Canadian Dollar Fluctuations
The Canadian dollar has declined by over thirty percent versus the United States dollar,
since it was at its highest in 1970.The reason for this is mainly the following factors: the
Quebec factor, the inflation factor, the productivity factor, the growth in government and taxes
factor, and the commodity price factor. These all come together to bring us to what the
Canadian dollar is worth compared to the U.S. dollar today.
The Quebec factor is partly responsible for the decline. It is no coincidence that the
Canadian dollar began its descent to 69 cents in November 1976. That was the month in which
the Parti Quebecois shocked political observers by winning the Quebec provincial election. It
was the first, and still only, party explicitly committed to separation to assume the reins of power
in Quebec City. While it is generally agreed that there is a risk premium built into the Canadian
dollar because of the threat of separation, no one believes that threat is responsible for the
whole, or even the bulk, of the currency’s decline.
The Canadian dollar is much lower because of separation because of what happened
during the 1980 Quebec referendum. At the beginning of the campaign, in March 1980, polls
showed the Yes side leading. In response, the Canadian dollar very quickly dropped from 87
cents to 83 cents. But in May, when the No side won a resounding 60-40 per cent victory over
the separatists, the Canadian dollar leaped back up. It was at 87 cents again in June. The
currency’s movement in that period suggests a minimum 4 cent risk premium because of
This is roughly consistent with what happened in the subsequent October 1995
referendum. On the night of the referendum, the television networks were showing the Yes side
with a substantial lead. The Canadian dollar immediately dropped a cent. Then, however, the
votes from Montreal were counted and the momentum began to swing strongly towards the No
side. Over the next several days, the Canadian leaped 3 cents to 75 cents.
Inflation means that the same amount of money purchases fewer goods and services than
before. It follows that if, in a given time frame, currency A undergoes more inflation than
currency B, then A will end up purchasing relatively less goods than B. Obviously, this means
currency A is going to be less valuable than before. People will be more likely to sell the
currency or to buy less of it in favor of currency B. The result is that currency A declines relative
to currency B. This is an application of the Purchasing Power Parity Theorom, which holds that
exchange rates, in the long run, reflect relative national inflation performances.
While Canada’s inflation rate has been lower than the U.S. rate of late, this has not been
the case over the last twenty five years. The United States has done better than Canada in
containing inflation during that twenty five year period. Part of the Canadian dollar’s decline,
according to the Royal Bank’s John McCallum, can be attributed to this.
During the summer of 1998, when the Canadian dollar was hitting
all time lows, the Globe and Mail’s editorial page opined that Canada’s
lagging productivity is behind the currency’s doldrums. Productivity refers
to the returns generated from employing a unit of capital or labour. Rising
productivity means firms are getting more value from each unit of capital
and labour in which they invest.
For example, you hire someone to mow you lawn for the summer at $10 an hour. At the
beginning of the summer, this individual takes one and a half hours to mow your lawn. So you
pay him $15. By the end of the summer, he is mowing the lawn in an hour. Now you only have
to pay him $10. Notice that the productivity of the labour you have employed has increased: you
are getting more grass cut per hour. Notice, too, that your costs have come down as a result. That
is what rising productivity does: it allows us to produce goods and services at a lower cost.
How does that affect the currency? For an exporting country like Canada, productivity’s main
impact is in international competitiveness. Higher productivity, involves lower costs, means that
a country’s exports become more competitive than the goods produced by other countries. That
translates into higher exports, which is supportive of the currency. The opposite takes