A big, second-wave-of-pandemic shoe is about to fall on Canada’s remarkable labour-market recovery. We just won’t know it - at least, not from official statistics - until early January.
Capital Economics senior Canada economist Stephen Brown issued a report this week warning that while next week’s Canadian employment report from Statistics Canada will likely show a seventh straight month of job growth after the spring lockdowns, the streak will end in December - and end big. By his calculations, we’re headed for a 150,000-job decline in the last month of the year.
Broadly speaking, the main thrust of Mr. Brown’s message is pretty intuitive. It doesn’t take a PhD in economics to see that a new wave of COVID-related business restrictions and shutdowns in major Canadian cities will have a serious effect on certain segments of the labour market, having already witnessed the profound impact of lockdowns last spring. But the precision of Mr.
Brown’s pessimistic forecast stems in large part from an analysis of a non-traditional data source that, in the COVID-19 era, has emerged as a valuable realtime economic indicator: online restaurant reservations.
Mr. Brown showed that throughout the pandemic, the employment trend in the accommodation and food services sector has mirrored - remarkably closely - the volume of restaurant bookings tracked by reservations app and website OpenTable. He also noted that OpenTable restaurant visits peaked in September and have been in decline ever since - even before new viruscontainment restrictions came into effect in some of Canada’s biggest markets.
He said the OpenTable trend since October - the most recently reported month of Canadian employment data, predating the recent more severe restrictions - suggests that we’re on track to lose “a further 150,000 to 200,000” jobs in accommodation and food services by the end of the year. While another alternative data source (online job postings on app/website Indeed) indicates that employment looks likely to still grow in other parts of the economy that aren’t affected by the newest lockdown orders, that won’t be enough to outweigh the big downturn in restaurant jobs. The labour market is headed for its first serious setback of the recovery - and, Mr. Brown says, looks likely to end 2020 down 670,000 jobs compared with the end of 2019.
The analysis highlights the increased value in using high-tech data, often available in real time, to get a handle on the rapid pace of change in consumer and business activity during this pandemic. In the spring, many economists turned to data sources such as online restaurant reservations, mobility tracking, road-traffic volume, credit-card transactions and online job postings to shed light on economic trends much more quickly than they could via traditional economic indicators, many of which aren’t published until a month or two after the fact.
With the second wave upon us, those same economists are now relying on these fast-tracking data sources to provide advance warning signals for what’s on the road ahead.
Among the traditional economic indicators, employment figures are actually among the fastest to be released - figures for a given month are typically released on the first or second Friday of the next month. (Statscan will report November employment on Dec. 4.) But even then, the data reflect a survey taken around mid-month; they are several weeks behind the curve by the time they are released for public consumption.
The October labour force survey - gathered the week of Oct. 1117, published on Nov. 6 - showed a drop of 48,000 jobs in accommodation and food services. Not good, but still manageable in a labour force of 20 million; overall employment was still up, and the blow to the restaurant and hospitality sector was actually a bit softer than many people had feared.
But the OpenTable data tell us that the October number was just the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Brown’s analysis indicates that “more than 100,000 jobs” in the sector were at risk even before Toronto - Canada’s biggest city - imposed further dining shutdowns this week.
With tighter restrictions now in place, the trend looks about to get worse. Mr. Brown noted that on Monday - the first day of the tougher rules for Toronto and nearby suburban Peel Region - reservations were down 72 per cent from the same time last year, compared with 49 per cent in the first half of November.
That deeper impact will have come too late for the November labour survey. Mr. Brown believes there is enough strength in labour demand in other sectors - as the Indeed online-job-posting data suggest - to produce a “modest rise” in overall employment in the month.
But the writing is on the wall - or, more precisely, on OpenTable - for the December data, due out in early January. In a highly uneven labour recovery, the rising pandemic restrictions are about to tip the balance toward the hardest-hit sectors, as surely as winter is about to tip the thermometer into the negative. And for the country’s restaurateurs and their employees, it could mark the beginning of a harsh winter indeed.
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