Poloz Set to Hold Canadian Rates -- for Now: Decision Day Guide

(Bloomberg) -- The Bank of Canada is expected to hold borrowing costs steady Wednesday in what will probably be just a pause on its hiking path.

After four increases since mid-2017, including at their last meeting in July, investors and economists anticipate policy makers will take a breather in a rate decision at 10 a.m. New York time and leave the benchmark overnight interest rate at 1.5 percent, before raising again as early as October.

After a prolonged period of sluggish growth, the economy is finally doing well enough that it no longer needs abnormally low interest rates -- even in the face of all the uncertainty around trade. But Governor Stephen Poloz is trying to wean Canada off of easy money in a way that doesn’t inadvertently damage the expansion and has been taking a wait-and-see approach between increases.

It’s a delicate task that requires Poloz to decide on two things: How high do interest rates need to go, and how quickly should policy makers raise borrowing costs to get there?

Hike Pace

While all but one of 21 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News expect a pause this week, as many as three more increases have been priced in over the next year. In all, the market is expecting a string of hikes that will bring official borrowing rates back up to 2 percent for the first time in a decade, keeping Canada’s rates the second highest in the Group of Seven after the U.S.

Poloz Set to Hold Canadian Rates -- for Now: Decision Day Guide

This is considered a gradual path for rate hikes. The central bank’s models are already telling policy makers they’re behind the curve on normalizing borrowing costs but last week’s developments on the North American Free Trade Agreement highlight why Poloz will avoid rushing. Canada is still on the outside looking in on a Nafta deal, has already been hit by U.S. metals tariffs and is facing Donald Trump’s repeated threats of auto tariffs. None of this will be resolved by Wednesday and may be enough in itself to keep policy makers on hold.

With the possibility of a trade shock to the economy still real, the Bank of Canada is wary of the consequences of having to reverse policy in midstream. And trade is just one of a long list of uncertainties -- the list includes questions over whether the economy truly is at capacity -- that has kept the central bank spreading out rate hikes.

Flagged Uncertainties:
  • Impact of higher rates on indebted households
  • Fallout from tighter mortgage regulations
  • Impact of trade tensions
  • Evolution of potential growth rate
  • Evolution of the neutral rate
  • Dynamics of inflation
  • Dynamics of wage growth
  • Extent of export capacity destruction

Another major unknown for policy makers is how high rates should go. The central bank’s economists estimate the economy’s “neutral” rate -- a level that is neither stimulative or contractionary -- is somewhere around 3 percent, but Poloz has been explicit that there is plenty of uncertainty around that figure.

It’s possible that given high debt levels and other factors, such as the inability of the nation’s businesses to capitalize on strong global demand, the economy can’t really cope with an official rate of interest much above 2 percent. Lending rates offered by commercial banks to their best customers are typically another 2 percentage higher than the overnight rate.

What Our Economists Say...
“Market participants are broadly anticipating a rate hike in October, so BOC officials will not need to materially refine their signaling for the next policy action. However, they are likely to provide some insight into their views on the amount of remaining economic slack to help clarify the policy path over the next six months.

--Tim Mahedy, Bloomberg Economics

For more, see the full Bloomberg Economics Preview 

Which is why markets are anticipating Poloz won’t raise his benchmark rate much beyond 2 percent by next year, and that he’ll leave it there indefinitely until the question of what is “normal” can be answered with more certainty.

While normal remains a puzzle, there is more certainty about what is abnormal. For Poloz, it’s a situation where the policy rate is below the central bank’s 2 percent inflation target. And, he has claimed, there is nothing in the economy now that would justify rates below that level.

Poloz Set to Hold Canadian Rates -- for Now: Decision Day Guide

Canada is experiencing broad-based growth and absorbing much of the remaining slack in the economy. Evidence of tightening is mounting: the unemployment rate is hovering at four-decade lows, workers are getting bigger pay raises, and companies are reporting record job vacancies. Inflation is at a G-7 leading 3 percent.

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