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Will Canada's Rising Debt Hit the Proverbial `Wall'?

Survey shows debt level is second worst among industrial nations

TIME yourself. When you finish reading this, the interest due on Canada's federal debt will have risen US$306,000. That is $61,000 per minute, $3,660,000 per hour, and an awful lot per year.

Of course, Canada's version of rocketing into the indebtedness stratosphere may not impress Americans numbed by New York City's digital debt clock. The clock piles up United States debt at a considerably faster rate than it accumulates in Canada.

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But Canadians have reason to be concerned, economists say, because with an economy and population one-tenth the size of the US, Canada is in much worse financial shape for its size.

Canada's net public debt (gross debt with the government's liquid assets deducted) is about $551 billion (Canadian; US$393 billion). This includes an increase of $40 billion (Canadian) this year, the size of the fiscal 1995 deficit.

Now some Canadian economists argue that if federal spending doesn't slow soon, Canada could hit ``the wall'' - what happens if investors stop buying Canadian bonds that finance the nation's debt.

Could Canada hit the wall?

``We think it's highly likely,'' says Robin Richardson, a researcher with the Fraser Institute, a Vancouver think tank.

Fraser has evaluated debt levels for 185 countries, putting Canada in its worst of three categories. Canada ranks above Burundi but below Morocco. The US made the second group, although Mr. Richardson says it could drop lower next year.

The key gauge of debt level is a nation's debt measured as a percentage of gross domestic product. Canadian debt is about 65 percent of GDP, according to the Organization for Economic Development. But Richardson and other Canadian economists say this number is a gross understatement.

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When unfunded federal and provincial public employee pensions and other off-balance sheet debt is included, the debt-to-GDP ratio grew to 107 percent this year, according to the Fraser Institute, and 105 percent ($780 billion, Canadian), according to the Toronto Dominion Bank.

The bottom line is that Canada this summer leapt the 100-percent-of-GDP barrier and is now vying with Italy (113 percent debt-to-GDP) for the dubious prize of most indebted of the Group of Seven (G-7) major industrialized nations.

Hitting a debt wall is more typical of developing countries with large government and current account deficits that depend heavily on foreign lending. A crisis may strike the country and lenders refuse to lend.

But it is not unprecedented for industrialized nations to hit their own walls. Foreign-exchange crises from indebtedness occurred in Italy in 1974, 1981, and 1992; United Kingdom, 1976; Denmark, 1980; New Zealand, 1984; and Sweden, 1992. Sweden's government had to raise short-term interest rates to 500 percent in one day to squelch a run on the nation's currency.

Canada shows signs of moving close to the wall. Richardson points to the value of Canada's dollar ratcheted downward during recent ``mini crises'' over Quebec's separatist ambitions.

Canadian economists' concerns vary mainly in degree. Some don't necessarily see the nation's economy splatting directly into a wall with no one willing to lend, but do see considerable economic damage from brushing up against one.

``Hitting the wall is something that only happens under specific circumstances and probably won't happen in Canada,'' says William Robson, senior policy analyst at the Toronto-based C.D. Howe Institute, a public-policy think tank.

Still, he says, a run on the currency long and strong enough to affect interest rates could cause an economic slump.

He cites several scenarios in which investor confidence could erode: if Quebeckers vote to secede next June or if a province hit its own mini wall and couldn't refinance its debt.

Often a country, prior to hitting the wall, has a lot of money pumped into the economy, rising inflation, and a high level of imports. ``Canada, whose GDP growth leads the G-7, looks a little bit like this portrait,'' says Mr. Robson, but with one big exception. Tough monetary policy has tamed Canada's inflation, which is under 2 percent.

In the short run, much hangs on the federal budget due in February. Finance Minister Paul Martin's budget-cutting targets, at 3 percent of GDP by 1996-97, have been called weak. He will need to cut billions more if he wants to prevent investor confidence from being undermined, economists say.

Time's up.

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