Halifax Index 2021


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You are viewing the 2021 Halifax Index.

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Real GDP and retail sales in Halifax shrank in 2020 as compared to 2019, but Halifax still performed better than most benchmark cities. Although consumer confidence fell to its lowest level since 2009, businesses expressed optimism in early 2021 with a record-high business confidence index score of 37.8.

Downtown and suburban office vacancy rates and rents increased. At the end of the year, the industrial availability rate dropped significantly hand in hand with an increase in the average asking net rent. Investment in construction of commercial buildings increased, but fell for industrial and government buildings.

The Halifax Gateway experienced significant declines, as expected, given the impacts of the pandemic. Travel restrictions led to 100% drops for cruise passengers and ships, and a 76% decrease in air passengers. Port cargo experienced single-digit declines while air cargo fell by 20%. With massive decreases in visitation, the tourism industry was hit heavily as well. Total overnight rooms sold, including both hotels and room shares like Airbnb, fell by 53%.

The 2021-22 municipal budget shows the first increase in debt in a decade. Spending grew by 5.4% while revenues declined by 3.5% over the previous year. Under the provincial 2021-22 budget, net debt per capita will rise to over $17,000 and the net debt-to-GDP ratio will jump to 37.4% and then continue to climb, surpassing 40% by 2024-25.

COVID-19 Recovery

The economy appeared to be improving in early 2021, but after the outbreak of the third wave in April, Halifax went back into full lockdown, which had an immediate and noticeable impact on many businesses and sectors. However, if the goal of having 85% of all eligible people vaccinated by the end of June is reached, a more “normal” summer could be on the horizon leading to increased economic activity and investment.

Halifax Index 2021
Economic Growth

Halifax’s real GDP fell by 3.5% in 2020 to $20.48 billion. While this was one of the largest annual declines experienced, Halifax has rebounded well and the Conference Board of Canada predicts a robust GDP growth of 4.6% for 2021. With mandated lockdowns, physical-distancing requirements, and travel restrictions, much of the decline was in the service sector, which makes up over 80% of the city’s employment.

As well, retail sales in Halifax fell by 4.8% although The Conference Board of Canada expects this figure to rebound by 4.3% in 2021 as pent-up demand for finished goods comes back to the marketplace.

In comparison to benchmark cities, Halifax performed better than most. With the second-lowest percentage drop in GDP, Halifax was only behind Victoria (-2.9%). Halifax’s drop in retail sales was the third-largest across benchmark cities. Only St. John’s and Victoria saw increases in retail sales with a growth of 1.5% and 1.9%, respectively.

The total number of active businesses1, 2fell year over year across all benchmark cities. Halifax saw a 3.9% decrease in the number of active businesses between 2019 and 2020, but it remained above 2015 levels (the earliest year in Statistics Canada’s data series). In fact, Halifax experienced the smallest decline across all benchmark cities.

With the onset of the pandemic, consumer confidence in Halifax, as measured by Narrative Research’s Consumer Confidence Index (CCI), plunged in the first three quarters of 2020. This brought the CCI to a 10-year low of 83.6 points. As the economy rebounded and reopened, the year ended with a small increase of 1.7 points in Q4.

Source: Conference Board of Canada, Major City Insights (2021)

Real GDP and Annual Growth Rate

  • According to The Conference Board of Canada, Halifax’s 2020 GDP was $20.5 billion, a drop of 3.5% from 2019.
  • The Conference Board expects GDP to rebound by 4.6% in 2021, predicting strong increases in retail sales, employment, and population.
  • Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo and Quebec City saw the steepest drops in GDP with -6.6% and -5.7%, respectively.

Source: Conference Board of Canada, Major City Insights (2021)

Retail Sales and Annual Growth Rate

  • After exceptionally strong growth in 2019, Halifax saw retail sales fall by 4.8% in 2020.
  • Victoria and St. John’s were the only two benchmark cities to show positive growth in retail sales in 2020.
  • Forecasts from The Conference Board call for retail sales in Halifax to grow by 4.3% in 2021.

Source: Statistics Canada, Retail Trade Survey, Table 20-10-0008-01

Retail Sales By Category

  • Halifax accounted for roughly half of Nova Scotia’s total retail sales in 2020.
  • In Nova Scotia, the three largest changes in retail sales categories between 2019 and 2020 were: Building materials and garden equipment and supplies (+15.6%), Clothing and clothing accessories (-25.8%), and Gasoline stations (-16.3%). This is consistent with a pattern of people spending more time (and money) working on their homes and gardens and spending less money on clothing for work and gasoline for commuting.
  • Although sales in “Motor vehicle and parts” fell by 12.6%, it remained the highest-valued retail sales category.

Source Statistics Canada, Longitudinal Employment Analysis Program, Table 33-10-0270-01

Average Annual Active Businesses

  • The number of active businesses fell in all benchmark cities in 2020. Halifax experienced the smallest decline, with a 3.9% decrease, which translates to 383 businesses.
  • The largest one-year fall was observed in St. John’s with a drop of 8.2% (486 businesses).
  • There were massive declines in active business numbers as pandemic-related restrictions were put in place. After bottoming out in May 2020, the figures have been gradually increasing for all benchmark cities.

The Consumer Confidence Index is a composite of 5 questions on household economic well-being and expectations around the economy.
Source: Narrative Research, Consumer Confidence Index (Various)

Consumer Confidence Index

  • After several years of relatively high levels for the CCI, consumer confidence in Halifax dropped a total of 21.8 points between Q4 2019 and Q3 2020. Although very low, this is still above the record low of 80.5 posted during the financial crisis in Q1 2009.
  • The CCI did rebound slightly in Q4 to 85.3 points and is expected to rise throughout 2021.

Halifax Index 2021
Business Confidence

Halifax Partnership’s Business Confidence Survey, carried out by Narrative Research, gathers views on Halifax’s economy from business owners. The Business Confidence Index (BCI) is calculated on a scale from -100 to +100 based on 5 questions that cover the past, current, and future performance of Halifax’s economy as well as its performance relative to other cities.

In 2021, Halifax’s BCI set another record high of 37.8. Even with mandated COVID-19 restrictions, business opinions continued to improve. However, the third wave of the pandemic started halfway through the survey period, and the difference in the BCI score pre- and post-third wave is stark. Responses collected before April 26, 2021 (pre-third wave) had a score of 39.3, while the score calculated from responses after this date was 31.9.

Halifax’s quality of life remains the city’s greatest advantage for business owners, with 88% considering it a benefit, for a net advantage3 of 82%. On the other hand, the factor considered a net disadvantage4 by most business was the tax environment at -28%. The availability of labour was the only factor that jumped from being a net disadvantage in 2020 to a net advantage in 2021, from -5% to 4%. The cost of real estate or office rent went from being a net disadvantage in 2020 to balanced in 2021.

Index (-100 to +100) and Share of Business-Owner Respondents, Halifax, 2013 to 2021



Rating Halifax as a Place to Do Business

Above Average

Just Average

Below Average

Don’t Know/No Answer

Spring 2013






Spring 2014






Spring 2015






Spring 2016






Spring 2017






Spring 2018






Spring 2019






Spring 2020






Spring 2021






Source: Narrative Research, Business Confidence Survey (Various)

Business Confidence

  • Overall, the BCI indicates an increase in business optimism. The overall score, 37.8, is the highest BCI score Halifax has ever earned.
  • In 2021, 39% of businesses surveyed in Halifax believe the city is an above-average place to do business, a 7-percentage point increase from the previous year.
  • At the other end of the scale, 7% of businesses think Halifax is a below-average place to do business. This is a record low and a 3-percentage point decrease from 2020.
  • Among larger businesses (11+ employees), 42% rate Halifax above-average compared to 41% and 35% of businesses with 2 - 10 and fewer than 2 employees, respectively.

*An investment greater than 2% of annual revenues.
**Examples provided to respondent: artificial intelligence, big data, 3d printing, and smart sensors.
Source: Narrative Research, Business Confidence Survey (Various)

Business Expectations Over The Next Year

  • Although lower scores are seen across all activities in 2021 than in 2020, in most cases, the change is small.
  • Of those surveyed, 79% of Halifax businesses expect to increase their sales over the next year. This may not be surprising given that many businesses experienced sales decreases in 2020 due to the pandemic.
  • Two categories, introducing a new product or service and increasing employee training, experienced the largest declines. It is possible that financial constraints caused by the pandemic may have required expenditure reductions and these items were viewed as discretionary.
  • The share of businesses expecting to reduce staff levels decreased by 1 percentage point (8%) and remained well below those planning to hire additional staff (59%).

Survey Question: Would you say the following aspects of Halifax present a [listed responses] for your business?
Source: Narrative Research, Business Confidence Survey (Various)

Ratings of Factors Affecting Businesses

  • 88% of businesses surveyed cite the city’s quality of life as an advantage to doing business in Halifax. In fact, 39% consider it a major advantage, a 12- percentage point increase over 2020.
  • Cost of living for residents, availability of parking, energy costs, and the tax environment are all factors considered a net disadvantage5 by businesses. Of these, energy costs and the tax environment are the least popular factors, with 57% and 59% of businesses citing both as a disadvantage, respectively.
  • Availability of labour moved from being a net disadvantage in 2020 to a net advantage3 in 2021.
  • Identical shares of businesses (44%) consider cost of real estate or office rent as an advantage and a disadvantage. However, only 8% of businesses consider it a major advantage whereas 14% consider it a major disadvantage.

Halifax Index 2021
Real Estate

With construction work deemed an essential service, total investment in non-residential construction increased by 1.6% in 2020, which amounted to a total of $5.1 million. This increase mainly came from 3.9% growth in commercial projects, an increase of $10.5 million. Investment in industrial and institutional construction both fell by 20.0% ($5 million) and 1.6% ($360k), respectively.

With many offices shifting to working from home at the start of the pandemic, the downtown office vacancy rate in Halifax increased almost 2 percentage points in Q2 2020. For the remainder of the year, this figure was relatively stable, closing at 19.9%. In comparison, the national downtown office vacancy rate was 13% in 2020. With a figure much closer to the national average (14%), Halifax’s suburban office vacancy rate closed at 13% in 2020, 0.3 percentage points lower than 2019.

After staying level for most of the year, demand for industrial space in Halifax sharply outpaced supply at the end of 2020. In Q4, Halifax had a record high (449,140 sq. ft.) of positive net absorption6 for industrial space, overtaking the last high experienced in Q1 2013. With the high absorption rate in Q4, availability of industrial space dropped to 4.7%, a steep fall from Q3. Prior to Q4, the industrial space availability rate had remained relatively stable between 6.5% and 6.8% since the second quarter of 2019.

Just like in 2019, rents for both office and industrial space rose throughout 2020, but both remained lower than national figures.

Source: Statistics Canada, Investment in Construction, Table 34-10-0175-01

Investment in Non-Residential Building Construction

  • After a decrease in 2019, overall non-residential investment increased by 1.6% in 2020.
  • Commercial construction led non-residential investment with $282.2 million in 2020. This was an increase of 3.9% over 2019.
  • Industrial investment decreased 20% from 2019 figures, amounting to a fall of $5.1 million. Total investment in industrial projects was $20.3 million, the lowest in many years.
  • Investment in institutional and governmental construction projects also hit a new low with a total investment of $21.7 million. Compared to 2019, this was a decrease of 1.6%.

Source: CBRE, Office MarketView (Various)

Office Rent and Vacancy Rates by Region

  • Halifax’s downtown office vacancy rate increased 1.3% in 2020, to end the year at 19.9%. In comparison, the 2020 national downtown office vacancy rate was 13%.
  • At 13%, Halifax’s suburban office vacancy rate in Q4 2020 was 0.3 percentage points lower than the year prior and slightly below the national rate of 14%.
  • Downtown office net rents jumped by $0.53 psf from Q1 to Q2 2020, but increases for the remainder of the year were modest. Comparing Q4 2019 to Q4 2020, downtown rents rose by 2.9%. Net rent for suburban offices remained relatively stable through 2020, ending at $13.83 psf, down from $13.86 psf in Q4 2019.

Source: CBRE, Industrial MarketView (Various)

Industrial Rent and Availability Rates

  • The industrial space availability rate hit a new low at 4.7% in Q4 2020, down 2 percentage points since Q4 2019. The drop was mainly due to the decrease from Q3 to Q4, where the rate fell from 6.8% to 4.7%. The 2020 national rate was 3.3%.
  • Average rent for industrial space reached $8.20 psf in Q4 2020, up from $8.16 psf in Q4 2019. The national average in 2020 was $9.44 psf.

Halifax Index 2021
Halifax Gateway

The Halifax Gateway includes the Port of Halifax, the Halifax Stanfield International Airport, the Halifax Logistics Park, the Port of Sheet Harbour, and CN’s transportation infrastructure. As expected, due to the strict travel and trade limitations resulting from COVID-19, Gateway numbers declined significantly in 2020.

After welcoming a record number of cruise passengers in 2019, cruises were fully suspended in 2020. Both cruise ship and passenger numbers plummeted to 0 and the cruise season has been suspended again for 2021.

The number of air passengers dropped significantly in 2020 after an exceptional year in 2019. With strict international travel restrictions, Halifax Stanfield International Airport saw a massive 76.2% decrease in air passengers to a total of 995,426 in 2020. Air cargo also fell by approximately 20% to a total of 32,984 metric tonnes.

This is the first decline in air cargo that the Stanfield International Airport has seen in 6 years. On a brighter note, construction of the $36 million Air Cargo Logistics Park at Halifax Stanfield is expected to be completed by the end of 2021.

Port-wide cargo declined 4.0% in 2020. With a total of 8,273,457 metric tonnes shipped, this is the lowest level since 2016. Similarly, 507,185 TEUs (20-foot equivalent units) were shipped through Halifax Port Authority facilities in 2020, down 7.2% from 2019. This was the lowest amount shipped since 2016. Currently under construction at the former Seaport Farmers’ Market is The PIER, short for Port Innovation, Engagement, and Research. The PIER will serve as a global centre where entrepreneurs, partners, and researchers can come together to tackle problems related to maritime transportation and logistics.

Units Indicated in Table, Halifax, 2015 to 2020


Air Passengers (En/Deplaned)

Cruise Passengers

Plane Movements

Cruise Ships

Port Cargo (Metric Tonnes)

HPA Port Cargo (TEUs)

Air Cargo (Metric Tonnes)

















































Source: Various including Statistics Canada, Port of Halifax, Halifax Stanfield International Airport

Halifax Gateway

  • Every Gateway component saw declines in 2020. With the total shutdown of the cruise season in 2020, both cruise ships and passenger levels saw 100% reductions over 2019.
  • Stanfield International Airport recorded a 76.2% decrease in air passengers, a 58.4% decrease in plane movements, and a 19.8% decrease in air cargo.
  • Cargo shipped port-wide and containers shipped through the HPA in 2020 were 96% and 93% of their respective 2019 volumes.

Halifax Index 2021

After tremendous growth in 2019, the tourism industry in Halifax experienced a massive drop in 2020. Travel restrictions, social-distancing requirements, and public-gathering limits hit this sector hardest.

As noted earlier, Stanfield International Airport recorded a 76.2% decrease in air passengers while cruise ships and passengers were both at 0 for 2020.

Overnight hotel stays declined by 56.5%, and room nights sold in the room sharing economy declined by 42.5%. Hotel room capacity, however, grew by 6.8% (402 rooms).

To aid businesses during the time of high supply and low demand, the Government of Nova Scotia implemented various programs like the Small Business Impact Grant and Tourism Accommodations Real Property Tax Rebate Program.

Many businesses in the tourism industry closed permanently in 2020. Across the province, at the height of the pandemic, the number of active businesses in the tourism industry dropped to its lowest recorded figure of 1,551. Although it has increased since, the number still remains below pre-pandemic levels.

Source: Discover Halifax, Year-end Key Performance Indicators

Overnight Stays in Hotels and Room Shares

  • After growing by 8.3% in 2019, total overnight stays declined by 53.4% in 2020 as Halifax was essentially shut down to visitors from outside the Atlantic Bubble.
  • Overnight hotel stays decreased by 56.5%, and overnight stays at room shares decreased by 42.5%.

Source: Discover Halifax, Year-end Key Performance Indicators

Hotel Room Supply

  • Hotel room supply in Halifax increased by 402 rooms (6.8%) in 2020.
  • Recognizing the enormous decrease in overnight stays throughout the city and the province, the Government of Nova Scotia introduced the Tourism Accommodations Real Property Tax Rebate Program.
  • According to the Province, the program received over 250 applications valued at $6.7 million during the first phase, and a second phase was introduced in March 2021. Read more about the program here.

*Gaps in lines reflect periods for which reliable data are not available.
Source: Statistics Canada, Longitudinal Employment Analysis Program, Table 33-10-0270-01

Tourism Industry Business Counts

  • The number of active businesses in Nova Scotia’s tourism industry hit a record low of 1,409 in May 2020 with a decline of 536 (28%) since February 2020. By the end of 2020, the number of active businesses recovered to 1,899 but remains below pre-pandemic levels.
  • Many jobs in the accommodation and food services industry were lost across the province. In 2020, 28,500 people were working in this industry, the lowest number since 2001. Halifax’s share of the Nova Scotia total has consistently been between 50% - 55%.

Halifax Index 2021
Startup Innovation

Guest Author: Peter Moreira, Principal of Entrevestor

After initial pangs of fear, the pandemic unleashed energy and creativity in Halifax’s innovation community, generating economic growth and helping society cope with the global crisis. Both the information technology and life sciences sectors in Halifax thrived with many businesses and governments focusing on digital transformation and health care.

IT companies like Proposify Inc., and LifeRaft Inc., reported strong growth of their digital products, and both were rewarded with funding from the Canadian Business Growth Fund, a new venture capital firm set up by the country’s largest financial institutions. Some IT companies, like Side Door Access which arranges concerts in people’s homes, pivoted to offering online offerings. Life sciences companies rallied to develop products to address the COVID-19 crisis. These efforts helped Halifax biotech companies raise a record $55 million in stock market funding.

The biggest event of the year was the venture capital funding by CarbonCure Technologies Inc., with investors such as Amazon.com Inc., Microsoft Corporation, and Breakthru Ventures (whose backers include Mike Bloomberg and Jeff Bezos, among others).

With university campuses all but empty, there were fewer new startups7than the previous year, but still more than 2018 levels. The innovation community is continuing to grow due to more and more companies moving into Halifax. The city is becoming Canada’s ocean-tech startup hub with 55 of the 101 ocean-tech startups in Atlantic Canada that Entrevestor tracks. In 2020, Creative Destruction Lab - Atlantic, overseen by Dalhousie University, launched its ocean stream and the Halifax Port Authority is planning a digital innovation space call The PIER, which will complement Innovacorp’s Start-Up Yard in Dartmouth.

Units Indicated in Table, Halifax, 2020

Number of Startups

Revenue Growth

Total Funding

Stock Market Funding

New Companies*






*New companies are defined here as startups that came into existence in the year 2020.
Source: Entrevestor, Custom Request

Startup Highlights

  • Halifax had a total of 289 startups operating in 2020 with a combined annual revenue growth of 67%.
  • Halifax-based startups make up 39% of all Atlantic Canadian startups.
  • Startups generated $121.8 million in total funding, of which $55 million was raised through the stock market.

Source: Entrevestor, Custom Request

Employment At Startups

  • Halifax startups employed 2,897 people in 2020, up 14% since 2019 and 103% since 2016.
  • The lower number of new startups in 2020 was a factor in the smaller annual growth in employment.
  • The startup community in Halifax is beginning to show initiatives on diversity and inclusion with new institutions like Tribe, a national entrepreneurship and innovation hub for Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) entrepreneurs.

Source: Entrevestor, Custom Request


  • Forty new companies started their operations in 2020, down from 62 the previous year. With schools empty and socializing discouraged, the pandemic greatly hindered the opportunities for young minds to collaborate and innovate.
  • The launch of The PIER by Halifax Port Authority and the ocean stream of the Creative Destruction Lab will provide platforms for future startups to thrive.

Source: Entrevestor, Custom Request

Annual Equity Funding Levels

  • A total of $121.8 million was raised in funding by Halifax startups in 2020, an increase of 55% over 2019.
  • Some innovation-driven companies raising capital on stock markets were Appili Therapeutics ($27.2M), IMV Inc. ($25.2M), and Sona Nanotech ($2.25M).

Halifax Index 2021

With COVID-19 came steep job losses and widespread business restrictions and closures. All levels of government rolled out emergency-assistance programs to keep people and businesses afloat. These sharp hikes in government spending were financed through increased borrowing that will be paid back over time.

Nova Scotia, as has been the case for some time, remains in the middle of the pack across provinces for net debt per capita. According to the 2021-22 Nova Scotia budget, the net debt of the province is expected to be $16.7 billion for 2020-21 and increase to $18.0 billion for 2021-22. The 2020-21 figure equates to $17,032 per capita and 37.4% of GDP.

Fiscal 2020-21 saw total Halifax Regional Municipality revenue decline by 1.8%, and it is expected to decline again by 3.5% in 2021-22. Property taxes remained the largest source of revenue in 2020-21. Revenue generated through other sources, however, increased in 2020-21 mainly due to stimulus packages from the federal and provincial governments, somewhat offsetting pandemic-related declines in transit fares and parking revenues.

Municipal debt remained the same at $235.7 million in 2020-21 as it was in 2019-20. Debt is expected to increase to $241.2 million in 2021-22, the first increase in a decade.

Municipal spending is expected to increase by $51.3 million (5.4%) in 2021-22. The departments with the largest proportional increases were Planning and Development, Corporate and Customer Services, and Other Government Support Services.

(f): Forecast data
Source: Province of Nova Scotia, Provincial Budget (Various)

Provincial Net Debt-to-GDP

  • After the record high of 47.1% in 1999-00, the net debt-to-GDP ratio in Nova Scotia saw a decline for several years until the Great Recession when it rose back to 37.3%. This was followed by another dip and then a rise until the ratio hit 38.1% in 2013-14. It was around this time the One Nova Scotia goal was set to hit 30% by 2024.
  • Since 2013-14, the net debt-to-GDP ratio has been falling, reaching 32.7% in 2019-20, the lowest level since 1991-92.
  • The impacts of COVID-19 caused a sharp jump in the net debt-to-GDP ratio, to 37.4% in 2020-21. The provincial government expects this to continue to increase over the next 5 years, surpassing 40% by 2024-25.

Source: RBC Economics, Canadian and Provincial Fiscal Tables

Provincial Net Debt Comparisons

  • The most recent provincial budgets show that Nova Scotia has a net debt of $17,032 per capita. This puts Nova Scotia in the middle of the pack among Canadian provinces, just over half the figure for Newfoundland and Labrador, and almost 1.5 times that of top-ranked British Columbia.
  • In terms of the net debt-to-GDP ratio, Nova Scotia again ranks in the middle among Canadian provinces.

*Change in budgeting treatment of Halifax Stanfield and Irving taxes between 2014 and 2015.
(f): Forecast data
Source: Halifax Regional Municipality, Financial Policy and Planning

Municipal Revenue by Source

  • According to the 2021-22 HRM budget, revenue from property taxes is expected to increase 1.1% after a decline of 6.7% in 2020-21. Revenue from deed-transfer taxes (DTTs), calculated on the sale price of properties, is expected to jump by 17.6% as house prices continue their sharp ascent. This follows a 15.3% decline from the previous year, underlining how volatile DTTs are as a revenue source.
  • The budget expects revenue collected from other sources to decrease by close to $50 million (62.9%) in 2021-22. The loss of transit fares and parking revenues during COVID-related shutdowns would account for a significant portion of this decline. These reductions are offset to some extent by increased federal funding coming from the Safe Restart Agreement.

(f): Forecast data
Source: Halifax Regional Municipality, Financial Policy and Planning

Tax-Supported Municipal Debt

  • After 10 years of declining debt levels, HRM’s 2020-21 budget sees municipal debt holding steady from 2019-20.
  • Municipal debt is forecasted to increase in 2021-20 by 2.3%.

Budget data reflect a forecast for the 2020-21 fiscal year.
Source: Halifax Regional Municipality, Financial Policy and Planning

Municipal Spending by Department

  • Total municipal spending in 2021-22 is forecast to be 5.4% higher than the previous year’s budget.
  • The largest percentage increase in spending is earmarked for Planning and Development (22.7%), followed by Corporate and Customer Services (15.4%) and Other Government Support Services (12.6%).
  • The only decrease in the spending budget in this fiscal year is planned for Fiscal Corporate Services (-4.6%). However, this department has the largest budget allocation.

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