Ray Dalio is a virtual unknown entity to most people, including Canadians. An American billionaire, hedge fund manager, and a philanthropist. He’s spoken widely in global venues and written books on business success and prosperity. But in recent years, Dalio has sensed a massive economic and political shift in the offing and some of his later writings deal with the changing of our world order.
What’s interesting about Dalio’s take on this pandemic are the historic principles – what he calls “templates” – he applies to our predicament. They are as adaptable to Canada as to Czechoslovakia, to the United States and to the United Kingdom. They are worth considering by citizens and governments alike. He senses that COVID-19 will leave large holes in the economic and social world we knew and he understands the phases we must endure to recapture any hope of normality. There are four of them and they are steep.
First and foremost is the requirement to get back to productivity as a nation. Without it, everything becomes a dreary slog. Despite the devastating effects of this pandemic, people must learn, invent, get creative, doing and building things well. This is the steady, tried and tested way, of generating wealth without leaving everyone else behind. It’s that slow but steady growth of two or three percent a year that doesn’t result in violence, “because knowledge isn’t violent.” It grows and lifts our living standards over a period of time – just as followed World War Two.
But then comes the short-term debt cycle that most often results in recessions and expansions – a period he figures that will take a decade. They veer from pillar to post, as governments and economists seek to stimulate the economy while at the same time keep a careful eye on how much is owed.
Third, is the long-term debt cycle. It happens every 50 to 75 years he says, and it results in new kinds of monetary systems and a realigning of wealth itself. It’s what happened after World War Two, when the old money was more or less wiped out and a new financial age emerged. It resulted in a burgeoning, and relatively new arrival in history – a middle-class that learned, and grew productive, that used its talent to fashion a new age.
At this point, it’s important to point out that there were those financial and political hawkish voices the pressed for paying off the accumulated date at a great speed. What many forget, is that some countries, like our own, never did pay it off, but, instead, grew their way out of the box that a global conflict had placed them into. More on this in a minute.
And the fourth great development or template? “Politics,” he says. And there’s the rub. Following the Second World War, Canadian governments, while clearly partisan, were also collaborative. They knew what they had just passed through – a Depression, a war, global in nature – and they understood that they had to set about building a better world. Externally, Canada went about it by helping launch the United Nations and establishing cultural and economic partnerships designed to heal the world and make it prosperous at the same time.
But it was the internal political efforts that set this country on its new course, on a more productive arc. To deal with the gaps, or holes, in Canadian society, they followed the lead set by Franklin Roosevelt years earlier and invested in Canadians themselves just as much as the country’s natural resources. They shifted policies and shaped taxes to create a more advanced, and prosperous, citizenship. They invested in companies that invested in workers. Leave a gap untended long enough and you’ll have revolution on your hands. The likes of Louis St. Laurent, Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker, with help from the likes of Tommy Douglas, understood that possibility and set about to put the country on a different, more equitable, course. They understood that the old paths had ultimately led to dysfunction and disaster and sought to forge a new path of shared prosperity.
This is the challenge now facing future Canadian governments, starting with Justin Trudeau’s. But there is one fundamental difference that clearly separates the post-war era from its post-COVID counterpart: globalization. When domestic economies go global, how do governments shape their national wealth and productivity in a sea of competitors? Canada is a trading nation; how will those historic alliances be furthered at the same time as domestic priorities within this country are to be enhanced.
If Ray Dalio is right, most countries in the world will make a fundamental mistake should they follow normal procedure afer every recession – downsizing, austerity, cutbacks. They must see it as post-World War Two leaders perceived it: a time of transition planning, not recession paring. Canada’s debt-to-GDP ratio in the mid-1990s was 63.8%. Today, even in the midst of a crippling pandemic, it is 53.8%, but rising. Canada entered the Covid-19 crisis with the lowest central government debt-to-GDP ratio of the Group of Seven economies. In the 1990s, we were sixth.
The opportunity is now present, where the Canadian economy can be regenerated from the ground up, in a fashion that empowers Canadians instead of isolating them. We have done it before in worse conditions. It’s this distinction between recession thinking and transition planning that will determine this country’s future in a more troubled world.