indicatorAdvice for Alberta businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic

What can we expect? A look back at previous recessions in Alberta

By ATB Financial 21 May 2020 2 min read

There’s a lot we simply don’t know when it comes to how COVID-19 and the oil price crash will affect Alberta’s economy, but there’s broad agreement that a significant recession is in the works. Even though it seems like we’ve been going through this for a long time already, it’s still too early to accurately forecast the length or the depth of the downturn other than to say it could potentially be one of the worst in recent memory.

The phrase “we are in uncharted territory” is particularly apt at the moment. Nonetheless, past recessions can still give us some context for what’s heading our way.


What is a recession?

A recession is often defined as two consecutive quarters of contraction in real GDP. However, the two quarter time frame is not hard and fast and there are no official estimates of provincial GDP by quarter. So when it comes to tracking recessions in Alberta, we tend to look at changes in annual GDP.

When we do this, we find that there have been four recessionary periods in Alberta since 1981. The provincial economy contracted two years in a row back in 1982 and 1983 for a total drop in output of 3.0 per cent. The economy shrank by 2.8 per cent in 1986, but didn’t shrink again until 2009 when the global financial crisis brought on a 5.5 per cent drop. The fourth recession took place in 2015 and 2016 when 7.0 per cent of economic output was erased over two very difficult years.


Alberta’s recession in the now

The recession underway in Alberta is expected to be deeper and longer than the one facing the country as a whole because of our heavy dependence on oil production. The drop in oil demand in the wake of the pandemic combined with a supply glut are compounding the economic pain in Alberta. The Canadian economy will also feel the pain caused by the oil price crash, but the impact will be concentrated in the oil-producing provinces.

The different situation faced by Alberta is highlighted by the fact that the oil price crash that pushed the province into a deep recession in 2015 and 2016 slowed the national economy, but didn’t drag it down into an outright recession. (The national economy managed to grow by 0.6 per cent in 2015 and 0.8 per cent in 2016).

When we get the data needed to accurately assess the economic disruption brought on by the effort to contain the virus, it’s likely going to be record setting.

Here in Alberta, past recessions tell us we’ve successfully weathered some pretty bad economic storms. Unfortunately, many Albertans haven’t fully recovered from the last one.

The article above originally appeared in The Owl, a daily snapshot of what’s happening in Alberta’s economy, written by ATB Financial’s economics team. Subscribe and get the latest insight into what is happening in Alberta and where our economy is heading.

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