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Provinces in restraint mode, but not 'overly aggressive'

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Provinces hold the line Provincial governments are holding the line on program spending this year, but their restraint efforts aren't particularly tough if you compare them to what officials are doing around the world.

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Economist Robert Kavcic of BMO Nesbitt Burns studied six of the seven provincial budgets unveiled so far, and found program spending is poised to increase by just 1.1 per cent in fiscal 2011-2012.

"That marks a contraction in real terms, and even more so in real per-capita terms, but it's not overly aggressive restraint either, compared to what's going on elsewhere in the world," Mr. Kavcic said, referring to the budgets from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.

His research was done before Nova Scotia unveiled its budget yesterday.

"Perhaps the five provincial elections scheduled for the fall are keeping the spending taps from closing completely," he added. "In Western Canada, rising commodity prices aren't hurting either."

BMO sees 3-per-cent growth Canada's economy should grow 3 per cent this year, just a touch below the 3.1 per cent of 2010, but unemployment will remain high at 7.4 per cent by the end of the year, BMO Nesbitt Burns says.

But, senior economist Sal Guatieri warned in a report today, soaring oil prices could mean a "serious blow" to North America's economy.

"Every $10 increase in oil prices carves about 0.2 percentage points from annual U.S. growth," Mr. Guatieri said.

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The $30 increase in the past year to $107 isn't large enough to derail the U.S. expansion, but a further move to over $150 would elevate recession risks, with knock-on effects to Canada."

Dollar continues its run The Canadian dollar continued to power ahead today, topping $1.04 U.S. and following what Scotia Capital says will be a path of "slow, steady" appreciation to $1.09 by the end of next year.

The loonie is being driven by the usual suspects, said Scotia Capital currency strategist Camilla Sutton, including a soft U.S. dollar and strong oil prices . The U.S. dollar is weaker on the threat of a government shutdown this weekend.

Ms. Sutton forecasts the dollar will end this year at $1.05, pushing to $1.09 by the end of 2012.

Late yesterday, BMO Nesbitt Burns said the loonie is just about on track based solely on its connection to oil, though it still believes it's overvalued.

"An old rule of thumb is that every $10-a-barrel move in oil prices translates into a 3-cent to 5-cent (U.S.) move in the Canadian dollar," said deputy chief economist Douglas Porter.

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"And a corollary is $100 crude equals parity for the loonie. Well, bingo - those rules seem to be holding quite well. The C$ seems to be almost right where it 'should' be based solely on oil prices. Of course, there's more than oil that drives the currency, and there have been episodes where the two have diverged meaningfully (C$ high in '07, oil high in '08). Plus, the C$ was a bit 'high' versus oil for much of the past year, but crude has closed the gap."

How will Alberta's plan affect firms? Alberta's proposed new environmental plan should have just a "minor impact" on the oil sands sector, an energy analyst says, and investors should consider buying stocks in the industry if prices drop as a result, The Globe and Mail's Carrie Tait reports today from Calgary.

"A detailed scanning of the proposed areas by us suggests a minor impact on the oil sands industry as a whole, and we would recommend investors take advantage of any potential knee jerk reaction in the market [Wednesday,]rdquo; Canaccord Genuity analyst Phil Skolnick said in a research note late Tuesday.

Mr. Skolnick singled out privately-held Sunshine Oil Sands as the outfit that will be hit hardest.

Where Athabasca Oil Sands Corp. is concerned, he said, part of its Birch Oil Sands asset falls within protected boundaries under the plant, but it will be "immaterial" given the size of the area and because "it appears to be part of the lease not considered prospective by the company."

Other companies, such as Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. , Cenovus Energy Inc. , Imperial Oil , Nexen Inc. , and Suncor Energy Inc. could feel a "marginal impact" because of the proposed plan, although their holdings that fall within the proposed protected areas appear to be "just slivers of land," Mr. Skolnick said.

Late Tuesday, Alberta unveiled proposed new environmental rules that would revoke several oil sands leases, including some with already active projects, to protect sensitive habitat, wildlife and forest land.

A 'pension Rubicon' Canadian companies have crossed a "pension Rubicon" and are continuing to dismantle traditional defined benefit plans even as the economy improves, according to a review by Towers Watson.

A survey of 150 Canadian pension plan sponsors found 51 per cent have converted to defined contribution plans for current employees or new hires, up from 42 per cent in 2008, The Globe and Mail's Janet McFarland reports today.

Australia reassures investors Sound familiar at all? Australia's Treasurer Wayne Swan is taking pains to signal to foreign investors that his rejection of a proposed takeover of the country's stock exchange operator doesn't mean the country is closed.

"I welcome foreign investment, but ultimately all proposals have to be in our national interest," Mr. Swan said in an interview today with Australian Broadcasting Corp., according to Reuters. "We've got an open and transparent process and I've acted in accordance with well- established guidelines and legal advice."

Here's what Stephen Harper said after his government rejected the takeover of Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan last year: "No one should doubt this government's policy ... that, generally speaking, foreign investment is in the interests of the Canadian economy and an open global trading economy."

CIBC keen on Forzani CIBC World Markets today boosted its price target on shares of Forzani Group Ltd. , to $21 from $20, after the retailer posted stronger fourth-quarter results yesterday.

"Forzani reported its Q4 results, with a strong top line and good store expense control offset by greater-than-expected markdown activity and higher compensation costs," said analyst Mark Petrie.

"At the bottom line, [earnings per share]of 84 cents was short of our 92-cent forecast, but up 12 per cent from last year. Forzani continues to lead the way among major retailers in Canada, with todal same-store sales ... growth of 7.4 per cent in Q4 well ahead of any of its peers."

In Personal Finance today

Teaching kids financial responsibility is all very well, says Home Cents blogger Sonali Verma, but are we going too far?

An Ottawa couple are debating whether a second car is worth the cost. Financial expert Kelley Keehn weighs in.

To save on your cellphone bill, check your plan and make sure your features reflect your usage. If you're not happy, there are options, writes Angela Self.

From today's Report on Business

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