Insight: Lessons for U.S. from Canada's "basket case" moment

Tue Nov 22, 2011 3:15pm EST
 
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By Randall Palmer and Louise Egan

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Finance officials bit their nails and nervously watched the clock. There were 30 minutes left in a bond auction aimed at funding the deficit and there was not a single bid.

Sounds like today's Italy or Greece?

No, this was Canada in 1994.

Bids eventually came in, but that close call, along with downgrades and the Wall Street Journal calling Canada "an honorary member of the Third World," helped the nation's people and politicians understand how scary its budget problem was.

"There would have been a day when we would have been the Greece of today," recalled then-prime minister Jean Chretien, a Liberal who ended up chopping cherished social programs in one of the most dramatic fiscal turnarounds ever.

"I knew we were in a bind and we had to do something," Chretien, 77, told Reuters in a rare interview.

Canada's shift from pariah to fiscal darling provides lessons for Washington as lawmakers find few easy answers to the huge U.S. deficit and debt burden, and for European countries staggering under their own massive budget problems.

"Everyone wants to know how we did it," said political economist Brian Lee Crowley, head of the Ottawa-based thinktank Macdonald-Laurier Institute, who has examined the lessons of the 1990s.   Continued...