The coming week brings us an answer to perhaps the most important question relating to the economy: How many more or fewer people in this country are making money through gainful employment?
The significance in the difference between four and five per cent growth in gross domestic product, or why it matters whether Canada runs a trade surplus or deficit, might be lost on many. However, the difference between having a job and not having one is apparent to most.
On Friday, Statistics Canada is scheduled to report jobs data for February. Four of the last six monthly surveys have shown gains in the number of Canadians working. Still, even after January's growth of 43,000, it was down 280,000 from the peak in October 2008 as a result of the recession of late 2008 and the first half of 2009.
This week's report is expected to show a net gain of 15,000 people on the job in February, according the median estimate of economists. The unemployment rate is anticipated to have risen to 8.4 per cent from 8.3 per cent as a result of more people entering the job hunt than the market could absorb.
Given how bad things were about a year ago, it's tough to complain about job numbers rising, but let's give it a try anyway. If economists are right, the expected jobs gain in February would be quite modest in comparison to other months, such as the addition of 43,000 in January and 72,200 in November. Even when you factor in a loss of 28,300 in December, you get an average gain of just under 30,000 per month for the previous three months, about double what's expected for February.
Paul Ferley, assistant chief economist at RBC Economics, is expecting 14,000 more people to have been working in February. Rather than it being indicative of a weakened state of job creation, Perley said it would signify a continually positive trend in the labour market, but would offset numbers from the previous survey that were, perhaps, on the high side of reality.
"I think the monthly volatility is probably certainly going to continue, and the increase in January of 43,000 was probably a little bit outsized, or had little bit of an upper bias to it," Ferley said. "So we're assuming you get a little bit of a correction in the February number."
Whatever the case may be, the bar for employment trends has certainly been set higher in Canada than in the United States. The latter's statistics showed 36,000 job losses last month. Stock markets rose, however, because it was better than the 68,000 that were expected to be lost.
But it's a good position to be in, showing that Canada's economy is "firing on all cylinders," as characterized by Millan Mulraine, economics strategist with TD Securities.
Mulraine is more optimistic than the pack on February's job creation, expecting a net addition of 25,000.
"Admittedly, some of this job growth is expected to be temporary Olympics-related hiring, with the steady-state underlying trend in job growth closer to 20,000 per month," Mulraine wrote in a research note Friday.
Both Ferley and Mulraine expect Canada's job market to improve as the year goes on, albeit at a slower pace than what's being seen in the early part of 2010.
The main Canadian economic news kicking off the week will be February housing starts today. Economists expect the annualized rate rose to 190,000 from a revised 185,600 in January. If correct, February's rate of home building would be the highest since October 2008.
Also, Canada's trade balance from January is due Thursday. The median forecast from economists is for a trade surplus of about $100 million. That would compare to a deficit of $246 million in December, and mark only the second time in seven months the country has shipped out a higher value of goods than it has imported.
Besides all the economic news with potential to move stock markets in the coming week, investors might want to take note of some quarterly earnings coming from companies such as Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. and Viterra Inc. A highlight in that regard will be Bank of Nova Scotia's report on Tuesday, making it the last of the big Canadian banks to detail its first-quarter performance.