FORT MYERS, Fa. — If you want an idea about how the recession could have happened in Canada, but didn’t, take a look around here.
Once the playground of the affluent and the super-rich, coastal Florida was one of the first places to be hit by the global recession. It’ll be one of the last places to exit it.
All around southwestern Florida, there are ugly scars — unmistakable signs people are still struggling. Foreclosure notices are everywhere, as are ads for bankruptcy sales — and bankruptcy help. Shuttered businesses can be seen wherever you look. And, along a sunny stretch of beach once favoured by Floridians piloting big yachts, someone has planted some hand-written signs. “Our house for sale,” it says. “EMERGENCY.”
While the experts will tell you the recession ended in the third quarter of 2009, residents of Florida are unlikely to be convinced. Here, jobs continue to be scarce, home prices continue to fall, equity is shrinking, and the markets still haven’t recovered. A record number of foreclosures may end up being reported in the U.S. this year — with Florida accounting for a staggering one million foreclosures or home repossessions in 2009 and 2010.
In the past week alone, lots of big single-family homes have been sold in San Carlos Park, just East of Fort Myers’ beach. Many of the transactions involved “mortgage acquisition” firms, and some prices even reached as low as $39,900 — for a well-maintained home with four bedrooms and three bathrooms.
It is terribly sad, the economic misery that still persists in such a beautiful place. For Canadians visiting here — and we still do, from Ontario and Quebec, every Spring Break — you have to wonder: How did we avoid Florida’s troubles? Three reasons.
Firstly, Canadians can thank my former boss, Jean Chretien. When the former Liberal Party leader refused to permit the big Canadian banks to merge a decade ago, he helped to preserve jobs — and, most importantly, economic stability. That’s not all: Chretien (and, in fairness, his Conservative successor) would not permit the sort of sub-prime (or zero-down) mortgage lending that devastated Florida and much of the United States.
Two, our lending institutions tend to be larger and more cautious in their approach — so widespread mortgage defaults, and the bank failures that follow them, are virtually unheard of. As one firm that tracks global real estate trends recently put it: “Among the world’s most transparent real estate markets, Canada differentiates itself on having a combination of a sound banking system, well-developed lending standards and stable property markets.” The World Economic Forum agrees, noting we have a competitive advantage because of this “soundness of banks” and “strength of investor protection.”
Thirdly, Stephen Harper — to the irritation of hardcore conservatives — embarked in 2009 on a massive stimulus program, the likes of which Canada had never seen. It worked. As no less than The Economist noted: “(Others) might note that Mr. Harper has managed to govern for four years without a parliamentary majority, and that this has not prevented Canada from sailing through the recession.”
Canadians often holiday down here, and often express jealousy about Florida’s beauty and weather. Turns out we have some things Floridians might be jealous about, too.
Kinsella is a lawyer, blogs at warrenkinsella.com and will appear regularly on Sun News Network