Skip to main content
opinion

Sixteen years after she joined Royal Bank of Canada’s economics team, Dawn Desjardins can’t help but notice that while economic history isn’t exactly repeating itself, it sure has an echo. In fact, it has her hearing again about a bit of professional embarrassment that she would just as soon forget.

In 2006, Ms. Desjardins – who had spent a good chunk of the previous two decades in and around the bond market – kicked off her RBC career with a paper analyzing the inversion of the bond yield curve at the time. She argued that, contrary to the conventional thinking, the inversion didn’t signal that a recession was coming.

By the end of 2007, the deepest global recession in 70 years had begun.

“I’ve got a lot of ribbing on that today,” Ms. Desjardins laughed over a coffee earlier this week, as we chatted about a career that wraps up Thursday when she retires as RBC’s senior deputy economist.

The same question that began her time at RBC is again a hot topic of discussion among the economics team as she heads for the exit: the U.S. government bond yield curve this week went into inversion (short-term yields higher than long-term) for the first time since, well, 2006. This time, it will be someone else’s job to figure out what it means.

“I just kind of feel like it’s time – to sit back, assess, figure out what else, if anything, I want to do,” she said.

Her decision to leave the game, at just 57, means the departure of one of the highest-ranking and most visible female economists in the Canadian private sector – a field that, despite slow improvement in recent years, is still dominated by men at the top levels. It also means that the country’s biggest bank is losing a trusted expert and go-to media commentator on economic and interest-rate forecasting, and, perhaps most importantly, a leading voice on gender issues in the labour market.

“I’m a great fan of hers,” said Beata Caranci, who as chief economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank, is the only woman among Big Six bank economists holding a more senior position than Ms. Desjardins.

“I always looked forward to those brief moments when our career paths crossed at client events. It’s still quite common to be the only senior female economist at meetings. So when we did overlap, it was a pleasure to not only listen, but to learn from Dawn’s wealth of knowledge, particularly on labour market analysis.”

“As I told her directly, Bay Street will certainly feel her departure.”

Ms. Desjardins has not only been a strong advocate for developing female talent in the economics field, but, indeed, in the entire Canadian economy. One of her final projects at RBC was as lead author of a paper, published by the bank earlier this month, discussing the work that still needs to be done to close Canada’s still-substantial participation and income gaps between female and male workers.

“As we pursue our post-pandemic recovery, closing these gaps continues to stand as an unparalleled economic opportunity. If women’s wages were equal to men’s in comparable jobs, we could see an $18-billion boost to Canadian household income, an increase of 1.5 per cent,” the paper argued.

Ms. Desjardins got exposed to the possibilities for women in economics early in her career, when she worked at trading house Burns Fry under chief economist Sherry Cooper, a trailblazer for female economists on Bay Street. (Ms. Cooper eventually became Bank of Montreal’s chief economist.) Ms. Desjardins says it’s important to have prominent women in the upper ranks as visible role models – women who are talking about economics in speeches and media appearances, such as Ms. Cooper (now chief economist at Dominion Lending Centres), Ms. Caranci, and Ms. Desjardins herself.

“It’s what they say, ‘If you can see it, you can be it,’ ” she said. “We have a lot of women who have started to blaze the trail. … I think that does encourage other people to say, ‘Okay, maybe I can be that.’ ”

Ms. Desjardins is stepping aside in the midst of some particularly interesting times for the Canadian economy. There is increasing speculation that the Bank of Canada may accelerate its interest-rate increases to take a more aggressive stance against still-rising inflation. The country’s runaway housing market may hang in the balance. She is leaving one week before Ottawa tables a federal budget, with all kinds of questions in the air about spending priorities and deficits.

She argues that one key area for Canada’s economic future that deserves more attention amid all the noise – in Canadian economic media and in the general public-policy discourse – is the need to foster business investment.

“It’s always, ‘Housing, housing, housing’ … That’s what people are interested in, and I get that,” she said. “But I think what businesses are doing … it’s a driver of our economy. What is business doing? How is it increasing productivity? Especially now that we have such labour shortages. How are these businesses going to be able to run?”

“Those may be a little too in-the-weeds for most people, but I do think that’s part of the conversation.”

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.