Bank CEOs Say Economic Rebound Is Coming, but Dependent on Vaccines and Lockdowns

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Royal Bank president David McKay; THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Royal Bank of Canada’s chief executive says it will take a few million people getting vaccinated against COVID-19 for the country’s economic rebound to get on track.

We believe roughly four and 4.5 million high-risk Canadians will have to be vaccinated before we can really get back to reopening the economy and we can achieve that within 100 days, if we have the vaccines,” Dave McKay said.

The CEO’s remarks were made on Monday morning, as the number of doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered in Canada hit 319,938. Efforts to get more shots in arms are ramping up as more supply arrives, but there are at least 38 million people living in the country.

 

McKay made his predictions while opening his company’s Canadian Bank CEO conference, which is being held virtually and is due to feature appearances from all of the country’s top bank leaders.

The leaders that spoke early in the day agreed that Canada is in the midst of an economic rebound, but how fast that recovery takes hold will depend on the country’s ability to get the pandemic under control.

In provinces like Ontario and Quebec, COVID-19 cases are spiking higher than they have throughout the whole pandemic, fuelling more layoffs, shutdowns, curfews and in many cases, less spending.

Once people are vaccinated, McKay believes those who have been sitting on cash and not spending it because so many things are closed will race back to pastimes like travel and entertainment.

But timing around when that will happen is still a big question.

Most businesses in provinces like Ontario remain closed and Quebec has gone as far as implementing a curfew to curtail cases. Some public health advocates and politicians are calling for similar measures to be implemented elsewhere.

Darryl White, Bank of Montreal’s chief executive, said he expects the next two to four months to be a “difficult” period, but there have been some positives.

“We are just not seeing the impaired losses coming in at the rate people would have expected,” he said.

Government aid, he said, has managed to offset many of the delinquencies people expected and banks spent much of last year building up strong reserves to protect themselves from people defaulting on loans.

For a rebound to really take shape, McKay believes government relief will have to continue and become focused on areas of the economy that are expected to take longer to recover like small businesses, hospitality businesses and transportation companies.

The negatives are all in these areas because they are part of the “discretionary” economy, said Victor Dodig, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce’s chief executive.

“We are looking into the following fiscal year before you are seeing any robustness there,” he said.

When a rebound comes, so will change at banks.

Dodig has noticed people shift rapidly to online banking during the pandemic and even those who were using digital options before the virus began circulating are moving more of their transactions online.

CIBC recently transformed 250 or one quarter of its banking centres into advice centres because digitization was accelerated by the health crisis, he said.

Over at RBC, McKay said that many bank branched have been temporarily closed or operating with reduced hours throughout the pandemic.

The bank has closed some branches and McKay expects to pare back another three or four per cent over the coming year, he said.

That equates to between 30 and 50 branches, according to McKay.

He believes branch footprints can be reduced and the bank can get more flexibility by focusing on shorter leases, but how it should approach branches will depend on the recovery.

“Everything is positioned to watch how clients come back and how they use the branch,” he said.

“A lot of client activity still goes through our branches, but we will see what sticks with consumers and what changes through all of this.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2021.

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press

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