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COVID-19 roundup: Rising markets erase Canadian pension-plan losses

Bay Street in Toronto's financial district in June 2010. The Canadian Press/Adrien Veczan
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It’s day 135 since Canada’s 100th coronavirus case. The number of cases is 112,558 as of publication time, up 318 since yesterday—a 34.8 per cent decrease from the seven-day prior average of 487.6 new cases. At its peak on May 3, the seven-day average was 1,603 new cases a day. 

Originally set to hold its opening ceremony today, the Tokyo Olympics instead marked its one-year-to-go mark with “a message of hope” delivered in a silent, empty stadium.

Pension plans recovering: Canadian defined-benefit plans have recovered most of their pandemic-induced losses, according to an analysis by Chicago-based financial services firm Northern Trust. In March, The Logic reported that the country’s 10 largest pension plans had lost an estimated $104 billion due to a sharp dropoff in equity markets. The stock market has surged since then, with the TSX up 17 per cent in the second quarter and the S&P 500 up 15.3 per cent. 

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“Despite the level of volatility witnessed over the last several months, Canadian pension plans are tracking in a positive direction, with the median plan in the Northern Trust Canada Universe generating a solid 9.9% gain for the second quarter,” said Northern Trust Canada CEO Katie Pries. Opinions on whether the market rally can continue vary sharply. Stock markets are nearing cycle highs, as some investors bet on a quick recovery. However, gold is currently on track to beat its all-time record price set in 2011, as other investors seek a safe haven amid growing global volatility. 

The Northern Trust data is the latest positive sign for Canadian pensions. Earlier this month, two consulting firms reported that typical solvency funding was up above 90 per cent at the end of the quarter. That’s a drop from the average 100 per cent funded ratio, but a significant increase from the pandemic drop. The national averages only tell part of the story. The British Columbia Investment Management Corporation, for example, had 41 per cent of its assets in public equities. That exposure makes it more vulnerable to market volatility than the 10 per cent exposure from the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. 

Trace me on my cellphone: Federal and Ontario government sources told The Logic that COVID Alert, the national exposure-notification app, will not be available for download on Friday, though Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Monday that it might. The system was originally scheduled to launch in the province on July 2. The sources, whose names The Logic is withholding because they are not authorized to speak publicly, said the rollout could take place within a week. Over 3,000 Canadians have signed up to be beta testers of COVID Alert. “The goal of the beta testing is to do larger scale review with users and to find any remaining bugs before we launch,” Alain Belle-Isle, a spokesperson for the Treasury Board, told The Logic. “As we’re running this beta testing, we will be assessing technical bugs and usability issues. The beta testing program will run until at least Sunday.” 

In the markets: All major North American indices fell after the U.S. reported an increase in unemployment for the first time since March. Jobless claims rose to 1.4 million last week, ending a gradual descent from the 6.9 million weekly peak back in March. 

Standard & Poor’s maintained Canada’s AAA credit rating, but warned it could issue a downgrade if the deficit isn’t reduced. Standard & Poor’s is the first credit agency to issue a rating since Fitch downgraded Canada in late June. The Canadian dollar rose to 74.58 cents U.S. in late afternoon trading. 

“The longer these temporary closings go on, the more of them will turn permanent”: Harvard University postdoctoral researcher Michael Stepner predicted more business closures are coming as government relief comes to an end and uncertainty prevents businesses from signing long-term rent leases.

Cross-country checkup: A study by Canada Blood Services and Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force found that less than one per cent of the 10,000 blood donors tested between May 9 and June 8 had COVID-19 antibodies. The federal government could offer Ontario up to $1 billion for transit relief funding, the Toronto Star reported. The funding is part of a $19-billion federal package announced last week to help provinces with their economic recovery, which could see Ottawa match up to $1.8 billion in provincial and territorial transit funding. A man in P.E.I. who tested positive for COVID-19 has been jailed for allegedly refusing to self-isolate. 

The business of supply: As Canadian technology companies make thousands of ventilators to meet Ottawa’s appeal for domestically manufactured equipment to fight COVID-19, other countries are calling looking to buy these potentially life-saving machines. The Logic has learned Montreal-based flight simulator company CAE now plans to make it a long-term part of its business—a turnaround, having initially considered the expansion temporary. But other newly minted ventilator firms don’t see the same opportunity. 

Bay Street to Main Street: Fifty-six per cent of Canadians intend to defer purchases for major items like cars or houses for the next 12 months, according to an Angus Reid Institute poll. Eighty per cent of Canadians said their financial situation was “good” or “great,” a seven percentage point rise since April. Similarly, 20 per cent answered that they were in “bad” or “terrible” shape, a drop from 27 per cent in April. 

  • The Conference Board of Canada is selling its Ottawa office after shifting its workforce to operate fully remotely. 
  • There’s a growing number of job postings on Indeed Canada, a sign that hiring is picking up after a slowdown earlier in July. 
  • Loblaw net earnings fell 40.9 per cent year over year in the 12 weeks ended June 13 as added costs outpaced a pandemic-related sales surge.
  • Manitoba is the only province where people are paying more for their cellphone plans than they did a year ago. 
  • Transat resumed six flights from Canadian airports, ending a four-month grounding of its commercial flights due to the pandemic. 
  • Online used-car seller Clutch, which operates in Toronto and Halifax, raised $7 million in a round led by Real Ventures. 
  • Tech conference Uniting the Prairies will be held virtually in September. 

Crowdsourcing the crisis: Come September, the University of Manitoba will launch a course that will see fourth-year business students and their professors offer pro bono advice to struggling small businesses. 

Drinking from the firehose: 

  • Venture capital funding for startups in the U.S. and Canada dropped 12 per cent in the first full quarter spanning the pandemic compared to the previous three months.  
  • The parent company of clothing brands Ann Taylor and Loft has filed for bankruptcy, as in-store shopping, particularly in malls, continues to take a hit. 
  • Facebook is adding large-group video conferencing to its platform, a challenge to video-calling firm Zoom. 
  • Twitter reported a 12 per cent increase in new users for the second quarter ended June 30. Revenue was down 19 per cent, however, as advertising continues to take a hit. 
  • About 338,000 mobile phone customers of AT&T stopped paying for their services due to the pandemic. 
  • Hershey is bracing for a drop in candy sales with what it expects will be a quiet Halloween; the holiday typically brings in a tenth of its sales. 

Around the world: U.S. Senate Republicans reached agreement on a US$1-trillion coronavirus relief proposal. It will not include President Donald Trump’s payroll-tax cut or additional funding for states, but could extend unemployment insurance “based on approximately 70 per cent wage replacement,” according to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Belgium ordered masks to be worn in some areas outside, as the U.K. mandated masks to be worn in indoor public spaces starting tomorrow. The U.K’s £10-billion test-and-trace program has failed to contact people in high-infection areas. The report comes as the British government is once again under fire for an “astonishing” lack of preparation to deal with the economic fallout of a pandemic.

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The surge of cases could be slowed if the world’s poorest people receive a temporary basic income, enabling them to stay at home, according to a United Nations report released Thursday. The study calculated it would cost at least US$199 billion a month to provide fixed-term basic income to 2.7 billion people in 132 emerging economies. In sports news, baseball season resumes today; you can cheer or boo from home.

Paper gains: Big retailers like Target and Walmart have found the secret to selling books in a pandemic: put them near the toilet paper aisle.

* We’re emphasizing new cases, rather than running totals, because “flattening the curve” is when each day’s new cases are fewer than those of the previous day. The percentage increase is determined based on how today’s cases compare to a rolling seven-day prior average.

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