Bank of Canada Stresses Caution Amid Debt and Labor Concerns

(Bloomberg) -- Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz said policy caution and uncertainties around the economic outlook remain prominent in the central bank’s thinking, even as an economy running close to capacity increases the likelihood rates will eventually rise.

Poloz used his last speech of the year to highlight three subjects he called “slower-moving, nagging issues” that keep him up at night: cyber threats to the financial system, high household debt levels and labor market slack, particularly youth underemployment.

It was in the section on labor where Poloz provided the most insight on monetary policy, underscoring his belief there is slack that should be accommodated with low interest rates even if other indicators suggest borrowing costs should rise. The Bank of Canada has kept rates on hold at its last two decisions and said it will be “cautious” with future moves.

“With the economy operating near potential, a mechanical approach to policy would suggest that monetary policy should already be less stimulative,” Poloz said. “However, as we said in last week’s interest rate announcement, we still see signs of ongoing, albeit diminishing, slack in the labor market.”

At the same time -- beyond the uncertainties and labor market slack -- the underlying trends in the economy are largely positive and suggest interest rates will be going up over time, Poloz said.

The Canadian dollar reversed losses, rising as much as 0.8 percent after Poloz’s remarks to C$1.2714 per U.S. dollar. The currency is down almost 5 percent since early September, when the central bank adopted a more cautious stance to policy.

“The economy has made tremendous progress over the past year, and it is close to reaching its full potential,” Poloz said. “We are very encouraged by this, and we are growing increasingly confident that the economy will need less monetary stimulus over time.”

Poloz reiterated the central bank needs to take “uncertainties on board” and they will “continue to be cautious.”

Other Details

  • The Bank of Canada is exploring the possibility of digital cash. “All central banks are researching this. We will have more to say about the subject in the months ahead”
  • Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin are not cash, but very risky securities. “What their true value is may be anyone’s guess - - perhaps the most one can say is that buying these things means buying risk, which makes it closer to gambling than investing”
  • The possibility of labor slack poses a “downside” risk to inflation, just as economy operating at full capacity poses an “upside” risk
  • There are early signs the process of capacity expansion in the labor market -- higher wages drawing in more people -- is happening, “but it will take a while before they become trends.”
  • Increased “workforce engagement” and efficient job matching ‘will be our main means of building economic capacity”
  • Key issue for the central bank is understanding how Canadians will react to new mortgage qualification rules
  • The economy’s sensitivity to higher interest rates because of debt levels is “one of the key issues we will be monitoring in real time as we consider the appropriate path for interest rates”
  • New mortgage rules will mean less growth in housing sector
  • Says economy is “quite close to home, and getting closer”
  • Central bank’s fundamental understanding of inflation “remains valid” despite undershoot
  • Positive signs for business investment and exports, seeing signs of “fundamental rotation” to other engines of growth

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