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Why food prices in Canada are about to head higher

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Food prices to hit inflation Food prices in Canada have been relatively tame amid rising global costs, but that's going to change, BMO Nesbitt Burns warns.

Worldwide, prices are at a record high, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, and there are fears that floods in Australia, a key region for some crops, will push them up even more.

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A look at commodity prices and the lag effect suggests costs will rise, according to an analysis by BMO's deputy chief economist Douglas Porter, who projects an impact on the consumer price index later this year.

"While more muted in Canada, food prices will be a clear source of upward pressure later this year on the CPI," Mr. Porter says. "In November, the food component of the CPI was up just 1.4 per cent year over year. However, the Bank of Canada's commodity price index has seen ag prices jump 30 per cent year over year (although end-December levels were 7 per cent below the July/08 weekly peak)."

The surge in prices in 2008, which sparked a crisis in lesser developed countries where food accounts for more of household budgets, pushed Canadian costs higher, Mr. Porter says, though he notes that it takes almost a year for higher costs in inputs to show up in consumer goods.

"At their peak in early '09, consumer food prices rose nearly 8 per cent year over year in Canada," he writes. "With a weight of 17 per cent in the CPI, that was enough to add more than 1 percentage point to headline inflation."

Full-time jobs on rise Look beneath the headline numbers in today's jobs report from Statistics Canada, and there's more cause for optimism.

Over all, the economy churned out 22,000 new jobs in December, and the unemployment rate held at 7.6 per cent, according to the federal statistics gathering agency. The manufacturing, transportation and natural resources sectors chalked up notable gains, while the construction, health care and social assistance industries, among others, lost jobs, Globe and Mail economics writer Jeremy Torobin reports.

Unlike the United States, Canada has already gained back all the jobs lost in the recession, though that's on a straight number basis. Beneath the surface, it's a bit of a different story. Toronto-Dominion Bank economists, for example, cite the rise in part-time jobs, the still weaker showing of the private sector, and a shift to lower-paying work. They also note that the Statistics Canada measure doesn't account for people who've given up on looking for a job, nor does it provide a completely accurate picture of the underemployed.

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Still, there's no question the jobs market has pulled off a stunning rebound from the depths of the recession. And looking more closely at the underlying data today also paints a brighter picture.

There were actually 38,000 full-time jobs created in December, and that marked the fourth increase in the last five months. There were also more private sector jobs created, and a decline in self-employment.

"The Canadian labour market continues its recovery track and while job gains are smaller than in the initial stages of the recovery, its composition should become more favourable in its tilt toward full-time private-sector jobs, with manufacturing offering a good contribution," said TD senior economist Pascal Gauthier.

Over the course of last year, the private sector added 143,000 jobs, while the number of people who were self-employed fell by 106,000.

There's slightly better news on the youth front, but only slightly. Youth employment rose by 26,000 in December, Statistics Canada said, bringing employment in that age group to a gain of just 1.8 per cent for the year. That's below the overall gain in jobs of 2.2 per cent.

Scotia Capital economists Derek Holt and Gorica Djeric point to one "strong caveat" in today's report, the huge increase of 65,700 jobs in the manufacturing sector.

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"We have difficulty believing that Ontario's and Quebec's manufacturers are so buoyant as to be heavily adding to their payrolls in the context of [Canadian dollar]pressures," they said.

"Further, the manufacturing numbers are volatile as evidenced by the 29,000 decline in November swinging abruptly toward a gain of 66,000 in December. Are we really being asked to believe that manufacturers swing that abruptly in their workforce planning in the current environment?"

U.S. numbers disappoint A separate jobs report in the United States disappointed markets, which had been looking for more of a blowout given a private sector reading earlier in the week.

The U.S. economy created 103,000 jobs in December, well short of what was expected, though the unemployment rate fell markedly to 9.4 per cent from 9.8 per cent.

On top of that, the U.S. Labor Department also revised its readings from October and November. Rather than just 172,000 jobs created in October, there were 210,000. And in November, the number was 71,000, rather than the earlier estimate of 39,000.

The U.S. has a jobs crisis on its hands, with millions thrown out of work in the recession. Some 14.5 million who want to find jobs can't.

"Over all, the U.S. economy is still not creating enough jobs to generate a sustained and meaningful fall in the unemployment rate," said Paul Dales, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics in Toronto.

"Even at an 18-month low of 9.4 per cent, the unemployment rate is still roughly double what it was before the recession began. As such, the Fed is unlikely to call an early halt to its asset purchases."

Bankruptcy chief warns on debt The superintendent of bankruptcy has added his voice to the growing chorus of warnings that Canadians are gorging on borrowed money.

"Significant events, such as a change in employment or income, a change in family status or a serious illness, can cause a huge drain on finances." James Callon, who heads the Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy Canada said in a statement on the agency's website today.

Mr. Callon noted that the number of insolvencies filed during October, the latest month for statistics, may have been down from a month earlier, but the number of consumer insolvencies remains 22.5 per cent above the pre-recession level.

Euro crisis bubbles Europe's debt crisis is bubbling again today, with the euro sinking against the U.S. dollar and Portuguese bond yields reaching a record high in the history of the common currency. Belgian and Irish credit default swaps also reached a record.

"The single currency has continued to come under pressure on the back of rising peripheral bond yields and sovereign debt concerns as the European Commission unveiled plans to outline ways to protect taxpayers from future banking crises by means of a number of default mechanisms, including debt writedowns, or haircuts," said CMC Markets analyst Michael Hewson.

"Widening peripheral bond yields have fuelled concerns that the bond auctions due next week could well be even more expensive at current rates, especially as Portugal today announced two extra auctions for Jan. 12, in addition to Spain and Italy who are looking to raise money on Jan. 13."

European Central Bank chief Jean-Claude Trichet called separately for greater efforts to overhaul the euro zone's fiscal regulations, warning policy makers they can't rely on the ECB.

"Monetary-policy responsibility cannot substitute for government irresponsibility," Mr. Trichet said in Germany. "Europe cannot afford to rest halfway, we need to be more ambitious. The proposals that we have seen in Brussels do not go far enough in the ECB's view."

Strategists at UBS AG say the crisis is moving into a "worrisome new phase," and they see Greece as a "clear candidate" for a debt restructuring. They worry, too, the contagion will spread, and they do not rule out an eventual break-up of the common currency zone.

Fire to take toll Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. halted crude production at its northern Alberta Horizon oil sands mine after a fire broke out in a key plant facility yesterday afternoon.

The fire will have a significant impact on a major source of Alberta crude, by stopping production at a plant that produced just over 90,000 barrels per day in 2010, or roughly 6 per cent of Canada's oil sands output, The Globe and Mail's Nathan VanderKlippe reports from Calgary. The company gave no indication of how long the outage might last.

Four people were injured in the fire. One worker suffered third-degree burns, another first-degree burns and a third a neck injury. All three were taken to hospital and are in stable condition. The fourth worker was treated on site and released.

Coutu profit up The Jean Coutu (PJC) Inc. blames last year's H1N1 fears for a dip in revenues in its latest quarter, citing the impact of the flu worries for higher sales a year earlier.

Coutu today said third-quarter revenues slipped to $677.3-million from $678.1- million a year earlier but profit climbed to $48-million or 21 cents a share from $44.6-million or 19 cents.

"Net earnings showed a solid increase in spite of a slight decrease of revenues compared to the same period last year when over-the-counter medication sales recorded a significant rise attributed to the concern of consumers confronted with the A (H1N1) flu outbreak," said chief executive officer Francois Coutu.

In Your Business today

One of the major advantages for a business owner with a professional degree is the financial security it offers. "Research shows one in four entrepreneurs keep their jobs when they start a business," says an entrepreneurial researcher at the Schulich School of Business.

Our Friday case study examines the challenge of learning about your product while you're developing it. When Daniel Debow and David Stein co-founded Rypple, they knew there was a need for a Web-based tool that would help people get valuable feedback at work, but they were wary of settling on a set of design specifications without knowing more about how their customers wanted to use it.

Though the glittery and vastly appealing idea of being your own boss, setting your own hours and running the show has merit - and definite benefits - it also requires a lot of work, and self-discipline.

In Personal Finance today

Adviser Ted Rechtshaffen explains why now's a good time to switch up your "safe" investments.

Home Cents blogger Noreen Rasbach talks with a money coach who says to look forward, not at past expenditures, to meet your financial goals.

How to prevent your partner's bad financial habits from ruining your relationship.

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About the Author
Report on Business News Editor

Michael Babad is a Report on Business editor and co-author of three business books. He has been with Report on Business for several years, and has also been a reporter and editor at The Toronto Star, The Financial Post and United Press International. His articles have appeared in major newspapers around the world. More

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