Bank of Canada holds rate
OTTAWA -- The Bank of Canada reiterated on Tuesday its conditional pledge to keep its key-lending rate at a record low until July, but took a more hawkish view on inflation by indicating the risks to its outlook are “roughly balanced” as opposed to tilted to the downside.
That was the one significant change in its scheduled interest-rate announcement, and analysts might interpret this as a first step by the central bank to ready markets for an interest-rate hike.
“The Bank of Canada is now walking not crawling towards the exit,” said Kathy Lien, director of currency research at fx.360.com, following the release of the statement.
“Change is afoot. Evolutionary change, but change nonetheless,” added Stewart Hall, economist at HSBC Securities Canada.
Markets reacted accordingly, sending the Canadian dollar up sharply, over 80 basis points to US96.83 as of trading at 9:30 am ET.
For nearly a year, the central bank has pledged to keep its benchmark rate at 0.25% until July in an effort to pump up economic growth, on the condition that inflation would not hit its preferred 2% target until mid-2011. The central bank’s mandate is to set its key policy rate at a level to achieve 2% inflation.
In previous statements, the central bank had suggested inflation risks were titled downward because of the possible need to engage in quantitative easing, in which the Bank of Canada would flood financial markets with cash in an effort to spur lending and combat deflation.
But through the statement, the central bank might be indicating deflation is no longer a concern.
“The bank judges that the main macroeconomic risks to the inflation projection are roughly balanced,” it said, with upside risks being stronger-than-projected growth, while a protracted recovery and strong Canadian dollar flagged as downside risks.
Mr. Hall said this shift in nuance was “indicative of the need for a policy change at some point.”
The change in the inflation outlook emerged after Statistics Canada reported that the economy grew at a 5% annualized rate in the fourth quarter of last year – blowing past market expectations for a 4% gain and the central bank’s original 3.3% forecast. Economists say the fourth-quarter performance has set the stage for another robust gain, of perhaps 4% or more, for the first three months of 2010.
Recent data indicate that both the headline and core inflation rates have moved much closer to the 2% level than the central bank had expected. Under the bank’s forecast, the 2% level would not be reached until the third-quarter of next year.
“Core inflation has been slightly firmer than projected, the result of both transitory factors and the higher level of economic activity,” the central bank said in its one-page statement. “The outlook for inflation should continue to reflect the combined influences of stronger domestic demand, slowing wage growth, and overall excess [economic slack].”
In its economic outlook in January, the central bank said stubborn unit labour costs along with increases in property taxes and other administered prices accounted for the recent “stickiness” of core inflation.
The longer inflation stays “sticky,” analysts say, the more likely that the output gap, or the measure of excess economic capacity, is narrowing at a faster pace than previous central bank expectations.
The bank has said it anticipated the output gap to close in the third quarter of 2011. A large amount of excess production capacity suggests a lack of consumer demand, and gives producers little to no pricing power.
Meanwhile, the central bank also acknowledged that economic activity has been “slightly higher” than its own projections, with the 5% gain in the fourth quarter powered by “vigorous domestic demand” and a recovery in exports.
“The underlying factors supporting Canada’s recovery are largely unchanged – policy stimulus, increased confidence, improved financial conditions, global growth and higher terms of trade,” the bank statement said.
It added that “persistent strength” in the Canadian currency and the “low absolute level” of U.S. demand would continue to act as “significant drags” on economic activity.
“The Bank of Canada has walked a fine line with its latest decision, though overall it is undeniable that the risks to Canadian monetary policy are starting to tilt upwards,” said Eric Lascelles, chief economics and rates strategist at TD Securities. He added the firm’s view was that the central bank would not begin raising rates until the fourth quarter, “but it is hardly inconceivable that this could now come a touch sooner, in September or possibly even July.”
The central bank’s next statement on interest rates is April 20, and two days later it will release its updated economic forecast. Meanwhile, the governor, Mark Carney, has scheduled two speeches this month in which he may provide further guidance as to how the bank would behave as its conditional pledge comes to an end.