Interest Rates Likely to Remain Low

Canadian markets didn’t get much of a summer vacation this week, as negotiations on the Greek bailout package took centre stage globally, while the Bank of Canada’s interest rate decision was the main event at home. On balance, an agreement on a second Greece bailout, combined with some positive corporate earnings reports, improved market sentiment and helped equity markets rally. A more hawkish-than-expected statement from the Bank of Canada (BoC) added fuel, initially taking bond yields higher, and the Canadian dollar along with them. After a benign inflation report for June on Friday, however, these moves were partially unwound.

As expected, the BoC left interest rates unchanged, but the accompanying statement was more hawkish than anticipated. The Bank dropped the word “eventually” from the statement “some of the considerable monetary policy stimulus currently in place will be [eventually] withdrawn”, leading markets to move up their timetable on rate hikes. However, Wednesday’s Monetary Policy Report (MPR), included two technical boxes that emphasized the case for leaving rates lower for longer. One explained how interest rates can remain stimulative even after inflation has reached its target and the output gap is closed. This occurs if the economy is facing significant headwinds, such as a persistent reduction in foreign demand for exports. Governor Carney reiterated that monetary policy is not some mechanical process whereby you input expected inflation and the output gap, and out comes a rate decision (in fact if that were the case, he wouldn’t have a job). Rather, the Bank takes into account what he characterized as “the very real headwinds from the dollar, the U.S., from Europe”. This is likely in response to some critics who argue the bank is at risk of getting behind the curve on inflation.
The other technical box in the MPR underscored the damaging effects of a strong Canadian dollar on some sectors of the economy, expanding on the responses in last week’s Business Outlook Survey. Nearly half of firms surveyed reported adverse impacts from a stronger dollar, and these firms tended to be less optimistic about their future prospects. Adverse effects were more common among manufacturers, and firms based in Central or Eastern Canada. In sum, the survey showed that headwinds from a strong C$, and continued softness in U.S. demand are constraining sales prospects over the next 12 months for firms not benefitting from high commodity prices.
The Bank is clearly focused on the danger of hiking prematurely, and then having one of these risks worsen. It would be very difficult to raise rates before January, because in all probability they would want data on how Q3 evolved, and confirmation of firmer U.S. demand. Friday’s release of Canadian CPI and retail sales reports showed there is little urgency for the Bank to restart rate hikes. June inflation came in softer-than-expected, and retail sales were flat in real terms, confirming that there is little scope for retailers to raise prices with debt-fatigued consumers reining in spending. All told, our expectation for the Bank to delay resuming rate hikes until January remains in tact.
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