This article was originally published in the Autumn 2000 issue of the Expert Witness.
Recently, Ontario changed its Rules of Court concerning selection of the discount rate. Previously, Rule 53.09(1) required that the courts use a real interest rate of 2.5 percent when discounting future earnings.
The new rule divides the future into two periods – the next 15 years, and beyond 15 years. In the first period, Rule 53.09(1) requires that the courts use the rate observed on real return bonds for the 12 months ending August of the year preceding the date of calculation, less one percent, rounded to the nearest one quarter percent.
For example, as the average rate for the 12 months ending August 2000 was 3.87 percent, all calculations performed in 2001 must use a discount rate of 2.75 percent – that is, 3.87 minus 1.00 rounded to the nearest 0.25.
In the second period, for losses beyond 15 years into the future, 2.5 percent is still to be used.
The wording of Rule 53.09(1) clearly states that the figure obtained by deducting 1 percent from the rate on real return bonds is to represent the discount rate. The committee that recommended the changes to Rule 53.09(1), (the Subcommittee of the Civil Rules Committee on the Discount Rate and Other Matters), deliberately selected this wording.
It was their view that because real return bonds are not traded very frequently and because they receive “unfavourable tax treatment,” “economic and risk factors” biased the reported rate upwards. That is, it was felt that a risk free investment would have a lower rate of return – by 1 percent – than that reported for real return bonds.
I do not agree with the committee’s conclusions on this matter. The committee seems to have been confused about the rationale for using the rate on real return bonds. As was indicated in the article “Selecting the Discount Rate” in this issue, the proposal is not that plaintiffs purchase real return bonds. Rather, the rate of return on those bonds is to be used as an objective indicator of the forecast that sophisticated investors are making of the real rate of interest.
This is not to say that some discount should not be made for the fact that so few of these bonds are bought and sold. But a discount of 1 percent seems well out of line. This was seen clearly in the last section of “Selecting the Discount Rate,” in which recent statistics concerning real interest rates in Canada were summarised.
There it was reported that real rates of interest on risk-free Government of Canada bonds have been very similar to the rates reported on real return bonds in the last three years. It appears that the committee was reluctant to choose an interest rate that would differ significantly from the previous mandated rate of 2.5 percent.
Interestingly, the Ontario Court of Appeal, in Martin v. Listowel Memorial Hospital (Docket C31222, November 1, 2000), concluded that the current real rate of interest is approximately 4 percent, not the 2.75 percent implied by its own Rules of Court. Indeed, in the Martin decision, the Court seemed to signal that it was willing to accept evidence concerning the discount rate on a case-by-case basis – hardly a ringing endorsement of the newly-established Rule 53.09.