It’s unseemly to talk about, but global crises have had a way of making a lot of people better off financially.
Out of the global economic crisis of 2008-09 came the housing boom. The pandemic accelerated that boom, while also delivering big returns in stocks and cryptocurrencies. Economic lockdowns sidelined spending in a way that has produced as much as $300-billion in excess savings.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is different. This ugly war is a disaster with no sidelines where people can sit and make money.
Financially, the pandemic was vicious for some people because they lost jobs or income for extended periods. Can we pause all the chatter about undeserving Canada Emergency Response Benefit recipients for a moment? Plenty of people relied on CERB to buy food and pay their rent or mortgage when the economy was locked down.
But the pandemic was inconsistent in the way it affected people. COVID-19 has done more for inequality than all the bloated executive compensation packages ever handed out in this country.
With some households living in financial emergency mode, others built piles of cash in savings while watching their investment portfolios and houses soar in value by amounts that would have seemed outlandish in the prepandemic world. The level of pandemic-driven good fortune is almost embarrassing.
The Russian invasion affects those who were fortunate in the pandemic, and those who were unfortunate. What’s happening in Ukraine is disastrous on every level – human suffering, geopolitical instability and economic misery. Moreover, unlike pandemic lockdowns, you can’t shelter in place to avoid it. If you drive, you’re caught in the economic fallout from war in Ukraine. If you eat, you’re caught. If you heat your home in winter, you’re caught.
Until the war started, we were within sight of a return to normalcy in the economy. Interest rates were going to rise enough to cool inflation, but the job market was strong and all that cash on the sidelines was available for spending on travel, entertainment and more. It’s hard to imagine how we get back to that outlook from where we are right now.
So far, the most obvious effect of the invasion here in Canada is the jump in energy prices. Gas prices have hit all-time highs and the cost of home heating with either natural gas or oil is going to soar as well. The next wave of price increases will come as businesses pass their own burden of higher fuel costs onto customers.
Food prices, already an inflation hot spot, will be a particular problem. Beyond the cost of fuel for shippers and truckers, there’s the fact that Russia and Ukraine are major grain exporters who cannot carry on business as usual.
Inflation was a problem before the Ukraine invasion, but there was a sense that things would improve once consumers got their postpandemic splurges out of the way and the damage to global supply chains was repaired. All the Bank of Canada had to do was ratchet interest rates to a point where we achieved a better balance of supply and demand.
It’s starting to look like that golden postpandemic period will never happen. High energy prices fuel inflation, but they also weigh heavily on economic growth. We still need higher interest rates, but the vulnerability of the economy is increasing. Are we headed for a boom, a bust or the tepid growth of the prepandemic period?
A column last week looked at how the latest developments in Europe argue for a less risky approach to investing and buying homes to own or flip. Now, it’s time to take a broader look at your personal finances to prepare for what’s ahead.
Start by measuring your household resiliency to rising prices. Consider what happens if your food, gasoline and home heating costs go up 10 per cent or 20 per cent from here. Look at costs you can cut to make room. Got cash on hand? Balance the temptation for a summer splurge with the benefits of having cash on hand for the economic surprises ahead, and for repayment of debt.
Unfair in its randomness, the pandemic was a historic moment in money-making for many people. War in Ukraine is just tragedy.
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