Business Notes

May 1 2000

Business Notes

May 1 2000

Business Notes

Welcome relief at the pump

Motorists were pleasantly surprised when gas prices, on an upward trend since early last year, began to drift downward. According to MJ Ervin & Associates, a Calgary consulting firm that tracks pump prices, the average cost of gasoline across Canada on April 18 was 66.8 cents a litre, compared with a high of 72.6 cents on March 21.

That is still considerably higher then the recent low of 47.5 cents set in January, 1999, when prices for crude oil dipped to less than $11 (U.S.) a barrel. Since then, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has succeeded in maintaining tighter quotas at the same time as worldwide demand for oil is rising. In March, OPEC agreed to open its spigots a little wider and crude drifted down to about $27

from more than $34, but analysts thought pump prices would fall much more gradually. Many said that unanticipated competition among retailers was probably responsible for most of last weeks decline.

MJ Ervin president Michael Ervin said two opposing pressures will likely keep prices relatively stable over the next few months: while OPEC production is still increasing, demand is likely to begin rising as the summer driving season approaches.

Working harder for less

Most Canadians are no further ahead financially than they were in the 1970s, according to a study by the Ottawa-based Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Over the last decade, average after-tax incomes have fallen by six percent, the study says. Using labour-force data from Statistics Canada, it also concludes that most people are working longer hours and are dealing with higher levels of stress. The left-wing think tank argues that federal policies, including tightmoney strictures by the Bank of Canada, have been partly to blame.

Financial Outlook

Numbers released last week from Statistics Canada indicate that the hot Canadian economy could be cooling down. Manufacturing shipments de-

clined 1.8 per cent in February after three months of strong growth. The main contributors to the decline were automobiles, fabricated metal products and electronics. But even with the February downturn, manufacturers’ shipments are still 10.3-per-cent higher than a year ago.

StatsCan also reported that Canada’s exports were down by 2.6 per cent in February to $32.3 billion, while imports declined 1.2 per cent. After four consecutive monthly increases, wholesale sales in Canada fell by 1.1 per cent, largely due to reduced demand for lumber and building materials.

The Imperial hot seat

Imperial Oil Ltd.’s annual meeting in Toronto was a mixed experience for president Bob Peterson. While he was able to announce sharply increased first-quarter profits—$269 million compared with $37 million last year— he had to field some tough talk from protesters challenging the company’s environmental record. A small group from Citizens Against Smog tossed pennies at the stage, claiming that it would cost only one cent per share to reduce levels of sulphur in the company’s gasoline. Imperial products have the highest sulphur levels in the country. Other protesters questioned the company’s commitment to dealing with international treaties aimed at reducing the impact of global warming.

Wal-Mart union-free

The only unionized Wal-Mart store in North America has won its batde to get rid of organized labour. The Canadian Auto Workers dropped its claim to represent nearly 150 employees in Windsor, Ont., under a settlement overseen by the Ontario Labour Relations Board. Despite an overwhelming staff vote against unionization, the board had certified a union in 1997 on the grounds that Wal-Mart Canada Inc. used unfair tactics. Ontario’s Conservative government later stripped the board of such powers.

A global online bank

U.S. brokerage Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. and British-based banking group HSBC Holdings PLC teamed up to create what they called a “world first” on the Internet—an online bank and brokerage for wealthy clients outside the United States. The $1.5-billion, 50-50 joint venture will offer investing, banking and mortgage services to people, including Canadians, with accounts of $150,000 to $750,000.

Nortel buys again

High-tech giant Nortel Networks Corp. of Brampton, Ont., announced it will pay $580 million for Architel Systems Corp. of Toronto, which makes software for high-speed Internet service providers. It is the fifth acquisition for Nortel in the past five months.