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People walk by a sale sign in the window with Christmas decorations at a shopping mall in Toronto. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
People walk by a sale sign in the window with Christmas decorations at a shopping mall in Toronto. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

The unstoppable Canadian spending spree Add to ...

As procrastinators go, I am in good company. Canadian Pacific Railway should have seen it was carrying excess baggage years ago. But it comfortably put off the decision to shed its superfluous switching yards, rail lines and trains.

More obsessed with its national stature than its bottom line, Rona Inc. should have long been paying attention to its mismatch of stores of all sizes and to its far-stretching collection of commercial distribution businesses. It also took forever for Loblaw Cos. Ltd. to take in that its plain-looking grocery stores were resting on a mine of valuable real estate.

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In comparison, the objects of my repeated mañanas are mundane. There is the very tall pile of bills, receipts and newspaper clippings that is leaning like the tower of Pisa beside my home computer. And there is my Christmas shopping list – plus the actual act of ordering online or fighting for a parking space at a mall full of frantic shoppers.

There is little hope for my distorted accounting system; Bill Ackman has shown no interest in whipping me into filing and shredding my papers. But with an impending deadline, at Christmas minus 17 days – and that is the only thing that gets reporters moving – I should make it in time for the turkey and the stuffing.

In what physical and financial shape is another story. On the drive to work this week, a radio host was dispensing advice on how to avoid the trap of overspending. Don’t buy your gifts at the last minute, she said. And you don’t need to give gifts to everybody, she added.

As many Canadians, I will fail on all counts. Besides family, there are the kind neighbours, the teachers, the cleaning lady, the newspaper delivery boys, and lest we not forget the high-school students who pick the kids up after school and without whom my professional life would sink into chaos. To compound the problem, while buying gifts for others, you generally find all sorts of things that you need and deserve. Truly.

Thank God and Mark Carney – and the two are interchangeable these days – interests rates remain in shoppers’ paradise. In fact, interest and mortgage rates have been so low for so long one wonders how Canadians will wean themselves off of this heroin-like dependency – especially since banks tend to have an uncharacteristically generous understanding of our capacity to reimburse mortgages. You want to buy a $700,000 overpriced condo with 10 per cent cash down on a $130,000 household income? Go for it.

Looking at bank profits, everybody figures they know what they are doing, right.

With $6.5-billion in profit, Bank of Nova Scotia has never made as much money as in the past year. Same goes for Royal Bank of Canada, which amassed a record $7.5-billion. Even Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, long described as the bank most likely to walk into a sharp object, beat analysts’ expectations with its prudent approach, amassing $3.3-billion this year. What economic slowdown? Fuelled by increased consumer borrowing, profits keep on skyrocketing.

So it is that Canadians merrily party on, with household credit debt in relation to disposable income at the never-seen level of 163 per cent. On my Twitter feed yesterday, for instance, one man “couldn’t wait to get his hands” on the new BB10 smartphone – a message Research In Motion was keen to retweet. Never mind that the phone on which the Waterloo, Ont., company is betting its future will come out after Christmas, when Canadians might have sobered up a little with their credit card bills. How can you be so impatient when you already own, in all likelihood, a perfectly functional smartphone?

The electronics and fashion industries excel at the accelerated obsolescence on which consumers feed their insatiable appetite for the new, the latest and the improved. And at this sport, Apple Inc. is the all-around champion. Yet even Apple appears to be losing steam, as its slicker devices only improve incrementally on their earlier versions. While Steve Jobs made it look easy, it is extraordinarily difficult to maintain the tension of desire with electronic devices that are truly revolutionary, as his successor Tim Cook is learning the hard way.

On all sides, the frenetic pace seems impossible to sustain. Whatever happened to the box of homemade Christmas cookies? I wonder.

Follow on Twitter: @S_Cousineau

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