, but not fritter away the money. Let's spend it more wisely. We're going to have more and more workers thrown out of work. We need upgrading and re-training. I think that whatever money we have in the education system should be spent helping those folks adjust to learning how to do something else for a living.
The Germans are also very good at something which is a constant debate here. What the Germans did post-war was they realized that the paradox of becoming a great exporting nation is you have to open your markets to other exporters. It's a tit-for-tat world. The price you pay if you don't do that is retaliation, and we have a number of examples of that. We end up shooting ourselves in the foot with protectionism. All that being said, it's difficult, but competition does breed greatness and the German economic miracle has a lot to do with the fact that they have a completely open economy for consumer goods and services, even in foreign ownership. The only foreign ownership restriction in Germany is insurance companies. They have to be German-owned and I'm told that by '92 that will also go by the bye. Canada, I think, has to keep that in mind.
Immigration reform is very important. It is not popular in a recession, but I'm afraid that Barbara McDougall is right. We have to ratchet up immigration for economic policy reasons. You consider the demographics of Canada. We have roughly five and a half workers for every pensioner now. By the year 2010, it's going to be three to one, and that means fewer workers to shoulder a bigger medical and pension entitlement to greater numbers of senior citizens. So we have to talk about getting more young people into this country. I think that the Eastern Bloc events will result in a large wave of immigration into North America. It's going to be difficult for these countries to make the transition and the refugee problem is increasing. I think in order to avert a counter-revolution in some of these former Communist countries, the West is going to have to help them export their unemployment problem. I welcome that because I think immigrants provide a great deal of help to an economy. One estimate is if we didn't increase our immigration beyond current levels, which on a net basis is 60,000 a year, we would be only 18 million Canadians by the year 2030. We're just not having children and we're aging rapidly.
One other thing that I want to say about the German experiences, they have sectoral bargaining with labour unions and I think that's an excellent reform. This prevents the kind of wood-sawing that unions love to do here and are very good at. They, for instance, will pick on Ford, which is the most prosperous car company. They get huge generous concessions and then beat GM who's losing money and Chrysler also over the head with those concessions.
In Germany, with the exception of Volkswagen, who can bargain with their employees directly, there is sectoral bargaining. So everybody who works for a financial institution, whether it's a bank, insurance company or brokerage firm, has the same union. The union puts together a blue ribbon committee. They sit down with a blue ribbon committee from the other side representing all the banks, all the insurance companies. So no one has a competitive advantage over another and I think that that's a very reasonable way to do it. It's the wood-sawing and the jealously that causes inflation. So sectoral bargaining is very interesting and the debate in sectoral bargaining is very very sophisticated in Germany. Very often the workers will take a very small increase because they want to do a form of job-sharing. And the worker in Germany is not exploited in any way. They get six weeks holiday and they have medical care and all of the goodies and bells and whistles that we have come to love.
I've gone through a lot of my ideas of what Canada should do. In conclusion, I want to say that we cannot stop the tides of free trade or reject reforms like the GST, which come with exporting. Ostrich economics will bury Canada if voters opt for politicians who would rip up the free trade deal despite the reality. There is no turning back. The world hurtles toward one economy whether we like it or not. Far from unwelcome, the process which began in '44 of trade, tradeoffs and sharing the wealth offers the only hope for a planet beset by poverty and pollution. Free trade is not the issue. Free trade simply exists.
The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Peter Hunter, Vice President, Corporate Affairs, City Bank Canada and a Director of The Empire Club Foundation.