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How did Canadians become richer than Americans?
For the first time in decades, the average Canadian family surpasses its U.S. counterpart in terms of net worth. Here, 4 theories as to how it happened
 
Canada's former Prime Minister Paul Martin kept the country on track with a "fiscally conservative form of socialism."
Canada's former Prime Minister Paul Martin kept the country on track with a "fiscally conservative form of socialism."
Simon Hayter/Getty Images

"On July 1, Canada Day, Canadians awoke to a startling, if pleasant, piece of news," says Stephen Marche at Bloomberg View: "For the first time in recent history, the average Canadian is richer than the average American." Canadian households held a net worth of $363,202 in 2011, according to Environics Analytics WealthScapes' recently released data, while U.S. households had $319,970. Canada's unemployment rate also ticked down to 7.2 percent, versus the stagnant 8.2 percent in the U.S. How did Canada come to beat the U.S. in wealth? Here, four theories: 

1. Canada practices a "fiscally conservative form of socialism"
American liberals and conservatives have both looked toward Canada for proof that that their pet policies work — liberals point to stricter regulation and universal state-run health care, for example, while conservatives tout its lower public debt and "brutal cuts" to social programs in the 1990s, says Bloomberg View's Marche. But "the truth is that both sides are right." For the past 20 years, largely thanks to former finance minister, and former prime minister, Paul Martin, "Canada has pursued a hardheaded (even ruthless), fiscally conservative form of socialism." It's not liberal or conservative, "it just works." 

2. Americans lost a big chunk of wealth in housing
The main reason for Canada's new lead in household wealth "is pretty obvious," says Clive Crook at The Atlantic: Between 2007 and 2010 American families lost almost 40 percent of their median net worth (15 percent of mean net worth) due to the collapse in housing prices. "Canada hasn't had a house price collapse," at least not yet. The real estate held by Canadians is now "worth over $140,000 more on average" than that held by Americans, says Michael Adams at Canada's Globe and Mail. And Canadians hold more than twice as much real estate, with more equity. Otherwise, "Americans' liquid (non-real estate) assets are still greater than Canadians'."

3. Canada's banking system is more risk-averse
As Marche notes, while the rest of the G8 countries were reducing regulations on banks, Paul Martin led Canada to, in his words, "resist the siren call of deregulation," says Reihan Salam at National Review. But "Canada never had a Glass-Steagall-style wall of separation between commercial and investment banking," so in some regards there was less regulation to cut. Still, from banking to mortgage rules, "Canadians have traditionally been the cautious, fiscally conservative society, watching American economic dynamism from a safe remove," says The Globe and Mail's Adams. It was only after U.S. banks turned from "dynamic to dangerous" in 2008 that "the risk-averse Canadian tortoise" at least temporarily overtook "the risk-taking American hare."

4. Credit the luck of the Canadians
"Good politics do not account entirely for recent economic triumphs," says Bloomberg View's Marche. "Luck has played a major part," too. Canada is rich in natural resources at a time when such commodities are fetching good prices. There's softwood lumber, potash, and various metals, but the biggest new windfall is the Alberta tar sands, the No. 3 oil reservers in the world. They're "an environmental catastrophe in waiting," but "if America is too squeamish to buy our filthy energy, there's always China."

 

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